We Live in Fear of a Massacre

The only British newspaper journalist inside the besieged Syrian enclave of Baba Amr reports on the terrible cost of the uprising against President Assad.

They call it the widows’ basement. Crammed amid makeshift beds and scattered belongings are frightened women and children trapped in the horror of Homs, the Syrian city shaken by two weeks of relentless bombardment.

Among the 300 huddling in this wood factory cellar in the besieged district of Baba Amr is 20-year-old Noor, who lost her husband and her home to the shells and rockets.

“Our house was hit by a rocket so 17 of us were staying in one room,” she recalls as Mimi, her three-year-old daughter, and Mohamed, her five-year-old son, cling to her abaya.

“We had had nothing but sugar and water for two days and my husband went to try to find food.” It was the last time she saw Maziad, 30, who had worked in a mobile phone repair shop. “He was torn to pieces by a mortar shell.”

For Noor, it was a double tragedy. Adnan, her 27-year-old brother, was killed at Maziad’s side.

Everyone in the cellar has a similar story of hardship or death. The refuge was chosen because it is one of the few basements in Baba Amr. Foam mattresses are piled against the walls and the children have not seen the light of day since the siege began on February 4. Most families fled their homes with only the clothes on their backs.

The city is running perilously short of supplies and the only food here is rice, tea and some tins of tuna delivered by a local sheikh who looted them from a bombed-out supermarket.

A baby born in the basement last week looked as shellshocked as her mother, Fatima, 19, who fled there when her family’s single-storey house was obliterated. “We survived by a miracle,” she whispers. Fatima is so traumatised that she cannot breastfeed, so the baby has been fed only sugar and water; there is no formula milk.

Fatima may or may not be a widow. Her husband, a shepherd, was in the countryside when the siege started with a ferocious barrage and she has heard no word of him since.

The widows’ basement reflects the ordeal of 28,000 men, women and children clinging to existence in Baba Amr, a district of low concreteblock homes surrounded on all sides by Syrian forces. The army is launching Katyusha rockets, mortar shells and tank rounds at random.

Snipers on the rooftops of al-Ba’ath University and other high buildings surrounding Baba Amr shoot any civilian who comes into their sights. Residents were felled in droves in the first days of the siege but have now learnt where the snipers are and run across junctions where they know they can be seen. Few cars are left on the streets.

Almost every building is pock-marked after tank rounds punched through concrete walls or rockets blasted gaping holes in upper floors. The building I was staying in lost its upper floor to a rocket last Wednesday. On some streets whole buildings have collapsed — all there is to see are shredded clothes, broken pots and the shattered furniture of families destroyed.

It is a city of the cold and hungry, echoing to exploding shells and bursts of gunfire. There are no telephones and the electricity has been cut off. Few homes have diesel for the tin stoves they rely on for heat in the coldest winter that anyone can remember. Freezing rain fills potholes and snow drifts in through windows empty of glass. No shops are open, so families are sharing what they have with relatives and neighbours. Many of the dead and injured are those who risked foraging for food.
Fearing the snipers’ merciless eyes, families resorted last week to throwing bread across rooftops, or breaking through communal walls to pass unseen.

The Syrians have dug a huge trench around most of the district, and let virtually nobody in or out. The army is pursuing a brutal campaign to quell the resistance of Homs, Hama and other cities that have risen up against Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, whose family has been in power for 42 years.
In Baba Amr, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the armed face of opposition to Assad, has virtually unanimous support from civilians who see them as their defenders. It is an unequal battle: the tanks and heavy weaponry of Assad’s troops against the Kalashnikovs of the FSA.

About 5,000 Syrian soldiers are believed to be on the outskirts of Baba Amr, and the FSA received reports yesterday that they were preparing a ground assault. The residents dread the outcome.

“We live in fear the FSA will leave the city,” said Hamida, 43, hiding with her children and her sister’s family in an empty ground-floor apartment after their house was bombed. “There will be a massacre.”
On the lips of everyone was the question: “Why have we been abandoned by the world?” Ban Ki-moon, the secretarygeneral of the United Nations, said last week: “We see neighbourhoods shelled indiscriminately, hospitals used as torture centres, children as young as 10 years old killed and abused. We see almost certainly crimes against humanity.” Yet the international community has not come to the aid of the innocent caught in this hell.

Abdel Majid, 20, who was helping to rescue the wounded from bombed buildings, made a simple plea. “Please tell the world they must help us,” he said, shaking, with haunted eyes. “Just stop the bombing.
Please, just stop the shelling.”

THE journey across the countryside from the Lebanese border to Homs would be idyllic in better times. The villages are nondescript clusters of concrete buildings on dirt tracks but the lanes are lined with cypresses and poplar trees and wind through orchards of apricot and apple trees.

These days, however, there is an edge of fear on any journey through this area. Most of this land is essentially what its residents call “Syria hurra”, or free Syria, patrolled by the FSA.

Nevertheless, Assad’s army has checkpoints on the main roads and troops stationed in schools, hospitals and factories. They are heavily armed and backed by tanks and artillery.

So a drive to Homs is a bonerattling struggle down dirt roads, criss-crossing fields. Men cluster by fires at unofficial FSA checkpoints, eyeing any vehicle suspiciously. As night falls, flashlights waved by unseen figures signal that the way ahead is clear.

Each travelling FSA car has a local shepherd or farmer aboard to help navigate the countryside; the Syrian army may have the power, but the locals know every track of their fields.

I entered Homs on a smugglers’ route, which I promised not to reveal, climbing over walls in the dark and slipping into muddy trenches. Arriving in the darkened city in the early hours, I was met by a welcoming party keen for foreign journalists to reveal the city’s plight to the world. So desperate were they that they bundled me into an open truck and drove at speed with the headlights on, everyone standing in the back shouting “Allahu akbar” — God is the greatest. Inevitably, the Syrian army opened fire.

When everyone had calmed down I was driven in a small car, its lights off, along dark empty streets, the danger palpable.

As we passed an open stretch of road, a Syrian army unit fired on the car again with machineguns and launched a rocket-propelled grenade. We sped into a row of abandoned buildings for cover.

The scale of human tragedy in the city is immense. The inhabitants are living in terror. Almost every family seems to have suffered the death or injury of a loved one.

Khaled Abu Salah, an activist who took part in the first demonstrations against Assad in Homs last March, sat on the floor of an office, his hand broken and bandages covering shrapnel wounds to his leg and shoulder.

A 25-year-old university student, who risked his life filming videos of the slaughter of Baba Amr residents, he narrowly escaped when he tried to get two men wounded by mortar fire to a makeshift clinic.

