Described with rough affection on Twitter this morning as one of “the most badass journalists of all time”, veteran war correspondent Marie Colvin, an American working for the Sunday Times, died in war this morning —
in a shelling on a “Media Center” or “safe house” in the Baba Amr district of Homs, where some 28,000 civilians are reportedly trapped while a sustained Syrian Army offensive against “rebels” has continued “without mercy”, as she said, for days.
Intensive shelling started some two weeks ago. The Syrian Army is reportedly using large mortars on the civilians trapped with fighters from the Free Syria Army [said to be composed of Syrian military defectors].
Marie reported that Syrian Army snipers are posted all around the perimeter of the area now being shelled, so it is very difficult and dangerous to go in or out. Supplies of all kinds are dwindling in the siege.
Yesterday, Marie said in a Q+A aired on BBC: “I watched a baby die”.
Killed with Marie was 28-year-old French photographer Remi Ochlik, whose work is posted on his website here, and where he wrote about himself: “In 2011, Remi photographed the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions and the uprising and war in Libya”. Ochlik stayed behind in Homs when a staff photographer for a French publication was pulled out because of the dangerous conditions.
Yesterday, Syrian blogger/journalist Rami al-Sayed [“Syria Pioneer”] was killed in Baba Amr while working to report the fighting on the internet. “He was one of the first activists who risked their lives and braved sniper bullets to film the protests in Homs. Rami also set up a channel to live stream the anti-regime demonstrations and the army’s assaults on the city. Rami never admitted he was the one behind the channel but whenever his colleagues told me he was ‘out’ or ‘busy’, I was sure to find a live feed on his channel”, according to a post published here, which was picked up by the NYTimes blog, TheLede.
In all, as of today, some 13 journalists have lost their lives in the fighting in Syria.
Marie and Remi were killed today, and at least three other journalists were wounded in the same attack this morning, just after they had uploaded video and photos, and filed stories — leading to the growing suspicion that sophisticated electronic methods had been used to track and target the journalists.
The Telegraph reported in an updated article bylined by Gordon Rayner, Nabila Ramdani and Richard Spencer
that a group of journalists “were fired on as they tried to flee a makeshift press centre that had suffered a direct hit from a shell. Witnesses said they were killed by a rocket-propelled grenade as they emerged from the ruins of the press centre, which was next door to a hospital. Frederic Mitterrand, the French culture minister, said they had been ‘pursued as they tried to flee the bombardment’ … Before the building was attacked, Syrian army officers were allegedly intercepted by intelligence staff in neighbouring Lebanon discussing how they would claim journalists had been killed in crossfire with ‘terrorist groups’ … Hours before she died, Colvin had given interviews to several broadcasters including the BBC, Channel 4 and CNN in which she described the bloodshed as ‘absolutely sickening’. She also accused Mr Assad’s forces of ‘murder’ and said it was ‘a complete and utter lie that they are only targeting terrorists…the Syrian army is simply shelling a city of cold, starving civilians’. Sources in Damascus confirmed that Syrians, including Mr Assad, would have been able to watch Colvin’s broadcasts – a fact that could have sealed her fate. Jean-Pierre Perrin, a journalist for the Paris-based Liberation newspaper who was with Colvin in Homs last week, said they had been told the Syrian Army was deliberately going to shell their media centre, which had a limited electricity supply and internet access thanks to a generator. Mr Perrin said: ‘A few days ago we were advised to leave the city urgently and we were told “if they [the Syrian army] find you they will kill you”. I then left the city with [Colvin] but she wanted to go back when she saw that the major offensive had not yet taken place’.” This account is published here.
Earlier, makeshift clinics and medical personnel were reportedly targetted in Baba Amr.
The night before she died, Marie wrote on Facebook from Baba Amr, in Homs:
“For anyone who can get over our paywall (sorry i can barely do it myself) see Sunday Times on Sunday, February 19 for my story from Baba Amr. I rarely do this, but getting the story out from here is what we got into journalism for. If anyone can figure out how, you have my permission to post it, as in I will take the firing squad in the morning. I’m just not able to technically do it, as I am still in Baba Amr. Also, can I make a plea? I see that people are beginning to describe the way in to Syria illegally. We all agreed with our smugglers not to, at least in detail, because that will get the path cut. It is not just for journalists, but it is the only way out for the badly wounded whose only chance is a Lebanese hospital. Please spread this around. And anyone coming in, it is FREEZING.”
The way to get over the paywall is through this link, here, which has been re-tweeted many times this morning.
The Times later removed the paywall, and Marie Colvin’s last story from Baba Amr is posted publicly here.
It opens with these words:
“They call it the widows’ basement. Crammed amid makeshift beds and scattered belongings are frightened women and children trapped in the horror of Homs, the Syrian city shaken by two weeks of relentless bombardment”.
