Return for shoes cost Marie her life
by: Jon Swain
From: The Times
February 26, 201211:09PM
INSIDE the makeshift "media centre" in Baba Amr, the journalists had retreated to the ground floor.
It was an ordinary building, chosen because the narrow streets and surrounding structures offered some protection from the rockets and shells.
The top floor had been hit by the Syrian forces besieging the district, part of the city of Homs, but the others had largely escaped - so far.
On the ground floor, Marie Colvin was asleep in a room on her own last Wednesday morning when the lethal rain of explosives resumed. An American who had worked as a foreign correspondent for The Sunday Times for 25 years, Marie was used to war zones and was expert in the ways of the Middle East.
The streets were littered with rubble, many houses wrecked, nowhere was safe. Yet the media centre was her temporary home and, true to local custom, Marie had left her shoes in the hall.
It was a gesture that would cost her life.
Also in the building were Paul Conroy, a Sunday Times photographer; Javier Espinosa, a Spanish journalist; Edith Bouvier and William Daniels, a French couple; and Remi Ochlik, an award-winning French photographer. They were in the care of seven Syrian activists.
"Two rockets hit near the house," said Abu Haneen, one of the activists reached last week. "Then a third." The explosion ripped through an upper room. Part of the floor caved in, crashing onto the journalists below. "Dust was everywhere. Everyone was terrified."
Believing the building was being targeted and more rockets were likely, Haneen shouted at the others to get out. Grabbing belongings, the journalists gathered in the main room, trying to formulate a plan.
It was the safest part of the building, towards the front side that had not been hit before. Previously all the damage to the media centre had come from another direction, striking the back. This time the Syrians had changed their angle of fire.
Marie and the others knew they had to get to the safety of another building. But first she needed her shoes. She made a dash for the entrance hall. At that moment Hussein, another of the activists, heard a distant "puff" - the sound of a rocket leaving its launcher.
It was early this month that Marie decided she had to go to Syria. The uprising against Assad's regime was gathering force and the backlash was becoming more violent. The Syrian government was trying to hide its brutality by keeping journalists out. Marie felt the truth needed to be told.
When the Syrians obfuscated over a visa, she flew to Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, on February 7, planning to find her own way across the border. She stayed one night at Le Bristol, but moved to the Gefinor Rotana hotel, which was more to her taste and where other contacts were based. Even as she prepared for the horrors of Homs, Marie, whose life flitted between combat kit and cocktail dresses, had certain standards.
In an email on Friday February 10, she explained her hopes and motives to Sara Hashash, a friend and young journalist in Cairo. "The overall picture I have been told about is that Homs is ringed by the army and tanks, and the army is stopping anyone from entering and leaving. I may have found a way in...
"The people inside, and the surrounding villages, fear they are about to be overrun... So, no pressure then." She wanted to help before it was too late.
Other journalists had previously sneaked in to Syria across the border with Lebanon, but Marie had identified the area that seemed hardest hit as Assad's crackdown intensified. In an email the following day to Sean Ryan, foreign editor of The Sunday Times, she outlined the situation in Homs: "Heavy shelling again... Trying to get more detail, seems it is mostly in Baba Amr and Ishaat neighbourhoods, the main strongholds of the FSA [Free Syrian Army]".
Though parts of Syria are largely hostile to Assad, his forces still have checkpoints everywhere. Getting in would require the help of Syrian activists opposed to Assad.
Marie's years of covering the Middle East had brought her numerous contacts in the region, from high-ranking politicians to well-connected fixers.
The latter were what she needed now. Later that afternoon she sent another email: "I am meeting Syrian 'transporter' (read smuggler) tonight. The fixer came earlier today, and reading between the lines, it increasingly looks like tonight's meeting will not be actual transport but a discussion of logistics, inspection of gear (ie no flak jackets or helmets, can you fit three on a motorbike, yes, if it is that or walk)."
Her plans delayed, she had time to catch up with old friends in the field and swap the latest local intel. In Beirut she dined with with Neil MacFarquhar of The New York Times, revealing her concerns about the looming trip across the border. "I cannot remember any story where the security situation was potentially this bad, except maybe Chechnya," she told him.
She dined, too, with Lindsey Hilsum, international editor of Channel4. Last week Hilsum recalled: "I told Marie that I would not sneak across the border into Homs because it was too dangerous. She said she was going to have a go anyway. She felt it was important. 'Anyway, it's what we do,' she said."
Days later Marie slipped over the border and was guided by activists through back roads and fields into Homs. It was dark and dangerous, cold and wet; the final leg of her journey into the besieged neighbourhood of Baba Amr she promised to keep secret to protect the smugglers.
Though she knew certain types of communication were risky, late on Thursday, February 16, she contacted Ryan: "This is a secure line so I am taking advantage to send you a quick message to say I have arrived safely at the heart of Baba Amr. The journey was eventful to say the least. Pretty much every kind of danger, cold, wet and muddy, but we made it! We are in what seems to be the one place in the city that has electricity. There is a lot of shelling, and snipers during the day."
