It is sometimes said that journalists write the first draft of history. For the vast majority that is a grandiose inaccuracy. But just leafing through the contents pages of On the Front Line provides you with a record of modern conflict. Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Chechnya, East Timor and many more: there was no war the US journalist Marie Colvin would not brave, believing she had a moral responsibility to give a voice to those suffering in the midst of battle. Published just three months after she lost her life in Syria, aged 56, the book is a fitting memorial to her insightful journalism.
Spanning a quarter of a century of reporting, the book includes her dispatch from East Timor in 1999; horrifying descriptions of women and children so desperate to seek sanctuary in a UN compound that they fight through razor wire. Colvin was one of only three female journalists to remain when the rest of the foreign media left. Refusing to abandon them, her reports brought the plight of 1,000 refugees and 80 UN staff to the world and were partially credited with their eventual evacuation to safety.
Even when seriously injured (she lost her left eye to shrapnel in Sri Lanka), she refused to give up on her vocation. From her hospital bed in 2001, she wrote: "I did not set out to be a war correspondent. It has always seemed to me that what I write about is humanity in extremis, pushed to the unendurable, and that it is important to tell people what really happens in wars – declared and undeclared."
The book ends with her final written dispatch, from the besieged enclave of Baba Amr in Homs, Syria, on 19 February. (She was killed alongside the French photographer Rémi Ochlik when their building was hit by rockets.) She reveals how she was smuggled into the city, climbing walls and slipping through muddy trenches in the dark before being driven at speed in a truck that was fired upon. And in characteristically moving terms she reveals the immense scale of human tragedy; the widows and children terrified in a city under bombardment; the wounded dying before her eyes. "On the lips of everyone was the question: 'Why have we been abandoned by the world?'... Abdel Majid, 20, who was helping to rescue the wounded from bombed buildings, made a simple plea. 'Please tell the world they must help us,' he said, shaking, with haunted eyes. 'Just stop the bombing. Please, just stop the shelling.'"
A portion of the proceeds from the sale of this book will go to the memorial fund established by the Colvin family to direct donations to organisations that reflect her lifelong dedication to humanitarian aid and human rights. In the foreword, fellow correspondent Christiane Amanpour describes Colvin as a passionate and funny lioness who seemed indestructible. Sadly, on 22 February 2012 that proved not to be the case. But there is not a modern weapon that could destroy the legacy of the incredible, moving work she left behind – her contribution to the first draft of history.