Last Updated : 22-08-2014 06:44

 
 

MARIE COLVIN: THE UNCROWNED QUEEN OF INTREPID JOURNALISTS

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It was with a deep sense of sadness that I read about the death of Marie Catherine Colvin the respected war correspondent of Britain's "Sunday Times" 22nd along with a French photojournalist Remi Ochlik in Syria on February.

Both were at Baba Amr, a suburb of the besieged city of Homs, when the house in which they had been staying came under  artillery shelling "As they tried to escape the building, Colvin and Ochlik were hit by a rocket and killed,'' a statement issued by the "Sunday Times" said.A Syrian photo journalist was also killed in the attack.

"Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind" sang John Donne the great metaphysical poet. The death of Marie Colvin diminishes the world of intrepid journalism. A world where she was undoubtedly the uncrowned queen.

Marie Colvin made her mark as a journalist in Britain but was by birth an American.She was a frontline warrior for truth in journalism. Infused with a sense of daring and a zest for adventure Marie ventured into the troubled hotspots of the globe. She defied authoritarian regimes by circumventing controls and barriers and infiltrating war zones.

Some compare Marie Colvin with the legendary Martha Gellhorn  the legendary woman war correspondent who covered many wars and battles for several decades always keeping the plight of the affected civilians as her focus. Martha incidentally was married for a few years to Ernest Hemingway. Martha and Marie were friends.

It is said of war correspondents that they have to "Get in, Get it and Get out". Marie did just that in many conflict zones from Chechnya to Bosnia ,From Sri Lanka to Syria. In Sri Lanka she lost an eye but in Syria she lost her life. She got in, got it but couldn't get out.

To her credit it must be said that she had the option of leaving like many other scribes but opted to stay on and report the travails of ordinary civilians in war situations. One of her final reports was a first person account of seeing a baby die.

DISTRESSING

At a personal level her death is distressing  to me because  I was acquainted with her , communicating  intermittently   on the telephone and exchanging a few e-mails over a period of eleven years. I have never met her in person something I regret very much.

She was an ebullient, refreshingly candid person with a lively  sense of humour.Marie  had an insatiable curiosity about many things. I admired her greatly for her courage, passion and devotion to reporting. Above all I recognized a kindred spirit in her empathy for the perceived underdog.

I don't know whether it is in my blood or in my stars but I have been fascinated by writers, poets and journalists since childhood. One of my earliest heroes or heroines was Dickey Chappelle born as Georgette Louise Meyer. I first became aware of her when I read the  condensed version of her book "What's a woman doing here"? in the Readers Digest. Later on I read the whole book.
Dickey covered the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa during world war 2. Later she was jailed in Budapest when she covered the Hungarian uprising of 1956. She gained fame by covering the Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro which overthrew Batista. She died in 1965 in Vietnam  while trekking with a military patrol when shrapnel from an exploding booby trap struck her neck inflicting fatal injury.

I think Dickey Chappelle and Marie Colvin were of the same ilk and met their deaths while engaged in the pursuit of news. They died with their boots on.

Unlike Dickey Chappelle, Marie Colvin played a role in Sri Lankan affairs.

SRI LANKA

 In April 2001 she was in Sri Lanka and had an appointment on April 4th  with the then foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar for an interview. In the meantime she tried to get official permission to go to the Wanni for an interview with Suppiah Paramu Thamilselvan, the political commissar of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eela(LTTE) at that time.

As was the norm then she was denied permission as the LTTE controlled Wanni was a "no go zone" for foreign correspondents. But Marie managed to get around that hitch by clandestinely infiltrating the Wanni through a jungle route north of Vavuniya with the help of the Tigers. She failed to turn up for the scheduled interview with Kadirgamar.

She filed reports for her paper while in the Wanni. This included the Thamilselvan interview. The Colombo establishment realised that Marie Colvin had defied their restrictions and gone into forbidden territory.

At that time the Government declared a five day ceasefire to coincide with the Sinhala-Tamil New Year in mid- April. Marie Colvin utilised the ceasefire to re-enter Govt controlled areas. When she accompanied a group of people entering through the checkpoint at Parayanaalankulam on the Vavuniya-Mannar road there was an unexpected skirmish in which   a grenade was flung at her. She was injured and lost blood. Her eyesight was impaired.

The British High Commission intervened and got her medically attended to at Vavuniya military hospital. After surgery she was flown out to Colombo and then out from the country. Her commitment to get the story out was such that Marie Colvin filed a despatch of 3000 words to London from her hospital bed.

