Sunday Times journalist killed in Homs is remembered for her fearless, dedication to telling the victim’s story and humour
Marie Colvin, who has been killed in the Syrian city of Homs during an artillery attack, had a knack of getting to places where other journalists had not been, getting there first and staying when others had long gone.
Colleagues would arrive in conflict zones to find Colvin already in situ, usually hunched over her laptop or talking urgently into her mobile phone to one of her sources from her vast contacts book.
When Muammar Gaddafi’s regime issued visas to journalist to visit Tripoli last year, she was in the first party; secured the first print interview with the Libyan leader, who she had interviewed perhaps more times than any other journalist working for a British newspaper.
Colvin, who won a slew of awards for her foreign reporting, died after the house she was staying in Homs was hit by a number of rockets that also killed the French photographer Remi Ochlik, as well as injured photographer Paul Conroy, another US journalist and seven activists. She was apparently trying to escape when she was fatally injured.
When colleagues were discussing last week whether it was possible to reach the centre of the Syrian city, it was in the knowledge that Colvin was already there and trying to go further.
Perhaps the finest correspondent of her generation working in the British media, she married a fierce passion for her work with remarkable courage and persistence. Above all, she wanted to tell the stories of the victims of war.
And if Colvin was not already there, then she had just left.
Two years ago I found myself arriving on a US forward operating base during the battle of Kandahar to be informed by a smug and controlling American colonel that he had just tossed her off the base. Her crime – in his view – was that she had done her job, reporting what was happening.
In that sense she was an equal with Martha Gelhorn, another US journalist who relocated to the UK, and who Colvin admired, who suffered neither fools nor authority gladly.
From the Balkans to the second Intifada, Iraq and Afghanistan and more recently the Arab spring, Colvin was an almost permanent presence. In recent years she sported a black eyepatch which became necessary after she lost an eye in a mortar attack in Sri Lanka.
News of her death came on the day that many who knew her were gathered in Beirut for the funeral and memorial service for the New York Times’s Anthony Shadid who died in Syria last week after collapsing.
Among those who spoke to Colvin in her last few days was Peter Boukaert of Human Rights Watch, who also moderates a message board for foreign correspondents and aid workers.
“Just yesterday, after she filed her news story, one of the first things Marie Colvin did was get in touch to tell me just how horrible the situation was in Homs … She was one of the most fearless and dedicated reporters I have ever met in my 14 years covering war, and someone I looked up to as a hero and an inspiration.
“For Marie, covering war wasn’t about doing a few quick interviews and writing up a quick story: she experienced war alongside those who suffered in war, and her writings had a particular vividness because of what she had dared to see and experience.
“But despite everything she had seen and experienced, first and foremost she remained a wonderful human being, and it always put a smile on my face to run into her in one of the world’s rough spots.
“She contacted me yesterday not because she wanted to boast about reaching Homs, but because she wanted to reach out to people she thought could make a difference to the people of Homs.”
One of the last things she posted was a message to a friend that tragically prefigured her death.
“I think reports of my survival may be exaggerated,” she wrote. “In Baba Amr. Sickening, cannot understand how the world can stand by and I should be hardened by now.”
News of her death was greeted by an outpouring of tributes and appreciations by the many colleagues who had worked with her, including the BBC Middle East editor Paul Danahar. “Imagine a real life Katharine Hepburn heroine but braver and funnier,” he said. “Marie Colvin was everywhere I was in Libya, only she always got there first.”
Her long-time editor at the Sunday Times Andrew Neil described her as “brave, magnificent and tenacious”.
Rupert Murdoch described Colvin as “one of the most outstanding foreign correspondents of her generation”, while John Witherow, the current Sunday Times’s editor, said: “Marie was an extraordinary figure in the life of the Sunday Times, driven by a passion to cover wars in the belief that what she did mattered.
“She believed profoundly that reporting could curtail the excesses of brutal regimes and make the international community take notice. Above all, as we saw in her powerful report last weekend, her thoughts were with the victims of violence.
“Throughout her long career she took risks to fulfil this goal, including being badly injured in Sri Lanka. Nothing seemed to deter her. But she was much more than a war reporter. She was a woman with a tremendous joie de vivre, full of humour and mischief and surrounded by a large circle of friends, all of whom feared the consequences of her bravery.”
Her last report for the newspaper was a typical testimony to her courageous and humane reporting describing the terrible casualties from shell-fire in Homs.
“They call it the widows basement,” she wrote from a field hospital in the city. “Crammed amid makeshift beds and scattered belongings are frightened women and children trapped in the horror of Homs.”
The day before her death she described watching a baby die in front of her to the BBC and CNN.
Two years ago, speaking at a ceremony to honour journalists who had been killed doing their job, Colvin asked the question many will be asking today – over the terrible cost of reporting conflict.
“Craters. Burned houses. Mutilated bodies. Women weeping for children and husbands. Men for their wives, mothers, children. Our mission is to report these horrors of war with accuracy and without prejudice.
“We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story. What is bravery, and what is bravado? Journalists covering combat shoulder great responsibilities and face difficult choices.
“Sometimes they pay the ultimate price.”
from Peter Beaumont