He and three friends had just taken the wounded to the clinic, which was staffed by a doctor and a dentist, and stepped away from the door when “a shell landed right at the entrance”, he recalled last week.

“My three friends died immediately.”

The two men they had helped were also killed.

Abu Ammar, 48, a taxi driver, went out to look for bread at 8am one day last week. He, his wife and their adopted daughter had taken refuge with two elderly sisters after their home was hit by shells.

“When I returned the house was obliterated,” he said, looking at all that remained of the one-storey building. Only a few pieces of wall still stood. In the ruins a woman’s red blouse was visible; bottles of homemade pickled vegetables were somehow unscathed. “Dr Ali”, a dentist working as a doctor, said one of the women from the house had arrived at the clinic alive, but both legs had been amputated and she died.

The clinic is merely a firstfloor apartment donated by the kindly owner. It still has out-ofplace domestic touches: plasma pouches hang from a wooden coat hanger and above the patients a colourful children’s mobile hangs from the ceiling.

The shelling last Friday was the most intense yet and the wounded were rushed to the clinic in the backs of cars by family members.

Ali the dentist was cutting the clothes off 24-year-old Ahmed al-Irini on one of the clinic’s two operating tables. Shrapnel had gashed huge bloody chunks out of Irini’s thighs. Blood poured out as Ali used tweezers to draw a piece of metal from beneath his left eye.

Irini’s legs spasmed and he died on the table. His brotherin-law, who had brought him in, began weeping. “We were playing cards when a missile hit our house,” he said through his tears. Irini was taken out to the makeshift mortuary in a former back bedroom, naked but for a black plastic bag covering his genitals.

There was no let-up. Khaled Abu Kamali died before the doctor could get his clothes off. He had been hit by shrapnel in the chest while at home.

Salah, 26, was peppered with shrapnel in his chest and the left of his back. There was no anaesthetic, but he talked as Ali inserted a metal pipe into his back to release the pressure of the blood building up in his chest.

Helping tend the wounded was Um Ammar, a 45-year-old mother of seven, who had offered to be a nurse after a neighbour’s house was shelled. She wore filthy plastic gloves and was crying. “I’m obliged to endure this, because all children brought here are my children,” she said. “But it is so hard.”

Akhmed Mohammed, a military doctor who defected from Assad’s army, shouted: “Where are the human rights? Do we have none? Where are the United Nations?” There were only two beds in the clinic for convalescing. One was taken by Akhmed Khaled, who had been injured, he said, when a shell hit a mosque as he was about to leave prayers. His right testicle had had to be removed with only paracetamol to dull the pain.

He denounced the Assad regime’s claim that the rebels were Islamic extremists and said: “We ask all people who believe in God — Christians, Jews, Muslims to help us!” If the injured try to flee Baba Amr, they first have to be carried on foot. Then they are transferred to motorbikes and the lucky ones are smuggled to safety. The worst injured do not make it.

Though Syrian officials prohibit anyone from leaving, some escapees manage to bribe their way out. I met refugees in villages around Homs. Newlywed Miriam, 32, said she and her husband had decided to leave when they heard that three families had been killed and the women raped by the Shabiha militia, a brutal force led by Assad’s younger brother, Maher.

“We were practically walking on body parts as we walked under shelling overhead,” she said. Somehow they made it unscathed. She had given an official her wedding ring in order to be smuggled out to safety.
Abdul Majid, a computer science student at university, was still shaking hours after arriving in a village outside Homs. He had stayed behind alone in Baba Amr. “I had to help the old people because only the young can get out,” said Majid, 20, wearing a leather jacket and jeans. He left when his entire street fled after every house was hit.

“I went to an army checkpoint that I was told was not too bad. I gave them a packet of cigarettes, two bags of tea and 500 Syrian pounds. They told me to run.”

Blasts of Kalashnikov fire rang out above his head until he reached the tree line. He said the soldiers were only pretending to try to shoot him to protect themselves, but his haunted eyes showed he was not entirely sure.

IF THE Syrian military rolls into Baba Amr, the FSA will have little chance against its tanks, superior weaponry and numbers. They will, however, fight ferociously to defend their families because they know a massacre is likely to follow any failure, if the past actions of the Assad regime are anything to go by.
The FSA partly relies on defections from Assad’s army because it does not accept civilians into its ranks, though they perform roles such as monitoring troop movements and transporting supplies. But it has become harder for soldiers to defect in the past month.

Abu Sayeed, 46, a majorgeneral who defected six months ago, said every Syrian military unit was now assigned a member of the Mukhabarat, the feared intelligence service, who have orders to execute any soldier refusing an order to shoot or who tries to defect.

The army, like the country, may well be about to divide along sectarian lines. Most of the officers are members of the Alawite sect, the minority Shi’ite clan to which the Assad family belongs, while foot soldiers are Sunni.

The coming test for the army will be if its ranks hold if ordered to kill increasing numbers of their brethren. The swathe of the country that stretches east from the Lebanon border and includes Homs is Sunni; in the villages there they say that officers ordering attacks are Alawites fighting for the Assad family, not their country.

The morale of Assad’s army, despite its superiority, is said to be low as it is poorly paid and supplied, although this information comes mostly from defectors. “The first thing we did when we attacked the house was race to the refrigerator,” said a defector.

Thousands of soldiers would be needed to retake the southern countryside. Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father and former president, crushed his problems with Islamic fundamentalists in 1982 by shelling the city of Hama into ruins and killing at least 10,000 men, women and children. So far his son appears to have calculated that a similar act would be a step too far for his remaining allies of Russia, China and Iran.

For now it is a violent and deadly standoff. The FSA is not about to win and its supplies of ammunition are dwindling.

The only real hope of success for Assad’s opponents is if the international community comes to their aid, as Nato did against Muammar Gadaffi in Libya. So far this seems unlikely to happen in Syria.
Observers see a negotiated solution as perhaps a long shot, but the best way out of this impasse. Though neither side appears ready to negotiate, there are serious efforts behind the scenes to persuade Russia to pull Assad into talks.

As international diplomats dither, the desperation in Baba Amr grows. The despair was expressed by Hamida, 30, hiding in a downstairs flat with her sister and their 13 children after two missiles hit their home. Three little girls, aged 16 months to six years, sleep on one thin, torn mattress on the floor; three others share a second. Ahmed, 16, her sister’s eldest child, was killed by a missile when he went to try to find bread.

“The kids are screaming all the time,” Hamida said. “I feel so helpless.” She began weeping. “We feel so abandoned.

They’ve given Bashar al-Assad the green light to kill us.”

