A Sobering Perspective: Marie Colvin

On 22 February 2012, Kevin Rudd announced his resignation as foreign minister. The news, along with his challenge of Julia Gillard in an attempt to wrest his old job back, has dominated the media conversation of the past fortnight.

But there was another significant news story that day.

Legendary conflict reporter Marie Colvin and French photojournalist Remi Ochlik were killed when a ‘makeshift media centre’ was hit by Syrian rocket fire. Three other journalists were injured. This came just a week after Anthony Shahid, another internationally renowned conflict reporter, was also killed in Syria.

Marie Colvin, who died by Syrian rocket fire last week: ‘Total objectivity is a myth.’

Marie Colvin, who died by Syrian rocket fire last week: ‘Total objectivity is a myth.’

On Twitter, Natasha Mitchell, host of ABC Radio National’s Life Matters, was just one of a small but persistent trickle of Australians to note the deaths. Amid all the speculation and gossip on K. Rudd and ‘faceless men’, Mitchell tweeted the news as ‘a sobering perspective’. She wrote, ‘What a sad confusion and juxtaposition a Twitter stream can be when a genuine international warzone tragedy melds with a domestic political saga’.

A modern-day Martha Gellhorn

Colvin was well known for her bravery and persistence, as well as her humour and compassion. She has often been compared to her friend, pioneering female war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, whose stories focused on the impact of war on individual lives, families and communities.

‘Total objectivity is a myth,’ Colvin has said. ‘I am always moved by the people I encounter in horrific situations. But that is what war is all about. The mothers, the kids, the soldiers.’

The day before she died, she spoke to the BBC, appealing for the public to notice what was happening in Syria. ‘I watched a little baby die today,’ she said. ‘Absolutely horrific, a two-year old child had been hit. They stripped it and found the shrapnel had gone into the left chest and the doctor said ‘I can’t do anything.’ His little tummy just kept heaving until he died.’

She said, ‘These are twenty-eight thousand civilians, men, women and children, hiding, being shelled, defenseless. That little baby is one of two children who died today, one of the children being injured every day. That baby probably will move more people to think, “What is going on, and why is no one stopping this murder in Homs that is happening every day?“’

Often the last journalist on the scene

Colvin began reporting for the Middle East for the UK’s Sunday Times when she was 30 years old; she was 56 when she died. Her eyewitness accounts were often broadcast on CNN or the BBC, because she was often the last journalist on the scene.

In East Timor in 1999, she famously refused to leave a UN compound in Dili where 1500 people had taken shelter - as Indonesian troops closed in and the UN called for the journalists to pull out. After her foreign editor heard all the men had left (leaving just Colvin and two other female journalists), he berated her. She replied, ‘I guess they don’t make men like they used to.’

Her trademark eye-patch was a result of a shrapnel injury in Sri Lanka, in 1996. ‘Not many people know that she had post-traumatic stress disorder so badly after that she had to be hospitalised,’ said BBC Middle East correspondent Jim Muir. ‘So she was a person who knew what war was about. It’s not about glamour. It’s about people being killed. And that’s what happened to her.’

Yet Colvin was hesitant to claim such bravery for herself, recognising her privilege in being able to make choices about when she came and left the world’s trouble spots. She said she was ‘more awed than ever by the bravery of civilians who endure far more than I ever will. They must stay where they are. I can come home to London.’

In a prescient 2010 speech, she said, ‘It has never been more dangerous to be a war correspondent because the journalist in the combat zone has become a prime target.’ It has been suggested, but not proven, that the attack that killed her was a deliberate targeting of the media.

Charmed and eviscerated tyrants

‘Imagine a real-life Katherine Hepburn heroine, but braver and funnier,’ said the BBC’s Paul Dannaher. ‘Marie Colvin was everywhere I was in Libya, only she always got there first.’

Another of the many things Colvin was known for was her access to Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi, who she interviewed many times over 25 years. He was so taken with her that he is reported to have asked after her during interviews with other journalists. The Sydney Morning Herald wrote that ‘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’.

‘In no way a gonzo crazy person’

There have been (deservedly) many tributes and retrospectives written about Colvin over the past week or so. Two of the best are the obituary published by her editor at The Sunday Times, which gives a wonderful overview of her life and work (sadly, now behind a paywall); and a conversation with two of her fellow conflict reporters about Marie’s legacy and ‘the inherent risks of bearing witness in dangerous places, and the particular challenges and advantages for women in war zones’, for New York magazine.

One of those reporters, Eliza Griswold (Atlantic, New Yorker, Harpers, New York Times) said, ‘Marie was ‘the best – not one of the best – woman in the field today. I first met her in a minefield in northern Iraq, eye patch and all. Stories about Marie’s courage, almost insane courage, precede her. She had her eye shot out when reporting on the Tamil Tigers, she married the same man twice – which is very brave – she wedged herself into Gaza’s tunnels.’

‘But she was in no way a gonzo crazy person – one of those, I hate to say it, mostly American war reporters (not women usually) who is all about themselves. She was about the people living and dying in the field, and it is in no way surprising to me that she died doing what she felt called to do. She was tough as hell, but not the empty bravado, bearing-witness-in-leather-pants type of reporter. For an entire generation of women, she was the best there was, and that there could be.’

Eliza Griswold will be speaking at The Wheeler Centre next Thursday 8 March at 6.15pm, about her journeys through some of the world’s most fascinating - and divided - societies and her book The Tenth Parallel.

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