Her report is unabashedly partisan:
“It is a city of the cold and hungry, echoing to exploding shells and bursts of gunfire. 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. Freezing rain fills potholes and snow drifts in through windows empty of glass. No shops are open, so families are sharing what they have with relatives and neighbours. Many of the dead and injured are those who risked foraging for food.
Fearing the snipers’ merciless eyes, families resorted last week to throwing bread across rooftops, or breaking through communal walls to pass unseen.
The Syrians have dug a huge trench around most of the district, and let virtually nobody in or out. The army is pursuing a brutal campaign to quell the resistance of Homs, Hama and other cities that have risen up against Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, whose family has been in power for 42 years.
In Baba Amr, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the armed face of opposition to Assad, has virtually unanimous support from civilians who see them as their defenders…”
Lindsey Hilsum wrote a farewell to Marie, here on the Channel 4 blog:
“The week before last, over dinner in Beirut, I told Marie that I would not sneak across the border into Homs because it was too dangerous. She said she was going to have a go anyway. She felt it was important. ‘Anyway, it’s what we do’, she said”.
As’ad AbuKhalil [Angry Arab] commented on his blog later today that:
 “So Western media sneak correspondents into Syria illegally, and then expect the Syrian regime to protect them. If Israel were to see one Western correspondent sneaking into Israel, he/she would be incinerated on the spot. More importantly, during the various chapters of Isareli assaults and invasions and massacres, Western media carefully observed all Israeli military rules and laws and regulations”; and
”So basically: we now know that the Free Syrian Army killed a French journalist and the Syrian regime killed two journalists today. So both are killers of journalists but why did the killing of the French journalist produce no outrage in Western circles?”
Her colleague + friend Christopher Dickey wrote today in The Daily Beast, here, that:
“Marie really was the greatest war correspondent of our generation. She took extraordinary risks and got extraordinary stories year after year, decade after bloody decade. I think nobody can match her record for pushing herself into the middle of the action to witness what war is and what war does and ‘get the information out’. Because if you really want people to understand, really want them to care—and Marie wanted that very much—then press releases and human-rights reports and anonymous cellphone video vaguely attributed is not going to cut it. There is no substitute for the correspondent who goes and sees for herself what is happening, and tells the world in exact, dispassionate, irrefutable detail”.
Marie was injured and lost the use of her left eye while reporting on fighting in Sri Lanka in 2001. At the time of her death today she was 57, and has covered almost all the major conflicts in her professional lifetime.
In November 2010, Marie Colvin gave a speech at St. Bride’s Church in London on the importance of war reporting, which journalists have linked to on Twitter this morning, in which she said:
- “I have been a war correspondent for most of my professional life. It has always been a hard calling. But the need for frontline, objective reporting has never been more compelling. Covering a war means going to places torn by chaos, destruction and death, and trying to bear witness. It means trying to find the truth in a sandstorm of propaganda when armies, tribes or terrorists clash. And yes, it means taking risks, not just for yourself but often for the people who work closely with you”.
- “…the scene on the ground [n.b. – of all wars] has remained remarkably the same for hundreds of years. 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…
Today we must also remember how important it is that news organisations continue to invest in sending us out at great cost, both financial and emotional, to cover stories. We go to remote war zones to report what is happening. The public have a right to know what our government, and our armed forces, are doing in our name. Our mission is to speak the truth to power. We send home that first rough draft of history. We can and do make a difference in exposing the horrors of war and especially the atrocities that befall civilians…
In an age of 24/7 rolling news, blogs and Twitters, 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. And we could not make that difference – or begin to do our job – without the fixers, drivers and translators, who face the same risks and die in appalling numbers. Today we honour them as much as the front line journalists who have died in pursuit of the truth. They have kept the faith as we who remain must continue to do”.
An article entitled “Highway to the Danger Zone”, by Sherry Ricchiardi, published here in the American Journalism Review in April 2000 profiled Marie at work. It reported this episode, when Marie was with rebels fighting Russian forces in Chechenya:
- “Russian warplanes swooped like menacing hawks, spitting fire onto the narrow, dirt road. At the center of a bull’s-eye was a lone four-wheel-drive vehicle carrying Chechen fighters and one of Europe’s most daring war correspondents.
There was no time for Marie Colvin to wonder if she had gone too far this time, smuggling herself past Russian checkpoints into the heart of the carnage. Trapped in the back seat with no escape route, she braced for the final impact.
Milliseconds later, slivers of glass and steel went flying as a burst of high-caliber machine gun fire ripped into the back end of the mud-caked vehicle. Operating on instinct, Colvin scrambled free of the wreckage, running with Chechen fighters into a field of thorny bushes and barren birch trees, scant cover from an air attack. She remembers thinking, ‘This is a death trap’.
For the next nine hours, Colvin lay with her body pressed to the frozen earth, not daring to move as Russian planes continued to bomb and strafe the sloping valley in a morbid game of hide-and-seek. Once, a shell exploded so close that shrapnel sliced off the tree branches that hung above her.