Loyalties of ‘desert rose’ testedAsma, the British-born wife of President Bashar al-Assad, may well be feeling a sense of divided loyalty as the violence continues in the Syrian city of Homs. Her family are from the area, which has been a focal point for many of the recent protests against her husband’s regime and t he Syrian army’s brutal response.

Despite growing up in Acton, west London, Asma visited her family’s home in Homs every year throughout her childhood. She is also a Sunni Muslim, unlike her husband, who comes from the country’s minority Shi’ite community.

Asma, 36, has been criticised for displaying an “ostrich attitude”, keeping a low profile as the conflict has intensified. She has refused to comment on the way her husband’s regime has used tanks and other lethal means to crush protesters. In an email sent earlier this month, her office merely said: “The first lady’s very busy agenda is still focused on supporting the various charities she has long been involved with as well as rural development and supporting the President as needed.”

The daughter of a consultant cardiologist and a retired diplomat, Asma was born in London. She attended a Church of England state school in Acton and gained a BSc in computer science and a diploma in French literature from King’s College London.

She went on to work for Deutsche Bank and married Assad in Syria in 2000. Now a mother of three, she was once described by Vogue as a “rose in the desert”. In Homs, the beleaguered people may now take a different view. ” PLEASE TELL THE WORLD TO HELP US. JUST STOP THE BOMBING

News International Associated Service
 © The Sunday Times February 2012. All rights reserved.

Mad Dog and Me

Our Middle East Correspondent Marie Colvin, who has known Gadaffi for 25 years, offers an insight into the mind of Libya’s fallen tyrant Gadaffi told me he was in love with Madeleine Albright.

When I saw the looted chaos of the Bab al-Aziziya compound in the centre of Tripoli after its capture by rebels last week, I had a flashback to a night quarter of a century ago — the first time I met Muammar Gadaffi. In April 1986 I was driven through the empty, dark streets of the city to what was then his stronghold. The tall gates of Bab al-Aziziya swung open and I passed several tanks hidden in the shadows. I remember thinking I would not be leaving without the permission of the Libyan leader.
I was nervous. Gadaffi was in a tense stand-off with Ronald Reagan, the American president, who had called him “the mad dog of the Middle East” for sponsoring anti-western terrorism, including a nightclub bomb attack that month against American military personnel in Berlin. The US Sixth Fleet was off the coast. Superpower vengeance was expected at any moment.

Gadaffi had given no interviews to the scores of journalists in Tripoli. I was an American citizen, working at the time for United Press International, a US news agency. Why had I, a young female reporter, been awakened at 3am and told that “the leader” had summoned me? I didn’t know it at the time, but this was classic Gadaffi. He kept no set hours and summoned people. His whim had to be implemented immediately. You had only to see how quickly his aides scurried when he issued a command to know that his rule was based on fear.

My car was met by several beautiful young women in tight camouflage uniforms, high heels and make-up with pistols at their hips. They glared at me, led me underground down several staircases and left me alone in a room with a large desk and a sofa.

The door opened. In walked Gadaffi, dressed in a red silk collarless shirt, white silk pyjama trousers and lizard skin slip-ons. Over it all he wore a gold cape. He turned, locked the door, put the key in his pocket and said, “I am Gadaffi.”

I remember saying to myself, “No kidding.” But I think I was just stunned.

It was a weird interview. I kept turning on the tape recorder and he kept turning it off, putting his hand on my knee and saying he was tired and wanted to talk about something else. He seemed isolated. At one point I asked a not particularly clever question, something like, “How are you feeling now that President Reagan is about to bomb you?” “Who told you that?” he demanded. Missing my chance to be considered a journalist with highly placed sources, I said: “I heard it on the BBC.” Gadaffi leapt up, crossed the room and switched on a radio tuned to the World Service.

It was clear that he lived in a bubble of his own making. Libya was at the centre of an international crisis, yet he was sitting alone in his bunker, relying on the radio for news. The isolation could only have been enhanced by his obsession with the security he found underground.

We now know that the tunnels under the compound were more than just a secret way in and out. There was a whole world of living quarters where I must have interviewed him years ago, never knowing I was in a tiny corner of a secret complex.

The famous bedouin tent where he met dignitaries, including Tony Blair for the 2004 handshake, was one of the many props of his personal theatre. He played the bedouin sheikh but he never really lived there. He felt safe only in his burrow.

His paranoid obsession with safety underground became even more clear last week when I entered the house of Moatassim Gadaffi, one of his his sons and the national security adviser. Neighbours in the Ben Ashour district said Gadaffi senior had built the house about nine years ago, then given it to Moatassim.
Inside it was decorated in terrible taste, with mud-coloured leather furniture, dark brown modern paintings and an ostentatious, black-andwhite swirled marble floor. But down three staircases was an underground world. Much larger living quarters sprawled beneath the manicured gardens, complete with a fullyequipped operating theatre, an x-ray machine and a medical clinic. Armoured doors, painted green, punctuated the wide hallways, with instructions on how to release the lock if trapped by rubble.
“For four years workers were sending out trucks of dirt and no building appeared,” said Dr Ashraf al-Khadeiri, who lived across from the compound’s 30ft walls. “For four years, an enigma. We thought, maybe he is walking in the ground under us. Now we know.” Khadeiri was the first outsider to enter the underground home after Moatassim fled last week.

During the crisis of April 1986 I interviewed Gadaffi several times, always summoned at the last moment in the early hours, always meeting him underground. I never saw anyone besides drivers and guards. There was no sound from outside.

The interviews were increasingly strange. I arrived for one to find that a bodyguard had laid out petite green shoes for me to wear. It was Gadaffi’s favourite colour: he had changed Libya’s flag to a flat green banner and he had renamed Tripoli’s central square Green Square. But green shoes for an interviewer? Late on Friday April 11, he summoned me again and seemed in a more serious mood. He told me he had decided to “include all of southern Europe in a Libyan counterattack plan”.

Gadaffi painstakingly went over a communiqué with me, changing several words in a statement typed by his office and explaining exactly what he meant. He was anxious to hear what I thought the Reagan administration might do, and he pressed me for information from Washington. He told me: “I think Reagan must be mad.”

On the night of April 15 the Americans attacked. The use of Stealth F-117 aircraft was vetoed at the last minute — it would have been the first time the top-secret planes were used in anger — and a squadron of F-111s flew from American bases in Britain to hit the compound and other targets. I called the private number Gadaffi had given me to find out whether he had survived. An aide answered and hung up.
Several weeks later Gadaffi ended a long period of speculation that he had been killed by emerging to make one of his characteristic rambling speeches. He said Reagan was the problem, the American people loved Gadaffi, and to prove it he distorted the content of my phone call — which had been to find out if he was alive — to say that “an American woman had called and tried to warn me”. I was grateful he did not use my name.

