Highway to the Danger Zone
That's the road Marie Colvin travels to the world's battlefields. Her vivid writing, sometimes first person, and clear point of view make for compelling reading in the Sunday Times of London. But do her techniques cross the line?
By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an AJR senior contributing writer.
THE PITCH BLACKNESS slipped away, stealing their only cover as they drove through a snowy mountain pass deep in Chechen-held territory. The first shafts of sunlight served as a deadly cue.
Suddenly, it came. A bone-chilling screech shattered the quiet of the gray, subzero morning in the towering mountains south of Grozny. Russian warplanes swooped like menacing hawks, spitting fire onto the narrow, dirt road. At the center of a bull's-eye was a lone four-wheel-drive vehicle carrying Chechen fighters and one of Europe's most daring war correspondents.
There was no time for Marie Colvin to wonder if she had gone too far this time, smuggling herself past Russian checkpoints into the heart of the carnage. Trapped in the back seat with no escape route, she braced for the final impact.
Milliseconds later, slivers of glass and steel went flying as a burst of high-caliber machine gun fire ripped into the back end of the mud-caked vehicle. Operating on instinct, Colvin scrambled free of the wreckage, running with Chechen fighters into a field of thorny bushes and barren birch trees, scant cover from an airattack. She remembers thinking, "This is a death trap."
For the next nine hours, Colvin lay with her body pressed to the frozen earth, not daring to move as Russian planes continued to bomb and strafe the sloping valley in a morbid game of hide-and-seek. Once, a shell exploded so close that shrapnel sliced off the tree branches that hung above her.
"It was torturous. I knew if I cracked and ran, I was dead," the reporter recalls. After dark, she crept back to the road and thumbed a ride with Chechen fighters returning from the firing line in a rickety 1950s-vintage pickup truck. By daybreak she was deeper into forbidden territory.
FOR YEARS, MARIE COLVIN, 43, a native of Oyster Bay, New York, and a Yale University graduate, has practiced journalism in the world's bloodiest killing fields. The reporter for the Sunday Times of London is part of an elite corps of British war correspondents who regularly risk their lives in hellholes like Kosovo, Chechnya, East Timor.
It's not just where they go but their passionate style of reporting that is markedly different from what appears in American newspapers.
Theirs is an up-close-and-personal brand of journalism that focuses on ordinary people trapped in horror. It means slipping beyond frontlines into the heart of the inferno--a scorched peasant village in Chechnya, a rebel-held jungle in Sierra Leone.
These reporters routinely mix "I was there" eyewitness accounts into stories that reveal a definite point of view. Each of these journalistic techniques would be likely to send seismic tremors through the foreign desks of the Washington Post or New York Times.
For Colvin, whom some media watchers credit with taking the personal touch in war reporting to new heights, it is simply a matter of strategy, of utilizing the most powerful tools to make battles in far-off lands meaningful to readers. "It is incredibly difficult to report on events and put yourself in the story, even when it is relevant," says the war correspondent, who often finds herself the lone journalist in some of the world's most dangerous places. "It is easy to go overboard."
In February, as she was preparing to head back to Kosovo, where violence again was flaring, Colvin talked about the magnetic lure of the risk factor. She also explained the rationale behind a writing style that breaks with tradition, at least for most American newspapers, and of her passion to make a difference despite the personal toll. She has had two failed marriages and opted not to have children.
Although it flies in the face of her early journalism training in the United States, she stands fast behind reporting with an attitude. "My own experience tells readers more about what is happening than merely attributing every quote. The people I meet and my reactions to them--that is part of the story," Colvin says. "It's quite often stronger to write, 'I saw this.' "
But she shuns making herself the focus of the story. "I think not twice, but 10 times before using 'I.' "
Some in the American press agree that, at times, being an eyewitness in a story is necessary. But they believe it is a technique that should be used sparingly. Roy Gutman, a 1993 Pulitzer Prize winner for international reporting in the Balkans, draws a strict bottom line:
"Is it information people really have to know, and someone is trying to stop it from coming out? If you are a witness, you can state what you see as part of the story. It is legitimate. Sometimes it's necessary to convince people you have been there, it has happened and it is important," says the Newsday reporter, who met Colvin while on assignment in Kosovo last year. "But you only would use your witness if it was something extraordinary. Journalists are used to being a fly on the wall. The very worst thing is to make yourself the story."
