It’s a life few of us can imagine: traveling to the most dangerous places on Earth, bearing witness to the worst of man’s inhumanity. But that was the life of journalist Marie Colvin, who was killed Wednesday in Homs, Syria, in a shelling attack on the house where she and other reporters were based as they covered the military assault on civilians.
The 55-year-old American-born Colvin spent much of her adult life working for the Sunday Times as the London paper’s war correspondent. From the Middle East to Kosovo, Chechnya and Sri Lanka, where she lost an eye to shrapnel, she carried her uncommon approach to journalism. In the fall of 2000, the International Women’s Media Foundation presented her its Courage Award for extraordinary bravery. Part of the citation read:
Last December in Chechnya, Colvin faced even greater danger when, along with a group of Chechen rebels, she was repeatedly attacked by Russian jet fighters. As she attempted to leave the Chechen rebel camp she was forced to walk for days through desolate, ice-covered mountains, fending off both Caucasian bandits and Russian paratroopers. Though the fearless Colvin admits her experience was harrowing, she also says that it gave her the insight she needed to write forceful, realistic reports on the daily struggles of Chechens fleeing the war.
In fact, the daily suffering of civilians affected by one war after another is what drew Colvin to the battlefronts of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. In a profile written by Sherry Ricchiardi for the American Journalism Review in 2000, John Owen of the Freedom Forum said of Colvin:
Just as the coverage of Kosovo, East Timor or Chechnya begins to numb you, suddenly Marie turns up with a powerful behind-the-lines piece that makes you care again about the victims of these wars and reduces the military and power politics to understandable human tragedies.
Colvin did not apologize for getting close to the subjects of her reporting but went out of her way not to inject herself into the story. In her final article for the Sunday Times, Colvin wrote about the misery of Homs residents:
There are no telephones and the electricity has been cut off. Few homes have diesel for the tin stoves they rely on for heat in the coldest winter that anyone can remember. …The scale of human tragedy in the city is immense. The inhabitants are living in terror. Almost every family seems to have suffered the death or injury of a loved one.
Just hours before she was killed, she described the continued desperation of Homs residents, including one of the children she had watched die. “The Syrian army is simply shelling a city of cold, starving civilians,” Colvin told CNN’s Anderson Cooper in a telephone interview.
All of us who care about a free press can look to Colvin to remind us why it matters. She told a BBC interviewer that the situation in Homs reminded her of the war in Bosnia; the siege of Srebrenica, where thousands of civilians were massacred; and the pledge afterward never to let such happen again. “No one can understand how the international community can let this happen,” Colvin said of Syria on Tuesday.
A few hours later, she was gone, alongside a French photographer. But her legacy remains.