Marie Colvin, obituary
Published 23/02/2012 | 07:51
MARIE Colvin, who has been killed by shellfire in Homs aged 56 while covering the current uprising in Syria, was a fearless, passionate and ebullient foreign correspondent regarded by many as a latter-day Martha Gellhorn.
The two women became friends before Gellhorn’s death in 1998, and shared an extraordinary bravery that put them in a position to deliver the wartime stories of rebels, underdogs and ordinary citizens. In recent times this ensured Marie Colvin an array of prizes and awards.
But she did not put her life on the line to win acclaim. Instead it was by being in the line of fire, by sharing the risks of those she was writing about, that she was able to produce her immensely powerful coverage of conflict’s human toll.
She was doing precisely this when she was killed, telling the world of indiscriminate government shelling of “a city of cold, starving civilians”. Her eyewitness accounts were broadcast on CNN or the BBC because, though a staff reporter of more than 20 years’ standing for The Sunday Times, she was – as usual – the last journalist not to have fled.
Such dedication and proximity infused her coverage with emotion. In Syria, she said government forces were committing “murder” and she described how she had witnessed a baby die from shrapnel wounds. She was never mawkish, but nor was she minded to stand idly by and witness massacres.
In East Timor in 1999, for example, as Indonesian troops closed in on a United Nations compound in Dili where 1,500 people had taken shelter, the UN wanted to pull out and leave the refugees to their fate. Marie Colvin and two other female journalists remained in place, defying the UN, and the world, to do nothing. Eventually, shamed by the courage of the reporters, Indonesian forces allowed the refugees to leave and the international community stepped in. Marie Colvin’s presence had undoubtedly helped save many hundreds of lives.
Marie Catherine Colvin was born on January 12 1956 in Oyster Bay, New York, to William and Rosemarie Colvin, both schoolteachers. Her father was a former US marine who had served in Korea, and he eventually gave up teaching to become a political activist for the Kennedy Democrats.
Marie, who attended Oyster Bay High School and had an idyllic childhood on the Long Island seaside, soon demonstrated a campaigning nature too. To the disgruntlement of many conservative locals, she organised an anti-Vietnam demonstration in the streets of Oyster Bay, then created minor mayhem by designating her family home’s front yard an ecological recycling zone.
She studied American Literature at Yale, where she got her first taste of journalism by working for a university newspaper. After graduating she began her career in unorthodox fashion by taking a job on the in-house magazine of the Teamsters union. Named “acting editor”, she eventually asked when the permanent incumbent would be coming back. Taken aside, she was gently informed that he would be away for five years, less with good behaviour.
Moving to the press agency UPI, she was appointed to its bureau in Trenton, New Jersey. Finding it desperately drab, she based herself in the West Village of Manhattan and commuted to work, demonstrating a commitment to enjoying herself that endured as long as her compulsion to report.
Her urge above all, however, was to become a foreign correspondent. She swiftly convinced UPI to promote her to the Paris bureau, where her dash, good looks and dark curls soon won her a host of admirers.
Her break came in 1986, when she was in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, as America launched its biggest aerial attack since Vietnam. Filing copy while scrambling to avoid the explosions, she set a pattern that would last the rest of her career.
It was while there she was summoned to meet the Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, and over the next quarter of a century she frequently met him, as well as many other political leaders and despots. But a peculiar effect of her beguiling character and her journalistic talent was that tyrants were charmed by her, and sought her out, even as she eviscerated them in print. Last year she published an account of her encounters with the late Libyan leader over 25 years. It was entitled “Mad Dog and Me”.
While in Libya in 1986 she began freelancing for The Sunday Times, which soon lured her over full time to become its Middle East correspondent. Her exploits quickly attracted the attention and envy of less bold colleagues – a broad category. During the Iran-Iraq war, for instance, she smuggled herself in disguise into Basra, a city then completely closed off. In 1987 she reported from Bourj el Barajneh, the Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, which was under fire from the Syrian-backed Amal militia. There she met Pauline Cutting, a British surgeon who was a lone medical hero amid the carnage. The story was typical of Marie Colvin – illustrating a fearsomely complex conflict by finding the most dramatic, personal, story at its heart.
At the same time she met and married The Daily Telegraph’s Middle East correspondent, Patrick Bishop, and they lived together in Jerusalem from the early 1990s. It was not a union based on typical domesticated bliss. While Marie Colvin might be reporting from Baghdad on the aftermath of the first Gulf War, Bishop might be covering the wars that erupted in the Balkans (where he was himself wounded).
Marie Colvin herself reported from Kosovo, and freely admitted that she constantly weighed “bravery against bravado”. Around the turn of the century that balancing act took her closer to the edge than ever. First, in 1999, she scored her dramatic triumph in East Timor. Then, while the world was celebrating the new millennium, she appeared to have pushed things too far in Chechnya.
Based with Chechen rebels as Russian troops cut off all escape, she found that the only route out was a 12,000ft mountain pass to Georgia. During an eight-day midwinter journey she waded through chest-high snow and braved altitude sickness, hunger and exposure. Bishop set off from Paris to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, where, together with her Sunday Times colleague Jon Swain, he helped organise a helicopter from the US embassy to pluck her off the mountainside to safety. As Marie Colvin wrote: “I was never happier to have an American passport.”
She did not often require such assistance. And her time in Chechnya did not make her change her ways. Instead she was soon in Sri Lanka, as ever heading into rebel – this time Tamil Tiger – territory. As she tried to cross the front line back into government-held ground, she was hit by shrapnel in four places. Despite specialist surgery, she lost the use of her left eye and afterwards wore a patch.
She promised that she would take things easier. But that was always unlikely. And as the US-led invasion of Iraq triggered the most dramatic events in the Middle East for decades, remaining on the sidelines became impossible. Soon she was back in the thick of things in Baghdad. There, as ever, she frayed editors’ nerves not only with her derring-do, but by filing her stories up to and far beyond deadline. Her copy was well worth waiting for, but the price to pay could be high. On one occasion in Iraq, her satellite phone link was not properly shut down and remained open overnight. It was never quite clear who was to blame, but to the amusement of other journalists, if not her paper, the bill ran to more than $20,000.
Like many journalists who covered the Middle East, Marie Colvin welcomed the optimism of the Arab Spring. Though she knew that it would not effect an overnight transformation, she was compelled to see it through; where cynicism had blunted the determination of so many of her contemporaries, she remained unwearied. Agonisingly for those who knew and loved her, however, that meant the nature of her death had a certain inevitability about it.
Marie Colvin, of course, did not see it that way. She loved life, and brought an American exuberance to the countless parties she graced over many years. From the Gandamak Lodge in Kabul to Harry’s Bar in Paris, she could be found at the heart of the conversation, cigarette and brimming vodka martini in hand. Sitting under the date palm in the garden of the American Colony in East Jerusalem, she would preside over the chatter and laughter as the balmy nights stretched on.
Apart from reporting, she loved sailing. As a young woman she had worked at the local yacht club to save enough to buy her first boat and in recent years had revived her passion for the sport, buying a new craft and gaining a skipper’s licence between assignments. Those assignments no doubt contributed to her eventual separation from Bishop, and from Juan Carlos Gumucio, her second husband, who predeceased her. But all who knew her remained devoted to her.
She is survived by Patrick Bishop and by her partner of recent years, Richard Flaye, whom she met while sailing.
Marie Colvin, born January 12 1956, died February 22 2012