Others, like Serge Schmemann, deputy foreign editor of the New York Times, see an explicit danger in the personal style of "I was there" journalism. His correspondents, he says, adhere to a strong tradition of presenting information "as fairly as possible," keeping emotions and judgments in check. "We are not referees in the various conflicts of the world. We are there to report what is happening and let the readers decide whether it is truly horrible or not," says Schmemann, who for 21 years covered Israel, Germany and Russia for the Times. "Advocacy journalism, in our eyes, is always suspect."
There is the danger, for instance, that journalists who become too close to one side in a conflict might report only what fits their notion of truth, ignoring other factors. And while a first-person approach might be more creative, Schmemann noted, "It's precisely that sort of creativity that we are a little afraid of. We want our reporters to be accurate and fair--and not creative."
Correspondents for the Chicago Tribune have an outlet for first-person writing through a column called "letters," 20- to 25-inch stories that relate personal experiences. A "Letter from Rwanda," for instance, might describe a walk through villages past piles of bodies. The purpose, says Jim O'Shea, deputy managing editor for news, is to help readers feel what it is like to witness that kind of horror.
Outside of the letters pieces, first-person journalism is used "selectively" at the Tribune, only when reporters can broaden a story by including personal experiences. "The journalist still has an obligation to write objectively and not become involved. There's a danger when you go over that slope," says O'Shea, who oversees international coverage. "But I think there's a place for the first person when, by telling this small story, you're really telling a larger story."
John Owen, director of the Freedom Forum's London office, calls Colvin a "rare breed who reminds us of the power of first-person reporting." Owen lists Maggie O'Kane of the Guardian and Jon Swain and Janine di Giovanni of the London Times among other high-profile war correspondents who report with a personal touch.
Owen theorizes that the "I was there" approach stems from what he calls "ferocious British newspaper competition." Reporters are encouraged to do it in order to get noticed, he says. Colvin argues that beyond the appeal for readers, there is greater depth to first-person accounts enhanced by scene-setting, telling details and dialogue.
Getting close enough to her subjects to gain insight into their suffering often is the greatest challenge. To defuse cultural differences or the perceived threat posed by an outsider, Colvin chooses to blend in by living under the same conditions as the people she is covering. "If you go in bare and eat what they eat, drink what they drink, sleep where they sleep, there is less separation," she says.
In December, the reporter shared a 20-by-6-foot filth-encrusted sleeping area with more than a dozen Chechen fighters in a remote command post. Once, when hard lumps disrupted her sleep, she reached down and pulled out two hand grenades. The rebels "would come off the firing line and just collapse," Colvin says, adding, "They were very kind to me."
A Chechen commander paved the way by announcing: "There are no women here. Just a journalist." To his fighters, many of them Islamic, the edict was a release from conventions based on gender. "They were very respectful. They weren't protective, just accepting," says Colvin, who was accompanied by a Russian photographer working for the Sunday Times.
BEING THE LONE WOMAN amid warriors, whether in the deserts of Ethiopia or the hills of Kurdistan, has become part of her reporting strategy.
Colvin has lived among the Taliban, a fundamentalist Islamic group in Afghanistan known for brutality against women who fail to observe their religious rules. Last year, she accompanied the Kosovo Liberation Army into firefights with the Serbs. She cut her teeth on the U.S. bombing of Tripoli in 1986 and remained behind enemy lines in Baghdad during the Persian Gulf War. Her newspaper billed her as the first reporter to reach the desert frontline to report "eyeball to eyeball in the furnace of war" in Eritrea in 1998.
Risk-taking has become as much a part of her reporting agenda as developing inside sources and delivering scoops. Her storytelling goes beyond survivors who have made it to refugee camps. Instead, she opts to record the misery of those still trapped. That means gaining access to places that have been declared off-limits by one side or the other in a conflict. It is here that she becomes most vulnerable.
Watchdog organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists compile reports on attacks against the media in conflict zones. Pulitzer Prize winner David Rohde, then with the Christian Science Monitor, was arrested by the Serbs after he sneaked behind the lines to document mass killings of Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995. Rohde, now with the New York Times, was held for 10 days, interrogated and accused of being a spy.
Sometimes, the price is much higher.
Myles Tierney, of the Associated Press, was shot and killed in January 1999 while attempting to pass a checkpoint during the civil war in Sierra Leone. Ian Stewart, also with AP, was shot in the head and survived.
Yet journalists covering brutal wars, such as in Chechnya, have few options. They either report the story from the "safe" side, allowing their activities to be directed and monitored, or they defy authority and smuggle themselves beyond safety zones to act as eyewitnesses.
