I was struck by the story on Feb. 22 that American war correspondent Marie Colvin, along with her French photographer Remi Ochlik, 28, were killed while attempting to flee from an unofficial media building that was being shelled by the Syrian Army.
Colvin, 56, was reporting for The Sunday Times from the western city of Homs on the uprising in violence by the Syrian government upon its civilian population.
I’m not particularly familiar with Colvin’s work, but something about her death stayed with me past the general morbid curiosity surrounding what happens to people placed in a war zone with only a pen to defend themselves.
I too am guilty of being desensitized to the deaths of those working in hostile destinations overseas. While I appreciate their sacrifices, there is such a high level of tragic violence every day in America and abroad, that unfortunate incidences like Ms. Colvin’s demise are met with a, “Wow, that’s awful,” and then I move on with my day.
Yet here I am two weeks later still pondering Marie Colvin. I keep thinking about the specifics of how she died; the harrowing path Colvin traveled to get into Syria; that she doubled down by returning after having exited the country safely; and balancing all that with how desperately the Syrian people needed journalists like Colvin to get the word out about what was truly happening there.
War correspondents, like the soldiers they cover, put themselves in harm’s way. It’s not shocking that fatalities befall those in this chosen career path.
Much like doctors and medics servicing the injured on the field of battle – proximity to the action is required to do their job well, and every so often the enemy disregards that red cross before shooting.
War correspondents aren’t issued weapons with their iPads, but often there is some sense of a buffer, like the Green Zone in Iraq, where coverage of a conflict may be recorded with a modimum of safety.
The problem for Colvin and all the correspondents in Syria is the government issued orders to aim at the proverbial “red cross” on the backs of all journalists.
Syria’s internal violence stems from a wider wave of revolutionary upheaval going on in the Arab nations of the Middle East, referred to as the “Arab Spring.” This awakening began in December 2010, and consists of demonstrations and protests, that in Syria’s case pertain to demands for the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad, the overthrow of his government, and an end to nearly five decades of Ba’ath Party rule.
The Syrian army was deployed to quell the uprisings and has laid siege to several cities. The government spun a story that they were only attacking armed gangs, but the statistics show a different tale.
According to the U.N. and other sources, deaths range between 7,500 to 11,000, primarily of protesters, with over 400 children having died. Reports are circulating from witnesses that soldiers in the Syrian army refusing to open fire on civilians are being summarily executed. Tens of thousands have been imprisoned, and an estimated 1,000 prisoners, including children, have died from torture after being arrested.
Colvin set the scene in a phone interview with Anderson Cooper on CNN only hours before she was killed, where she reported from a neighborhood in the city of Homs that every civilian house on the street had been hit and that no military targets were near. Colvin added that the city was under constant shelling, and the idea that the Syrian army was only going after terrorist was a lie.
On the telecast there was riveting video of a two-year-old baby that had been killed in an attack on another home and Colvin had witnessed the child die.
I was left with this chilling quote: “It’s a complete and utter lie they’re only going after terrorists. The Syrian Army is simply shelling a city of cold, starving civilians,” Colvin said.
Why countries and governments feel the need to bully their people is anyone’s guess. In this instance we know the Syrian government didn’t want the world to see what it was doing because it banned western journalists.
We’re not talking about a country defending itself from outside attacks or even internal terrorism. These are citizens who are unhappy with their government and want the right to change it.
They hunger for democracy.
Instead of holding an election and risk losing, the Syrian government is slaughtering its citizens, an act so cold and cowardly that it demands attention from outside nations.
This is what Marie Colvin brought to the table.
Do or die situations in a hostile foreign country – when everyone else is running away, Marie Colvin was running back into the mortar fire to tell the story.
“I entered Homs on a smugglers’ route, which I promised not to reveal, climbing over walls in the dark and slipping into muddy trenches,” Colvin wrote in an article published by The Sunday Times on Feb. 19.
She knew the dangers.
Colvin’s colleague, Jean-Pierre Perrin, with the Paris-based Liberation newspaper, had been with Colvin the week before in Homs and told London’s Telegraph that the Syrian Army issued orders to kill any journalist that set foot on Syrian soil.
“A few days ago we were advised to leave the city urgently and told: ‘If they find you they will kill you,'” said Perrin. “I then left the city with the journalist from The Sunday Times but then she wanted to go back when she saw that the major offensive had not yet taken place.”
Prior to her death, Colvin appeared via satellite phone on several international programs including BBC and CNN, to describe the merciless and indiscriminate shelling and sniper attacks against civilian buildings and people on the streets of Homs by forces under the control of Bashar al-Assad.
At first it was believed the two journalists were killed by similar shelling on the makeshift media center where they sought shelter during the Homs battle.
It has since been learned through communication between Syrian Army officers, intercepted by Lebanese intelligence staff, that direct orders were issued to target the media center in which Colvin had been broadcasting, using the satellite phone signal to pinpoint her location.
If the journalists were successfully killed, then the Syrians were told to make it look as if they had died accidentally in a firefight with terrorists, radio traffic revealed.
Colvin was known for her eye-patch, which she wore after losing sight in her left eye from a rocket-propelled grenade attack while reporting on the Sri Lankan Civil War in 2001.
“Marie had fearlessly covered wars across the Middle East and south Asia for 25 years for The Sunday Times,” said Rupert Murdoch, News Corp. chairman and owner of The Sunday Times in a prepared statement. “She put her life in danger on many occasions because she was driven by a determination that the misdeeds of tyrants and the suffering of the victims did not go unreported.”
The commitment by Colvin to a calling that neither guaranteed riches nor a favorable result is unique. This type of selfless leadership is absent in our current charged political climate, where nothing gets done without some ulterior agenda.
Colvin took matters into her own hands and left the political conjecture behind to source her own facts of injustice and allow the public to decide.
This was no tired sports cliché about how tough the battle would be in the trenches. She literally placed her life on the line for what she believed to be important, and to tell the story of those who were being needlessly slaughtered when no one else would do the job.
As I read more about Marie Colvin I consciously felt the void left behind by this amazing person, and couldn’t help but feel the world was a lesser place without her in it.
Thank you for what you did. Rest now and let others try to pick up where you left off.