Conroy, a photographer who had worked extensively with Marie in Libya last year, had also been smuggled in.
The only way to get communications out was via satellite. Marie had decided to use a Thuraya satphone as a little as possible because its calls could easily be intercepted and its location identified. Instead, she was mainly sending messages via Skype, which is harder to track, on another system.
To do so, however, she was making use of equipment at the makeshift media centre set up in Baba Amr where the activists had been uploading videos to the internet. The centre had already come under fire and internet security, Marie suspected, "was out the window". Whether the Syrians were already targeting the site deliberately or not, it was inevitably at risk as the Assad's troops bombarded the district.
Early on Friday, February 17, Marie sent another message to Ryan: "Cupla [sic] technical things. Forget that number I sent you, it was knocked out when the top floor of building I am in was hit yesterday."
The top floor was badly damaged, but the activists kept operating from the other two. Marie continued: "Heavy shelling this morning. I counted 45 shells in 7 minutes nearby. When it lets up I will try to get out to the field clinic."
That day she braved the snipers to interview locals huddled in houses and basements and to visit a makeshift clinic treating the wounded. The scenes she witnessed were grim.
In an email to a young friend, Lucy Fisher, she admitted her fears, writing: "I did have a few moments when I thought, What am I doing?" Then she added: "Story incredibly important though. Mx."
That night she was smuggled out of Baba Amr and the next day, from a safer location, she filed a searing account of what what had seen. It appeared across two pages of The Sunday Times last weekend and could leave no one in any doubt of the indiscriminate violence being meted out by the Syrian army.
Marie, however, was never one to give up on a story. Last Sunday she spoke to Ryan and they discussed her next move. Should she go to another area, he asked. Hama, he suggested, another city about 30 miles north. Marie thought Baba Amr remained the epicentre. The residents were terrified they would be slaughtered if the Syrian army forced its way in.
Then last Tuesday another email dropped into Ryan's inbox. "I am in Baba Amr, the shelling started at 6.30am." She had gone back.
For all Marie's glamour and impressive connections, she remained down to earth, a defender of the oppressed and the wronged. The next part of her message to Ryan made clear why she was risking her life by returning to Baba Amr.
"It is sickening that the Syrian regime is allowed to keep doing this," she wrote. "There was a shocking scene at the apartment clinic today. A baby boy lay on a head scarf, naked, his little tummy heaving as he tried to breathe. The doctor said 'we can do nothing for him'. He had been hit by shrapnel in his left side. They had to just let him die as his mother wept."
She knew that, in a voraciously competitive media, there was a risk she might be regarded as repeating her earlier report. Determined that the world should not ignore Syria, she added: "I feel strongly that we have to include these stories of the suffering of civilians to get the point across."
Supplies of water and electricity were short. The shelling was wreaking havoc. Two cars driven by activists had been hit that day, she had emailed, one destroyed. Growing increasingly concerned for her safety, Ryan responded: "I'm alarmed to read what happened to the two cars... the first [question] is whether it's safe to move at all."
The three of them, Marie, Conroy and Ryan, discussed the situation over Skype. Marie wanted to stay, arguing that it was an important story and she was the only British newspaper journalist there to tell it.
Shortly afterwards, Conroy, unknown to Marie, sent a further email to Ryan, expressing his reservations. "The situation here is extreme," wrote Conroy, a former soldier who had served in the Royal Artillery. "The shelling is only getting worse and expect it to continue... I suspect that Marie's high profile due to this week's material in paper and TV interviews also compromises our safety."
He added: "As I am sure you are aware Marie can be tricky to convince once she has the bit between her teeth."
When communications allowed, Ryan again discussed the options with both Marie and Conroy. They should get out of Baba Amr at the first opportunity, he said.
Instead, Marie had a message to get out first, a message for the world about the truth of Baba Amr. In links to the BBC, Channel4 News and to CNN, the US news network, she described the misery she was witnessing. She told the CNN presenter Anderson Cooper how she had watched the baby die. "It is 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.
David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, saw her CNN broadcast and noted the next day: "There was cool but profound rage in her voice."
After her report in The Sunday Times a couple of days earlier, Marie's broadcasts rammed home the point: atrocities were being committed. Assad and his generals could no longer conceal the horrors of their three-week assault on Baba Amr.
A Facebook group of fellow journalists sent Marie a message applauding her courage for being in Homs. One of them thought she had already left the battered city and expressed relief that she was safe.
"I think the reports of my survival may be exaggerated, Colvin responded. "I'm in Baba Amr. Sickening, trying to understand how the world can stand by and I should be hardened by now."
She told the Sunday Times that she wanted to stay one more day, saying in an email to Ryan sent at 10.36pm on Tuesday that she wanted to go back to the clinic the following morning. "We would stay as long as possible; once inside we are pretty safe," she said.
Her message included a wry afterthought: "I have spent tonight gathering stories from some FSA guys from the front. Everyone I meet invites me to the front, what is it with me?"