"I didn't see American journalists inside Chechnya," Colvin says. "I felt very strongly about going to look at the inside story. Here we have a former superpower with a military of 1.5 million that is indiscriminately bombing and killing civilians. Everybody else was covering it from the Russian side." In December, she went to her editor and volunteered to slip inside.
Colvin calls Sean Ryan "the perfect boss" for her. In part it is because he is willing to turn her loose anywhere in the world.
Ryan calls Colvin a crusader and a feisty negotiator, which helps her get her way in the field and in the newsroom. He offered high praise for his reporter. "It takes a lot of guts to walk into Kosovo with a KLA unit when you know the Serbs will be trying to wipe them out," Ryan says. "She stayed in the United Nations compound in Dili [East Timor] when all her male colleagues left, because she thought the refugees inside might be abandoned and slaughtered if there was no one to report what was happening. She takes risks to get to the truth, and I salute her for that, no matter how many sleepless nights she gives me."
To readers in London, there is nothing unusual about a front-page story that tells them, "Pinned down by fire, Marie Colvin shares the anguish of the Chechen rebels" or a paragraph that scolds Russian pilots for bombing civilians. Her stories tend to center on the suffering of innocents--women, children, elderly victims--or underdog combatants in pursuit of what might be considered a noble or courageous cause.
She had this to say about the Chechen rebels: "There is this notion that Chechens all are thugs, and if you go in as a journalist you could be beheaded. That certainly was not true of the people I met there. I felt very passionately that [the war] is wrong. I saw indiscriminate killing of civilians."
Analyzing Colvin's stories, it would be easy to conclude that the subject matter and writing style is gender-based, with a heavy emphasis on the human condition not found in more typical battlefront accounts. But it's only relatively recently that large numbers of women have covered combat, and there has been little exploration of the question: Do women report war differently?
Colvin admits that, at times, being female does make a difference on the battlefield. In a story about gender and war reporting, she wrote, "I don't have to dab Chanel under my ears or play dumb for it to be easier for me to get through a checkpoint manned by surly militiamen with automatic weapons. They do react differently to me simply because of my sex. They feel less threatened by a woman, and however crazed they are, some vestigial feeling of protectiveness toward the 'weaker sex' means they are more likely to help, or at least less likely to hurt."
But in a story for the London Times titled "Courage Knows No Gender," Colvin noted that the question of women reporting differently used to make her bristle. "It irritated me to think that I would be judged as a woman war correspondent rather than as a writer, taking the same risks and covering the same story as my male colleagues," she wrote.
She uses her climb over the Albanian mountains with the KLA as an example of an equalizer. "The war [in Kosovo] was being reported secondhand from videos and briefings in NATO headquarters and from the tales of fleeing refugees. I wanted to see what was happening firsthand. That doesn't seem to be a very male or female notion, just a commitment to what all journalists should be doing--trying to find out the truth for ourselves."
THAT SEARCH FOR TRUTH could explain why she considers John Hersey the inspiration behind her career. During her senior year at Yale, the English literature major was one of 12 students chosen to participate in a seminar on nonfiction writing with the author of "Hiroshima," a book proclaimed the 20th century's top work of American journalism by a panel of experts at New York University.
First published in The New Yorker in 1946, the story centered on six survivors of the atomic blast. Hersey's book would become a definitive model on how to make journalism persuasive and powerful without crossing the line between fact and fiction. Hersey held fast to a strict standard: Never invent.
"He was the person who made me want to write, not just as an exercise, but something that was real. It was a breakthrough," says Colvin, who started her career a year out of Yale as a midnight-to-6 a.m. police reporter for United Press International in New York City.
Hersey "convinced me that what you write could make a difference. It really was that one thing that got through to me." She later became UPI's Paris bureau chief. And as her career progressed, Colvin began feeling that American journalism focused too heavily on a "just the facts, ma'am" mentality, while the British style of reporting appeared to be more creative thanks to fewer restraints. After hiring on with the Sunday Times in 1986, she recalls an editor telling her, "Stop attributing so much. Have some trust in yourself."
Colvin found her second mentor after reading "Faces of War" by Martha Gellhorn, an American author and pioneering war reporter.
