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How exposing ‘the horror of war’ motivated murdered journalist Marie Colvin

For its annual “Person of the Year" feature, Time magazine recognized reporters targeted for their work in the field. Author Lindsey Hilsum tells the story of one such journalist, her friend Marie Colvin, who was murdered while covering the war in Syria. Hilsum sits down with Nick Schifrin to discuss her new biography, “In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin.”

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Time magazine named its person of the year yesterday, choosing a group of journalists they dubbed the Guardians of Truth.

    Nick Schifrin is back now with the author of a new book who tells the life story of another reporter killed for her own guardianship of the truth.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Six-and-a-half years ago, the world lost a memorable and vital voice.

    Marie Colvin was a foreign correspondent for The Sunday Times in London, and one of the most remarkable war reporters of her generation. She covered every conflict, from Beirut in the mid-'80s to the war in Syria, where she was killed by the Assad regime.

    Back in 2001, she lost her left eye in Sri Lanka, and a few weeks later, she wrote: "Why do I cover wars? I didn't set out to be a war correspondent. It has always seemed to me that what I write about is humanity in extremis, and that it is important to tell people what really happens in wars." "In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin" is a new biography from Marie's friend Lindsey Hilsum, international editor for Channel 4 News.

    And it is my pleasure to have you here on the "NewsHour."

  • Lindsey Hilsum:

    Great to be here.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    One of the remarkable things that comes out in this book, with diary entries and real access to everything that Marie wrote, was her fearlessness, and something that really drove her.

    And let me read one excerpt from the commencement of Yale, when she graduated in 1978, from The Yale Daily News: "It doesn't matter if you mess up, choose the wrong road, flop in Vegas. What's important is to throw yourself in head first, to go for the gusto. And if you blow it, you blow it."

    How important was fearlessness to Marie Colvin?

  • Lindsey Hilsum:

    But she didn't blow it, did she?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Lindsey Hilsum:

    And I think that what I learned about Marie from her childhood on Long Island — I was lucky enough to go to where she was brought up in Oyster Bay and spend time with her family.

    You know, she was the eldest of five children, and they used to play this game called dead man's branch, where each child had a tree, and they would climb out along the branch. And the one who won was the one who could stay longer as they got to the flimsy end without it breaking.

    Well, you can guess which was the child who always won that game. She always pushed it that little bit further. And I think that, in that rebellious little girl, I saw the seeds of the brave woman, the war reporter who I met many years later.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The second aspect that really comes across in the book is that she was, frankly, attracted to war. She was attracted to men who were connected to war, whether for relationships or to leaders, and also a desire to see the world, and to, frankly, experience danger, I think, as you write, to match her appetite for life.

  • Lindsey Hilsum:

    Well, I think that she wanted to be where history was happening.

    I don't think that she was attracted to war in terms of the violence, and she certainly wasn't interested in weaponry. She said, I don't care if it's a T-55 or a T-72 tank. She said, what it is about, is people.

    And then you come back to the title of the book, "In Extremis." That was what fascinated her, how people managed to survive the unendurable, how they got through it. The horror of war was something she felt she must expose and write about, but it certainly wasn't something that she reveled in, in any way.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And she expressed and had and also wanted her readers to have so much empathy, I think, for people and so much understanding for what the people, the victims of war were going through.

    And let me just read a couple of extraordinary passages that she wrote, the first one from 1987, a Palestinian woman who'd been killed by a Shia militia in Beirut.

    "Though her hair was clotted with blood, Haji Achmed Ali seemed younger now. She'd been cleaned. Her body was soft and shapely. She wore two tiny gold earrings. Someone opened her fist and cleaned out the handful of blood-soaked dirt she had clenched in her pain."

    And in Baba Amr, in Homs, where she died in February 2012: "Helping tend the wounded was Um Ammar, a 45-year-old mother of seven who had offered to be a nurse after a neighbor's house was shelled. She wore filthy plastic gloves and was crying. 'I'm obliged to endure this because all children brought here are my children,' she said. 'But it is so hard.'"

    How important was her empathy to her reporting?

  • Lindsey Hilsum:

    I think that that was critical, and that first excerpt when you read, which you read about the young woman who'd been killed with the little gold earrings, in her diary, I read that this reminded Marie of a pair of golden earrings that she had bought for her younger sister Cat.

    And I think that one of the important things about that experience, where she saw this young woman — basically, she saw her life blood seep away after she had been shot by snipers who were besieging the camp — was that she — she identified with this woman, in a sense, you know?

    And she saw that this was the war on women. That was what the title of the article that she wrote. The Sunday Times was an influential newspaper. And Marie felt that her story had made a difference, because, three days later, the siege of the camps was lifted.

    And that, I think, had a tremendous impact on her, the idea that, because she did feel this huge empathy and she was so — she was so committed to telling the story of these people, but that it might make a difference.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And that empathy and understanding, of course, drove her to stay in Homs, to go back to Homs, to go back to Baba Amr, and that ultimately killed her, right?

  • Lindsey Hilsum:

    Yes.

    So, now we're in 2012. And she and I were together in Beirut. It was the moment when the uprising, the peaceful uprising in Syria, was morphing into a civil war. It was too dangerous.

    I said it was beyond my danger threshold to be smuggled over the border and go to Baba Amr, which was under siege by the Syrian forces. But she insisted not only in going in, where — this was the importance of her story, that the Syrian government says that it was just terrorists there, not civilians.

    And she wrote a story called "The Widows' Basement" about the women and the children who were sheltering from the relentless bombardment underground, and another story about the field clinic where there was no doctor, just a veterinarian who was tending to these injured civilians.

    So she gave the lie to what the Syrian government was saying. She came out to file, and then she felt that she had abandoned the people. And so she insisted on going back in.

    She said, "Lindsey, this is the worst we have ever seen."

    I said, "I know, but what's your exit strategy?"

    She said: "That's just it. I don't have one. We're working on it now."

    And a few hours later, she was killed by a mortar fired by government forces.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Which brings us back to fearlessness.

    When you write this book, when you think about Marie's life, where does the bravery end and the recklessness begin?

  • Lindsey Hilsum:

    I think that that's a very blurred line.

    I mean, you see her there with her eye patch. Mind you, she did have one studded with rhinestones for parties.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Lindsey Hilsum:

    It's important to remember that Marie was the best company on the road. She was the funniest person you could ever meet. I don't — in some ways, fearlessness is wrong. It's to do with overcoming fear.

    Because she was so committed to the story, that was why she overcame the fear she had. And I think, obviously, you can look back now. You know, she had a cat, Billy Smith. He lived his nine lives. Maybe she lived hers.

    But I suppose what I feel is that there's been so much emphasis on the violence and tragic nature of her death that I hope that, in some way, by writing the book, that I have, I guess, brought her back to life.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And I think you absolutely have done that.

    Lindsey Hilsum, the book is called "In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin"

    Thank you very much.

  • Lindsey Hilsum:

    Thank you, Nick.

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