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Defined by her Humanity... Marie Colvin (1956-2012)Dr. Franklin Lamb Salem-News.com
A journalist who will never be forgotten...
(BEIRUT) - Marie Colvin left Beirut on Valentine’s Day on a fateful mission to illegally enter Syria from Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley to Homs, Syria. Her clear intention was to document the conditions of the civilian population in Homs who had been under heavy attack for the preceding two weeks.
Marie, with more than a quarter century experience in the Middle East had made contact through friends in Beirut with some smugglers who agreed to take her and her colleague, French Photographer Remi Ochlik to a makeshift media center in the besieged flash point neighborhood of Baba Amr.
Marie promised apprehensive friends in Beirut that she would return “no later than one week maximum, certainly I’ll be back by your birthday Franklin! (Feb. 26)” she told this observer.
According to her mother, Rosemarie, who lives in New York City, Marie planned to arrive back in Beirut on February 22nd.
As it turned out, that was the day she was killed as eleven artillery shells slammed into her cramped quarters.
An accident? Eleven rockets fired into one 30 foot wide two story building? On the 19th day of shelling of the area?
Or was Marie and her colleagues targeted as is widely claimed by witnesses on the scene in Baba Amr?
Jean-Pierre Perrin, a journalist for the Paris-based Liberation newspaper who was with Marie until the day she died said the journalists had been told that the Syrian Army was 'deliberately' going to shell their center.
Mr Perrin said: 'A few days ago we were advised to leave the city urgently and we were told: 'If they (the Syrian Army) find you they will kill you'.
'I then left the city with Marie but then she decided to go back when she saw that the major offensive had not yet taken place.'
A very dark day
” I need to get in and get out fast”, Marie said as she waited to hear from her transport team in Beirut on February 13, 2011
Marie asked my help in getting a Visa to enter Syria. I was humbled that this highly accomplished career journalist (Marie was twice named foreign reporter of the year (2001 and 2010) in the British Press Awards.
She was given an International Women's Media Foundation award for courage in journalism for her coverage of Kosovo and Chechnya. And the Foreign Press Association named her as journalist of the year in 2000) would seek my help as if I had any influence on such an issue.
I did give her contact information for friends in Syria, including Dr. Bouthania Shaaban and her brilliant associate Nizar, whose friendship I value very much.
I mentioned to Marie that I hoped they are both well but that I was worried about them. We used to see a lot of Bouthania on TV. One of her jobs was as Media adviser to Bashar Assad on TV but now nothing.
Bouthania is a great woman and Syrian nationalist from Homs whose eyes welled with tears as she explained to me not long ago that she could not visit her mother’s grave in Homs because she would be killed.
I urged Marie to try to meet with Bouthania who I am certain would help her if she possibly could. I am not sure if the two women ever did make contact.
It was clear to Marie’s friends that she needed to document the story of Homs and to tell the story and give a voice to the voiceless who had been under bombardment since February 3rd.
Her mom said Marie had been told twice by her editor to leave the country because of the danger she was facing, but Marie replied that she "wanted to finish one more story".
The London Times editorialized that Marie’s reporting and subsequent death had strengthened global opposition to oppression and that "Marie stood for truth and courage, which, when brought together, are the greatest moral force on the planet."
The Sunday Times editor John Witherow said in a statement that Colvin “believed profoundly that reporting could curtail the excesses of brutal regimes and make the international community take notice.”
Simon Kelner, chief executive of the Journalism Foundation wrote that: "Marie Colvin embodied all the qualities required of a great journalist: bravery, integrity and a fearless desire to seek the truth. At a time when newspapers are under intense scrutiny, her work is a reminder of the fundamental purpose of journalism, and her death, along with the French photographer Remi Ochlik, represents a dark day indeed."
In her own words, Marie explained not long ago how she viewed a reporter’s job.
"You hear all this talk about the meaning of the media, the need for integrity etc etc," she said during a November 2010, talk at London’s St Bride's Church – the "journalists' church" on Fleet Street at an event to honor fallen journalists.
"But isn't it quite simple? You just try to find out the truth of what’s going on and report it the best way you can. And because we are kind of romantic, our sympathy goes towards the underdog."
It was after the loss of her eye that Marie elaborated publicly on her reason for covering wars. She wrote of the importance of telling people what really happens and about "humanity in extremis, pushed to the unendurable". She explained "My job is to bear witness. I have never been interested in knowing what make of plane had just bombed a village or whether the artillery that fired at it was 120mm or 155mm. I write about people so that others might understand the truth.”