The following description of Gellhorn appeared in an article by Mary Holland in the Irish Times in February 1998:
"It wasn't the fact that she reported on these and many other key events of the 20th century which made her an incomparable witness. It was the way she saw them and wrote about them. Her view, as she said, was from the ground, standing among ordinary people--soldiers, victims, the survivors trying to rebuild their lives in the rubble of war. She didn't care much for politicians and was dismissive of 'the official drivel' handed out at press briefings. She once wrote, 'I've no time for that objectivity shit.' But she also gave young journalists advice that is more valuable than the sum of most textbooks. 'Limit yourself to what you see and hear. Do not suppress and do not invent.' "
Though the "she" in this story was Gellhorn--whose coverage ranged from the Spanish Civil War in 1937 to the jungles of Vietnam--the passages could just as well have been describing Colvin.
The Freedom Forum's Owen sees shades of Gellhorn in Colvin's work. He notes, "Just as the coverage of Kosovo, East Timor or Chechnya begins to numb you, suddenly Marie turns up with a powerful behind-the-lines piece that makes you care again about the victims of these wars and reduces the military and power politics to understandable human tragedies."
There are other similarities. Like Gellhorn, Colvin professes little respect for the science of warfare, or "boys playing with guns" as she calls it. Instead, a "burning sense of social justice" directs her work. Both women fine-tuned the art of slipping past authorities to get a story. Gellhorn reached Normandy 24 hours after D-Day by stowing away on a hospital ship and going ashore in a landing craft. Colvin entered Chechnya last year via a smugglers' route.
WHILE COLVIN WAS NO stranger to danger, the travel-at-your-own-risk bar was raised in Chechnya, a place she calls "far worse" than Kosovo. Staying alive became an obsession after a road offering her best chance for retreat was captured by Russian paratroopers. ###
A reign of terror followed, with Russian MiGs firing on any vehicle that attempted to pass. Alternative routes were blocked by heavy fighting. The only possibility of escape into neighboring Georgia was over a 12,600-foot ice-covered mountain where the risks of robbery and kidnapping became new enemies.
It was, says Colvin, "a terrible nightmare" that drove her to break her own rules about making herself the focus of a story. "I am a city girl, and I am not particularly fit. I never planned to climb a 12,000-foot mountain. It was test enough that it was worth writing about," she explains. "I feel I played chicken with my life a lot during that trip."
Within an hour we were zigzagging up a mountain on a 6 inch-wide path covered in snow and ice. I was carrying a pack with a satellite telephone and a computer and wearing a flak jacket. I felt every ounce... I regretted every cigarette I had ever smoked--and I had smoked a lot in the past few days: cheap Russian tobacco that gave me some respite from the bombs and the decisions... We walked up the slope, looking down thousands of feet into a gorge that one slip would take us into. Magomet [a guide] hauled me by the hand to the last summit. I slept for an hour sitting against a stone in the snow until Magomet woke us at dawn with a warning that we were still in Chechnya and would have to move.
It was a discouraging day. Traveling up the next river, I stepped in the wrong spot and plunged through the ice up to the hip into raging torrent below.
The next 12 hours were passed in a daze, one foot in front of the other, up and over another mountain. The air was so thin that I could not fill my lungs, and the wind was so strong that several times I was almost blown off the mountainside. Just before dawn we reached a snow-covered field amid the peaks.
For the next two days we lived in the shepherd's hut on flour and water. I supplemented the porridge once with wild onions. They tasted horrible but they would give us some vitamins. Magomet gave me a pistol loaded with nine bullets--telling me not to shoot a wild animal until it was 10 meters away but to shoot a man the moment one appeared--and set off to find a way forward.
In the riveting account, Colvin described how on December 29, the bedraggled group came upon a pile of stones that marked the Georgian border. But, before they could cross, shots rang out. As they dove for cover more rounds were fired. Colvin remembers thinking, "It seems unfair that here, yards from the border, we will die."
On instinct, the guide began shouting wildly in Chechen. Suddenly, the gunfire stopped. Then, the beginning of a miracle.
Just before dark, a helicopter thundered into view and quickly landed. As Colvin rushed down the slope she was greeted by a hulk of a man, a Hemingway figure in white beard and blue snow jacket. He uttered words that would become indelible: "Jack Hariman, American Embassy. Are we glad to find you!"
Back in London, her editor passed the news to family and friends that "Marie was out alive," then cracked a bottle of champagne to celebrate. Colvin, physically exhausted, climbed into the helicopter and headed to the Georgian capital of Tblisi toward what, at the moment, she craved the most: a steaming hot bath and a clean bed without grenades.