22 Feb 2012

My friend, Marie Colvin

Channel 4 News International Editor Lindsey Hilsum on the loss of her friend, veteran war reporter, Marie Colvin.

The week before last, over dinner in Beirut, I told Marie that I would not sneak across the border into Homs because it was too dangerous. She said she was going to have a go anyway. She felt it was important. “Anyway, it’s what we do,” she said.

Her dispatch in last week’s Sunday Times was as painful and brilliant a piece of war reporting as I have ever read. Her description of 300 people, huddled in a wood factory cellar known as “the widows’ basement” under constant bombardment was searing. Yesterday, speaking on Skype from the house in Baba Amr, the district of Homs where she was staying, she described watching a baby die. “This is the worst we’ve ever seen,” she told me. “And they’re getting away with it.”

She said “we” because she and I have been in many war zones together, but Marie always went further and stayed longer than almost anyone else. It was partly because, as a Sunday newspaper journalist, she had more time, and partly because she was just braver.We drove out of Jenin together after the Israeli siege. My team had been in for a few hours, while she had spent several days living in a Palestinian house, experiencing the bombardment and the demolitions by armoured bulldozers alongside them.

Yesterday, a few hours before she was killed, I asked whether she had an “exit strategy”. “We’re working on that now,” she said. Her interest in her own safety was dwarfed by her commitment to the story.

In her last report, she described “climbing over walls in the dark and slipping into muddy trenches” to meet up with rebel fighters and activists to get to Homs. “So desperate were they that they bundled me into an open truck and drove at speed with with the headlights on, everyone standing in the back shouting “Allahu Akbar” – God is greatest. Inevitably, the Syrian army opened fire,” she wrote. The beginning of the next sentence made me laugh, because I could hear her voice saying it. “When everyone had calmed down….” I can see the scene now, with over-excited fighters making the situation worse, and Marie shouting “Calm down!”, terrified and laughing at the same time.

She cared deeply, but somehow remained objective – she was no polemicist, but a meticulous reporter of fact and detail. Last year, in Misrata, she refused to leave because she felt so strongly that the story should not be abandoned, but she did not count the rebels as “good guys” and the Gaddafi troops as bad. Her understanding was always more subtle than that.

She interviewed Colonel Gaddafi on numerous occasions, telling me once how he tried to get her to put on little green slippers – green was his favourite colour – before starting an interview. “I said my feet were too big,” she said, and the interview proceeded with her shod as before.

Inside Syria – latest reports from Channel 4 News

On another occasion, Gaddafi sent a Bulgarian nurse to her hotel room to take her blood because he was worried she was looking weak. Having staved off the hyperdermic needle, she tried to check out but the hotel refused to relinquish her passport. Luckily Yasser Arafat’s security detail were in the lobby and, as Arafat knew her well – he could never pronounce her name and always called her “Mary” – they negotiated the freedom of the passport and drove her to the airport.

Crossing the frontline into Sri Lankan government territory from the Tamil Tiger held north in 2001, she was caught in an ambush and lost an eye. “A soldier launched a grenade at me and the shrapnel sliced into my face and chest. He knew what he was doing,” she said in a memorial address for journalists killed in conflict held at St Brides in 2010.

I remember calling her in America before she had the operation which she hoped would at least allow her to preserve the eye, even if she could no longer see with it. Unfortunately, that was not possible, and from then on she wore an eye-patch. It was, she told me, hard to cry and she needed to because she was so moved after receiving dozens of letters from Tamils asking if they could donate their eye for her. Eight years later, when the Tamil Tigers wanted to surrender, they asked her to intercede for them with the Sri Lankan government.

I chaired an Amnesty International event on women reporters in 2009 – Marie was on the panel. You can watch again here:  Women reporting from the frontline

Marie was glamorous. At parties, which she loved, she would wear a tight black cocktail dress and a special eye-patch studded with rhinestones. Parties at her house were full of actors, politicians, writers and journalists. She drank and smoked and had lovers. She liked to take time off in the summer to go sailing. But what absorbed her most was reporting.

“Well, not sure it was my smartest move but I have made it to Baba Amr,” she wrote to me in an email from Homs last week. “It’s a nightmare here but so anger making it is worth it.” In her St Bride’s address, she mused on the question “Is it worth the cost in lives, heartbreak, loss. Can we really make a difference?” She had to think most profoundly about that after she lost her eye. “My answer then, and now, was that it is worth it,” she said.

She was exactly where she believed she should be, doing what she believed she had to do when she was killed by a rocket launched by President Bashar al-Assad’s army. The rest of us are left to work out whether we agree with her that it was worth it.

Follow @lindseyhilsum on Twitter.