Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin was killed today in the Syrian city of Homs, alongside French photographer Rémi Ochlik. She was just 56 years old.
They died, like so many thousands of Syrians over the past year, at the hands of President Bashar al-Assad, whose siege of Homs plumbs ever deeper levels of brutality. Soldiers, civilians, women, children, babies, no one is safe from Assad’s army, with Syrian forces reportedly given orders to kill “any journalist who set foot on Syrian soil” and dared reveal the scale of atrocities to the world, as Colvin so bravely did.
In her final dispatch, she wrote:
They call it the widows’ basement. Crammed amid makeshift beds and scattered belongings are frightened women and children trapped in the horror of Homs, the Syrian city shaken by two weeks of relentless bombardment.
Among the 300 huddling in this wood factory cellar in the besieged district of Baba Amr is 20-year-old Noor, who lost her husband and her home to the shells and rockets.
“Our house was hit by a rocket so 17 of us were staying in one room,” she recalls as Mimi, her three-year-old daughter, and Mohamed, her five-year-old son, cling to her abaya.
“We had had nothing but sugar and water for two days and my husband went to try to find food.” It was the last time she saw Maziad, 30, who had worked in a mobile phone repair shop. “He was torn to pieces by a mortar shell.”
For Noor, it was a double tragedy. Adnan, her 27-year-old brother, was killed at Maziad’s side.
Everyone in the cellar has a similar story of hardship or death. The refuge was chosen because it is one of the few basements in Baba Amr. Foam mattresses are piled against the walls and the children have not seen the light of day since the siege began on February 4. Most families fled their homes with only the clothes on their backs…
The only real hope of success for Assad’s opponents is if the international community comes to their aid, as Nato did against Muammar Gadaffi in Libya. So far this seems unlikely to happen in Syria.
Observers see a negotiated solution as perhaps a long shot, but the best way out of this impasse. Though neither side appears ready to negotiate, there are serious efforts behind the scenes to persuade Russia to pull Assad into talks.
As international diplomats dither, the desperation in Baba Amr grows. The despair was expressed by Hamida, 30, hiding in a downstairs flat with her sister and their 13 children after two missiles hit their home. Three little girls, aged 16 months to six years, sleep on one thin, torn mattress on the floor; three others share a second. Ahmed, 16, her sister’s eldest child, was killed by a missile when he went to try to find bread.
“The kids are screaming all the time,” Hamida said. “I feel so helpless.” She began weeping. “We feel so abandoned. They’ve given Bashar al-Assad the green light to kill us.”
Tributes have poured in today from Parliament and from across Fleet Street, which stands united in mourning the loss of one of their most fearless reporters.
Her editor John Witherow said (£):
“Marie was an extraordinary figure in the life of The Sunday Times, 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.
“Throughout her long career she took risks to fulfil this goal, including being badly injured in Sri Lanka. Nothing seemed to deter her. But she was much more than a war reporter. She was a woman with a tremendous joie de vivre, full of humour and mischief and surrounded by a large circle of friends, all of whom feared the consequences of her bravery.
“Marie was recruited to The Sunday Times more than a quarter of a century ago by David Blundy, her predecessor as Middle East correspondent, who was himself killed in El Salvador in 1989. It shows the risks that foreign correspondents are prepared to take in the pursuit of the truth.”
ITN’s Bill Neely blogged:
And so another witness, one more of the band of people who take a deep breath and plunge in to places where most would not, is dead. Marie Colvin watched a baby take its last breaths in Homs yesterday and re-told the story with evident emotion on ITN last night. This morning at around nine o’ clock, she became the latest victim of the relentless shelling of Homs.
And her voice is silenced…
When I read her report on Sunday, I felt humbled. I have just come back from ten days in Syria. I was on an official visa; frustrated not to get to Homs and able to escape the eyes of Assad’s men only to cover protests in the capital and chase the secret police around Dera’a. I knew her work had touched the very heart of the story.
The great journalist Martha Gellhorn wrote:
“All my reporting life, I have thrown small pebbles into a very large pond, and have no way of knowing whether any pebble caused the slightest ripple. I don’t need to worry about that. My responsibility was the effort.”
Marie threw pebbles and caused ripples.
