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Cover Story: Holding power to account

August 25, 2013

Conditions for journalists working in Syria have deteriorated since the uprising began in 2011, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that has listed 28 journalists murdered, targeted or killed in crossfire in 2012. Last year Syria was ranked as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for the press, where journalists are killed by all sides in the conflict. The CPJ states that Syria is also one of the ten most censored countries where foreign journalists have been detained, abducted and jailed. Fifteen journalists were abducted in 2012 of which eight have been released, one is said to be held by rebel forces, and another in government custody. Also, with the Syrian government controlling the press, perpetuating a local media blackout and barring entry to international journalists (many are smuggled across borders with Turkey and Lebanon), there has been a rise in citizen journalism. In February 2012, American journalist Marie Colvin, a foreign correspondent for The Sunday Times for 25 years, was killed in Homs when “she braved the dangers of Syria to tell the truth about its horrors.” Colvin was on the ground floor of a make-shift media center in Baba Amr with other foreign journalists and seven Syrian activists when rockets hit the upper floor and exploded. She had left her shoes in the hallway and when the building was targeted by government forces she went to retrieve them and was hit. Colvin had been smuggled into Homs with former British soldier and The Sunday Times photographer Paul Conroy (he’s since written Under the Wire: Marie Colvin’s Final Assignment). The rocket that killed Colvin, 56, ripped a hole in Conroy’s leg. As Syrian ground forces closed in on his position, Conroy was forced to make a last-ditch attempt to escape and was helped by local activists. That same year in December, NBC correspondent Richard Engel and his three-member crew were abducted for three days before being released. Despite many similar attacks on the press, journalists have remain undeterred from covering the Syrian conflict as nearly two million refugees have fled the country to neighbouring Arab states. According to Antonio Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, this displacement has created far more than just a humanitarian crisis. Published three months after she lost her life in Homs, On the Frontline is a collection of Colvin’s work over a quarter of a century, recording modern day conflict with careful insight into human suffering. In May this year, when she was posthumously awarded the Orwell Special prize, Jean Seaton, the director of the prize, paid an apt tribute: “Marie Colvin’s life — like many journalists’ — was abruptly and terribly closed as she was doing her job. The threats journalists face all over the world have gone up — yet we need their intelligence more than ever. But her work has been beautifully shaped in this book. A life given to holding the powerful to account.” There was not one war that Colvin didn’t record with the determination to tell the stories behind the politics of events that shape the world. The experience of reading the entire volume — with articles, interviews (of Yasser Arafat and Colonel Gaddafi) and conversations with ordinary people that capture details with a storyteller’s intelligence — is different from reading a story at a time in The Sunday Times. Reflections on the state of humanity done with objectivity, these writings are about the truth reaching the right places. Bearing witness to history, Colvin was one of three journalists who refused to withdraw from East Timor in 1999 when their lives were at risk, deciding to stay and report on the plight of 1,000 refugees so desperate to seek sanctuary in a UN compound that they fought through razor wire. Her reports brought their situation and that of 80 UN staff to the world. They were eventually evacuated to safety. When she lost an eye in 2001 in Sri Lanka after being hit by shrapnel, Colvin wrote from her bed: “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.” This essentially tells why she steered clear of the ‘big picture’ stories (she writes that her male colleagues were praised for them) and sought to find the human picture, whether in Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, or Kosovo. When female war correspondents like Colvin and her contemporaries put themselves in dangerous situations there is silent reprimand that they should either have retreated or not risked their lives. The question is, was it worth the risk. Yet that has never deterred female journalists from the frontline. BBC’s Lyse Doucet, the first Western journalist to visit Qusair after Syrian government forces took it back from rebel forces, not only reported on the physical destruction she witnessed but the loss of human life, the suffering of mothers who had lost their sons whether fighting with government forces or the rebels, and on the distress of fleeing families leaving a ghost town where even the mosque was in ruins. Colvin’s interest in the Middle East took her to Iraq again in 2002 when Saddam Hussein refused to give in to international pressure and allow international weapons inspectors. She wrote about the victims of torture and the post-Saddam purging of Baathists and on the Israeli bombing of Gaza in 2008-2009, including the story of the young doctor at the Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza city who saw his own son brought into the ward after Israeli bombing. In 2010, her Iraq reports revealed how seven years after the US-led invasion Al Qaeda recruitment tactics had penetrated Fallujah. Reporting from Afghanistan the same year, she concluded that the Taliban leadership will have to be part of the solution if there is to be lasting peace and that after the Marjah operation “quick impact projects” were favoured within “security bubbles to get the economy and normal life going inside them in the hope that at some point the locals would throw in their lot with the government.” In Iraq, Colvin documented the brutality of Saddam Hussein’s regime including torture at Abu Ghraib before the US-led invasion. Mohammad (telling his story after 19 years for the first time and living in exile in Europe, he did not give his full name and talked of Saddam’s brutal methods to consolidate power) tells of being taken out of prison to see Saddam’s half-brother, the head of the secret police, and then being made to watch his fiancé being sexually molested and poisoned. The story about Latif Yahia (“It is disconcerting to meet him. He still looks exactly like Uday, still dresses in the same sharp European suits the dictator’s son favours”) forced to undergo plastic surgery and pose for four years as a double of Uday Hussein, Saddam’s allegedly violent and sociopathic son, is an investigation into a regime that was secretive and isolated for decades. Those “years of blood” when Latif was forced to physically and mentally turn into a brutal imitation of Uday gives valuable insight into the life of Saddam and his family, also revealing how he himself had a series of doubles. Through 2011, Colvin wrote about Colonel Gaddafi’s last days and the desperate hold on power exercised by the Libyan regime. A dispatch written on May 22, 2011 from Misrata (“We had our orders: rape all the sisters”) records Gaddafi’s forces who are accused of sexually assaulting at least one thousand besieged women in the front-line city of Misrata. These assaults by young army recruits “emerged when the rebels broke through loyalist lines.” The collection includes political profiles that are crisp, detailed and entertaining. Colvin follows the PLO leader Arafat in the early ’90s with his obsessive precision that could be maddening, even Israeli leader Yitzah Rabin complaining that “dealing with him is like dealing in a Middle East bazaar.” In March 2011, Gaddafi, in one of many meetings, talks to her in a fish restaurant in Tripoli to show the world that he has no fears of travelling openly in his BMW. Colvin assiduously told the stories of those whose voices seemed drowned or failed to make headlines over narratives of political deals, authoritarian regimes being felled down and ceasefires. She realised the competitiveness of the international media with a 24-hour news cycle when it came to getting an exclusive story like the situation in Homs in February 2011, but what drove her right until the end was determination that the world should not ignore the atrocities in Syria. In her final dispatch Colvin said she decided to stay in Homs because she felt it necessary to reveal the scale of human tragedy. She writes of how she was smuggled inside Baba Amr through narrow streets, climbing walls, slipping through muddy trenches. She had told CNN in Homs shortly before being killed how she watched a baby die. “It’s a complete and utter lie they’re only going after terrorists. The Syrian army is simply shelling a city of cold, starving civilians,” she said.

On the Frontline: The Collected Journalism of Marie Colvin

Harper Press, London

ISBN 978-0-00-748796-7


The reviewer is senior assistant editor at the monthly Herald