The last time I saw Marie Colvin was at the launch party for the 50th anniversary exhibition of The Sunday Times magazine at a famous art gallery in London. She arrived with a posse of glamorous friends but outshone them all in a shimmering cocktail dress and matching diamante eyepatch. Two weeks later on February 22, 2012, she was killed in the dust and dirt of the rebel-held town of Homs, Syria, by President Bashir Al-Assad’s forces.
Shelling Marie was no accident – it was murder. A US court ruled in 2019 that she was “specifically targeted because of her profession” in an attempt to silence her. On the 11th anniversary of her death, her legacy lives on at the Marie Colvin Center for International Reporting, where I am proud to be the first director.
At the Colvin Center we share Marie’s belief in the power of bearing witness and the importance of integrity in journalism. She used to say she had the “best job in the world…you can really feel you make a difference.”
This week marks another milestone: the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. “Here in Ukraine we miss Marie Colvin’s reporting so much,” her biographer and fellow war correspondent, Lindsey Hilsum, author of In Extremis, tweeted shortly after the war broke out. It is thanks to the courage of journalists and photojournalists – many of them friends and admirers of Marie – that we know the extent of Russian atrocities and war crimes against the civilian population.
Marie never lost her commitment to humanity, despite reporting from the world’s worst trouble spots, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia, the Balkans, Chechnya and Sri Lanka, where she was blinded in the eye by a rocket-propelled grenade. In 1999, she saved the lives of 1500 women and children at a UN refugee compound in East Timor by refusing an order to evacuate while all the men fled.
“I guess they don’t make men like they used to,” she wise-cracked in her trademark, husky voice. Of all her stories, she was most proud of this one.
She was extraordinarily generous to young reporters, whom she inspired to follow in her footsteps. A few days before she died, a young colleague on the foreign desk emailed to tell Marie how her harrowing report from Syria was “the sort of article that had made me want to become a journalist”. “Thanks!” Marie replied. “It’s hard work keeping ahead of talented young whippersnappers such as yourself.” I have no doubt this is exactly how she would regard the talented young reporters at the School of Communication and Journalism.
Marie was born down the road from Stony Brook University in Oyster Bay and used to find respite from war sailing off the coast of Long Island. The job took a toll on her mental as well as physical health. Three years after losing her eye, Marie finally sought help for post-traumatic stress disorder. Despite her private battles, she continued to go to conflict zones and report on civilian suffering.
Like Marie, many journalists can be reluctant to acknowledge their own struggles while reporting on overwhelming loss and tragedy. Although there is greater understanding of PTSD today, they still have to contend with the competitive pressures of fast-paced newsrooms and demanding editors. Marie’s example has shown that it is important to build resilience as well as reporting skills while training the next generation of foreign correspondents.
For this reason we will be devoting this year’s distinguished Marie Colvin Lecture to Journalists on the Frontline: War, Conflict and PTSD. It will be held at the Wang Theater at 6pm on April 5, 2023. All are welcome.