The Journalist

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The Independent Online

Three weeks ago Maria Grazia Cutuli, foreign correspondent of the Milan daily paper Corriere della Sera, celebrated her 39th birthday in style. A snapshot shows smiling journalists sitting cross-legged on the floor at a Peshawar restaurant, glasses raised in a toast. Earlier a senior editor had phoned Maria Grazia suggesting she might like to come home to recharge her batteries – after all she had been in Pakistan and Afghanistan since immediately after 11 September. Her response was telling. "Why? Aren't you happy with the pieces I am sending?" she asked, feigning offence. "If you want to give me a birthday present, let me stay."

Last week, Maria Grazia paid the price for her commitment to telling the story of the war when she became its first Italian victim. Instead of coming home to her small Milan flat, where every object told a story, she returned to her native Sicilian city of Catania in a plain pine coffin aboard an Italian air force plane. Along the tortuous mountain road that leads from Jalalabad to Kabul, she and three other reporters – Julio Fuentes of the Spanish paper El Mundo, Harry Burton and Azizullah Haidari of Reuters news agency – were stopped by a group of turbanned gunman and ordered to get down from their Jeep. Their bullet-riddled bodies were recovered the next day.

Maria Grazia knew the dangers of her profession well, but she was not a thrill-seeker, nor did she ever let her ego or the adrenalin rush push her into unsafe situations. The group had been told by colleagues who had made the trip 24 hours before that it was safe.

When reports that Maria Grazia had been attacked began to filter through, her mother Agata, 74, told journalists she had rung home the night before. She had called frequently to reassure her mother and ask after her father, Giuseppe, 84, left speechless by a stroke. "She was happy as she always was when she was on a story and said everything was tranquil." Her sister Sabina, an accountant who lives in Catania, was soon at her parents' home as they hoped against hope that it would be a mistake. Her other two siblings, Donata, a trade union official, and Mario, an architect, live in Rome and had the task of accompanying her body home from Pakistan.

Maria Grazia grew up in Catania, under the shadow of Mount Etna. After graduating in philosophy, she began writing for the entertainment pages of the local newspaper, before moving on to local television. Colleagues said she was always ambitious and believed women should not be relegated to writing about fashion or lifestyle.

At 26 she left Sicily for the fog and hostility of Milan, where she took her first tentative steps as a correspondent for the popular weekly Epoca. She would spend her holidays in places like Cambodia, Liberia or Sierra Leone, coming back with a great story. When Epoca closed, she returned to Rwanda as a volunteer for United Nations High Commission for Refu- gees, an experience that left its mark.

In 1999 she was hired by Corriere della Sera, one of Italy's most respected broadsheet newspapers. In the past year alone she covered the tragedy of the Russian submarine, the Kursk and the Benin child slave boat as well as the new intifada in Israel and the destruction of the Buddhas in Afghanistan.

"I think initially it was above all curiosity," she once said. "I wanted to discover extreme forms of existence, to witness close up extreme situations, understand how people lived in a world different from that faded well-being of we in the West."

She also said: "I admire female colleagues with husbands and children who do my same profession but I could never manage that." Her profession dominated her life. Close friends said that when she had boyfriends, they were inevitably fellow war correspondents, photographers or aid workers.

Maria Grazia, slim with long dark hair and black eyes, had a very Sicilian kind of beauty; in some recent photos she looks like a girl, while others show her a sophisticated and determined woman. Yet she was ill at ease with her looks, irritated that people would look at the colour of her eyes rather than what she wrote. Fellow journalists remember her fury when in the midst of an unfolding tragedy she was nicknamed Miss Kigali.

She was difficult, determined, passionate and dedicated to telling the tales of the dispossessed, the victims, those who suffered. As her colleague Renzo Cianfanelli, a senior Corriere correspondent, put it: "She was never a member of the 'this is all about me' school of journalism."

The day after she died, her last scoop was published by her paper. In the article, Maria Grazia, for whom being a foreign correspondent had been a dream fulfilled, alerted the world to a nightmare: the discovery of Sarin gas, the nerve gas used in the Tokyo metro attack, in an abandoned Taliban hideout.