"One-Eyed Jill"

It was the Sri Lankan incident that resulted in her losing an eye. She wore a black eye patch after that. It became her defining image and friends referred to her in lighter vein as "one -eyed Jill" as opposed to "one-eyed Jack "played by Marlon Brando.

Marie interacted with Sri Lanka again during the last days of the war in May 2009. She interviewed LTTE political wing head Nadesan on the phone and wrote an article about the pathetic predicament of entrapped civilians in the Mullivaaikkaal area.
She also played an "extra-journalistic role" in trying to help arrange the safe surrender of some senior LTTE personalities and around 2000 civilians. She woke up the UN chief of Staff , Vijay Nambiar at midnight and obtained an assurance from him  on the matter. That characteristic humane effort by her proved unsuccessful in the end.

The life and work of Marie Colvin is multi-faceted and a manifestation of exemplary bravery and commitment. It was by her on the spot reporting of events that contradicted the official version that she spoke truth to power.

Her life was a remarkable saga worth recounting. Let me present therefore some excerpts from an obituary that appeared in the London Telegraph. Here are the relevant excerpts -

"Marie Colvin did not put her life on the line to win acclaim. Instead it was by being in the line of fire, by sharing the risks of those she was writing about, that she was able to produce her immensely powerful coverage of conflict's human toll.
CIVILIANS

She was doing precisely this when she was killed, telling the world of indiscriminate government shelling of "a city of cold, starving civilians". Her eyewitness accounts were broadcast on CNN or the BBC because, though a staff reporter of more than 20 years' standing for The Sunday Times, she was - as usual - the last journalist not to have fled.

Such dedication and proximity infused her coverage with emotion. In Syria, she said government forces were committing "murder" and she described how she had witnessed a baby die from shrapnel wounds. She was never mawkish, but nor was she minded to stand idly by and witness massacres.

In East Timor in 1999, for example, as Indonesian troops closed in on a United Nations compound in Dili where 1,500 people had taken shelter, the UN wanted to pull out and leave the refugees to their fate. Marie Colvin and two other female journalists remained in place, defying the UN, and the world, to do nothing.

Eventually, shamed by the courage of the reporters, Indonesian forces allowed the refugees to leave and the international community stepped in. Marie Colvin's presence had undoubtedly helped save many hundreds of lives.
OYSTER BAY

Marie Catherine Colvin was born on January 12 1956 in Oyster Bay, New York, to William and Rosemarie Colvin, both schoolteachers. Her father was a former US marine who had served in Korea, and he eventually gave up teaching to become a political activist for the Kennedy Democrats.

Marie, who attended Oyster Bay High School and had an idyllic childhood on the Long Island seaside, soon demonstrated a campaigning nature too. To the disgruntlement of many conservative locals, she organised an anti-Vietnam demonstration in the streets of Oyster Bay, then created minor mayhem by designating her family home's front yard an ecological recycling zone.

She studied American Literature at Yale, where she got her first taste of journalism by working for a university newspaper. After graduating she began her career in unorthodox fashion by taking a job on the in-house magazine of the Teamsters union. Named "acting editor", she eventually asked when the permanent incumbent would be coming back. Taken aside, she was gently informed that he would be away for five years, less with good behaviour.

Moving to the press agency UPI, she was appointed to its bureau in Trenton, New Jersey. Finding it desperately drab, she based herself in the West Village of Manhattan and commuted to work, demonstrating a commitment to enjoying herself that endured as long as her compulsion to report.

Her urge above all, however, was to become a foreign correspondent. She swiftly convinced UPI to promote her to the Paris bureau, where her dash, good looks and dark curls soon won her a host of admirers.

Her break came in 1986, when she was in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, as America launched its biggest aerial attack since Vietnam. Filing copy while scrambling to avoid the explosions, she set a pattern that would last the rest of her career.
GADDAFI

It was while there she was summoned to meet the Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, and over the next quarter of a century she frequently met him, as well as many other political leaders and despots. But a peculiar effect of her beguiling character and her journalistic talent was that tyrants were charmed by her, and sought her out, even as she eviscerated them in print. Last year she published an account of her encounters with the late Libyan leader over 25 years. It was entitled "Mad Dog and Me".

While in Libya in 1986 she began freelancing for The Sunday Times, which soon lured her over full time to become its Middle East correspondent. Her exploits quickly attracted the attention and envy of less bold colleagues - a broad category.

 During the Iran-Iraq war, for instance, she smuggled herself in disguise into Basra, a city then completely closed off. In 1987 she reported from Bourj el Barajneh, the Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, which was under fire from the Syrian-backed Amal militia.

