Marie Colvin started as a journalist writing for a New York trade union. She ended up a war correspondent who changed people’s lives.
Medical staff examine Marie Colvin in Colombo’s eye hospital in Sri Lanka, 17 April 2001. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)
A decade ago, courageous war correspondent Marie Colvin was killed in Homs, Syria. Colvin and French photographer Remí Ochlik, also killed, were among a tiny group of journalists who were reporting on civilians under bombardment when their media center was targeted and attacked by Syrian forces under autocrat Bashar al-Assad.
At age 56, Colvin, despite having suffered shrapnel wounds and lost an eye while carrying out previous global assignments, was one of the small contingent of reporters who dared to refuse to leave Homs.
Hours before her death, Colvin, who then worked mainly for the Sunday Times of London, was broadcasting on CNN from a makeshift hospital in a so-called “widows’ basement.” She described terrified residents who were taking refuge there and told of vain efforts to save the life of a wounded infant.
Were Colvin still alive in 2022, she likely would be on the ground in Ukraine, bearing witness to what citizens, refugees and fighters are enduring since Russia’s invasion in February.
In the early days of Colvin’s news career, I sat a few feet away from her for more than a year when we worked together on the foreign desk of United Press International (UPI) in Washington, DC.
One who knew Colvin better, her old college friend Dave Humphreville, shared this message for young people considering a career in journalism:
“Marie was special. Aspiring writers can learn from her. All who know Marie were in awe of her courage, determination and passion as a journalist. She believed that what she did mattered. And it did. By shining a light in war-torn corners of the world, Marie changed people’s lives. And she did it with grace and humor.”
Marie Colvin worked in dangerous places and bore witness.
Journalism can be a dangerous job.
So far this year, 24 journalists and media workers have been killed around the world, compared with 28 for all of 2021, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The number of journalists missing has increased steadily over the past three decades. So far this year, 65 are missing — the same number as in all of 2021. The number of journalists imprisoned has also risen steadily and stood at 283 in 2020, the last year of available data.
Colvin’s death 10 years ago came amid a wave of killings that signalled the breaking of old rules about protecting the rights of journalists to report from war zones.
The 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, the deaths of at least 12 reporters in Ukraine this year and the deadly shooting of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh on the West Bank in May illustrate how old taboos against targeting the media have fallen by the wayside.
Commenting on the significance of Colvin’s life and death, CPJ Executive Director Robert Mahoney said:
”Marie started out in journalism writing the newsletter of the Teamsters union local 237 in New York, and throughout an international reporting career which brought her into contact with the powerful and famous, she never forgot her origins. She always told the stories of the ordinary men and women who bore the consequences of the power struggles and wars waged by political leaders. She traveled to some of the most dangerous places in the world to perform what she thought of as the duty of all reporters: To bear witness. And in the end, it was bearing witness that cost her life.”
She lost an eye covering war in Sri Lanka.
Part of a generation of young journalists inspired by coverage of the Watergate scandal by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Colvin grew up on Long Island, New York, and studied at Yale College with celebrated writer John Hersey. She admired Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” his first-hand recounting of the stories of six survivors of the 1945 atomic bombing in Japan.
In the mid 1980s, as UPI was going through its first bankruptcy, Colvin moved to Europe to lead the Paris bureau of the once-legendary wire service. She soon left UPI and took a job with the Sunday Times of London.
Traveling around Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and Asia, Colvin covered violent turmoil in Lebanon and armed conflict in Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Iraq. She interviewed Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat.
In 1999, Colvin refused to evacuate East Timor with other Western media and thus helped save the lives of some 1,500 women and children under siege by government forces.
Not long after, she risked her safety while traveling with Tamil rebels in Sri Lanka. After identifying herself as a member of the press, Colvin was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade shot by the Sri Lankan army.
Colvin suffered severe injuries, post-traumatic stress and the loss of an eye. She eventually recovered, donned an eye patch and continued working in spite of personal difficulties that included several divorces and an ex-husband’s suicide.
‘We believe we do make a difference.’
No matter how strongly Colvin felt about some of the conflicts she covered, she upheld professional ethics and maintained the objectivity of her wire service training. As former colleague Lindsey Hilsum observed in a Colvin biography entitled “IN EXTREMIS,” she consistently took “forensic care” when chronicling atrocities and revenge killings on both sides of war.
Colvin did not live long enough to pen her own story, nor a biography of Arafat that she was commissioned to write. But her own words, spoken in November 2010 at St. Bride’s Church in London, offer a fitting coda:
“In an age of 24/7 rolling news, blogs and Twitter, we are on constant call wherever we are. But war reporting is still essentially the same: Someone has to go there and see what is happening. You can’t get that information without going to places where people are being shot at and others are shooting at you. The real difficulty is having enough faith in humanity to believe that enough people, be they government, military or the man on the street, will care when your file reaches the printed page, the website or the TV screen. We do have that faith because we believe we do make a difference.”
Three questions to consider:
- Do you think it’s important for journalists to work in war zones?
- How can journalists covering armed conflict be protected from danger?
- Do journalists make a difference to society?
Susan Ruel worked on the international desks of the Associated Press and United Press International and reported for UPI from Shanghai, San Francisco and Washington. She has written and edited articles and books for the United Nations, including reports from Nigeria. A former journalism professor with a PhD in writing and literature, she co-authored two French books on U.S. media history and was a Fulbright scholar in West Africa. Based in New York City, she is currently hematology/oncology editor for MDedge/Medscape.