Friends mourn US journalist killed in Syria as 'fearless'

Marie Colvin struck by artillery fire in Homs along with French photographer Remi Ochlik.

By OREN KESSLER
February 24, 2012 03:34
4 minute read.
Marie Colvin in Misrata

Marie Colvin in Misrata_390. (photo credit: Reuters)

 
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Tributes poured in on Thursday for Marie Colvin, the US journalist for Britain’s Sunday Times killed a day earlier in the besieged Syrian city of Homs, a center of opposition to the government of President Bashar Assad.

Colvin and French photojournalist Remi Ochlik were killed by Syrian army shelling of a makeshift media center in a residential building in the city’s Baba Amr district. Unconfirmed witness statements said government forces knew foreign journalists were being sheltered in the building.

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Wednesday’s deaths bring to seven the number of journalists who have died in the country since November, including New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid, who died in northern Syria last week of an allergy-induced asthma attack.

Colvin, 56, was a veteran war reporter whose 26-year career with the Times took her through conflict zones from Chechnya to East Timor to Iraq. Her trademark eyepatch – she lost an eye in 2001 to a Tamil Tiger grenade in Sri Lanka – symbolized her courage under fire and a commitment to relaying stories from the world’s danger zones no matter the personal risk.

“She was a phenomenal person, very warm and loving and funny – enormously funny,” said Judith Miller, a journalist and longtime friend.

Miller – a former New York Times investigative reporter now writing for City Journal magazine – said her late friend took the dangers of her profession in stride.

“She almost had a Middle Eastern attitude toward it. She’d say, ‘If something happens, it happens,’” Miller recalled. “I thought her close brush with death in Sri Lanka, her long recovery and getting the glass eye might sober her up and lead her to be more cautious, but it didn’t – she just went back into the fray. That’s who she was.”

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Miller said Colvin’s most valuable asset was her decades of experience reporting from the world’s war zones.

“There is often no substitute for experience and a sense of history,” she said. “She had that kind of breadth of knowledge that let her put the pieces together the way younger reporters can’t always do. That’s why the term ‘veteran correspondent’ was just as applicable to her as words like ‘brave,’ ‘audacious’ and ‘legendary.’”

“You meet many people in your life, and certain people stand out,” said Harold Rhode, a former Middle East analyst at the office of the US Secretary of Defense. “She was kind and decent, but fearless – she’d go anywhere in the world where people were fighting for freedom.”

“There was nothing that could hold this woman down,” said Rhode, who first met Colvin in Iraq after the 2003 US invasion. “She genuinely believed in freedom – she wanted to write about people trying to liberate themselves from the yoke of tyranny.”

Colvin, who lived in London when not on assignment, was married three times but had no children.

Born and raised in Long Island, New York, she studied anthropology at Yale and worked at United Press International before joining The Sunday Times in 1985. A year later she became the weekly’s Middle East correspondent. Reporting from the West Bank shortly thereafter, Colvin suffered a broken nose when a stone was hurled through the window of a car in which she was riding.

On Wednesday, her mother Rosemarie told reporters her daughter had planned to leave Syria shortly before she was killed, but had stayed to finish a story.

“My daughter was murdered by these people,” the reporter’s mother said, referring to the Syrian regime.

Colvin’s fearlessness won her a clutch of awards, including the Woman Journalist of the Year prize at the 2010 Foreign Press Association in London and the British Press Award for foreign correspondent of the year, which she won twice.

She laid out her reporting philosophy in a 2010 tribute to journalists killed in conflict zones.

“Craters. Burned houses. Mutilated bodies. Women weeping for children and husbands. Our mission is to report these horrors of war with accuracy and without prejudice,” Colvin said. “We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story... What is bravery, and what is bravado?”

“In an age of 24/7 rolling news, blogs and Twitter, we are on constant call wherever we are,” she continued. “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.”

Before entering Syria to write what would be her last story, Colvin told a friend she had an “ominous feeling” about the assignment. In one of her last Facebook posts, she wrote, “I think reports of my survival may be exaggerated... In Baba Amr. Sickening, cannot understand how the world can stand by and I should be hardened by now.”

In her last dispatch – a television interview with CNN – Colvin dismissed the Syrian regime’s insistence that it is only targeting “armed terrorists.”

“The top floor of the building I’m in has been hit, in fact totally destroyed,” she told the network’s Anderson Cooper. “There are no military targets here... It’s a complete and utter lie that they are only going after terrorists.”

The Syrian army, she concluded, “is shelling a city of cold, starving civilians.”

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