There she met Pauline Cutting, a British surgeon who was a lone medical hero amid the carnage. The story was typical of Marie Colvin - illustrating a fearsomely complex conflict by finding the most dramatic, personal, story at its heart.

At the same time she met and married The Daily Telegraph's Middle East correspondent, Patrick Bishop, and they lived together in Jerusalem from the early 1990s. It was not a union based on typical domesticated bliss. While Marie Colvin might be reporting from Baghdad on the aftermath of the first Gulf War, Bishop might be covering the wars that erupted in the Balkans (where he was himself wounded).

BRAVERY

Marie Colvin herself reported from Kosovo, and freely admitted that she constantly weighed "bravery against bravado". Around the turn of the century that balancing act took her closer to the edge than ever. First, in 1999, she scored her dramatic triumph in East Timor. Then, while the world was celebrating the new millennium, she appeared to have pushed things too far in Chechnya.

Based with Chechen rebels as Russian troops cut off all escape, she found that the only route out was a 12,000ft mountain pass to Georgia. During an eight-day midwinter journey she waded through chest-high snow and braved altitude sickness, hunger and exposure. Bishop set off from Paris to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, where, together with her Sunday Times colleague Jon Swain, he helped organise a helicopter from the US embassy to pluck her off the mountainside to safety. As Marie Colvin wrote: "I was never happier to have an American passport."

She did not often require such assistance. And her time in Chechnya did not make her change her ways. Instead she was soon in Sri Lanka, as ever heading into rebel - this time Tamil Tiger - territory. As she tried to cross the front line back into government-held ground, she was hit by shrapnel in four places. Despite specialist surgery, she lost the use of her left eye and afterwards wore a patch.

She promised that she would take things easier. But that was always unlikely. And as the US-led invasion of Iraq triggered the most dramatic events in the Middle East for decades, remaining on the sidelines became impossible.
BAGHDAD

Soon she was back in the thick of things in Baghdad. There, as ever, she frayed editors' nerves not only with her derring-do, but by filing her stories up to and far beyond deadline. Her copy was well worth waiting for, but the price to pay could be high.
 On one occasion in Iraq, her satellite phone link was not properly shut down and remained open overnight. It was never quite clear who was to blame, but to the amusement of other journalists, if not her paper, the bill ran to more than $20,000.

Like many journalists who covered the Middle East, Marie Colvin welcomed the optimism of the Arab Spring. Though she knew that it would not effect an overnight transformation, she was compelled to see it through; where cynicism had blunted the determination of so many of her contemporaries, she remained unwearied. Agonizingly, for those who knew and loved her, however, that meant the nature of her death had a certain inevitability about it.

Marie Colvin, of course, did not see it that way. She loved life, and brought an American exuberance to the countless parties she graced over many years. From the Gandamak Lodge in Kabul to Harry's Bar in Paris, she could be found at the heart of the conversation, cigarette and brimming vodka martini in hand. Sitting under the date palm in the garden of the American Colony in East Jerusalem, she would preside over the chatter and laughter as the balmy nights stretched on.

SAILING

Apart from reporting, she loved sailing. As a young woman she had worked at the local yacht club to save enough to buy her first boat and in recent years had revived her passion for the sport, buying a new craft and gaining a skipper's licence between assignments. Those assignments no doubt contributed to her eventual separation from Bishop, and from Juan Carlos Gumucio, her second husband, who predeceased her. But all who knew her remained devoted to her.

She is survived by Patrick Bishop and by her partner of recent years, Richard Flaye, whom she met while sailing".
The "Telegraph" obituary sums up the essence of  Marie Colvin's life and times but I want to conclude by posing the question -"Why do journalists risk danger and even  lives by doing what they do". Why do war correspondents undergo such hazards to get the "story" or picture?

I want to let Marie Colvin herself answer it by reproducing an address by her in November 2010. It was at St.Brides Church in London at a special service of Thanksgiving and remembrance for all Journalists and staff  who passed away in the line of duty in war zones.

The gathering consisted of many leading notables in the journalistic profession and also her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cornwall.

ADDRESS

Marie Colvin's address on that day is in a sense the best tribute to herself.Her words, given below, explain the motivation of the war correspondent and the importance of the job they do.

In another sense it also applies to dedicated and courageous journalists in all spheres who report the truth and by doing so "speak truth to power". Why do some journalists dare to offend powerful entities and personalities thereby risking and facing  danger, death, assault, intimidation, imprisonment, disappearance, vilification, character assassination, threats etc . Why do they "do what they do" in the line of duty?

