The Current

How famed war correspondent Marie Colvin lost her eye in an ambush in Sri Lanka

War correspondent Marie Colvin reported the plight of the helpless from conflicts in the world's most dangerous places, with a tenacity that eventually cost her her life. Lindsey Hilsum, her friend and fellow war correspondent, tells us about Colvin's life — a life lived on the edge.

Colvin, killed in Syria in 2012, is subject of new book

Marie Colvin reported from the front lines of the world's bloodiest conflicts and rubbed shoulders with world leaders. But her work took a personal and physical toll on her life. (Sunday Times via The Associated Press)

Read Story Transcript

When a bloody conflict broke out anywhere in the world, war correspondent Marie Colvin knew where she wanted to be — on the front lines.

The U.S.-born journalist was a long-serving reporter for U.K. newspaper The Sunday Times, covering war zones from Chechnya to Iraq to East Timor. When she wasn't filing reports from the trenches, she rubbed shoulders with world leaders and had a reputation for partying and drinking with the best of them.

That life on the front lines took a personal toll on both her relationships and her mental health. She lost an eye in an ambush in Sri Lanka, and wore an eye patch for the rest of her life. It became her trademark; she even wore ones with rhinestones to parties.

In 2012, Colvin was killed in Syria when a government rocket struck a rebel stronghold in the Baba Amr district of Homs.

Lindsey Hilsum, Colvin's friend and fellow war correspondent, has written a book about the enigmatic reporter's life, called In Extremis: The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin.

Lindsey Hilsum, left, with Marie Colvin during their days working as war correspondents. (Paul Moorcraft)

Hilsum is the international editor for Channel 4 News in the U.K. She sat down with The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti to discuss Colvin's life and work, and her trademark eye patch. Here is part of their conversation.

I want to hear the story of Sri Lanka. How did she get the injury that resulted in that eye patch?

Well, this was in 2001 and she decided she would go into Tamil Tiger territory. No journalist — outside journalists — had been in for six years, and it really was a forgotten conflict. Through contacts in London, she got access and she went in, and she crossed the front line to get in.

And she didn't get much of a story actually, because the Tamil Tigers rather failed to produce the leader who they said would talk to her. She thought: 'Okay, well I've done my best,' and [she] was coming out.

I had access to her diaries, and they're extraordinary because she describes how beautiful it was. She describes this jungle, and these butterflies ... but then there's this impossibility of crossing this front line and then suddenly, they're ambushed.

Lindsey Hilsum, author of In Extremis: The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin (Submitted by Penguin Books)

She drops to the floor and everybody disappears, and then she knows she has to do something. So she gets up, and she shouts: 'American journalists! American journalists!' and they shoot her.

And then she feels this terrible pain in her eye and chest. And it's a rocket-propelled grenade, and she survived that but she had nightmares about that moment for years and years.

And she had a lot of shrapnel in her body from that as well?

Oh she did, yes. And the chest wound was initially the one that might have killed her. The press officer at the American embassy, when the Sri Lankan army who took us to the hospital eventually — I mean, first of all they shot her, then they saved her. When they called him, he could hear her yelling and — I'm not going to use the words that she used — swearing down the phone in the background. So he thought, OK, I know she's going to survive if she's swearing like a trooper.

I remember reading the news reports when that happened and, at the time, the government was accusing her of being with terrorists, and it wasn't clear that they were actually going to be very helpful to her.

She said that this was one occasion when she was glad to be an American, because the American Embassy intervened, and they basically said: 'Well, you know, you can accuse her of that if you want, and you can put her on trial, and you can have a brave, female American journalist who is well known around the world and can tell her story on trial — or maybe you could just let her go.' And that is, in the end, what they did.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by The Current's Jessica Linzey. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.


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