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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: Foreign correspondent Marie Colvin bore witness to tragedy in the making

By Tom Warhover
February 24, 2012 | 3:59 p.m. CST
This undated image, made available Wednesday by London's The Sunday Times, features journalist Marie Colvin in Cairo's Tahrir Square. A French government spokeswoman on Wednesday identified two Western reporters killed in Syria as Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik. Colvin, from Oyster Bay, New York, had been a foreign correspondent for The Sunday Times for two decades, reporting from the world's most dangerous places. She lost sight in her left eye in Sri Lanka in 2001.

War reporting is a dangerous business. Five journalists, including Tim Hetherington of "Restrepo" fame (2010 True/False Film Fest), were killed last year while on assignment in Libya, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

This year it’s Syria.

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Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik died Wednesday in the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs. The Times of London said the Syrian army targeted the building, which served as an improvised media center. More than 10 rocket shells hit.

Ochlik was a French photographer who, although still in his 20s, had covered conflicts from Haiti to the Congo. Colvin, an American, wrote for The Sunday Times of London. List of wars she covered creates a horror house of human misery. 

Iraq. Chechnya. Zimbabwe. London Telegraph reporter Alex Spillius credits her with helping to save 1,500 refugees in East Timor by acting as shields until peacekeeping troops arrived.

The Balkans. Libya. Sierra Leone. She lost an eye to shrapnel in Sri Lanka.

I rarely write to you about international affairs. The purpose of my letters usually has to do with opening a window on the workings of the Missourian and, in doing so, providing a little context to journalism at large. So forgive me for going afar.

All journalists bear witness. For most of us, that means “surviving” barbed comments of outraged politicians or "suffering" through the next overlong meeting involving sewers or streets. It was the same act for Colvin and other journalists in Syria – but oh! so much more important, so much more dangerous.

As of Friday morning, two journalists who were injured at the same time Colvin and Ochlik died were still trapped in Baba Amr despite international pleas to get them to Lebanon for medical assistance. The bodies of Colvin and Ochlik still lie there.  

The week before their deaths, Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Shadid died in the same area. One writer called him the Ernie Pyle of our generation. Shadid’s death was from an asthma attack caused by allergic reactions to horses like those that carried him across the border from Lebanon. Had he been reporting on a horse show at the Boone County Fairgrounds, he’d probably have been home with his family the same night.

Colvins’ editor at The Sunday Times told her to leave – it was too dangerous. She stayed.

The final dispatch of her life, from Baba Amr, contained the kind of detail that only an eyewitness could provide. Consider:

"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 (sic). 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."

And later:

"I entered Homs on a smugglers' route, which I promised not to reveal, climbing over walls in the dark and slipping into muddy trenches. Arriving in the darkened city in the early hours, I was met by a welcoming party keen for foreign journalists to reveal the city's plight to the world.

"So desperate were they that they bundled me into an open truck and drove at speed with the headlights on, everyone standing in the back shouting ‘Allahu akbar’ - God is the greatest. Inevitably, the Syrian army opened fire.

"When everyone had calmed down I was driven in a small car, its lights off, along dark empty streets, the danger palpable. As we passed an open stretch of road, a Syrian army unit fired on the car again with machineguns (sic) and launched a rocket-propelled grenade. We sped into a row of abandoned buildings for cover."

Colvin and Shadid put us in places we’d rather not be. They were our eyes and ears.