February 22, 2012

‘Paying the ultimate price’ - R.I.P. Marie Colvin

Today once more is a sad day for journalism. This morning, around 9 a.m., Sunday Times of London correspondent Marie Colvin and French photographer Rémi Ochlik were killed in Homs (Syria), when they tried to escape the rockets from the Syrian army. Both died instantly.

Last night, Marie Colvin had still given telephone interviews to the BBC and CNN about the horrors happening in Homs. She spoke of horrific scenes she witnessed, of people dying under unbelievable conditions while the shelling of the starved city was continuing without end.

"I know it's impossible to stay safe but please try" were the last words Anderson Cooper said to Marie Colvin in their phone conversation. - It was not to be. This morning she was dead. There is no 'safe' in Homs anymore.

Not for the 28.000 civilians and not for the handful of journalists that dare to make it across the border. Besides Marie and Rémi being killed, two other colleagues were injured in the attack: Paul Conroy, the Sunday Times photographer assigned to Marie Colvin, and journalist Edith Bouvier from Le Figaro.

As so often after the loss of life the question in journalism arises whether it was worth it, whether the reporting from the war zone justifies the immense danger, journalists and photographers put themselves into. Do we really need the pictures and the reports from the ground? Will it help to end any misery or is it not perhaps just a dangerous folly of overtly adventurous die-hards who have no respect for life and have fallen out of society, unable to make it in a normal world?

From all the reports of friends and colleagues we get, Marie Colvin was anything but reckless or without fear. She knew what sufferings the war zones could produce, she had herself lost colleagues to war reporting and paid tribute to them with their families and friends in St. Bird's Fleet Street in a commemorating service in November 2010.

It is here too that she spoke up and explained the motives behind her willingness to face danger again and again, knowing too well the deadly result it could produce.

Today that result has materialized. Marie Colvin was killed.

While thousands around the globe mourn her passing and many colleagues remember her in numerous moving articles and speeches since this morning, my tribute to her comes in the form of her own words. The words she spoke at St. Bird's on November 10, 2010 - and repeated at other occasions when people kept repeating the question: "Is it worth it?"

To Marie Colvin it was. It was worth it. It was vital. And, as she put it to a friend in a Beirut coffee shop only a week ago: "After all, it's what we do."

Read Marie Colvin's own explanation, why we need war zone reporting, and why there are some journalists and photographers who dare to risk their lives to get the truth out to us: the ignorant world, too often looking away, not showing interest, lacking empathy - but most of all, without knowledge we so desperately need.

I bow in deep respect to Marie, Rémi and the many others who were killed and thank them for every bit of truth they sent out from the horrific war places on this troubled planet.

Our gratitude is yours for ever. May you rest in peace.

Marie Colvin, St. Bird's, Nov 10, 2010

Your Royal Highness, ladies and gentlemen, 

I am honoured and humbled to be speaking to you at this service tonight to remember the journalists and their support staff who gave their lives to report from the war zones of the 21st Century. 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. Tonight we honour the 49 journalists and support staff who were killed bringing the news to our shores. We also remember journalists around the world who have been wounded, maimed or kidnapped and held hostage for months. It has never been more dangerous to be a war correspondent, because the journalist in the combat zone has become a prime target.

I lost my eye in an ambush in the Sri Lankan civil war. I had gone to the northern Tamil area from which journalists were banned and found an unreported humanitarian disaster. As I was smuggled back across the internal border, a soldier launched a grenade at me and the shrapnel sliced into my face and chest. He knew what he was doing.

Just last week, I had a coffee in Afghanistan with a photographer friend, Joao Silva. We talked about the terror one feels and must contain when patrolling on an embed with the armed forces through fields and villages in Afghanistan...putting one foot in front of the other, steeling yourself each step for the blast. The expectation of that blast is the stuff of nightmares. Two days after our meeting Joao stepped on a mine and lost both legs at the knee.

Many of you here must have asked yourselves, or be asking yourselves now, is it worth the cost in lives, heartbreak, loss? Can we really make a difference?

I faced that question when I was injured. In fact one paper ran a headline saying, has Marie Colvin gone too far this time? My answer then, and now, was that it is worth it.

Today in this church are friends, colleagues and families who know exactly what I am talking about, and bear the cost of those experiences, as do their families and loved ones.

Today we must also remember how important it is that news organisations continue to invest in sending us out at great cost, both financial and emotional, to cover stories.

We go to remote war zones to report what is happening. The public have a right to know what our government, and our armed forces, are doing in our name. Our mission is to speak the truth to power. We send home that first rough draft of history. We can and do make a difference in exposing the horrors of war and especially the atrocities that befall civilians.

The history of our profession is one to be proud of. The first war correspondent in the modern era was William Howard Russell of The Times, who was sent to cover the Crimean conflict when a British-led coalition fought an invading Russian army.

Billy Russell, as the troops called him, created a firestorm of public indignation back home by revealing inadequate equipment, scandalous treatment of the wounded, especially when they were repatriated - does this sound familiar? - and an incompetent high command that led to the folly of the Charge of the Light Brigade. It was a breakthrough in war reporting. Until then, wars were reported by junior officers who sent back dispatches to newspapers. Billy Russell went to war with an open mind, a telescope, a notebook and a bottle of brandy. I first went to war with a typewriter, and learned to tap out a telex tape. It could take days to get from the front to a telephone or telex machine.

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


Her last report out of Homs for the Sunday Times shows the horror the city's civilians are facing and proves the outstanding quality of Marie Colvin's work. We shall miss her reports badly. We shall miss her telling us the truth.

‘We live in fear of a massacre' - Sunday Times, Feb 19, 2012


No comments:

Post a Comment