Marie Colvin: Award-winning foreign correspondent hailed for her courage and compassion

 

At a ceremony at St Bride's Church in Fleet Street in 2010, in honour of reporters killed in war zones, Marie Colvin, the long-serving Sunday Times foreign correspondent, delivered a moving address. "We can and do make a difference in exposing the horrors of war and especially the atrocities that befall civilians," she said, but added: "We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story. What is bravery and what is bravado?"

Those who worked alongside her affirm that she was demonstrably brave but in no sense reckless. But yesterday the American-born reporter was added to the roll of those who have died for the sake of the story when she and a photographer were killed by a rocket when trying to escape from a house in Homs, Syria, that was being used as a press centre for the rebels.

The previous day she had sent despatches by satellite telephone to the BBC, ITN and the news channel CNN. She reported: "There is just shells, rockets and tank fire pouring into civilian areas of this city and it is just unrelenting." Her reports accompanied harrowing footage of a baby killed in the shelling. She said it was important that such images should be broadcast to show the world what was happening in the city. "Why is no one stopping this murder?" she asked.

The question why journalists such as she put themselves in harm's way for the sake of exposing violence, hardship and injustice was one that she asked herself throughout her professional career. In 2001 she visited the Tamil-held area of Sri Lanka – the first Western journalist to do so for six years – and lost her sight in her left eye when it was struck by shrapnel from a grenade. (Her black eye patch subsequently became her badge of identity.)

The same week she wrote a 3000-word article for The Sunday Times describing the incident and the operation in a New York hospital to save her eyesight. In it she said she had been told she was foolish to court such dangers, and concluded: "So, was I stupid? Stupid I would feel writing a column about the dinner party I went to last night. Equally, I'd rather be in that middle ground between a desk job and getting shot, no offence to desk jobs. For my part, the next war I cover, I'll be more awed than ever by the quiet bravery of civilians who endure far more than I ever will. They must stay where they are; I can come home to London."

In fact she had the reputation of staying in a zone of conflict longer than most of the "visiting firemen" who pay brief visits and leave as soon as the interest of their news desks begins to fade, even if the core situation remains unresolved. It was an important reason why her reports were notable for their insights and local knowledge.

In 1999, reporting the plight of refugees in East Timor, she insistedon staying until their evacuation was assured, although some aid officials had wanted to pull out earlier. Notlong before her assignment to Syria she spent many weeks in Libya, and was one of the last journalists to interview Colonel Gaddafi.

The daughter of a schoolteacher, Marie Colvin was born in Oyster Bay, Long Island, in 1957 and educated at the local high school. She worked in Paris for United Press International before joining the Sunday Times in 1986 as its Middle East correspondent. Among stories she covered were the war between Iran and Iraq, the conflict in Yemen and the two Gulf wars.

Broadening her area of operations, she reported on the wars in Indonesia, Kosovo and Chechnya, for which she won one of the several awards she attracted during her career. This one was for her description of how she escaped from approaching Russian troops.The only route open to her was a path across mountains, leading to a remote and virtually inaccessible spot from where, after four days, she was rescued by an American helicopter. The British Press Awards judges commented: "Her escape from Chechnya was a superb adventure, grippingly told. It was one of the great adventure stories of all time."

Other awards came from the Foreign Press Association and the International Women's Media Foundation (for courage). In 2009 she was honoured by the trustees of the Martha Gellhorn Prize for her "distinguished work over many years in the service of journalism". This gave her particular pleasure as Gellhorn, who reported the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, was one of her heroines and an influential role model.

Colvin's peripatetic profession was not conducive to a stable private life and her three marriages ended unhappily. Her second husband was the journalist and author Patrick Bishop and her third Juan Carlos Gumucio, a Bolivian reporter who committed suicide in 2002. One of the few outside interests she made time for was sailing, at which she became highly proficient.

Her final report, in the Sunday Times four days ago, was characteristic in its combination of resourcefulness and compassion: "I entered Homs on a smugglers' route, which I promised not to reveal, climbing over walls in the dark and slipping into muddy trenches... The building I was staying in lost its upper floor to a rocket last Wednesday... 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.... The scale of human tragedy in the city is immense. The inhabitants are living in terror.... On the lips of everyone was the question: 'Why have we been abandoned by the world?'"

Michael Leapman

Marie Colvin, journalist: born Oyster Bay, Nassau County, New York 1957; married firstly (marriage dissolved), secondly Patrick Bishop (marriage dissolved), thirdly Juan Carlos Gumucio (died 2002); died Homs, Syria 22 February 2012.

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