From Washington to Tripoli…

ORIGINALLY POSTED TO ‘THE DOWNHOLD WIRE,’ A NEWSGROUP FOR FELLOW FORMER UNIPRESSERS:

Marie Colvin! I remember the sweet-faced, gorgeous young woman with the black, lamblike ringlets – and the steel trap mind behind those sparkling eyes! We were both just starting out at UPI Washington in the early 1980s, and would run into each other occasionally at big Washington parties. In recent years we’d run into each other occasionally at big London parties & sometimes not even chat: just exchange eye contact and a little nod, acknowledging our shared history.

Thirty years later she was still a beautiful woman, with that lean, runner’s body, that fantastically lived-in face and the famous black eye patch … Wish I could have seen her at the tiller on one of her long-distance sails: she must have looked like a pirate.

We ended up at the same hotel overlooking Tahrir Square during the uprising, last year. She’d already had one very close call: interviewing the family of a young protester killed in custody, the rumor spread through the neighborhood that there was an Israeli spy in the house, and the family had to help her escape by hiding her in a back room & then letting her out a side door.

At one point, in Cairo, things got very, very hairy: we journalists got word we were going to be targeted by pro-Mubarak thugs; we were warned not to go out onto our balconies for fear of snipers; CBS pulled all but 5 of us out of the city center, and the rest of us had a planning meeting about escape routes and what to do if our hotel was overrun/set on fire. For once I was prepared to listen to the supervising producer’s pleadings NOT to go out at all, the next day: “You won’t be able to tell ANY story if you’ve been arrested or killed,” he pointed out.

Then, the next morning, I ran into Marie over breakfast. We traded tidbits about the security situation, agreeing it was pretty ominous.

“So… are you going out?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

And that was that: if Marie was going out, then I would go out. If Marie had said, no, then I’d have stayed in: any situation too dangerous for Marie was too dangerous for ANYONE.

I told this story to some CBS colleagues, yesterday. There was a little pause – and then we all acknowledged that, well, there probably weren’t ANY situations that Marie wasn’t prepared to enter.

The last time I met her was Tripoli, in the early days of the Libyan uprising. She gave me some tips on how to elude the government minders – but also warned me, correctly, that the dissidents had been driven too deep underground to reach, at that point. She was the go-to person for less well-connected journalists who wanted to get to Qaddafi: I suspect he was still taking her calls till close to the very end.

We laughed at the irony that we only ever met in war zones – even though we lived in the same part of London.

A couple of weeks ago, I turned onto my street and saw Marie cycling the other way. I should text her, I thought, and have her over for lunch. But I let it slide: there would always be another war zone, after all.

In a panel discussion last night I was asked what “lessons” could be drawn from Marie’s death. I resist that word – because it implies she made mistakes that directly led to those final minutes. But I am starting to wonder about the after-effects:

I wonder how many of us, consciously or unconsciously, faced with going into yet another hellhole thought: well, Marie Colvin’s been to plenty of even hairier places than that and she’s survived.

Most of us are still processing the fact of her loss. Eventually, though, I wonder how many of us – consciously or unconsciously – will recalibrate our sense of risk, the next time we’re asked to go someplace deeply dangerous.

Maybe the ultimate “lesson” or meaning of Marie’s death is the reminder that if you cover wars there’s a chance you’ll die in one.

In the same panel discussion, I pointed out that Marie, herself, would have considered the deaths of innocent civilians trapped in Homs to be far more newsworthy than that of a couple of journalists who chose to be there. But, then, that’s what kept sending Marie back into the forsaken, war-torn, wounded corners of the world: to give a voice to those denied a voice.

I thought we’d be disreputable old ladies, together, still running into each other at big London parties and cackling gleefully over our chequered pasts.

Damn. Damn. Damn.

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