In Extremis, The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin by Lindsey Hilsum
Marie Colvin is best remembered as the fearless reporter for the London-based newspaper, The Sunday Times, who wore an eye patch and sent back stories from the most dangerous places on the planet. She was known as a hard-drinking, hard-living journalist who strove to get the true story out to the public. It was this almost insane determination to get the scoop that eventually led to her death when she was killed in an airstrike in Syria in 2012. Lindsey Hilsum was a friend and fellow reporter who knew Colvin well.
Born on 12th January, 1956, to Irish-American parents, Marie was always different. She was very independent from the off, plotting her own path through life almost in defiance of the father who she idolised. Raised on Long Island, The Colvins were neither rich nor poor, but they had aspirations. Marie won a scholarship to Yale where she joined the local university paper, finding a taste for reporting that was to consume her life.
The story of Marie Colvin is a complex one, and this book is a substantial piece of work. It follows, as you would expect, Colvin’s life from childhood to when she first became a journalist. Along the way, we meet her friends and lovers, of which there were many. She worked for a union in New York City, which whetted her appetite for the rough and tumble of US politics. Working for the UPI news centre brought Marie to Europe where her addiction to overseas life began. It was in Paris that she gained a reputation as a strong and resourceful person with a fair approach to her management of the bureau there of which she was chief. It was also from there that she went to Morocco to cover a government story which led her in turn to receive an invite to Libya in 1986, and a meeting with the leader there, Colonel Gaddafi. It was to be a memorable encounter for Marie and not the last time she would meet with the exuberant and flamboyant Arab leader.
Her news scoops marked her out as a serious journalist capable of getting the stories few others could. It was then that she was to make the move to London in September 1986, to join the team of The Sunday Times. It was a post she was to hold for the following 26 years. During that time she consistently won awards for her reporting from trouble hot-spots. Marie was in Palestine, including Gaza, where she found great sympathy for the beleaguered Palestinian people. Jerusalem was to be her home for a time as she covered stories from across the Middle East. She visited Chechnya during the war there, getting trapped in a conflict zone and having to hike over the snow-laden Caucasus mountains to escape the danger. Her reports again stood out from those of her peers for their risks and insights.
She was in Beirut during the Israeli invasion in 1986, where she managed to gain access to a Palestinian refugee camp where civilians were being shot down by snipers from an Arab faction. Her coverage of what became known as The Path of Death gained international recognition and led to UN intervention thus saving countless lives. In Baghdad 1987, Marie managed to get into Basra, then under siege form Iranian forces during the Iran-Iraq War. Her reports and photos again made front page headlines.
As Colvin searched for and found the real stories across the globe, she befriended some fairly influential people along the way. One of them was the PLO leader, Yasser Arafat. She first met him Baghdad, during her war visit in 1987, but was to run into him countless other times over the years and became good friends with his wife. Her close association with the PLO leader did not go unnoticed in international circles. The New York Times commissioned a piece on him from Colvin and Marie refused to bow to Zionist pressures that portrayed him always as a terrorist. Marie was not averse to bigging up her (non-existent) Irish Republican credentials when meeting with either Arafat or Gaddafi in an effort to get ever closer. It seemed to work. She did what she had to to get the story.
It was in Sri Lanka, in April 2001, as Marie Colvin was trying to get out of the Tamil controlled area, that she suffered serious injuries from a grenade tossed at her by a Sri Lankan soldier. She was in that turbulent land to cover the atrocities being carried out by Sri Lankan forces against the Tamil minority. Marie had managed to get into the conflict zone, and got her story as usual, but it was the exit that caught her out. She lost her eye and with it a large piece of herself, emotionally. Reading this book, it seems as if Marie Colvin’s life, turbulent as it always was, took a serious downward spiral after her life-changing injury. Although the eye itself was saved, she had no vision in it, and wore a patch to prevent infection. It was to become her trademark, a rakish symbol for a daring go-getter. To her great credit, Marie didn’t allow the loss of sight in one eye to deter or even slow her down. It still got to her though, as you would expect.
When the Iraq war of 2003 finished, Marie Colvin was in Baghdad covering the ground events. She went to Fallujah to watch, as the bones of victims of a mass killing were dug up. It was Marie Colvin who exposed them to the world. But she was not at her best, still shaken from her ordeal in Sri Lanka. Her life was balanced precariously between being a reporter and burning out entirely. She was suffering from PTSD but either failed to recognise it or acknowledge it. She returned to Lebanon but her nerve was severely shaken. Yet she refused to quit, still getting the story that no one else could.
For a time, Colvin’s life seemed to be quieter as she took stock. Spending time in London, she managed to rebuild her confidence. She visited Iraq again and then covered the Arab Spring in both Tunisia and Egypt. She also went to Tripoli to interview Colonel Gaddafi, then under siege from NATO-backed forces. It was to be their last encounter as he was captured and killed shortly after. Marie seemed to be finding her feet again and handled the danger of Libya well. just like old times, the indefatigable Marie Colvin seemed to have returned.
In February, 2012, Marie made her way to the neighbourhood of Babr Amr, on the outskirts of Syria’s third largest city, Homs. It was to be a fateful decision. Although Marie made it into Babr Amr and got her scoop, and then managed to get out safely, she decided to return. It was then that the place where she was staying was targeted by Syrian forces, allegedly deliberately because of Marie’s earlier reports. Both Marie and French photographer, Rémi Ochlik, died from injuries sustained by shrapnel. A violent end to an illustrious career.
Rémi and Marie were buried in Babr Amr because getting their bodies out was impossible at that time. They were then dug up and re-interred a second time for safety. Eventually, with the assistance of the French Ambassador, both remains were removed from the Syrian soil and sent home on a French Air flight. On 12th March, 2012, Marie Colvin was buried at St Dominic’s Church in Oyster Bay, her hometown. Her funeral was attended by many dignitaries far and wide. Two memorial services were held in London and attended by the British Foreign Secretary, the head of MI6 as well as many of her friends and colleagues. This is the poem that was read when her ashes were scattered, at her request, on the Thames:
Exultation is the going
Exultation is the going
Of an inland soul to sea,
Past the house – past the headlands –
Into deep Eternity –
Bred as we, among the mountains,
Can the sailor understand
The divine intoxication
Of the first league out from land?
Marie Colvin was an amazing person. Her chaotic life left in its wake a string of husbands and both live-in and casual lovers. She seemed to be the archetypal feminist but still appeared to rely on one man or other to define her. She missed her father terribly and perhaps sought approval in the arms of many men, few if any of whom were good enough for her. Many artists suffer for their art. Marie Colvin suffered for her work. She also suffered for her dreams of becoming a regular white-picket fence housewife with a loving husband and children, neither of which she had at the end.
In this biography, Lindsey Hilsum has provided an important account of the life of a very important person. Marie Colvin wasn’t just a journalist, a very good journalist. She was also a humanitarian who reported upon injustice no matter what the danger or where she found it. Her legacy is one of truth and courage in the face of great adversity, a person who bore witness to great inhumanity and became all the more human because of it.
Sult scale rating: 9 out of 10. This book is a great read and comes highly recommended by Rebel Voice. It tells the tale of one woman with the courage and fortitude of an army. Marie Colvin’s life was not for the faint of heart. But then, perhaps, Marie wouldn’t have it any other way. There is not one dull point in this book. The photos are poignant and capture the beauty of a free spirit. Should Hollywood decide to make another movie of the life of Marie Colvin, we can only hope that they give it everything they have, as it demands nothing less (note: the movie A Private War was released in 2018 and was generally well received but not known well enough).