Marie Colvin had no death wish. She was in love with life

Patrick Cockburn pays tribute to his friend and colleague killed by shellfire in Homs, Syria

Patrick Cockburn
Sunday 26 February 2012 01:00
Marie Colvin, in Misrata, Libya, last summer, when she spent weeks living under seige
Marie Colvin, in Misrata, Libya, last summer, when she spent weeks living under seige

I used to have an uneasy feeling when Marie went off to report on another war, but I had felt these qualms for so long that I had stopped paying much attention to them. She had survived so many dangers in the past, though often by a hair's breadth only, that it seemed probable she would do so in the future.

I saw her at a party in London last July, just before I went off on holiday to Ireland with my family. I asked Marie what she was doing in the next couple of months and she said she was going back to Libya. It seemed a miserable way to spend the summer, and I said, "Don't do that. Why don't come to stay with us in Ireland instead?" She had been to stay before, but I did not really expect her to say yes, and was not surprised when she said that, nice though the idea of Ireland was, she was determined to return to Libya to report the rebellion.

I thought the war was stalemated for the moment and going nowhere, but Marie turned out to be right. By the end of August I was breaking off my holiday, as were bevies of other foreign journalists, to rush to Tripoli rather late in the day after it had fallen to the rebels. I had lunch with Marie for the last time in the restaurant of the Radisson Hotel where we were staying. She was in an ebullient, happy mood, unaffected by spending uncomfortable dangerous weeks under shellfire during the siege of Misrata, though she said it was one of the more dangerous things she had ever done.

I first met Marie in the late 1980s and, in the coming years, there were months when I saw her almost every day when we happened to be in the same place. I found her exceptionally warm, intelligent, enthusiastic and funny, a person instantly likeable, who made friends wherever she went. She had great physical presence with her good looks and animated features, so when I recall her features now, five days after her death, it is her smiles and laughter that come first to mind.

Much of the time she was happy and made others happy with her great, almost uncontrollable appetite for living. Instinctively, she spent less time looking before she leapt than most people, both as a war reporter and in her personal life. It was an approach with obvious dangers in each case and meant that many of her friends led almost equally adventurous but unstable lives. I met her originally through David Blundy, my best friend during the 1980s, who had introduced her to The Sunday Times where she eventually took over his job as Middle East correspondent. He had joined another paper and was covering a civil war in El Salvador in 1989 when he was shot dead by a rebel sniper.

Marie was intrepid, determined and strong-willed. At the end of the first Gulf War in 1991, I drove with her from Baghdad to Basra where Saddam Hussein's tanks had just crushed a Shia uprising in the city. We were in her car, with her driver, who was called, so far as I remember, Abed. We drove into Basra down an ominously empty road on a raised earth embankment past wrecked and smouldering buildings. Abed, whom I had never seen react much to danger, began to tremble, then got out of the car to be sick behind a wall. I remember Marie expressing impatience and perplexity as to why he and I thought it might be time to turn back.

At that time, we shared a suite in the al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad where the lifts had failed and there was only a couple of hours' water a day. We filled the bathtub with water in case supply ceased entirely, and bought a rather lethal Primus stove to cook on, as well as a small bird in a cage whose health we worried about.

There are dangers in reporting wars other than the obvious ones of being killed or wounded. Most people can screw up their courage for a day or two in the face of being shelled or bombed, but it is far more difficult to do this for weeks on end. (Of course, local inhabitants are invariably in a worse condition because they have to watch their children endangered as well as themselves and they do not have the visas or the money to escape.) Marie got credit for doing dangerous things, but not enough for doing them for long periods. Again, this is sustainable, but the price is often a blunting of one's sensitivity, of simply not responding emotionally to misery and carnage. Marie, for all the violence she had seen, retained up to the end in Homs a sense of outrage at the sufferings of others.

I was in Jerusalem for over four years from 1995, where Marie had also moved. She was writing a biography of Yasser Arafat, with whom she got on extremely well, and living with Juan Carlos Gumucio, a Bolivian journalist of great talent working for the Spanish daily El Pais. I knew him from Beirut, where he had stayed during the terrifying years, when the few journalists who had not fled were being kidnapped and held hostage for years at a time by Hezbollah. He was the greatest fun to be with, so much fun, in fact, that it was easy to underestimate the fact that he was a man of excesses; a heavy drinker verging on alcoholism who suffered from bouts of emotional instability that he was unable, and did not try very hard, to control.

When Marie and Juan Carlos told me they were going to get married, I naively thought this was an excellent idea. I mentioned this to Val Vester, the owner of the American Colony Hotel, who said firmly that it was a disastrous plan, since they were too much alike and unlikely to be a restraining influence on each other. Her prediction turned out to be all too true. They moved to London where Juan Carlos subsided into alcoholism, parted from Marie, lost his job, returned to Bolivia and shot himself.

Marie received more well-meant advice, politely received and almost invariably ignored, than anybody I know. She did so because she had an extraordinarily wide range of friends who felt strongly about her well-being. They ranged from Kurdish warlords to London socialites to Baghdad taxi drivers. The advice, whatever its source, was almost invariably to the effect that Marie should not go to some violent place where she had every intention of going. There was no great mystery as to why she did. She was fulfilled when reporting wars, felt it was important to do so, and was very good at it.

She had no death wish – in fact, I have seldom met any body more in love with life – but, with her high intelligence, she must have known that death was a price that at any moment she might have to pay.

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