As my rental car crawled through Los Angeles rush hour traffic Tuesday evening, I tuned the satellite radio to CNN and listened to Anderson Cooper interview Marie Colvin, an American-born reporter for London’s Sunday Times who slipped into the besieged Syrian city of Homs.
By the time I awoke on Wednesday morning Colvin was dead, along with a French photojournalist. They were reportedly killed, and two other reporters were wounded, when a Syrian government shell struck a house that was being used by the small cadre of foreign reporters defying Syrian restrictions on coverage in the conflict zone. The BBC, which also interviewed Colvin on Tuesday, said more shells landed in the building’s garden as survivors tried to flee the bombing, but it is impossible to know whether the journalists were specifically targeted or whether they were merely victims of the violence they were covering.
The Sunday Times released Colvin’s final story outside its pay wall following her death. She described a harrowing journey into Homs on an undisclosed smuggling route, escorted by the lightly armed Free Syrian Army, consisting mainly of defectors from Bashar Assad’s regime. “Inevitably,” she wrote, “the Syrian army opened fire.” She described coming under fire again as she was driven through dark and empty streets. “As we passed an open stretch of road, a Syrian army unit fired on the car again with machine guns and launched a rocket-propelled grenade. We sped into a row of abandoned buildings for cover.”
Colvin’s last interviews with CNN and the BBC focused on a 2-year-old boy who was struck, along with his father, by shrapnel from a government shell. The father survived. The child arrived at an ill-equipped clinic gasping for breath, with a gaping wound in his chest. The clinic’s staff, consisting of one medical doctor and one dentist, could do nothing but watch as the little boy died.
Like many journalists reporting from war zones, Colvin made no pretense of being impartial in the clash between the Assad regime and the rebellion, which began nearly a year ago as peaceful calls for democratic change but has steadily devolved into violent repression and scattered resistance, including recent suicide bombings in Damascus.
It must be difficult to be impartial when one side tries to protect you, even for its own purposes, while the other side shoots at you.
Colvin was under no illusions as to why the Syrian rebels risked so much to bring her and her colleagues to Homs. She was an experienced war reporter who had spent two decades with the Sunday Times; she lost an eye while covering civil war in Sri Lanka in 2001. Colvin knew that the rebels want the world to see the carnage in places like Homs in hopes that it will bring help for their cause. She openly sympathized with that goal.
In her story Tuesday she quoted United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who said last week, “We see neighborhoods shelled indiscriminately, hospitals used as torture centers, children as young as 10 years old killed and abused. We see almost certainly crimes against humanity.” Then Colvin added her own observation: “Yet the international community has not come to the aid of the innocent caught in this hell.”
War reporters make choices and take risks that most of us don’t. The paths that Colvin and I took in life reflect those choices. She was about a year older than me and grew up on Long Island, N.Y., at the same time I was raised in the Bronx. We were both drawn to journalism in the Vietnam and Watergate era, when reporting the news seemed like one of the most worthwhile things a young person could do in life without first having to pass a course in organic chemistry.
Saigon fell while we were in college. Though I never aspired to be a war correspondent, I suppose I would have gone abroad had the situation presented itself early in my career. I focused instead on covering government, politics and law while I got my M.B.A. Just around the time Colvin found her calling as a British-based correspondent, I decided to leave daily journalism to become a financial adviser (which is a different sort of fact-gathering and reporting process), start a business and get married and have a family.
I never met Colvin, but from the passion in her last interview with CNN and her final report for the Sunday Times, I’m pretty certain that she would make the same choices again. She knew the risks she was taking, and she died doing something that I believe she felt duty-bound to do. She wanted to bring the story of Homs to the world, and she did, in her life and through her death.
Rémi Ochlik, a French photojournalist who was only 28, was also killed Wednesday. The death of someone so young hits harder. It is especially disturbing for me because I have my own young journalist who is just about to graduate from college. I don’t know where her future choices will lead her, and I can’t be certain - much as I want to be - that she will always be safe. But I know where she’s coming from, even if I can’t know or control exactly where she is going.
Conflict journalists are a breed apart. Either out of altruism or bravado or ambition, or most likely a combination of all of the above, they put themselves in harm’s way. Too often, they pay a high price. But they have to do what they have to do.
Deepest condolences to the families of Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik, and best wishes for a speedy recovery to British photographer Paul Conroy, who illustrated Colvin’s stories from Syria, and French journalist Edith Bouvier of Le Figaro. They were injured, apparently quite seriously in Bouvier’s case, in Wednesday’s shelling. And thank you to all the news people who risk their lives so the rest of us can safely know what is happening around us.