Weird Wednesdays: Marie Colvin

Marie Colvin never wanted to be a journalist.  

 

(Financial Times)

She started off as an anthropology major at Yale University in 1974, but in only her third year, she started working as a reporter for the university’s student newspaper, the Yale Daily News. Being how kudzu-esque one’s involvement at a student publication tends to become, and being the type of individual whom is susceptible to that sort of thing, Marie changed course on her career path. Without changing her major — “There was no time” she wrote in her senior column — Colvin made a name for herself as a formidable reporter. She smoked heavily, made a lot of noise on campus and took on a job at United Press International a year after graduating.

News is a chaotic beastie, no matter what subject you’re covering. (I myself have seen some Town Council meetings turn very nasty.) But Colvin, with her motto of “throw yourself in head first,” dove into the most chaotic realm of all: War. 

In 1985, she started working for The Sunday Times as a war correspondent, hunkering down in the trenches and watching the utter destruction and violence war wrought. She covered conflicts in the Middle East, getting Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi on the record and dodging Telex censors by sending coded messages to her colleagues about the horrors she observed.  

In 1999, Colvin was neck-deep in the East Timorese crisis, in which East Timor citizens voted to secede from Indonesia. Violence erupted as Indonesia invaded, and over 1,000 civilians died in the fallout. Stranded in the middle of chaos with only unarmed United Nations aides, Colvin watched 22 other war correspondents flee the scene. (https://www.theguardian.com/media/2012/feb/22/marie-colvin

 

“They don’t make men like they used to,” she noted, unmoving. (https://cja.org/what-we-do/litigation/colvin-v-syria/marie-colvin/) Unlike the others, she stayed behind and reported on the refugees’ plight. She is now credited with bringing about the group’s evacuation four days later. 

 

In 2001, while covering the Sri Lankan civil war, she was struck by shrapnel from a Sri Lankan army RPG, losing an eye and her hearing the the process. The army shot at her, even as she yelled to them that she was a journalist. Despite her injuries, she still met her deadline, writing a 30,000-word story about how journalists were being banned from Northern Tamil as human atrocities were happening every day. (Now complain about you term paper due on Friday.)

Ever undaunted, she was back on the job upon recovery — sporting not a glass eye when she returned but instead an eyepatch.

She would often go reporting alone, for fear of endangering those around her. Nevertheless, she persisted, staying close to her subjects, which were often those affected by the war most — women and children.  

“[You] go in bare,” she told the American Journalism review in 2000. “And eat what they eat, drink what they drink, sleep where they sleep.” 

Despite her coverage, Marie never had any children of her own, perhaps out of a lack of desire or fear of what could happen to them if they were used as leverage by her enemies.  

Covering war doesn’t come without a price, though. Colvin reportedly drank heavily and smoked 20 cigarettes a day. In 2004, she was diagnosed with PTSD; she watched countless civilians, with no hand or stakes in the conflict that raged around them, die from gunshot wounds and bombings. She saw lives, homes and families destroyed. Her body itself was riddled with shrapnel; doctors told her there was a bit of metal from the Sri Lankan rocket in her head that could never be removed.

War is glamorized. Reporting about war perhaps even more so. But the erality is much more grave. 

“Covering a war means going to places torn by chaos, destruction, and death. ... It means trying to find the truth in a sandstorm of propaganda when armies, tribes or terrorists clash,” Colvin once said at a 2010 memorial to fallen journalists.“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." 

War is ultimately what killed her.  

In February 2012, dozens of terrified Syrian women and children were crowded in what’s called a ‘widow’s basement’ — a bunker of beds and supplies meant to serve as a shelter for civilians — as two weeks of bombardment by the army shattered their home city of Homs. Colvin was with them, doing what she did best — reporting. With her was a French photographer Rémi Olchik, a veteran of battlefield reporting.  

When she was done, the pair retreated to a makeshift press building. Colvin removed her shoes before entering.  

It was a few minutes later when the first shell hit, destroying the top floor. A few moments later, the second one landed — a few feet away from the journalist, who was scrambling to retrieve her shoes.

Both her and Rémi perished in the attack, which Colvin’s mother said was orchestrated by the Syrian government for her unflattering reports of the horrors they wrought. The government ended up being ordered by courts to pay $302 million for their hand in her death.

She was 56.  

I can’t say much more about this woman that wouldn’t sound trite. I’ve written about everything from hagfish to chicken-powered nuclear detonators, from Nellie Bly to Hunter S. Thompson, but this woman leaves me at a loss for words. She gave her life for the truth, something I’ve tried to strive for over these past four years. Instead, I’ll leave you with this quote from her.  

“In an age of 24/7 rolling news, blogs and Twitters, we are on constant call wherever we are,” Colvin said. “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.” 

Thank you for reading my last article, dear readers, and for keeping up with Weird Wednesdays for all this time. This column is my baby, and I hope it has brought as much joy, knowledge and amazement to you as it has me these past three years. Stay courageous, readers. And stay weird. Good night.


Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.