‘It was torturous. I knew if I cracked and ran, I was dead’, the reporter recalls. After dark, she crept back to the road and thumbed a ride with Chechen fighters returning from the firing line in a rickety 1950s-vintage pickup truck. By daybreak she was deeper into forbidden territory …
…Although it flies in the face of her early journalism training in the United States, she stands fast behind reporting with an attitude. ‘My own experience tells readers more about what is happening than merely attributing every quote. The people I meet and my reactions to them–that is part of the story’, Colvin says. ‘It’s quite often stronger to write, “I saw this”.’ But she shuns making herself the focus of the story…
To defuse cultural differences or the perceived threat posed by an outsider, Colvin chooses to blend in by living under the same conditions as the people she is covering. ‘If you go in bare and eat what they eat, drink what they drink, sleep where they sleep, there is less separation’, she says.
In December, the reporter shared a 20-by-6-foot filth-encrusted sleeping area with more than a dozen Chechen fighters in a remote command post. Once, when hard lumps disrupted her sleep, she reached down and pulled out two hand grenades. The rebels ‘would come off the firing line and just collapse’, Colvin says, adding, ‘They were very kind to me’.
A Chechen commander paved the way by announcing: ‘There are no women here. Just a journalist’. To his fighters, many of them Islamic, the edict was a release from conventions based on gender. ‘They were very respectful. They weren’t protective, just accepting’, says Colvin, who was accompanied by a Russian photographer working for the Sunday Times…
…Staying alive became an obsession after a road offering her best chance for retreat was captured by Russian paratroopers.
A reign of terror followed, with Russian MiGs firing on any vehicle that attempted to pass. Alternative routes were blocked by heavy fighting. The only possibility of escape into neighboring Georgia was over a 12,600-foot ice-covered mountain where the risks of robbery and kidnapping became new enemies.
It was, says Colvin, ‘a terrible nightmare’ that drove her to break her own rules about making herself the focus of a story. ‘I am a city girl, and I am not particularly fit. I never planned to climb a 12,000-foot mountain. It was test enough that it was worth writing about’, she explains. ‘I feel I played chicken with my life a lot during that trip’.
‘Within an hour we were zigzagging up a mountain on a 6 inch-wide path covered in snow and ice. I was carrying a pack with a satellite telephone and a computer and wearing a flak jacket. I felt every ounce… I regretted every cigarette I had ever smoked–and I had smoked a lot in the past few days: cheap Russian tobacco that gave me some respite from the bombs and the decisions… We walked up the slope, looking down thousands of feet into a gorge that one slip would take us into. Magomet [a guide] hauled me by the hand to the last summit. I slept for an hour sitting against a stone in the snow until Magomet woke us at dawn with a warning that we were still in Chechnya and would have to move.
It was a discouraging day. Traveling up the next river, I stepped in the wrong spot and plunged through the ice up to the hip into raging torrent below.
The next 12 hours were passed in a daze, one foot in front of the other, up and over another mountain. The air was so thin that I could not fill my lungs, and the wind was so strong that several times I was almost blown off the mountainside. Just before dawn we reached a snow-covered field amid the peaks.
For the next two days we lived in the shepherd’s hut on flour and water. I supplemented the porridge once with wild onions. They tasted horrible but they would give us some vitamins. Magomet gave me a pistol loaded with nine bullets–telling me not to shoot a wild animal until it was 10 meters away but to shoot a man the moment one appeared–and set off to find a way forward.
In the riveting account, Colvin described how on December 29, the bedraggled group came upon a pile of stones that marked the Georgian border. But, before they could cross, shots rang out. As they dove for cover more rounds were fired. Colvin remembers thinking, ‘It seems unfair that here, yards from the border, we will die’.
On instinct, the guide began shouting wildly in Chechen. Suddenly, the gunfire stopped. Then, the beginning of a miracle.
Just before dark, a helicopter thundered into view and quickly landed. As Colvin rushed down the slope she was greeted by a hulk of a man, a Hemingway figure in white beard and blue snow jacket. He uttered words that would become indelible: ‘Jack Hariman, American Embassy. Are we glad to find you!’.”
The Daily Telegraph noted in an article published today, here, that:
“She was decorated for her reporting from Chechnya, where she was pinned down by fire from Russian aircraft and troops. Finding her last relatively sensible line of retreat cut off by paratroopers, she escaped over an icy mountain path into Georgia, but after four perilous days’ journey found herself stranded.
Colleagues, including her then husband, Patrick Bishop, the author and a former Telegraph journalist, realised she was in trouble and contacted the American embassy in Tblisi which duly sent a helicopter to rescue her.
In their citation, the judges of the British Press awards said: ‘Her escape from Chechnya was a superb adventure, grippingly told. It was one of the great adventure stories of all time, they should make it into a film’.”
Those who’ve worked with her speak of her being tenacious, legendary, brave — and also delightful, nice, generous, and a lovely person.
She made one choice — to go where the action was.
Another choice is to stick with a story for years, however slow-moving that is…