Marie Colvin's explanation in her address about war correspondents answers to some extent the wider questions regarding those members of the fourth estate who regard their profession as a sacred vocation and willingly risk danger in pursuance of it .Here is her address -

"Your Royal Highness, ladies and gentlemen,

 I am honoured and humbled to be speaking to you at this service tonight to remember the journalists and their support staff who gave their lives to report from the war zones of the 21st Century. I have been a war correspondent for most of my professional life. It has always been a hard calling. But the need for front line, objective reporting has never been more compelling.

PROPAGANDA

Covering a war means going to places torn by chaos, destruction, and death, and trying to bear witness. It means trying to find the truth in a sandstorm of propaganda when armies, tribes or terrorists clash. And yes, it means taking risks, not just for yourself but often for the people who work closely with you.

Despite all the videos you see from the Ministry of Defence or the Pentagon, and all the sanitised language describing smart bombs and pinpoint strikes, the scene on the ground has remained remarkably the same for hundreds of years. Craters. Burned houses. Mutilated bodies. Women weeping for children and husbands. Men for their wives, mother's children.

Our mission is to report these horrors of war with accuracy and without prejudice. We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story. What is bravery, and what is bravado?

Journalists covering combat shoulder great responsibilities and face difficult choices. Sometimes they pay the ultimate price. Tonight we honour the 49 journalists and support staff who were killed bringing the news to our shores.

We also remember journalists around the world who have been wounded, maimed or kidnapped and held hostage for months. It has never been more dangerous to be a war correspondent, because the journalist in the combat zone has become a prime target.

I lost my eye in an ambush in the Sri Lankan civil war. I had gone to the northern Tamil area from which journalists were banned and found an unreported humanitarian disaster. As I was smuggled back across the internal border, a soldier launched a grenade at me and the shrapnel sliced into my face and chest. He knew what he was doing.

AFGHANISTAN

Just last week, I had a coffee in Afghanistan with a photographer friend, Joao Silva. We talked about the terror one feels and must contain when patrolling on an embed with the armed forces through fields and villages in Afghanistan ... putting one foot in front of the other, steeling yourself each step for the blast. The expectation of that blast is the stuff of nightmares. Two days after our meeting Joao stepped on a mine and lost both legs at the knee.

Many of you here must have asked yourselves, or be asking yourselves now, is it worth the cost in lives, heartbreak, loss? Can we really make a difference?

I faced that question when I was injured. In fact one paper ran a headline saying, has Marie Colvin gone too far this time? My answer then, and now, was that it is worth it.

Today in this church are friends, colleagues and families who know exactly what I am talking about, and bear the cost of those experiences, as do their families and loved ones.

Today we must also remember how important it is that news organisations continue to invest in sending us out at great cost, both financial and emotional, to cover stories.

TRUTH TO POWER

We go to remote war zones to report what is happening. The public have a right to know what our government, and our armed forces, are doing in our name. Our mission is to speak the truth to power. We send home that first rough draft of history. We can and do make a difference in exposing the horrors of war and especially the atrocities that befall civilians.

The history of our profession is one to be proud of. The first war correspondent in the modern era was William Howard Russell of The Times, who was sent to cover the Crimean conflict when a British-led coalition fought an invading Russian army.
Billy Russell, as the troops called him, created a firestorm of public indignation back home by revealing inadequate equipment, scandalous treatment of the wounded, especially when they were repatriated - does this sound familiar? - and an incompetent high command that led to the folly of the Charge of the Light Brigade.

It was a breakthrough in war reporting. Until then, wars were reported by junior officers who sent back dispatches to newspapers. Billy Russell went to war with an open mind, a telescope, a notebook and a bottle of brandy. I first went to war with a typewriter, and learned to tap out a telex tape. It could take days to get from the front to a telephone or telex machine.

WAR REPORTING

War reporting has changed greatly in just the last few years. Now we go to war with a satellite phone, laptop, video camera and a flak jacket. I point my satellite phone to South Southwest in Afghanistan, press a button and I have filed.

In an age of 24/7 rolling news, blogs and twitters, 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. You can't get that information without going to places where people are being shot at, and others are shooting at you.

 The real difficulty is having enough faith in humanity to believe that enough people be they government, military or the man on the street, will care when your file reaches the printed page, the website or the TV screen.

We do have that faith because we believe we do make a difference.

And we could not make that difference - or begin to do our job - without the fixers, drivers, and translators, who face the same risks and die in appalling numbers. Today we honour them as much as the front line journalists who have died in pursuit of the truth. They have kept the faith as we who remain must continue to do."(ENDS)

DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at
djeyaraj2005@yahoo.com


 
 

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