Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Like being an upended turtle

 ‘Guards go out with heavy sniper rifles. Sleep is cold - pile wet sleeping bags on top but sleeping in a flak jacket is like being an upended turtle with a detached shell - have to sleep on back and keep sliding down.’ This is from the diaries of Maria Colvin, a fearless foreign correspondent reporting from Kosovo for The Sunday Times. Two years later, she would lose the sight of one eye reporting from Sri Lanka, and a decade or so later - 10 years ago today - she would be murdered by the Syrian government. From an early age she kept regular diaries, and these were used for and quoted from by Lindsay Hilsum, a friend and once a fellow foreign correspondent, in her 2108 biography, In Extremis.

Colvin was born in Queens, New York, in 1956, but grew up on Long Island. Both her parents worked in the public school system, though her father had been a WW2 veteran. She went to Oyster Bay High School and spent a year abroad on an exchange program in Brazil before entering Yale University where she majored in anthropology. She worked briefly for a trade union in New York City before starting her journalism career with United Press International. In 1985, she went to work for The Sunday Times, and the following year was assigned as the paper’s Middle East correspondent. In 1986, she was the first to interview Muammar Gaddafi after the American bombings of Libya. In 1995, she was promoted to foreign affairs correspondent.

Colvin made international headlines in 1999 after refusing to evacuate a United Nations compound under attack by Indonesian-backed forces in East Timor. She stayed as other journalists left. The stand-off brought attention to the plight of 1,500 women and children, who as a result were eventually evacuated to safety. She won the International Women’s Media Foundation award for Courage in Journalism for her coverage of the conflicts in Kosovo and Chechnya. Apart from her newspaper reporting, she also wrote and produced documentaries, including Arafat: Behind the Myth for the BBC. She was married twice to fellow journalist Patrick Bishop, and briefly to a Bolivian journalist, Juan Carlos Gumucio. She also had a long term relationship with Richard Flaye, the two of them sharing a passion for sailing.

In 2001, while reporting the Sri Lankan civil war, Colvin lost the sight in her left eye; thereafter, she always wore a black eye patch. She remained committed to reporting on the realities of war, but most especially the effects on civilians. She was killed in Homs on 22 February 2012, along with a French photographer, when a makeshift media centre was bombed by Syrian rocket fire. Her death sparked a massive outpouring of tributes by heads of state, colleagues, admirers and victims of war around the world. The Guardian said she ‘was a fearless but never foolhardy war correspondent who believed passionately in the need to report on conflicts from the frontline’. Seven years later, a US court found Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government liable for her death. Further information is available from Wikipedia, the BBC, the Maria Colvin Memorial Foundation, the Marie Colvin Center for International Reporting,

In Extremis: The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin by Lindsay Hilsum was published by Chatto & Windus in 2018. The publisher promotes the book as ‘the story of our turbulent age and the life of a woman who defied convention’. Some pages can be previewed at both Amazon and Googlebooks. Hilsum includes many quotes from some 300 diaries kept by Colvin since the age of 13 - indeed she refers to the diaries as ‘the backbone’ of her biography. All the diary entries quoted, however, are used for, and in the context of, her narrative, mostly edited, reduced, and thus cannot be read as whole entries for a single date. Here are some of the entries quoted by Hilsum.

2 January 1969
‘Everyone is wearing pants. I’ve got to talk mommy into letting me do it, for honor’s sake. I’m not sure I want to but I must.’

6 January 1969
‘Wore pants. Blue dungaree bell bottoms. Hard playing instrument, pants are so tight.

28 May 1969
‘Today I went HS in shorts. So did everyone else. But mine were v short and v tight. Wore a vest and sandals too. When we got back was mommy mad. We had a mother to daughter talk about why I was doing this. She told me how provocative I looked.’

10 July 1977
‘My father’s death has had such an influence on my life, I still don’t realise the extent. But I watched a man go from a virile, happy man - a man with everything he wanted - and that was pretty much true, everything was the family, the family was the purpose to everything. Why go to work every day, save up your money, buy that house, buy that car, if there is no purpose? It has begun to seem meaningless to my mother since he left. He went from this to that cadaver, cold, calm with such a dignified peace - he was so righteous even in the coffin. “I have lived a good life. I made people happy. And I did what I thought was right!” The last one - it is the essence of my father. I feel so weak-spirited when I think of him. Why should all the pettiness matter to me? But I did learn - LIFE IS TOO SHORT. [. . .]

There’s so much I wanted to show him - prove myself to him. Somehow, he was and is still my standard. I did everything to make him proud. That’s probably going to seem like, “you say it now, now that he is gone.” And it’s not entirely true - but it is necessary to make the statement so bald, because if I made him proud that was the main thing that mattered. Yes, I do have my own goals, and no, there is no chance I’ll not persevere now that he’s dead, but I did so want to make him proud . . . [. . .]

There are so many things I want to put my energy into, I often ask why I’m not happy completely without a man. Is it ingrained? My sense of self is not independent of men - I need their feedback. That old dichotomy, I want my liberty, I want to be free to create, be the free spirit, but at the same time I guess, I’ve admitted that I want security.’

12 October 1978
‘For me, it was my father’s death. It’s as if my prior life had been lived unconscious; as if looking back, it had been lived by someone else . . . The realization that what mattered was being able to write, that I was scared to attempt it because of fear of failure; everything has always come so easy for me. To fail at anything else would not really be to fail; to fail at writing would be real failure. And to succeed the only success I would value.

17 August 1992
‘Horrible disturbing anxiety dreams, can’t remember them. Realization today: first I was bulimic, then I discovered smoking. Everyone, even Iraqis, comments on my chain smoking. 2 1/2 packs a day, start when I wake up, before coffee. No desire to quit.’

23 April 1999
‘Terrifying walk in night down slope from camp, log over a stream. Dine hands me butt of his rifle as I almost slip in. Walk through compound of stone homes. Deserted. Roofs crashed in by mortars. Lights of Djackovica about 1 km away. Can’t tell what’s happening there. Camp in a gully. Camouflage sheets up over branches. Stack of sleeping bags but they are damp with rain all day. Guards go out with heavy sniper rifles. Sleep is cold - pile wet sleeping bags on top but sleeping in a flak jacket is like being an upended turtle with a detached shell - have to sleep on back and keep sliding down. Bursts of automatic fire and shots during night, one sustained about 2am impossible tell where coming from.’

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