Three years later I was in Tripoli again. It was a month after the Lockerbie bombing, which had not yet been definitively pinned on Libya.

American and British intelligence had identified a chemical weapons plant at Rabta, 60 miles south of the capital. US fighters patrolling the Mediterranean shot down two Libyan planes that had intercepted them. Gadaffi put human shields into Rabta, but this time no bombers came.

I saw him from a different perspective when I accompanied Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, on a visit to Libya. On the plane, Arafat worked through a mass of papers, always with his green pen. Without a break in stride after landing, he climbed into the limousine that whisked him to the hotel Gadaffi had assigned to him. When Gadaffi had still not seen him after 12 hours, Arafat took it as an insult.
He sent me in his convoy back to the airport. It was a feint. The call immediately came that the Libyan leader wanted to see Arafat, so my driver drove me at 100mph to join him at Gadaffi’s headquarters.
Gadaffi, in his finest robes, greeted Arafat then turned and noticed me. “Mary,” he asked (he has never been able to pronounce my name), “what are you doing here?” It was as if I had wandered in off the street.

“She’s with me,” Arafat said proudly, as though we were at a London film premiere. He then went on to lie outrageously about the state of my nose, which at the time was on the wrong side of my face.
Arafat told Gadaffi the Israelis had broken it. The truth was that Palestinian demonstrators had thrown a rock through the window of my car when I was posing as a Jewish settler on a reporting assignment.
Sometimes our encounters were even more surreal. When Madeleine Albright was Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, more than a decade after the bombing of Bab al-Aziziya, Gadaffi asked me at the end of an interview if I could get a message to her.

I thought I had a journalistic coup: the mad dog of the Middle East bidding for peace with Washington. Instead, he told me he loved “Madeleine”. He watched her every appearance on television, and he was annoyed that sometimes the cameras did not show her full face. The fact that, in her sixties, she was five years older than him and no longer a beauty seemed of no importance.

Could I get her special phone number for him, preferably for the phone next to her bed? Would I also communicate to her that if she felt the same as he did, she should wear green in her next television appearance? Albright appears to have been replaced since by a younger edition. An album of cut-out photographs of Condoleezza Rice, George W Bush’s national security adviser and secretary of state, was found in one of Gadaffi’s underground salons last week. In 2007 he told an interviewer on Al Jazedera television how much he liked her: “Leezza, Leezza, Leezza — I love her very much. I admire her and am proud of her because she”s a black woman of African origin.”

For years, he seemed to be starring in his own movie. I never saw him in the same outfit twice. He was a bedouin tribesman, a colonel and a selfstyled revolutionary. He was an Arab and an African, a nationalist and a socialist, a Muslim, a poet and a would-be “philosopher king” and he had outfits for every role. His military uniforms had more medals than a Latin American generalissimo, and yet he had never fought a war until this year.

Beneath the ludicrous military caps his eyes were dark; they never revealed any emotion other than a canniness, as if a reptile within was always plotting. For his own people he was, in their words, “the leader”. He preferred “supreme guide” and fancied himself their mentor, patriarch and uncle.
It was the people, though, who felt the vicious side of his character, and where the lack of pity in those eyes mattered most. He was feared and hated. He would stop at nothing to maintain power.

GADAFFI made much of his birth in 1942 into an illiterate bedouin family in the desert near Sirte, the coastal town where his diehard supporters have been fighting their final battle. But his world view seems to have been shaped during his schooldays by revolutionary upheavals in the Arab world, principally Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser’s seizure of power in Egypt.

He joined the army as the path out of poverty and seized power in 1969 in a coup similar to Nasser’s: the virtually bloodless unseating of a weak king by young officers from whom Gadaffi emerged as the most prominent and then dictator.

For a while he was fairly normal. I once thumbed through an old photo album put together by one of his former confidants, which showed Gadaffi on a building site in a pork-pie hat and shorts, looking at an architect’s drawing. “He was always a little strange, but he was easy with us, like a normal person. He changed greatly,” the friend said.

He posed as a tribesman who wanted only the simple life, but Libya under Gadaffi degenerated into a corrupt state that enriched his family and hangers on. He made himself colonel, then abolished all military ranks above that. Despite all his talk of rule by the people for the people, it soon became clear there was only one colonel in Libya — and only one voice, among 6m, that really mattered.

Increasingly unchallenged, he gradually created an unreal world in Libya that mirrored his own fascinations. Grandiose projects never worked. All that remains of his $20 billion man-made river are oversized pipes scattered by the sides of roads or standing bizarrely at the centre of roundabouts in mute testimony to his folly.

He could afford it. Libya had valuable oil on the doorstep of European markets. Until the events of this year it was earning about $47 billion a year from exports — and Gadaffi used the wealth and influence it brought to keep potential enemies at bay and the country under firm control.

Much of the oil wealth was squandered, stolen or embezzled. Gadaffi and his six sons, increasingly important props for his one-man regime, became immensely rich.

He was an impossible interview in many ways. When I last talked to him during this year’s uprising, I asked who was giving the army orders. He looked puzzled and said, “But there is no army in Libya!” This at a time that Libyan soldiers were shooting unarmed demonstrators in the streets of Benghazi, Misrata and Tripoli. He said he would not have to step down as he held no government position, and chided me for not understanding the Libyan system of rule. In 1977, he had invented the “jamahiriya” or state of the masses, in which the nation is supposedly governed by the people through local councils. In reality, it was a parallel power base that he, his relatives and tribal allies controlled.

His ego knew no bounds. He fancied himself a philosopher, setting out his ideas in a “green book” filled with banalities such as, “A man is male, and a woman is female”. Every Libyan school child had to study the pocket-sized tome.

The green book was based on his “third universal theory”, which, an aide once told me admiringly, Gadaffi came up with after lying in a darkened room for weeks with a blanket over his head. When Tony Blair’s new Labour announced the “third way”, Gadaffi claimed it vindicated his theory and even threatened to sue for plagiarism.

Libya’s population was small in comparison with countries such as Egypt, but despite its riches its people struggled and infrastructure fell apart. It was impossible to imagine Libya as a wealthy oil country. Streets were potholed, cheap brick housing lined the highways.