Trouble and Marie had often gone together, but this time she had decided there was no point risking a visit to the front line. "It is a line of destroyed buildings. I don't see the point in going, nor Paul, especially after the discussions you and I had (about the risk)."
Ryan messaged back: "But I still think you should be ready to leave Wednesday night if conditions deteriorate and a ground offensive is coming."
One more day and they would be out. That was the plan.
All the journalists were sleeping when, early the next morning, the shelling erupted again. After the broadcasts had Assad ordered the troublesome critics silenced? It was clear foreign journalists had got into Baba Amr - and the Syrians are known to be able to locate satellite transmissions. The means to target the journalists were there, but no one can be sure whether they were used.
For the first time the Syrian forces started firing at the media centre from a new direction. As explosions shook the building and the ceiling fell in, the journalists gathered their belongings.
Marie was not the only one who had left shoes in the hall. Espinosa, 47, a reporter with the Spanish daily El Mundo, grabbed his and raced back inside, crouching in a corridor on the far side of the living room wall with Daniels.
As Marie ran to the entrance to get her footwear, another rocket landed at the front of the building, a few yards away. The blast killed her and Ochlik instantly, rubble falling on their bodies in the hallway.
Espinosa and Daniels, sheltered by a wall inside, escaped virtually unscathed. Conroy and Bouvier, in the living room near the hall, were hit by the blast and shrapnel.
Bouvier was the most seriously wounded, with multiple fractures to her leg. Conroy tried to staunch blood pouring from his leg. An activist tried to help him up. "No, leave me here. Save yourself," Conroy replied.
"They are words I will never forget," the activist said later.
Espinosa helped up a wounded activist and fled the house through a haze of dust and smoke. Such was the chaos and confusion, he unwittingly stepped on the bodies as he went.
"This for me was the most horrible thing. I stepped on their bodies. I didn't know it was them," he said.
As Williams stepped over them to leave, he slapped Ochlik's face to see if he was alive. There was no response and he moved on.
The journalists and activists struggled into a house opposite the media centre and the shelling continued. They managed, with the help of a car, to get the wounded to a field clinic.
For several hours no one dared to recover the bodies of the dead. Later, when the bombardment and gunfire eased, two of the activists ran back into the media centre where Marie and Ochlik lay, and wrapped them in a shroud.
As soon as the deaths were confirmed, tributes poured in from politicians, friends and colleagues around the world. In Britain, David Cameron said: "This is a desperately sad reminder of the risks that journalists take to inform the world of what is happening and the dreadful events in Syria."
In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy said the deaths of Colvin and Ochlik amounted to "murder". He urged that those responsible be found and held accountable.
For Peter Bouckaert, the emergencies director of Human Rights Watch, the killing of the journalists was a crime whether or not they had been deliberately targeted. "There are two possibilities," he said. "Either it was a targeted attack on the building and it was a crime, or the journalists were the victims of the same kind of criminal attacks that have killed hundreds in Homs, which is also a crime."
On Wednesday evening friends and journalists who had worked with Marie gathered at the Frontline club in London of which she was a founder member. There were tears but also much laughter as they celebrated her extraordinary life and listened to Jon Snow pay a closing tribute on Channel4 News. "She was a one-off and one of the most courageous of our age," Snow said.
From New York, Marie's mother, Rosemarie, said: "She was totally, totally committed to what she did and the importance of telling the story and writing it and getting it out to the world. That was her life."
For Conroy and the other survivors, the ordeal continued. Trapped inside Baba Amr, they were patched up by the activists as best they could. Bouvier needed urgent specialist treatment; Conroy, though suffering three large wounds to his leg, appeared calm in a video he posted to the internet, saying that "any assistance would be welcome".
A team of young activists from a few miles away set out to smuggle medical supplies to them by crossing through an area controlled by the Syrian army. They never arrived. A search party later found seven of them shot dead, their hands tied behind their backs. Medical supplies were strewn in the street around them. There was no trace of two other members of the team, one a foreign paramedic.
When one opportunity for the walking wounded to escape did arise, Conroy refused to go. He did not wish to leave behind Bouvier or Marie's body.
From London to Beirut and Damascus, desperate talks went on to try to secure a ceasefire or any means of allowing in rescuers and medical help. When members of the Red Crescent aid service finally made their way to the wounded on Friday, Conroy again refused to accompany them, apparently fearing a trap and that he might be handed over to the forces of Assad.
Attempts to bring out the wounded, and the bodies, continued yesterday. Ambulances from the Red Crescent made their way through Homs, seeking to extract both civilians and the journalists.
Syria's conflict remains far from over. After diplomats and politicians from numerous countries failed to agree any firm action at a conference in Tunisia on Friday, there is little solution in sight to the clashes between Assad's regime and the popular opposition to it.
As the killing went on, Haneen, who had pulled Marie's body from the rubble, expressed growing despair. "We cannot count the ones that die in the shelling and are buried under rubble. No one knows of them," he said.
"We are all waiting for our turn to die. Every evening we tell each other, 'Thank God for your safety. Another day has passed and we have not been killed'."
But sadly, not for Marie.