A true friend and a great
I had known of Marie Catherine Colvin since the late 1980’s when we crossed paths at the Grand Hotel in Tripoli, currently a base for the Zintan militia, and like everyone then and since we basically sat around the hotel lobby for lots of hours waiting for an appointment with “the Brother Leader” or one of his associates for whatever reason brought us to Libya.
I followed Marie’s work over the years and was in contact in 2001 when she lost her left eye reporting on the Tamil resistance in Sri Lanka.
But I was honored to get to know Marie know much better during this past summer and fall, again in Libya, and we continued to stay in regular contact mainly via email.
It was following the August 21-2nd rout of the pro-Gadhafi defenders of Tripoli that Marie arrived in Tripoli from months of covering the rebels in the east and then in the west.
On August 22nd, the nearly empty Corinthia Bab al Africa hotel where I was staying suddenly filled with dozens of arriving Journalists who, like Marie, had been following the rebels advance toward what some were calling “the final battle at Tripoli”.
We immediately reconnected and began helping each other. She briefed me for hours on what had been going on in the east and I filled her in on what I knew about developments in Tripoli. Both of us, like just about everyone, were shocked how quickly Tripoli had fallen and how the claimed 65,000 well-trained loyalist defenders that the regimes persuasive spokesman Musa Ibrahim assured us would be waiting in all the streets and alleys and on every roof top of Tripoli for the expected arrival of the “NATO rebels” had suddenly vanished.
The arriving brigades of journalists were disappointed to find the 5 star Corinthia Hotel without water, or employers to clean the rooms, no electricity most of the time, not much worth eating or much else that they had looking forward to. Of course this did not mean the hotel would lower its astronomical room rates and the place made a financial killing as did the Rixos and Radisson Hotels.
I was able to show Marie a ‘secret’ bathroom off the lobby that no one had discovered and it was the only one in the Corinthia to my knowledge that was not filthy and overflowing. She also appreciated a hidden plug I showed her that worked off a hotel battery backup near the mezzanine that she could use to make coffee—which she always seemed in search of-- and to charge her laptop and mobile.
In appreciation Marie supplied me with some of those cups of noodles things that I learned many in the international press survived on when amenities faded. Actually, some of them taste pretty good at 3 am as we would sit outside the hotel watching the city and the sea.
Marie was the only person I trusted with the knowledge that Mohammad, the black gentleman from Mali was hiding in my room from gangs of wannabe lynchers from Misrata. He got plenty of cups of noodles also.
Marie also met my Chadian princesses friends and she agreed immediately that the treatment I was receiving including the Sahara paste was just what my infected leg needed. Marie particularly enjoyed “Dr.Fatima’s cactus flower drink” since no whiskey or vodka was available.
She would let me ride with her as she investigated the stories she wanted to cover and she introduced me to Irish journalist Patrick Cockburn who was staying at the Radisson Hotel where conditions were only marginally better than Marie and I were experiencing. Sitting together on the Radisson patio I mentioned to Marie and Patrick that during the summer I used the swimming pool at the Radisson plenty. Patrick informed us that these days hotel guests would dip buckets of water from the swimming pool to flush their toilets.
Marie’ great sense of humor and concern for others made her a joy to be around and we kept in touch by phone and email while moving in and out of Libya.
She was a unwavering supporter of the Palestinian cause and wrote and produced documentaries, including Arafat: Behind the Myth for the BBC in 1990. She was equally at ease among royalty or peasants, although she preferred the company of the latter she once told me.
Marie Colvin ✆
Lovely to hear from you. How is Shatila camp these days? I haven't been there for a while but
when I am next in Beirut I get a tour and briefing ok? How is Bayan al Hout?Please give her my love. Is everyone heartened by Abbas' call for a State?
Sadly, I will miss you in Tripoli as I am scheduled to return on Sunday. Would it be possible for
you to send me Omar's number? I would only contact him if you felt it was okay.
Obviously, no names to be used.
Send your news when you have a chance, hope all is well with you.
Bring something a bit warmer for this trip, the rain set in today although I'm sure it will stay hot for a while.
And she was ever ready to help facilitate a friend’s research projects:
Marie Colvin ✆ email@example.com
Hi Franklin. I am now in Misrata. I got a visa at the border, had to talk my way in. Essentially they seem aware that there is no real system for getting visas and will give them out if you arrive there. (Tunisian border crossing). How is Algiers? Have you seen_______ and family? When are you coming here - and let me know if you need help.