Libyans went abroad for good healthcare, the wealthy to Europe or America, the middle class next door to Tunisia and only the poor attended Libyan hospitals. Education was among the worst in the Arab world. Gadaffi banned the study of English, pointedly keeping his people isolated from the wider world.
For Gadaffi, the great disappointment was that he never graduated to the bigger stage. He was desperate for international recognition. No matter how much he jumped up and down like a child, the great powers did not consider Libya important enough — strategically or militarily — to worry too much about him, at least at first. So he took to violence to get attention. He made Libya into an isolated, pariah state by spending millions backing anti-western terrorist groups, part of his revolutionary mission to change the world. His support was as indiscriminate as it was lavish. He funded and armed the Provisional IRA, but when Ulster Protestant paramilitaries came begging, he gave them money too. His largesse went to the Red Brigades in Italy, and Eta in Spain, to Shining Path in Peru and the Sword of Islam in the Philippines.

European capitals were bombed. Assassination squads were sent around the world, targeting Libyan dissidents whom Gadaffi labelled “stray dogs”. There was no escape; one exile was gunned down at his grocery store in west London. But it was when Gadaffi turned his murderous attentions directly to the United States, sending agents to bomb the nightclub in Berlin packed with American servicemen in 1986, that Washington and its allies drew the line.

He was not even very good with his few misguided supporters.

He put on an Alice in Wonderland “victory party” after the 1986 US bombing of Libya. Western peaceniks watched from stands erected in the ruins of Bab al-Aziziya as cute children marched by with examples of their hobbies. Then came the Libyan boy scouts carrying live chickens and a few live rabbits.
They appeared to be showing how well they cared for animals — until they suddenly threw them to the ground, disembowelled them with their bare hands and ate chunks of the still-quivering flesh. The peaceniks ran from the stands, screaming.

Gadaffi seemed ever more eccentric. After another interview, I went back to my hotel to be awakened in the middle of the night by a knock at the door. Standing in the doorway were a tall woman and a short Libyan man. She was wearing a full nurse”s uniform, complete with hat. Her little companion came up to her hip.

 

He announced that Gadaffi had thought I looked tired in the interview and had sent his personal nurse. She pulled out what looked to my sleepy eyes like the largest hypodermic needle I had ever seen, and said: “I Bulgarian. I take blood?” I said no, I was exhausted, she could do that tomorrow. It was never healthy to give an outright refusal in Gadaffi’s Libya. She insisted — “Just a little blood” — obviously under strict orders. I said: “Okay, but I know myself and if you take my blood I will definitely be too tired to interview the leader tomorrow.” They conferred, and we agree she could come by in the afternoon.
I decided to catch the first plane out of Tripoli — to anywhere.

But when I went downstairs to check out, I found that reception was under orders to keep my passport.
Luckily, Arafat was in town again and was seeing Gadaffi. Members of Force 17, Arafat’s elite bodyguard, had decided to have a coffee in the hotel while they waited for him. When they walked into the lobby, they saw me in distress.

They asked what was the matter, and wrested my passport back after a fierce argument.

Driving me to the airport, they saw me safely on to the plane.

The next time I went to Libya I was nervous; but Gadaffi started the interview by practically slapping his leg and laughing: “Remember the time I tried to take your blood?” THE Lockerbie bombing in 1988 succeded in winning the attention Gadaffi craved, but it led to tougher international sanctions and ostracism. Libya was cast into outer darkness for more than a decade. Then came the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and with them, an opportunity. The Americans’ subsequent overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 spooked Gadaffi.

In a spectacular volte-face, the Libyan leader came over to the West. Oil companies returned to the desert. His comeback was crowned in 2009 by his first address to the UN general assembly.

He admitted no fault for the terrors of the past, and oppression at home continued. The Libyans were never fooled. As younger generations across the Arab world rose in search of their rights this year, young Libyans decided to fight too.

His rehabilitation has, with hindsight, been rescinded by Europe and America over the past six months as his army has ruthlessly killed civilians to defend his regime. If captured he will now face an international indictment for war crimes. Or will the Libyans mete out their own justice? “My people love me,” he said in the last interview I had with him this year.

Did he really believe that? I looked into his eyes, trying to read him, and saw not a spark of duplicity showing. Yet he must have known his world was crumbling.

He chose the site of the interview cannily, appearing for the only time I met him above ground — in a fish restaurant of all places. It was puzzling until I realised the backdrop to the huge windows was Tripoli’s distinctive port, which would counter rumours that he had fled the country.

Where is he now? The streets I drove through to Bab al-Aziziya 25 years ago are littered with spent bullet cases, broken glass and burnt cars. The walls are daubed with cartoon caricatures of Gadaffi with exaggerated permed hair. The Libyan leader is on the run, with a bounty of $2m on his head. But he remains a showman. Will his exit be as dramatic as his entrance that night when he told me: “I am Gadaffi”? ”He was angry the cameras did not show Albright’s full face.

Marie Colvin was woken at 3am to see Gadaffi Albright: surreal meeting Colonel Gadaffi in 1973, left, four years after he took power. The Lockerbie bombing and other terror attacks made him a pariah, but by 2009, right, he had turned himself into a friend of the West

News International Associated Services Limited
 © The Sunday Times August, 2011. All rights reserved.

The Shot Hit Me

It was the most difficult decision of my life. I was lying in an open field with a clump of tall weeds on a slight rise for cover. The moon had not yet risen and the night was pitch black. Every five minutes or so a flare, fired from the nearby Sri Lankan army base, seemed to expose every blade of grass. Advancing soldiers intermittently raked the field with automatic weapons fire. They had to be as scared as I was.
I just wanted to lie still and wait for it all to go away. I thought I would not mind lying here for hours. I noticed little things. One of my trouser legs had come up to my knee and that meant my white calf might draw attention in the dark.

There were three options. I could crawl away. But if one soldier had night vision goggles – didn’t even the poorest armies these days? – I would be the only moving object on the field and would be shot.
If I was not spotted, I would still be alone in the jungle with no shoes. If I lay here until the soldiers stumbled on me, they would shoot first. If I shouted and identified myself as a journalist they might shoot anyway. There was no fourth option.

It was 10pm, on the forward defence line of the Sri Lankan army at Parayanlankulam, about 3A miles from the Madhu road junction. I thought of how I came to be here. There didn’t seem to be any one moment when it all went wrong.

A week earlier I had secretly entered the Vanni, a 2,000-mile area of northern Sri Lanka that has been the refuge of the rebel Tamil Tigers since the government captured the Jaffna peninsula in 1995. The Sri Lankan government bans journalists from travelling there.

The ban meant journalists could not talk to the leadership of the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam (LTTE), even though the government was involved in negotiations with them through a Norwegian envoy to begin peace talks. The only news of the problems with those negotiations came from the government.

