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 Day 19

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“I need to get in and get out fast”

Marie Colvin (1956-2012)

by FRANKLIN LAMB

Marie Colvin left Beirut on Valentine’s Day on a mission to illegally enter Syria from Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley en route to Homs, Syria. Her clear intention was   to document the conditions of the civilian population in Homs who had been under heavy attack for the preceding two weeks.

Marie, with more than a quarter century experience in the Middle East had made contact in Beirut with some smugglers who agreed to take her and her colleague, French photographer  Remi Ochlik to a  makeshift media center in the besieged  flash point neighborhood of  Baba  Amr.

Marie promised apprehensive friends in Beirut that she would return “ no later than one week maximum, Certainly I’ll be back by your birthday Franklin! (Feb. 26)” she told me.

According to her mother, Rosemarie, who lives in New York City,  Marie planned to arrive back in Beirut on February 22nd.  As it turned out, that was the day she was killed as eleven artillery shells slammed into her cramped quarters.

Jean-Pierre Perrin, a journalist for the Paris-based Liberation newspaper who was with Marie until the day she died said the journalists had been told that the Syrian Army was ‘deliberately’ going to shell their center. Perrin said: ‘A few days ago we were advised to leave the city urgently andwe were told: ‘If they (the Syrian Army) find you they will kill you’.’I then left the city with Marie but then she decided to go back when she saw that the major offensive had not yet taken place.’

“I need to get in and get out fast”, Marie said as she waited to hear from her transport team in Beirut on February 13, 2011.

Marie asked my help in getting a visa to enter Syria.

I did give her contact information for friends in Syria, including Dr.Bouthania Shaaban  and her associate Nizar, whose  friendship I value very much. I mentioned to Marie that I hoped they are both well but that I was worried about them. We used to see a lot of Bouthaina on TV.  One of her jobs was as media adviser to Bashar Assad on TV but now nothing. I urged Marie to try to meet with Bouthania who I am certain would help her if she possibly could. I am not sure if the two women ever did make contact.

Her mom said to me Marie had been told twice by her editor to leave the country because of the danger she was facing, but Marie replied that she “wanted to finish one more story”.

In her own words, Marie explained not long ago how she viewed a reporter’s job.

“You hear all this talk about the meaning of the media, the need for integrity etc etc,” she said during a November 2010, talk at London’s St Bride’s Church – the “journalists’ church” on Fleet Street at an event to honor fallen journalists.

“But isn’t it quite simple?  You just try to find out the truth of what’s going on and report it the best way you can. And because we are kind of romantic, our sympathy goes towards the underdog.”

Ironically, on Thursday 2/23/12, as Marie’s  sheet draped body lay atop rubble  near the media house,  awaiting evacuation, the invasion on Baba Amr that she had  predicted and risked and then gave her life trying to report on began with armored Syrian units and tanks entering and shelling the neighborhoods starting in late morning.

As of late afternoon February 24, 2011 Marie and Remi’s bodies have still not been able to be evacuated nor have three journalists wounded in the same attack that killed their colleagues.

I had known of Marie Catherine Colvin since the late 1980’s when we crossed paths at the Grand Hotel in Tripoli, currently a base for the Zintan militia, and like everyone then and since we basically sat around the hotel lobby for lots of hours waiting for an appointment with “the Brother Leader” or one of his associates for whatever reason brought us to Libya.

I followed Marie’s work over the years and was in contact in 2001 when she lost her left eye reporting on the Tamil resistance in Sri Lanka.

But I got to know Marie know much better during this past summer and fall, again in Libya, and we continued to stay in regular contact mainly via email. It was following the August 21-2nd rout of the pro-Gadhafi defenders of Tripoli that Marie arrived in Tripoli from months of covering the rebels in the east and then in the west.

On August 22nd, the nearly empty Corinthia Bab al Africa hotel where I was staying suddenly filled with dozens of arriving journalists who, like Marie, had been following the rebels advance toward what some were calling “the final battle at Tripoli”.

We immediately reconnected and began helping each other.  She briefed me for hours on what had been going on in the east and I filled her in on what I knew about developments in Tripoli.  Both of us, like just  about everyone,  were shocked how  quickly Tripoli had fallen and how the claimed 65,000 well-trained loyalist  defenders that the regimes persuasive spokesman Musa Ibrahim assured us would be waiting in all the streets and alleys and on every roof top of Tripoli for the expected arrival of  the “NATO rebels”  had suddenly vanished.

The arriving brigades of journalists were disappointed to find the 5 star Corinthia  Hotel without water, or  employers to clean the rooms, no electricity most of the time, not much worth eating or much else that they had looking  forward to. Of course this did not mean the hotel would lower its astronomical  room rates and the place made a financial killing as did the  Rixos and Radisson Hotels.

I was able to show Marie a ‘secret’ bathroom off the lobby that no one had discovered and it was the only one in the Corinthia to my knowledge that was not filthy and overflowing.  She also appreciated a hidden plug I showed her that worked off a hotel battery backup  near the mezzanine that she could use to make coffee—which she always seemed in search of– and to charge her laptop and mobile.

In appreciation Marie supplied me with some of those cups of noodles  things that I learned many in the  international press  survived on when amenities faded. Actually, some of them taste pretty good at 3 am as we would sit outside the hotel watching the city and the sea.

Marie was the only person I trusted with the knowledge that Mohammad, the black gentleman from Mali was hiding in my room from gangs of wannabe lynchers from Misrata.  He got plenty of cups of noodles also.

Marie also met my Chadian princesses friends and she agreed immediately that the treatment  I was receiving  including the Sahara paste was  just what my infected leg needed.  Marie particularly enjoyed “Dr.Fatima’s cactus flower drink” since no whiskey or vodka was available.

She would let me ride with  her as she investigated the stories she wanted to cover and she introduced me to Irish journalist Patrick Cockburn who was staying at the Radisson Hotel where conditions were only marginally  better than Marie and I were experiencing.  Sitting together on the Radisson patio I mentioned to  Marie and Patrick that during  the summer I used the swimming pool at the Radisson plenty.  Patrick informed us that these days hotel guests would dip buckets of water from the swimming pool to flush their toilets.

Marie’ great sense of humor and concern for others made her a joy to be around and we kept in touch by phone and email while moving in and out of Libya.

She was a unwavering supporter of the Palestinian cause  and wrote and produced documentaries, including Arafat: Behind the Myth for the BBC in 1990.

Marie took an interest in her friends work and often commented on particular articles she liked:

Shortly before she left for Homs I received a short final email from her on Saturday February 12, 2012 concerning a piece on the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and their struggle for civil rights. “Powerful piece Franklin. Thank you for reminding us. Best regards, Marie.”

Marie’s final audio report was made during the night of 21 February during British ITN news report from Homs  from arguably the middle of the world’s most dangerous  war zone:  Marie reported:  “The Syrians are not allowing civilians to leave … anyone who gets on the street is hit by a shell. If they are not hit by a shell they are hit by snipers. There are snipers all around on the high buildings. I think the sickening thing is the complete merciless nature. They are hitting the civilian buildings absolutely mercilessly and without caring and the scale of it is just shocking.”

Marie Catherine Colvin will never be far from the hearts of those who were honored to know her from her writings and sincere friendship. Marie’s murder is a great loss for all people of good will.

Franklin Lamb is reachable c/o fplamb@gmail.com