LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Many journalists claim the title war correspondent. But few have really deserved it as much as Marie Colvin. Colvin was a journalism legend, a fearless American reporter who wrote for the British paper The Sunday Times. She was unmistakable in war zones. She sported an eye patch to cover up an eye injured in a grenade attack while she was reporting during the Sri Lankan civil war. And she was always far ahead of the pack. Colvin didn't just cover conflicts. She lived them, writing vivid dispatches from places few Western correspondents would go - Chechnya, East Timor and so many other places and, ultimately, Syria. This is one of her last interviews given to the BBC while she was in the besieged town of Homs in 2012.
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MARIE COLVIN: I watched a little baby die today - absolutely horrific - just a 2-year-old been hit. They stripped it and found the shrapnel had gone into the left chest. And the doctor just said, I can't do anything. And his little tummy just kept heaving until he died.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Shortly after this interview on February 22, she would be killed along with French photographer Remi Ochlik after the Syrian government shelled the media center where they were staying. Her story is being told in a new book by Lindsey Hilsum, herself an award-winning journalist for the British Channel 4 News and Marie Colvin's friend. It's called "In Extremis: The Life And Death Of War Correspondent Marie Colvin." Lindsey Hilsum, welcome to the program.
LINDSEY HILSUM: It's great to be here, Lulu.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You can hear in that interview in Homs, Marie cared so much about the subject she would report on. We'll get to her death in a moment. But this book is about her life. She grew up in the small town, Oyster Bay on Long Island with a middle-class sort of stable family. A lot of the book is based on her own journals, her observations as a teenager than a college student. She was driven and curious and passionate.
HILSUM: She absolutely was. And one of the joys of writing this book is Marie's diaries. One of the things I enjoyed was - her family were incredibly generous. And I went down into the basement. And there were all these papers. And I found this little white plastic cover child diary, which was locked with one of those tiny keys. And I couldn't find the key. And so I had to slit it open. And there it was, Marie's first diary. And when she's 13, she writes very simply, to church - wore a mini - the mother and the father no like. And I thought, oh, I think I can see the woman I knew in that naughty girl. And then when she was at Yale, she did a class with John Hersey, one of most famous American journalists who wrote the great book "Hiroshima." And when she came out of that class, she said to her best friend, that's what I want to do. I want to tell the really big stories by telling them through the stories of the individuals, the victims of war. And that was what she set out to do.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. She was fearless. But she saw humanity everywhere, as you say. But what really made her famous was her unrelenting quest to tell the stories of the people in hard-to-get places who were sort of the victims or going through something terrible. She experienced their lives and didn't keep that detachment that American journalism is so fond of.
HILSUM: That's right. And in that way her journalism was quite controversial. She didn't go in in the way that some journalists of the right or left do and do paint-by-numbers journalism, you know, find the facts that fit their story. She was actually remarkably ideological. But she certainly had a big thing for the underdog, whether the underdog were the children and the women being bombed in the shelter or the conscripts who didn't really know what they were fighting for or people who had rebelled against their governments. So she certainly identified - some would say overidentified with them. And I think that what distinguished her writing and her journalism was that she went further. And she stayed longer. And that meant that she got those stories that other people didn't get.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I knew Marie in the field. The last time I saw her, we were in Tripoli. And we were climbing into a compound owned by one of Gaddafi's sons. And she led the charge. She was inexhaustible. We were actually going to give up and try the next morning. And she was basically like, forget that, except I think it was a more pointed expletive.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And she wrangled someone to bring a ladder. And we were the first group in to see this sort of crazy paranoid world of underground bunkers and lavish living. That is the last time I saw her. She was an icon of this kind of journalism.
HILSUM: I think that's such a great memory to have of her because that was exactly what she was like. She was like, come on. Let's go for it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And it came at a cost, though. This part is quite resonant to me. You describe the parties and the fun and the friends that she had and how much she was loved. But there was the post-traumatic stress disorder, the things that come along with covering conflicts, the personal toll it takes.
HILSUM: Absolutely. And when she first lost the sight in her eye, you know, this amazing piece which I quote which she wrote - I don't think it was ever published for Vogue - about how she now had to wear different clothes. The vision of herself no longer married who she thought she was and who she might now be. And then somebody asked, well, you know, why were you worrying about that? And she - it was like, well, you know, I'm concentrating on the outside because there were some things that were too dark within to look at. And she had nightmares. And particularly after Sri Lanka - you know, a nightmare which would come back again and again - which was, she would wake up just before the moment where she was shot. And those nightmares just wouldn't wouldn't go away. And she drank too much, as many journalists do. And in the end, she crashed.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: At one point in the book, you write, Marie was easy to love and hard to help. Do you think she should have quit?
HILSUM: Look. I should have, should have, should have - how could you say that to Marie? You know, Marie - I think she defined herself by the work that she did. And she believed in the what she did. She was committed to being an eyewitness to war and to telling the story of people who go through it. I mean, the book is called "In Extremis" because of something she wrote. She wrote, 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.
But, of course, she lived her own life in extremis, too. She had a very turbulent personal life. And so I can't really say what she should have done. I've just come to understand something of who she was.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Marie was killed by a brutal despotic regime that is still in place. But that regime, with Marie's death, wanted to send a message that sort of shining a light would not be tolerated. I couldn't help but think while I was reading this book about this moment where journalists in this country being called the enemy of the people by the president of the United States. What do you think she would make of this moment for journalists right now?
HILSUM: I think she'd be absolutely horrified. She grew up in an American culture after the Pentagon Papers and Watergate and so on where journalists were seen as a noble profession and telling true stories of what was going on in the world. And that was the tradition in which she came from.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you want people to take away from her life story? I mean, this is a moment where foreign news gets fewer and fewer pages and airtime and where people are looking much more inwards to the conflicts within their own country?
HILSUM: Well, I hope that they will take away the importance of being there and understanding what's going on and reporting these stories and of knowing that even if it's not obvious what should be done that you must never get to a situation where they can turn around and say, oh, we didn't know what was going on. Yes, you knew because we told you. Marie told you. The other thing is that a life which was extraordinary and a woman who was extraordinary. And yes. She was traumatized. And yes. She died in this terrible way. But boy, was she a big character. And I guess, you know, if I want to be sentimental, America should be proud that it produced a journalist and a woman like Marie Colvin.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Indeed. Lindsey Hilsum is an award-winning journalist herself with Channel 4 News. And her book is "In Extremis." Thank you so much.
HILSUM: It's my pleasure, Lulu.
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