More important, the ban prevented any reporting on the plight of the 500,000 Tamil civilians, 340,000 of them refugees, bottled up in the Vanni suffering under an economic embargo that the government denied existed.

I had travelled though villages in the Vanni and found an unreported humanitarian crisis – people starving, international aid agencies banned from distributing food, no mains electricity, no telephone service, few medicines, no fuel for cars, water pumps or lighting.

I had filed the story and had been trying to leave the Vanni to return to the government-controlled south for three days. This involved walking 30 miles a night through jungle and the knee-deep water and mud of marsh and rice paddies – only to end up sleeping on the same straw mat, on the same dirt floor, in the same mud hut. Even the bugs were starting to look familiar.

Each night I tried to leave, guided by local Tamils. But each time they decided it would be too risky to cross army lines. On Sunday night we came within 50 yards of the border between the two sides. The leader studied the army post we were supposed to slip past. Suddenly, he made a somersaulting motion with his hands and started walking back.

There was no argument; we used hand signals and observed silence until several miles from the army line.

“My mistake,” he said. “Military alert. Too dangerous.” I watched my guides’ tireless brown feet, clad only in black rubber flip-flops, pad unceasingly ahead of me until we reached the base house near the Catholic church at Madhu, home to 10,000 refugees living in tents and huts. At dawn I collapsed into sleep.

MONDAY night was meant to be third time lucky. As the sun slipped below the horizon, I sat with my guides under a banyan tree, looking out over a silvery lake, waiting for dark in a rare moment of peace and beauty.

We were a motley group. The civilians with me were dressed in a collection of shorts and sarongs. An emaciated old man carried a string shopping bag with two bottles of Pepsi, our only drink. A teenager kept trying the little English that he had learnt in St Patrick’s college in Jaffna before the army overran the town and killed his father.

“Tonight, you will be in my father’s house sipping milky tea,” the leader of the group said. He was the only one who was armed; he carried an old rifle to protect us from wild boar or elephants. “We are going a way that is safe and secure.”

The plan was to reach his family’s house in the government-controlled area that night. The Tamils would return before dawn and I would get the morning bus to Vavuniya. I had a last cigarette as the sun went down; there would be no smoking, talking or even coughing as we walked the next seven miles to sanctuary.

We trekked single file along narrow jungle trails, sometimes pushing our way through thickets of thorn trees; we waded waist-deep round the edges of a lake, eyeing the lights of an army base on its far edge. They are dotted along the Mannar-Vavuniya road that marks the border we would have to cross. At about 8pm, we crept through dark scrub about half a mile from the road, then waited crouching in a marsh – letting the mosquitoes bite because slapping could alert a soldier – while the group’s leader scouted ahead.

I took off my shoes to walk more quietly. At a signal from the leader we followed him to the road. Half-crouched, we negotiated our way through barbed wire on both sides of the road and seemed safely across.
We were running through the last dark field for the line of jungle ahead when the silence was broken by the thunder of automatic weapons fire about 100 yards to the right.

I dived down and began crawling, belly on the ground, for some cover. For a few minutes, someone was crawling on top of me – protection or panic, I don’t know. Then I was alone, behind weeds.

A tree was 10 yards away, but it seemed too far. The shooting went on and on. Flashes and light came from an army post nobody had seen.

The shooting stopped and dark and quiet descended. There had not been a sound from my side. I could not tell where anyone was. The only sound was the occasional bellow of a cow which had been hit.
I had a few mad moments of thinking it was over, I had survived. But I knew this was not true. We had been spotted. The army would think this was a Tamil Tiger patrol and would come after us. They would be scared and trigger-happy.

The reputation of the two forces is that the army has superior manpower and weapons, the rebels superior manoeuvrability and commitment. The advantage was to the army this night. I was lying in a field with a decision to make: run for it, lie still or shout.

I lay there for half an hour under the penetrating glare of the flares. I turned my face to the earth when one came drifting down directly above me, worried that my white skin would reveal my hiding place.
Bursts of gunfire began across the road about half a mile away. The search and destroy patrols had come out. I heard soldiers on the road, talking and laughing. One fired a burst from an automatic weapon that scythed down the weeds in front of me and left me covered in green shoots.

If I didn’t yell now, they would stumble on me and shoot. I began to shout.

“Journalist! Journalist! American! USA!”

A soldier sighted on the sound and fired. This army was not taking prisoners.

The shot hit me with an impact that stunned me with pain, noise and a sense of defeat. I thought I had been shot in the eye. Blood was pouring from my eye and mouth onto the dirt. I felt a profound sadness that I was going to die.

Then I thought it was taking an awful long time to die if I was really shot in the head (it was actually shrapnel), so I started yelling again. “English! Anyone speak English!”

There were more shots, but they seemed half-hearted, and lots of hysterical shouting from the soldiers. This was bad. They were as scared as I was. I did not really care because it seemed that I would die anyway, so I just kept shouting.

Searching for a word that non-English speakers might recognise, I fixed on doctor and shouted over and over that I needed one. Finally a voice screamed in English: “Stand up, stand up.” He fired a few more shots for emphasis.

I stood up slowly, hands in the air, saying, “Don’t shoot, American,” and whatever else I could think of just so that they would keep hearing a foreign voice.

“Take off your jacket,” came the voice. I dropped my blue jacket and stood straight up, hands in the air. Blood poured down my face so I could not see much. Someone yelled, “Walk to the road.” I stumbled forward.

Every time I fell, feeling faint, they would shout hysterically, afraid that I was pulling some trick, and I would struggle up again. I made it up the incline to the road and was shoved to the ground, flat on my back and kicked by shouting soldiers. A bright light shone in my face. I could not see any of my captors.
I am not sure how long I lay there on my back. I was searched for weapons, then told to walk at gunpoint, prodded by the weapons. The soldiers live in fear of women suicide bombers carrying explosives underneath their clothing.

The LTTE has a ruthless reputation as a result of the activities of the Black Tigers, an elite unit for suicide missions, who have bombed government buildings, assassinated a president and killed Rajiv Gandhi, the Indian leader.

I thought the soldiers were taking me somewhere to shoot me. I remember thinking that they were all scared and that I should act scared and vulnerable. I reached the limit. I could not walk any more and fell, telling them to get a doctor. They relented and put my arms round the shoulders of two men. But they pummelled me again when my hand fell and a soldier shouted that I was going for his grenade.
The nightmare seemed endless. We reached some lighted space outdoors and I was thrown on the ground on my back. A bright light again was in my face and questions shouted in Sinhalese and broken English. Someone ripped open my shirt and pulled it off. They shouted for my weapons. I kept saying, “Journalist, I need a doctor.”