On Monday I sent her a message; “Bravo Marie. Keep your head down.” This morning I looked at the video of her body in a house in Homs. Her head down. Her voice silenced.
And we are all the poorer for that. Bless you Marie.
In The Guardian, Peter Beaumont wrote:
Marie Colvin, who has been killed in the Syrian city of Homs during an artillery attack, had a knack of getting to places where other journalists had not been, getting there first and staying when others had long gone.
Colleagues would arrive in conflict zones to find Colvin already in situ, usually hunched over her laptop or talking urgently into her mobile phone to one of her sources from her vast contacts book.
When Muammar Gaddafi’s regime issued visas to journalist to visit Tripoli last year, she was in the first party; secured the first print interview with the Libyan leader, whom she had interviewed perhaps more times than any other journalist working for a British newspaper…
When colleagues were discussing last week whether it was possible to reach the centre of the Syrian city, it was in the knowledge that Colvin was already there and trying to go further.
Perhaps the finest correspondent of her generation working in the British media, she married a fierce passion for her work with remarkable courage and persistence. Above all, she wanted to tell the stories of the victims of war.
And if Colvin was not already there, then she had just left…
From the Balkans to the second intifada, Iraq and Afghanistan and more recently the Arab spring, Colvin was an almost permanent presence. In recent years she sported a black eyepatch which became necessary after she lost an eye in a mortar attack in Sri Lanka.
And in the Telegraph, in a tribute titled “farewell to a great journalist and a dear friend”, Con Coughlin wrote:
Marie Colvin, who has been killed in the Syrian city of Homs, was without doubt one of the finest foreign correspondents of her generation, and also one of the most fearless. In the 25 years or so years that I have known Marie she was invariably to be found on the front line of the world’s most dangerous conflicts, laughing off the very real risks she faced as though it was just another day in the office. Beirut, Gaza, Iraq, the Balkans, Sri Lanka - wherever there was trouble, you could guarantee that Marie would be in the thick of it.
An American journalist who made her name writing for British newspapers, Marie was in many respects the Martha Gellhorn of her day. During a highly distinguished career at the Sunday Times she duly scooped up a clutch of awards for her tenacious reporting, which brought home to the outside world what was really happening in the world’s most dangerous war zones.
But despite her formidable bravery - which cost her an eye in Sri Lanka ten years ago - Marie never lost either her feminine charm or her wonderful sense of humour. Even in the darkest corners of places like Gaza and Beirut, I can still hear her making fun of our circumstances, livening our spirits while all around chaos and confusion ruled.
Perhaps the best tribute to Marie was penned by the woman herself in the recent address she gave at St Bride’s Church in Fleet Street – the hacks’ church – in memory of the 49 journalists who have been killed on assignment so far this century.
“Our mission,” said Marie, “is to report these horrors of war with accuracy and without prejudice.” And that sense of mission has just cost a very brave and talented woman her life.
At a time when the culture, practice and ethics of the press are under scrutiny like never before, Marie’s death is a timely reminder of what journalism should be about, of how a journalist should conduct themselves, the very best of Fleet Street, the best that News International, so often maligned (including by us), has to offer; risking life and limb, she embodied the best of British journalism, bravely exposing the barbarity of tyranny, a bravery that cost her her life.
In Remembrance Week 2010, addressing the congregation on the critical importance of war reporting at St Bride’s church – the journalists’ church at which she will surely be remembered – she spoke graphically of the risks undertaken, the horrors witnessed, the carnage of conflict.
We leave you with her own words:
“I have been a war correspondent for most of my professional life. It has always been a hard calling. But the need for frontline, objective reporting has never been more compelling.
“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, mothers 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…
“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.”
Marie Colvin: 1956-2012
• Syria: There is no simple solution – George Irvin, February 15th 2012
• The World Outside Westminster: “If you do not help us, we will be killed” – Chris Tarquini, February 12th 2012
• Amidst the burning flesh of Homs, Syrians plead: “We are getting slaughtered, save us” – Shamik Das, February 7th 2012
• Anti-Assad activist: “We need help… We need a no-fly zone… ASAP” – Shamik Das, February 1st 2012
• Syria: When will the West act? – Shamik Das, January 2nd 2012