LONDON (Reuters) - Marie Colvin’s final dispatch, published just three days before she and a French photographer were killed by shell and rocket fire, came from a bleak cellar packed with women and children cowering in the besieged Syrian city of Homs.
Relating the stories of those sheltering in what she called ‘the widows’ basement’, Colvin explained how she had made her way to the pulverised city by crossing into Syria from Lebanon via a secret smugglers’ route. The forces of President Bashar al-Assad had opened fire twice with machine guns and rocket propelled grenades on the car she used to get there, she said.
But the focus of her final article in Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper was not her own fate but that of the Syrian people.
“The scale of the human tragedy in the city is immense,” she wrote. “Everyone in the cellar has a similar story of hardship or death.” On all the Syrian civilians’ lips around her, she added, was the searing question: “Why have we been abandoned by the world?”
Born in Long Island, New York, in the mid 1950s, Colvin, was famous among her peers for her determination. A graduate of Yale University, she made it her cause to try to cover every war zone in the world during the last quarter of a century and, if possible, to get there first. She also had a reputation for exceptional bravery and for taking calculated risks.
Colvin began working for Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper in 1985 and went on to brave conflicts from the Middle East to Chechnya, taking big risks to expose the often hard-to-get stories of atrocities, injustice, and human suffering that some of the world’s bloodiest dictators would have preferred remained untold.
It was physically and psychologically bruising.
She was injured while reporting in the West Bank during the 1980s when a stone thrown through the window of a car hit her in the face and broke her nose. In Sri Lanka more than a decade later, a hand grenade that went off nearby left her without the use of her left eye.
Rather than get a prosthetic eye, she wore a piratical black eye patch over it. It was a decision that made her instantly recognisable in the world’s war zones and the patch became a symbol of her courage.
Her friends say she was always superb company despite constant exposure to trauma around the world. She revelled in mischievous humour and reeling off incredible anecdotes.
“As the tributes to Marie pour in, you’ll hear many amazing things about her,” Mark Franchetti, a Sunday Times colleague who has known her since 1995, told Reuters. “They’re all true. Not only was she truly the best and most fearless war reporter in British journalism of her generation, hands down, she was also a deeply special human being.”
Colvin set out her philosophy of war reporting in a memorial service for journalists killed in conflict zones in 2010.
“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,” she said.
She made it clear she knew the risks.
“We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story,” she told the audience at St Bride‘s, the journalists’ church on London’s Fleet Street. “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. But war reporting is still essentially the same - someone has to go there and see what is happening,” she said.
A resident of West London, Colvin cut a glamorous and life-affirming figure, equally at ease mingling in London high society as she was hunkering down among refugees. Blessed with a rich contacts book that she often exploited to devastating journalistic effect, she was a doyenne of the small international war reporters’ fraternity.
Her fearless approach won her a clutch of awards.
Among them was the Woman Journalist of the Year prize at the 2010 Foreign Press Association in London, which she won for a story headlined “Swift and Bloody: the Taliban’s revenge”.
She also won the Courage in Journalism award from the International Women’s Media Foundation in 2000 for her behind-the lines work in Chechnya and Kosovo.
In one notable incident in Chechnya, she and a photographer found themselves trapped by Russian forces and pulled off a daring escape over the mountains to neighbouring Georgia.
Before she entered Syria to write what would turn out to be her last story, she told a friend that she had an “ominous feeling” about the dangerous assignment.
A chorus of tributes honouring her poured in from around the world on Wednesday. British Prime Minister David Cameron said her death was a sad reminder of the risks journalists take, Sunday Times editor John Witherow recalled that nothing ever seemed to deter Colvin, and Rupert Murdoch, her newspaper’s proprietor, called her “one of the most outstanding foreign correspondents of her generation.”
Additional reporting by Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Peter Millership and Peter Graff