An officer, or someone in authority, came on the scene and the questions changed into an interrogation: “Where did you get your training? How many people were with you? Where is your vehicle? Ah, you say you are American but you have no vehicle?”

Things were calming down and my sense of the ridiculous returned. If I had a vehicle, why would I be lying in a field on a dark night?

“Admit that you came to kill us,” he said. “At least admit that your side fired grenades first. This is true, is it not?”

I said, “No sir, there was no fire until your soldiers shot at us.”

THEN began an endless series of journeys. I was put in the back of a truck and driven, bouncing over potholes, hyperventilating because I could not seem to breathe. I thought it was shock; later, I found that my lungs had been bruised by the shock of the grenade and were filling with fluid.

Someone kind was in the truck. He kept telling me in English: “We are taking you for medical treatment, you are going to be okay.” I fixed on his voice, and he held my head up so that I could breathe.

At the first hospital I was taken to, the military hospital in Vavuniya, shrapnel was taken out of my head, shoulders and chest. I realised I could not see out of my left eye and I think the doctors panicked the soldiers into some sanity.

I was put in the back of another truck and driven for an hour to Army Victory hospital in Anuradhapura, where an x-ray revealed shrapnel in my eye. A truck took me to a third hospital, the Anuradhapura general hospital. I was never out of army custody.

The doctors seemed scared for me and I asked one to call the American embassy. But an army surgeon kept insisting that they should operate immediately.

“You are going to lose your eye anyway. I can operate now,” he said. I fended him off, but he would appear again, sharpening his imaginary knives, asking to operate.

Telephone calls were being made. It seemed that my request to be taken to Colombo was going to more senior people. At one point I heard a conversation in English. A soldier was saying, “No, she cannot come to the phone. What is your message?”

I heard him trying to pronounce the name of Steve Holgate, the personable public affairs officer of the American embassy. I shouted: “Give me the phone.” I had a huge sense of relief that someone knew where I was.

At dawn, someone in the Sri Lankan army hierarchy relented. I was put aboard a military helicopter and flown to Colombo. At the eye hospital, I was shoved on a stretcher against a wall in the crowded emergency room surrounded by hostile soldiers.

Miraculously, Holgate showed up moments later, clipboard in hand, and simply told the soldiers he was taking me into the custody of the American embassy. It was like the moment in a classic Wild West movie when the quiet guy faces down the armed and dangerous gang. I was safe.

WHY do I cover wars? I have been asked this often in the past week. It is a difficult question to answer. I did not set out to be a war correspondent. It has always seemed to me that what I write about is humanity in extremis, pushed to the unendurable, and that it is important to tell people what really happens in wars – declared and undeclared.

War has changed remarkably little over the centuries. Do not believe the nice clean videos where Gameboy jets hit Nintendo tanks framed in a satisfying and sanitary “X”. War is not clean. War is about those who are killed, limbs severed, dirt and rock and flesh torn alike by hot metal. It is terror. It is mothers, fathers, sons and daughters bereft and inconsolable. It is about traumatised children.
My job is to bear witness. I have never been interested in knowing what make of plane had just bombed a village or whether the artillery that fired at it was 120mm or 155mm.

War is also about propaganda. Both sides try to obscure the truth. Foreign journalists arriving in Sri Lanka are told in a government handout that parents in the rebel area keep their children home from school because the Tamil Tigers are recruiting them for service. But the parents told me they keep their children at home because they are hungry and faint in the classroom and do not have money for school supplies.

The Sri Lankan government reacted with anger to my presence in the Tamil-held area of the Vanni. It made no apologies for what had happened to me. I had no permission to go there, the government said, therefore I must have had a “secret agenda”.

I had no secret agenda. I had a journalist’s agenda. I went to the rebel-held areas because talking to the Tamil Tigers and writing about a previously unreported humanitarian crisis are important issues.
I am not going to hang up my flak jacket as a result of this incident. I have been flown to New York, where doctors are going to operate on my injured eye in about a week’s time. They have told me it is unlikely I will regain much use of it as a piece of shrapnel went straight through the middle. All I can hope for is a bit of peripheral vision.

Friends have been telephoning to point out how many famous people are blind in one eye. They seem to do fine with only one eye, so I’m not worried. But what I want most, as soon as I get out of hospital, is a vodka martini and a cigarette.

Editorial, page 16

MARIE COLVIN: COURAGE UNDER FIRE

Marie Colvin, 45, has earned a reputation as one of the most courageous foreign correspondents of her generation. She has been compared to the pioneering war reporter, fellow American Martha Gellhorn. Colvin joined The Sunday Times in 1986 as the Middle East correspondent. In that role she covered Beirut, the intifada in Israel, the Iran/Iraq war, the Yemen (she smuggled herself in from Djibouti by boat) and the Gulf war. Colvin has received awards for her reports from the world’s most dangerous trouble spots. Most recently she won the British press awards foreign reporter of the year for her work in Chechnya and Zimbabwe.

‘Marie has been in the front line for many years, operating with unfailing bravery. Her escape from Chechnya was a superb adventure, grippingly told. It was one of the great adventure stories of all time, they should make it into a film,’ said the judges. Warren Beatty agreed. He said that a film of Colvin’s life would be a great role for his wife Annette Bening.

RECENT HIGHLIGHTS

East Timor, September 1999

Colvin is credited with helping to save the lives of 1,500 refugees stranded in a United Nations compound in Dili, besieged by the Indonesian army.

The army wanted to remove the UN as witnesses to their terrorising of the Timorese who had voted for independence. UN staff were preparing to flee but the Indonesian government refused to let the refugees go. By staying long after other correspondents had fled, Colvin and two Dutch women journalists shamed the 80 UN staff into staying. Colvin reported from the siege and eventually international pressure forced the government to allow the evacuation of all refugees.

Chechnya, December 1999

After being pinned down by fire from Russian aircraft and troops while reporting the plight of Chechen rebels and civilians, Colvin found her last line of retreat cut off by Russian paratroopers. Four days before Christmas she escaped by the only route left open – a treacherously icy path over a 12,000ft mountain range. This perilous four-day walk ended in a helicopter rescue from Georgia

GRATITUDE FROM TAMILS WORLDWIDE

Sri Lanka, April 2001

Colvin was the first foreign reporter in six years to enter Sri Lanka’s dangerous northern Vanni region where the Tamil Tigers are waging a civil war against government forces. She went to interview the leaders and was ambushed while trying to walk out of the area last Monday. After reports of Colvin’s ordeal last week The Sunday Times received many letters from Tamils all over the world offering their support.

