Recalling Marie Colvin, the ‘greatest of our generation’

In her final hours, Marie Colvin gave this damning report to CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

Bravery, generosity, and commitment: These are the three characteristics of Marie Colvin that have surfaced, again and again, in the many tributes spoken and published since the veteran Sunday Times reporter was killed Wednesday in the besieged city of Homs by Syrian forces.

“There is a good reason why Marie was held to be a cut above the average foreign correspondent, brave though they all are,” Vanity Fair London Editor Henry Porter wrote Wednesday. Like many of Colvin’s colleagues, he referred to her decision, in East Timor in 1999, to remain in a compound of refugees under threat from Indonesian militia when all of the other journalists chose to leave. “Among [the refugees were] mothers who were so desperate they were throwing their babies over the barbed-wire fence surrounding the U.N. compound. Embarrassed by Colvin’s reports, the U.N. reversed its decision to leave the innocent behind, and the civilians were taken to safety in Australia,” Vanity Fair reported in a 2002 feature on female war correspondents.

And of course many tributes referred to her injury, in 2001, sustained while covering Sri Lanka’s civil war, which resulted in her wearing an eye patch for the rest of her life but did not deter her from reporting. Her work in Sri Lanka is the stuff of legend: She filed a 3,000-word piece as she awaited evacuation for medical treatment. “#MarieColvin who I’d privilege of knowing 1 of bravest journos of our time: lost eye in grenade attack in Sri Lanka & still managed 2 file!” Canadian writer Michael Bociurkiw posted on Twitter.

Yet these two parts were only a fraction of the whole, according to Christopher Dickey, Paris bureau chief and Middle East editor for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. “I am not sure when, exactly, in the last 10 years–perhaps as I started to pull back from combat myself, and she did not–I realized that Marie really was the greatest war correspondent of our generation. She took extraordinary risks and got extraordinary stories year after year, decade after bloody decade,” Dickey wrote.

Her outstanding career earned Colvin posthumous accolades from U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague, who said, “For years she shone a light on stories that others could not and placed herself in the most dangerous environments to do so. … She was utterly dedicated to her work, admired by all of us who encountered her, and respected and revered by her peers,” according to the Daily Mail. And European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes tweeted, “Terrible news about Marie #Colvin… Was a great admirer.”

Colvin, however, didn’t consider herself brave. After her injury in Sri Lanka, she told Vanity Fair, “These people you are leaving behind are much braver. If they want to live, they have to be brave every single day of their lives.” But those people she “left behind” cared about her; according to Lindsey Hilsum, international editor at the U.K.’s Channel 4 News, Colvin received “dozens of letters from Tamils asking if they could donate their eye for her.”

Her selflessness, it seems, most manifested itself in her generosity to friends and colleagues, including younger journalists just starting out. Sarah A. Topol, of Foreign Policy, recounted meeting Colvin in newly liberated Tripoli in September and feeling “like I was in way over my head with a story.” She writes that Colvin took the time, more than once, to talk over angles, contacts, and writing strategies. “She was happy to sit down and share everything she knew over coffee. Without knowing it, she made me believe that I could be more like her,” Topol wrote.

Even David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, has a story about being taken under Colvin’s wing. She had taken up temporary residence in the West Bank city of Jenin in the Palestinian Territories. “When she saw me and a few more experienced colleagues walking down an empty street marked by tank tracks, shuttered shops, and spent ammunition, she recognized a fool at risk,” Remnick wrote. She called me into the house–a strong, clear American voice–fed us, let me file from her miraculously still-working satellite phone, and gave good stern advice on how to get through town without getting detained.”

Or, in the tweeted words of Jason Burke, South Asia correspondent for the Guardian, “i knew nothing. she was modest, generous, knew everybody, everything ..”

Colvin’s generosity stood her apart from some others in the field. Anthony Loyd, a foreign correspondent for The Times, wrote, “Far from being a harridan, cardboard-cutout war correspondent, hardhearted and cynical, Marie’s natural ability to engage with people was drawn from a warm and wide heart that bore its own burden of sorrows.”

And that engagement with people, no doubt, is what led to Colvin’s commitment to her profession. “Last year, in Misrata, she refused to leave because she felt so strongly that the story should not be abandoned,” Hilsum wrote.

Several correspondents have cited one of the final posts that Marie made online before her death, in which she described the horrors around her and concluded, “Will keep trying to get out the information.”

Get out information she did; her final story for The Sunday Times is a powerful, detailed account of the situation in Homs. And get out information she would want us to do. Christiane Amanpour–CNN and ABC journalist, CPJ board member, and a close friend of Colvin–told that the loss of Colvin and New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid in one week is a “terrible loss, not just for our profession, not just for their friends and family. It’s also a terrible loss for the people on whom they reported and for the politicians charged with ensuring atrocities don’t happen and are stopped when they do.” On ABC, Amanpour said: “Marie, and all of them, would be angry with me for only talking about their sacrifice.”