Marie Colvin chose journalism, not the front line. Almost by chance, though, she became a war reporter, a tag she disliked as all war reporters themselves: "I write about life at its most extreme," she explained. "That's all." But, as the American author and war correspondent Michael Herr has stated, "It's a known story. You cover a war, but in the end it's the war that covers you. The real war is not the one you see around you, but the one that is going on inside you. "
A turbulent existence with various love affairs – one more painful than the other – alcohol and partying around the clock, notoriously razor-sharp responses and not least the black patch over the left eye, Marie Colvin – who was the star journalist in The Sunday Times until she was killed in Homs in Syria February 22, 2012 – to a self-written protagonist in a book. She probably would have hated much of what has been written and said about her in recent years: the portrayal of a traumatized, adrenaline-addicted journalist who, with the men and the success of his life, longed for his father, who died suddenly of cancer. This book, however, is reason to believe she would have the sense. It omits nothing, not her vulnerability either. It says the only thing that makes sense: She knew where a story was, and she did everything to get it. Marie Colvin knew where she was going. She went there too, but always with a sense of how she had to act when she was first there – and what attitude she had to bring with her.
Interview with Gaddafi
At Yale, she was one of the students of John Hersey, the author behind Hiroshima (1946). From him she learned that journalism rather than being a matter of balance is a matter of truth. Her career really began with a stroke of luck: an interview with Muammar al-Gaddafi. In 1986, because of his support for terrorism, he was a very controversial figure, and he chose to talk to Colvin because she was young and pretty.
The most difficult thing, said Marie Colvin, is to convince yourself that someone will care about what you write.
Then it was no longer a question of being lucky – it was about talent, courage and much more. Not only was she brave enough to move to Beirut, which in 1986 was the most dangerous city in the world, but in secret she entered the defeated refugee camp Burj el Barajneh, where she stood cargo and burst with the civilians all the way to the Red Cross finally allowed to enter the camp, which eventually caught the eyes of the world. In 1999, she proceeded in the same way as she, along with other journalists, lived in a UN camp in East Timor that had been temporarily turned into a refuge for hundreds of displaced families. Threatened by attacks, both journalists and UN workers left the camp. But Colvin remained to report directly from the start of the attack – until the militias surrendered and withdrew. She covered all the great conflicts of our time – the intifada, the war in Kosovo, Chechnya, the Gulf wars – always with the same goal: Not just to be there, but to make a difference. Not just to witness, but to urge action.
New owners, new attitudes
War reporters often say: I am here so that no one can come afterwards and claim that they did not know what happened. Marie Colvin did not concentrate on the future, but on the present. It was not her readers she was present for, but the victims of the war. This gave her the strength to defy opposition and, more importantly, the fear of standing at the front line after everyone else had left. The most difficult thing, she said, is to convince yourself that someone is going to care about what you write. Colvin was fully aware that the Palestinians, Chechens and Kosovars she wrote about were not appreciated, not even by The Sunday Times, where she was a legend – much less when the media mogul Robert Murdoch bought the newspaper and introduced a number of changes. For the new editor-in-chief, Marie Colvin made no difference, she brought in money. Important stories or stories that competing newspapers did not get hold of were not so important. What mattered was that the journalist's life was at stake.
And then, when she decided to defy the defeat and again – via underground tunnels – got into Homs and delivered her latest report, written in a basement filled to the brim with women and children, or rather widows and orphans, the response was from the London desk: What's the point? It's the same story. And admittedly it was a story she had already told, but it is a story that is still going on. It's a story that has just begun.
Colvin knew it was only from that cellar, as in East Timor and Burj el Barajneh, when she reported directly during the exchange of fire among the civilians, that she could make a difference. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was also fully aware of this. He ordered that her phone be tracked, then her whereabouts be bombed.
In retrospect, it is easy to say that Colvin went to Homs to put another love affair behind her, or because she was an alcoholic, depressed, rootless – that what she really needed was a psychologist. But who needs a psychologist the most: a human being who stands in front of 500 corpses and is willing to do everything she can to report it, or all the others who continue as if nothing has happened?