Marie Colvin ✆firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you for your concern dear. I am in Sirte. Terrible, macabre scene here and in Misrata.
More later, but otherwise all well,
Sincere regards, Marie
Marie Colvin ✆ email@example.com
I had a smile reading your Yuletide greeting, much appreciated and I heard your voice in each line.
When you have a chance, send news of your journey to Algeria.
Wish I could see you. I am in London, having returned from harrowing Misrata and Tripoli just days ago. Please call. I so hope you are well and I know you are fighting the good fight!
Marie took an interest in her friends work and often commented on particular articles she liked:
Shortly before she left for Homs I received a short final email from her on Saturday February 12, 2012 concerning a piece on the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and their struggle for civil rights.
Marie Colvin ✆ firstname.lastname@example.org
Powerful piece Franklin. Thank you for reminding us. Best regards, Marie
Marie’s final audio report was during the night of 21 February during British ITN news report from Homs from arguably the middle of the world's most dangerous war zone: Marie reported: "The Syrians are not allowing civilians to leave … anyone who gets on the street is hit by a shell. If they are not hit by a shell they are hit by snipers. There are snipers all around on the high buildings. I think the sickening thing is the complete merciless nature. They are hitting the civilian buildings absolutely mercilessly and without caring and the scale of it is just shocking."
The next morning 2/22/12, shortly before she died, Marie filed her final written report. It is testimony to the quality of her reporting, her humanity and her skill and passion in telling the human drama she witnessed.
A few excerpts:
“The scale of human tragedy in the city is immense. The inhabitants are living in terror. Almost every family seems to have suffered the death or injury of a loved one.
’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 city is running perilously short of supplies and the only food here is rice, tea and some tins of tuna delivered by a local sheikh who looted them from a bombed-out supermarket.
A baby born in the basement last week looked as shell-shocked as her mother, Fatima, 19, who fled there when her family’s single-story house was obliterated. “We survived by a miracle,” she whispers. Fatima is so traumatized that she cannot breastfeed, so the baby has been fed only sugar and water; there is no formula milk.
Fatima may or may not be a widow. Her husband, a shepherd, was in the countryside when the siege started with a ferocious barrage and she has heard no word of him since.
Snipers on the rooftops of al-Ba’ath University and other high buildings surrounding Baba Amr shoot any civilian who comes into their sights. Residents were felled in droves in the first days of the siege but have now learnt where the snipers are and run across junctions where they know they can be seen. Few cars are left on the streets.
Almost every building is pock-marked after tank rounds punched through concrete walls or rockets blasted gaping holes in upper floors. The building I was staying in lost its upper floor to a rocket last Wednesday. On some streets whole buildings have collapsed — all there is to see are shredded clothes, broken pots and the shattered furniture of families destroyed.
It is a city of the cold and hungry, echoing to exploding shells and bursts of gunfire. There are no telephones and the electricity has been cut off. Few homes have diesel for the tin stoves they rely on for heat in the coldest winter that anyone can remember. Freezing rain fills potholes and snow drifts in through windows empty of glass. No shops are open, so families are sharing what they have with relatives and neighbours. Many of the dead and injured are those who risked foraging for food.
Fearing the snipers’ merciless eyes, families resorted last week to throwing bread across rooftops, or breaking through communal walls to pass unseen. “
On the lips of everyone was the question: “Why have we been abandoned by the world?”
Marie Catherine Colvin will never be far from the hearts of those who were honored to know her from her writings and sincere friendship. Marie’s murder is a great loss for all people of good will.
Franklin Lamb is reachable c/o email@example.com
Dr. Franklin Lamb is Director of the Sabra Shatila Foundation. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org. He is working with the Palestine Civil Rights Campaign in Lebanon on drafting legislation which, after 62 years, would, if adopted by Lebanon’s Cabinet and Parliament grant the right to work and to own a home to Lebanon’s Palestinian Refugees. One part of the PCRC legislative project is its online Petition which can be viewed and signed at: petitiononline.com/ssfpcrc/petition.html. Lamb is reachable at email@example.com. Franklin Lamb’s book on the Sabra-Shatila Massacre, International Legal Responsibility for the Sabra-Shatila Massacre, now out of print, was published in 1983, following Janet’s death and was dedicated to Janet Lee Stevens. He was a witness before the Israeli Kahan Commission Inquiry, held at Hebrew University in Jerusalem in January 1983.