A Tribute to Marie Colvin
In May, 2003, I travelled around Iraq reporting on its oil industry. Before reaching Baghdad, I got in touch with Marie Colvin, who was there covering the war and its aftermath for the Sunday Times, where I worked from 1986 to
1993. She wrote back to say that she was staying at a hunt club in the neighborhood of Mansour: the temporary headquarters of Ahmad Chalabi, the controversial Iraqi exile, darling of the neocons.
I didn’t know where Mansour was, and the idea of a hunt club in the middle of Baghdad struck me as a bit bizarre. But the news that Marie was staying there didn’t shock me. If she’d said she was hiding out with Saddam Hussein and his son Uday, I wouldn’t have been overly surprised.
It turned out that the hunt club was pretty well known. Before the war, which had only been finished a few weeks, Uday, or one of his brothers, had had some sort of connection with it. When I arrived, there was nobody about except a few of Chalabi’s heavily armed guards. I told one of them that I had come to see Marie. He said she was in the garden and led me through the building and into a nicely maintained half acre, with flower beds, a patio, and a huge stone head of Saddam, which had been removed from a statue. We walked down a path to a small brick building, which looked a bit like an oversized garden shed, and knocked on the door. Marie opened it.
As I recall, it was one room with a cot in one corner and a sink in another. Along a wall, next to the window, there was a chair, a table, a laptop computer, and a bottle of Scotch. There might have been a small stove; I can’t remember. Marie said cheerfully that until she moved in, Chalabi’s guards had been using the space to interrogate former members of Saddam’s regime about the whereabouts of W.M.D. and other matters. I said I hoped they’d finished, and she said they had; nobody bothered her here.
It was like a scene from a Graham Greene novel. Marie, except for the fact she was female, was very much a Greene character: wry, nicotine stained, almost ludicrously brave. By her standards this was a cushy assignment. Since before the war had started, she’d been travelling with Chalabi’s party. The exact details escape my mind. I think they’d been in Kurdistan for a time, and then, once Saddam fell, they came down to Baghdad. How long was she staying? She said she didn’t know. She never did. But it was sure to be a while.
As were many other reporters, Marie was on the trail of the W.M.D., which never turned up, and of Saddam, who did. By staying close to Chalabi, she was hoping to get a tipoff. She was also doing other stuff. The next day she was driving out to look at a mass grave, where some of Saddam’s victims were said to be buried. She asked if I wanted to go with her. I said I had urgent business—at the oil ministry.
After a while, Chalabi returned, and we had drinks in the garden with a couple of other reporters who’d shown up. It was a bizarrely sedate scene. Apart from Chalabi’s guards patrolling the garden perimeter with their AK-47s primed, and the calls to prayer from a nearby super-mosque that Saddam had built to appease his populace, we could have been virtually anywhere.
Marie was clearly on good terms with Chalabi and his honchos. She was never a press-office reporter. In the places she operated in—the Middle East, mainly—the only way to find out what was going on was to get to know the major players and win their confidence. Some whispered that she got too close to her sources. That was just jealous gossip. Working for nearly thirty years on a weekly paper that prides itself on making news, she was a one-woman scoop machine. And many of her biggest stories had nothing to do with playing the access game. From the besieged Burj el-Barajneh refugee camp in Lebanon during the late nineteen-eighties to the embattled streets of Homs, she somehow slipped into hellholes other journalists couldn’t or wouldn’t reach and told the world what was happening there.
She had scores of stories. Not that she volunteered them unless asked. This is one she told me. Years back in Tripoli, she got exclusive access to Qaddafi, who was then in his pomp. The night before the interview, some of the Libyan leader’s security personnel awoke her in her hotel room. They ushered in some nurses, who said they wanted to examine her, presumably for signs of infectious diseases. She shooed them away. The next day she did the interview, which overran its allotted time in the usual Middle East fashion. That night, or maybe it was the next night, the security men and nurses returned. This time they wanted to take blood. Marie decided it was time to return to London.
Then there were the times she was running through fields in Chechnya being strafed by Russian warplanes, and, in Sri Lanka, getting caught up in firefights with Tamil Tigers. It was there that she lost her eye. She didn’t talk about it much, but she hadn’t really wanted to go. It wasn’t her part of the world: she didn’t know the topography, the history, or the local characters. But when the foreign editor asked her to fill in and cover the story, she went.
The last time I saw her, she was swinging through New York to see her folks out in Oyster Bay and pick up a journalism award. She won lots of them, and, even after all her years in London, she remained enough of an American to take them reasonably seriously. Despite her tough-cookie exterior, she had never succumbed to the Fleet Street disease: cynicism. As the editor of the Sunday Times, John Witherow, said in a statement yesterday, she was “driven by a passion to cover wars in the belief that what she did mattered. She believed profoundly that reporting could curtail the excesses of brutal regimes and make the international community take notice. Above all, as we saw in her powerful report last weekend, her thoughts were with the victims of violence.”
Only Tuesday, in an interview with the BBC from Homs, she described the death of a young child from shrapnel wounds. I didn’t hear the report; I had no idea she was there. But when I saw the tragic news yesterday morning, I can’t honestly say I was surprised. Part of me believed Marie had nine lives and would die in her bed of old age. But that’s just something you tell yourself about friends who repeatedly put themselves in peril. On any objective scale, Marie was living dangerously. Of course she was in Homs. Where else would she have been?
As I drove to the ice rink with my wife and kids up here in Vermont, where we are spending a few days’ vacation, I thought about the choices we all make. Marie made hers many years ago, devoting her life to being a war correspondent. Everything else—her health, her family, her personal life—came second. Naturally, she sometimes thought of doing something else, something less crazy. At our last lunch, she spoke in her throaty-voiced way about the possibility of writing a book and dialing it back—maybe getting a gig at a think tank or a journalism school. I think we both knew she’d never do it. Many moons ago, she quit reporting for a while and spent a couple of years on the Sunday Times foreign desk, rewriting copy and managing other reporters. She nearly died of boredom.
Before very long, she was back on another plane, heading into another danger zone. “In an age of 24/7 rolling news, blogs and twitters, we are on constant call wherever we are,” she said in a 2010 speech. “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.”
We all have to die sometime. Marie died doing what she loved, what made her feel most alive, what turns journalism from a job into something bigger and more noble: a mission. It’s perhaps not much of a consolation to her many friends and her family, but it’s what happened.
Photograph by Dave M. Benett/Getty Images.