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A New Biography Of Marie Colvin, Eyewitness To War

The life and death of <em>Sunday Times </em>war correspondent Marie Colvin, pictured here in 2010, is the subject of a new book by Lindsey Hilsum, a fellow journalist.
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The life and death of Sunday Times war correspondent Marie Colvin, pictured here in 2010, is the subject of a new book by Lindsey Hilsum, a fellow journalist.

Many journalists are given the title of war correspondent. Few have really deserved it as much as Marie Colvin.

Colvin was an American reporter who wrote for the British newspaper The Sunday Times. She was unmistakable in war zones — she sported an eye patch to cover up an eye injured in a grenade attack while she was reporting during the Sri Lankan civil war.

Colvin wrote vivid dispatches from places few Western correspondents would go — Chechnya, East Timor and, ultimately, Syria. On Feb. 22, 2012, she was killed, along with French photographer Rémi Ochlik, after the Syrian government shelled the media center they were staying in.

Her story is being told in a new biopic called A Private War, starring Rosamund Pike, and in a new book by Lindsey Hilsum. She was Marie Colvin's friend and herself is an award-winning journalist for the British Channel 4 News. It's called In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin.

"She defined herself by the work that she did, and she believed in the work that she did," Hilsum says in an interview. "She was committed to being an eyewitness to war, and to telling the story of people who go through it. I mean, the book is called In Extremis because of something she wrote. She wrote:

"But of course she lived her own life in extremis too. She had a very turbulent personal life. And so I can't really say what she should have done. I've just come to understand something of who she was."

Interview Highlights

On Marie Colvin's youth

One of the joys of writing this book is Marie's diaries. One of the things I enjoyed was — her family were incredibly generous, and I went down into the basement, and there were all these papers, and I found this little white plastic-covered child's diary which was locked with one of those tiny keys. And I couldn't find the key, and so I had to slit it open, and there it was, Marie's first diary. And when she's 13, she writes very simply:

And I thought, "Oh, I think I can see the woman that I knew in that naughty girl."

And then when she was at Yale, she did a class with John Hersey, one of the most famous American journalists, who wrote the great book Hiroshima. And when she came out of that class, she said to her best friend, "That's what I want to do. I want to tell the really big stories by telling them through the stories of the individuals, the victims of war." And that was what she set out to do.

On Colvin's stance toward war victims, which was often without journalistic detachment

And in that way, her journalism was quite controversial though. She didn't go in in the way that some journalists of the right or left do, and do paint-by-numbers journalism — you know, find the facts that fit their story. She was actually remarkably un-ideological. But she certainly had a big thing for the underdog, whether the underdog were the children and the women being bombed in the shelter, or the conscripts who didn't really know what they were fighting for, or people who had rebelled against their governments. So she certainly identified — some would say over-identified — with them. And I think that what distinguished her writing and her journalism was that she went in further and she stayed longer. And that meant that she got those stories that other people didn't get.

On the personal toll, including PTSD, that war reporting exacted from Colvin

And when she first lost the sight in her eye, you know, there's an amazing piece which I quote which she wrote – I don't think it was ever published, but for Vogue — about how she now had to wear different clothes. The vision of herself no longer married with who she thought she was and who she might now be. And then, somebody asked, "Well, you know, why were you worrying about that?" And she was like, "Well, you know, I was concentrating on the outside, because there were some things that were too dark within to look at." And she had nightmares. And particularly after Sri Lanka, a nightmare which would come back again and again, which was: She'd wake up just before the moment where she was shot. And those nightmares just wouldn't go away. And she drank too much, as many journalists do. And in the end she crashed.

On the takeaways that Hilsum hopes readers will discern

Well, I hope that they would take away the importance of being there and of understanding what's going on and of reporting these stories — and of knowing that even if it's not obvious what should be done, that you must never get to a situation where they can turn around and say, "Oh, we didn't know what was going on." Yes, you knew, because we told you; Marie told you.

The other thing is that of a life which was extraordinary, and a woman who was extraordinary. And yes, she was traumatized, and yes, she died in this terrible way. But boy, was she a big character. And I guess, you know, if I want to be sentimental, America should be proud that it produced a journalist in a woman like Marie Colvin.

Chad Campbell and Caitlyn Kim produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.