Slain journalist Marie Colvin: When the story is worth the risk

I didn't know Marie Colvin, though I met her once, very briefly, in the mine-strewn mountains of Albania, where reporters were camping out to interview refugees pouring over its border from Kosovo, and waiting for our chance to go in. She was a force of nature and an experienced war correspondent.

The CBC's Rick MacInnes-Rae on meeting Colvin in a war zone, and why he won't return

I didn't know Marie Colvin, though I met her once, very briefly, in the mine-strewn mountains of Albania, where reporters were camping out to interview refugees pouring over its border from Kosovo, and waiting for our chance to go in.

She was a force of nature. An experienced war correspondent who struck me as a cross between the CBC's Ann Medina and the BBC's Kate Adey, two other journalists I've never met, but much admire.

Colvin, along with photographer Remi Ochlik, died Feb. 22 while covering the civil war in Syria.

I thought she was gutsy, and relentless, and sardonic. And like I say, I didn't know her at all well, but I'm pleased the many tributes coming in since her death confirm those were some of her qualities.

This was back in 1999, a couple of years before she began wearing a distinctive black eyepatch. But she already seemed to me as raffish as a Barbary pirate.

She was standing by the street like she owned it, working a knot of journos and UN/NGO types like she knew something they didn't (which is what they'd teach you to do in foreign correspondent school, if there was such a thing). Thing is, she probably did. 

In this business, often as not, it is what you know, not who, and that can be refreshing.

That night, the CBC ended up working in a makeshift tent set up on the busy main road of a little town near the border — and I mean, right on the roadside.

Lying on its narrow cot, the only things between my head and passing trucks were a few centimetres of air and a few millimetres of canvas. But given the circumstances, the proximity of danger wasn't reason enough to avoid it. I no longer believe that, by the way, but of that, more later.

Covering war is all about proximity to danger. And calculated risks. And I had taken many of them in many wars over the years.

And surely, didn't surviving them mean there was no way I was going to succumb to something as innocuous as a traffic accident in the off-hours in between? Twisted logic, I know, but you'd be surprised where you'll hide in a hurricane.

In a war zone, believe in something

So when the Russian aircraft fired rockets full of tiny wicked arrows called flechettes on Grozny; when the grenade went off next to me in San Salvador; when the Serbs fired anti-aircraft rounds at our armoured car on Mount Igman in Sarajevo; when the rounds I didn't see but later heard buzzing past my head in the audio of a gunfight in Nablus — in those moments, I had to believe I was temporarily, arbitrarily and certainly undeservedly meant to survive.

Don't get me wrong. Correspondents know they're not invulnerable. But in the awful moments in a war zone, you have to believe in something.

You gotta be in the zone. Or else you'd be paralyzed, fleeing the artillery fire in Chechnya, instead of weaving past the burnt-out cars to find it.

And then what kind of a war correspondent would you be?

This, it turns out, is not as challenging a concept as it sounds. In Grozny one day, I met a pair of grinning Chechens all in green, huge daggers in their belts and RPG launchers on their shoulders, heading to the war a few blocks away, cheerful as Snow White's dwarfs warbling their way to work.

They gave me to understand they would be fine. They had their faith to protect them, and if it was their time, well, it was their time.

You hear that a lot in the Middle East, too. There's more than one kind of zone.

War correspondents' sense of invulnerability

But when a correspondent is injured, it injures our collective sense of invulnerability. Correspondents aren't supposed to get killed.

Wounded, yes.

Radio-Canada's Jean-François Lepine, the only CBC reporter I know who's been shot on the job, was hit in the leg in Israel but recovered.

U.S. medical personnel care for wounded Toronto Star journalist Kathleen Kenna after her arrival in a US Air Force evacuation aircraft from Afghanistan to Ramstein Airbase in Germany, March 6, 2002. Kenna was injured in a handgrenade attack. (Ralph Orlowski/Reuters)

In Bosnia, the BBC's Martin Bell was hit by shrapnel and recovered. CNN's Ben Wedeman was shot in the back, and recovered.

Then again, Colvin was hit by shrapnel and lost the use of an eye in Sri Lanka in 2001. And recovered.

And we all know from the war damage inflicted on ABC's Bob Woodruff, Kathleen Kenna of The Toronto Star and the BBC's Frank Gardner that some injuries are harder to recover from than others. Some you never really recover from at all.

We also know about the late photographers Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, lost to shelling in Libya, and the more than 300 other journalists killed covering war in the past 20 years around the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. We ignore their example at our peril.

Won't cover war again

But when a correspondent is killed, it can kill that sense of invulnerability in some of the rest. It died in me a long time ago, which is why I'll never cover war again. For me it came with age, self-awareness and experience. And family.

After a return home from seven months covering the first Gulf War, off and on, I was going out the door to buy milk one morning and my youngest asked me if I was coming back that month.


Covering war is not fair to a family. The prospect of getting killed in one started to feel selfish. Still, it took me nine more years to do something about it.

We need war correspondents out there who are prepared to risk their lives to bear witness to events others would prefer went unreported. I respect them and I'll toast them, as a lot of people are toasting the memory of Colvin tonight. I just don't want to be one of them anymore.

When is the story worth the risk

Journalist Marie Colvin, holding a notebook, poses with Libyan rebels in Misrata, June 4, 2011. Colvin, an American working for Britain's Sunday Times, and French photographer Remi Ochlik were killed in the besieged Syrian city of Homs on February 22, when shells hit the house they were staying in, opposition activists and witnesses said. (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)

One of the quotes attributed to her that's making the media rounds today comes from a speech she gave at St. Bride's in London, the one they call the journalists' church on Fleet Street, where friends of the late CBC correspondent Jeanette Matthey gathered to remember her life and death to cancer in 1993.

"We always have to ask ourselves whether the level of risk is worth the story," Colvin is quoted as saying.

That's for every correspondent to decide, case by case. Ultimately, time imposes an answer, one way or the other.

RIP, Marie Colvin.