In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent
By Lindsey Hilsum, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 378 pages, $28
The death of Marie Colvin under fire in Homs, Syria, in February 2012 was, for many who knew her, both a shock and a tragedy foretold. I had first met this acclaimed journalist in the Albanian mountain town of Kukes in April 1999, during the Kosovo war. Alone among the scores of reporters who had converged on this dreary outpost, Colvin had crossed the border with a member of the Kosovo Liberation Army and spent several days in a muddy trench being shelled and shot at by Serb forces. Three years later, during the Aqsa intifada, I saw her again. After invading the West Bank town of Jenin, a centre of Palestinian militancy, and fighting from house to house for almost two weeks, the Israeli Defense Forces pulled back far enough to allow reporters to sneak in and observe the destruction. With three others, I walked through rubble-filled alleys and entered one of the few homes that hadn’t been badly damaged. There sat Colvin — wearing the eye patch she had recently acquired after being half-blinded by a grenade in Sri Lanka — calmly sipping tea and smoking a cigarette. She had been reporting from inside the town, sheltered by a Palestinian family, throughout the battle.
Lindsey Hilsum’s In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin is an extraordinary account of one reporter’s fearless and ultimately fatal dedication. The international editor of Channel 4 News in Britain and a longtime combat reporter, Hilsum was one of many colleagues drawn into Colvin’s orbit. They flew in a rickety Ukrainian plane from Djibouti to Asmara to cover a 1998 war between Ethiopia and Eritrea; dined together in Tripoli, Libya; partied at Colvin’s home in London and conversed on Skype just before Colvin was killed. Members of a tiny coterie of female war reporters in an overwhelmingly male-dominated profession, the pair viewed themselves, Hilsum writes, as “the Thelma and Louise of the press corps.” But while Hilsum eventually scaled back her risk-taking, Colvin could never leave the front lines behind. Piecing together Colvin’s exuberantly messy life through more than a hundred interviews with ex-husbands, former lovers, family members, friends and colleagues, Hilsum draws an empathetic portrait of a woman whose courage often crossed into recklessness, both in combat zones and outside them.
Colvin grew up in Oyster Bay, Long Island, the daughter of schoolteachers who doted on their five children. Her upbringing was Roman Catholic, suburban and comfortably middle class. At Yale, she fell under the tutelage of a John-Hersey, author of Hiroshima, one of many influential figures who would shape her career. She got her start livening up a newsletter for the Teamsters in New York, jumped from there to UPI and was soon dispatched to Paris. Hired away by Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times, she made her name in 1987 with a story about watching a young woman die after being shot by a sniper during a militia siege of a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut. The reporting she did there — excruciatingly close, filled with intimate glimpses of human suffering — established a template. “It has always seemed to me that what I write about is humanity in extremis,” she would say in a 2001 feature article, “pushed to the unendurable, and that it is important to tell people what really happens in wars.”
Hilsum unpacks one terrifying story after another to illustrate how far Colvin was willing to go to expose the truth. Trapped in Chechnya in December 1999 during an aerial bombing campaign by the Russian Army, she and a young Russian photographer were forced to hike for days through the snowbound Caucasus to the Georgian border. Stopping to rest meant becoming a target for bombs. “She struggled to breathe, regretting every cigarette she had smoked,” Hilsum writes in an excruciatingly vivid account. “Dima sat down, saying he could go no further. Marie knew that despair was even more dangerous than the cold. ‘Get up! Keep moving!’ she urged.”
Colvin also had a knack for gaining the confidence of dictators and demagogues. In 1986 she talked her way into the compound of the Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi in Tripoli. Hilsum delights in describing their first meeting: “After a few minutes Gaddafi entered dressed in a grey padded flight suit, sockless feet peeking from lizard skin slip-on shoes. ‘I am Gaddafi,’ he announced. ‘No kidding,’ Marie thought.” She landed an exclusive interview and maintained contact with him for years. She befriended Yasser Arafat in exile in Tunisia, joined him on his return from the 1993 Oslo Accords and visited his Ramallah compound when it was besieged by the Israel Defense Forces in 2002. Colvin liked Arafat but sparred with him over his failure to suppress Palestinian violence; she was commissioned to write an Arafat biography, but could never find the discipline to finish it.
Away from combat zones, Colvin moved easily through London high society and hosted memorable soirees in her Hammersmith home. “Elegant in a black cocktail dress, she mixed vodka martinis, the house full of actors, poets and politicians as well as journalists,” Hilsum writes of one such gathering. She drank to excess, took many lovers and married twice. Her relationships with gifted but unreliable men who abused her trust left her emotionally shattered. Some anecdotes that Hilsum relates will be familiar to those who have read Marie Brenner’s fine profile of Colvin in Vanity Fair, now adapted for a film and republished in an anthology of Brenner’s pieces, A Private War: Marie Colvin and Other Tales of Heroes, Scoundrels, and Renegades (Simon & Schuster, paper, $16). But Hilsum, who had full access to Colvin’s notes and journals, is able to delve far deeper into her subject’s complicated inner life. “I was blinded by your looks and the sex and so tried to ignore what my brain was telling me,” Colvin writes in her diary after discovering her longtime partner’s multiple affairs. “So I drank more and read less and my world telescoped down to yours — sex, looks and money.”
Colvin grew increasingly stressed and unhappy in her last decade. Many colleagues were leaving the battlefield behind, but she saw no other options. In 2001, she joined Tamil Tiger rebels in northern Sri Lanka and was hit by a grenade blast during a harrowing nighttime journey back to government territory. She soothed her nerves with larger quantities of alcohol, fretted about losing her looks, ruefully accepted that she would never have children of her own. And she took greater risks. “Use my skills as a writer to help those who can’t find justice anywhere else,” she wrote in her diary in 2010. “Acting despite fear —it matters.” In the winter of 2012, against all advice, she joined Syrian rebels on a doomed journey into the besieged city of Homs, surrounded by Bashar Al Assad’s army. Syrian intelligence traced her satellite phone calls (technically unsophisticated, she ignored warnings about that too) to a rebel media centre and targeted the building with artillery, killing her and a young French photographer.
Colvin never slowed down long enough to write a memoir. Now, thanks to Hilsum’s deeply reported and passionately written book, she has the full accounting that she deserves.
–New York Times News Service