This one was typical
‘We Tamils are so proud about your brave foreign correspondent Marie Colvin…We (are) all aware of the risk she undertook and we appreciate her visit to (the) Vanni area of north Sri Lanka for bringing the news to the outside world. We are deeply concerned about her health and wish her to get well soon. Thank you.’

Signed Elan Ramalingham, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.

(c) Times Newspapers Ltd, 2001. All rights reserved.

Courage Knows No Gender

Do women report wars differently from men? The question used to make me bristle. It irritated me to think that I would be judged as a woman war correspondent rather than as a writer, taking the same risks and covering the same story as my male colleagues.

My feelings were hardly new. “Feminists nark me,” wrote Martha Gellhorn, one of the great war correspondents of the century. “I think they’ve done a terrible disservice to women, branding us as ‘women’s writers’. Nobody says men writers; before, we were all simply writers.”

I have been covering wars for 13 years now, ever since the Americans bombed Libya in 1986. In those days war reporting was very much a man’s world. It seemed important to blend in and the only way to do that was to be “one of the boys”. Now, roughly a quarter of the correspondents covering any conflict will be female.

The image of the glamorous female correspondent, weighed down by mascara, fluttering her eyelashes and showing a bit of leg, is as dated as a 1950s Life magazine spread, if it ever was true. Yet Ann Leslie, foreign correspondent of the Daily Mail, has just revived the myth in a book, Secrets of the Press. Acting the “harmless bird brain”, “chirruping” about cooking and “twittering” about babies, helps to land the scoops, she argues.

I have only to think of myself in Kosovo and East Timor to laugh.

In March I walked over the Albanian mountains into Kosovo with a unit of the Kosovo Liberation Army. The war was being reported second-hand from videos and briefings in Nato headquarters and from tales told by fleeing refugees. I wanted to see what was happening at first hand. That doesn’t seem to me a very male or female notion, just a commitment to what all journalists should be doing – trying to find out the truth for ourselves.

The idea that I was glamorous would have seemed pretty comical to the guerrillas who took me in. I walked and slept in the same clothes for days. I had to carry my own gear and, as far as I was concerned, a satellite phone was heavy enough. A change of clothes just wasn’t a priority. I was quickly covered with mud up to my knees. On the one day that the sun came out, I took off my flak jacket. I was so smelly, I quickly put it back on. Even I couldn’t stand the odour. And when you are huddled in a cold gully under shellfire with 12 men, fear is as great an equaliser as dirt.

My decision to stay in the United Nations compound in East Timor incited a lot of comment, because the three journalists who refused to leave were women (the other two were Dutch reporters). Again, there was little glamour involved. I was sleeping rough, mostly on the ground, and was once again short of clothes. I had been forced to leave my hotel when it was overrun by angry Indonesian soldiers and militiamen and, in my haste, I escaped with only a computer and satellite phone.

It underestimates men to say they are suckers for women who behave like sex kittens on the battle front. There are very few soldiers on a front line who wouldn’t take up the offer of a drink or a flirt with a woman correspondent – not least because there is not a great deal of female companionship around. But that doesn’t mean the femme fatale will land the story – she may get a drink at the price of enduring a really boring hour or two. Most likely, she will then be considered a lightweight and the object of her wiles, if he has a big story, will give it to somebody he considers a serious journalist. Men aren’t fools all of the time.

That said, there are differences. I don’t have to dab Chanel under my ears or play dumb for it to be easier for me to get through a checkpoint manned by surly militiamen with automatic weapons. They do react differently to me simply because of my sex. They feel less threatened by a woman, and however crazed they are, some vestigial feeling of protectiveness towards the “weaker sex” means they are more likely to help, or at least less likely to hurt.

This happened in East Timor, when I was trying to walk into the centre of Dili and was accosted by a militiaman with a machete, who drew his hand across his neck as a warning of what would happen to me if I continued on my way. An Indonesian officer rescued me, and drove me around the burning city.
I also think that gender can work in men’s favour. Male reporters can play on the boys’ club mentality, swapping dirty jokes with soldiers, or discussing the merits of different weapons. I’ve never been interested in types of guns, just what the people firing them mean to do.

There are other differences which are more difficult to pinpoint. Women, I think, tend to try harder to understand what is really happening to people on the ground. They are less inclined to settle for writing an analysis of a situation and leaving it at that. I think of Maggie O’Kane of The Guardian, who covered Bosnia and most recently the East Timor conflict with fearlessness; her war reporting is marked by vivid observation and tireless interviewing. This is a huge generalisation, and by no means always true, but writing about the “big picture” seems to carry a certain prestige that, to me, often misses the point of journalism.

I remember talking to a male colleague after writing a story about a man whose wife and five young children had been executed by the Serbs. It didn’t seem enough for me to simply report on his loss. I sat for hours with him, by their grave on a river bank, staring at a bloody and bullet-ridden romper suit, listening to his memories and his guilt.

My colleague mused that he simply would not have stopped. “There would have been other things to do that day, a briefing, whatever, more important or not. I would have written down his details and moved on.”

Why? That’s hard to work out. From experience I know men think differently from women, but since I’ve never been able to figure out their behaviour in other walks of life, I find it just as impossible to explain why they think differently in wars. Again, Gellhorn said it best describing her 40 years of reporting wars. “Beware of the Big Picture,” she wrote. “The Big Picture always exists. And I seem to have spent my life observing how desperately the Big Picture affects the ‘little people’ who did not devise it and have no control over it.”

There is probably a darker side to all this. Fewer women than men become foreign correspondents, and even fewer cover wars. Those of us who do are probably more driven than most, simply because it is harder to succeed. Maybe we feel the need to test ourselves more, to see how much we can take and survive. Bravery is personal.

But it is wrong to say that women are inevitably more sensitive. Since my return from East Timor, people have said to me that I must have stayed in the UN compound after my male colleagues had left because I felt more strongly about the women and children who would have been slaughtered had the UN evacuated it.

I felt proud that my reporting contributed to the reversal of the UN’s decision to pull out. I embarrassed the decision-makers and that felt good because it saved lives. It is rare to see such a direct result in journalism. I was moved by the children, who greeted me with “Hello, Mister” as I walked through the compound. But for me, it was a moral decision, made passionately but not out of sentimentality. I simply felt it would have been wrong for the UN to have promised these people protection and then to have abandoned them to certain death. It would have been a betrayal. I can’t believe that is a judgment that has a gender.

(c) Times Newspapers Ltd, 1999. All rights reserved.