AJR  Features
From AJR,   February/March 2012

Remembering Two Splendid Journalists   

Marie Colvin, Anthony Shadid and the commitment to report the truth no matter the danger. Fri., February 24, 2012.

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

A note on the stoop of the stylish two-story brick house in Silver Spring, Maryland, instructed visitors to knock because the doorbell wasn't working. After a minute of loud pounding, it was obvious. Anthony Shadid had forgotten about our interview.

Then, suddenly, he swept in. He brought his car to a screeching halt in the driveway, hopped out and apologized profusely. He'd taken his two-year-daughter, Laila, to the babysitter's and lingered over the goodbye. That afternoon, he was heading back to Baghdad for the Washington Post.

Laila didn't shed tears when he kissed her and walked away, he said. Instead, she reminded him, "Bring me presents, Daddy."

The worst part of his job wasn't dodging bullets, bombs and terrorists in Afghanistan, Iraq and the West Bank, Shadid explained over a cup of strong coffee in March 2004. It was the hardship on his loved ones.

When his cell phone rang, he glanced at the caller ID. "Sorry, I have to take this. It's my father," he said as he stepped into an adjoining room.

I have interviewed dozens of war correspondents for AJR over the past two decades, and there has been one noticeable trend: Many of them describe a magnetic draw to the work they do, as well as a willingness to make extraordinary sacrifices to fulfill that destiny.

Whether traversing icy mountains with Chechen rebels or traveling with a band of smugglers to steal into Syria, these journalists are willing to risk their lives to communicate the gritty truth and agony of armed conflict. It's not about machismo. It's about getting the story.

The day before she was killed, war correspondent Marie Colvin, 56, told the BBC and CNN that she had seen a two-year-old fatally wounded in the besieged Syrian town of Homs. "Absolutely horrific. His little tummy kept heaving until he died," Colvin reported. One of her last stories described the terror of civilians trapped by weeks of artillery bombardment.

She lost her life on February 22, along with French photojournalist Remi Ochlik, 28, when the Syrian army shelled the makeshift media center where they were working. Colvin was from Oyster Bay, New York, and a Yale University graduate.

When journalists cross into conflict zones, they are vulnerable on every front, from religious fanatics, armed militants, criminals and government forces to unforeseen and unpredictable threats. Shadid, 43, was captured and beaten by Muammar Gaddafi's forces during the fighting in Libya last year. In 2002, he was wounded in the West Bank. But, it wasn't a bullet that ultimately took him down.

On February 16, the reporter died of an asthma attack while covering the armed insurrection in Syria for the New York Times. He reportedly had an allergy to horses and may have reacted to animals used by smugglers who helped sneak him and Times photographer Tyler Hicks across the border. They were leading them back out when his breathing became labored. Hicks administered CPR for 30 minutes, to no avail.

Shadid talked to me about the importance of taking calculated risks. "You want to find the human moment―that's your challenge as a reporter. And you have to be on the scene to do that," he said during the 2004 meeting at his Maryland home. An Arabic speaker of Lebanese descent, he prided himself on blending in and keeping a low profile. In Iraq, he shunned bodyguards and armed drivers. He didn't like traveling in armored vehicles. "They draw too much attention," he said. "People get nervous. They won't talk to you."

During our three hours together, Shadid described his reporting strategy. "You can cover a story from above or below. You can cover high politics or more of a street sentiment, which often is ignored. You can listen to what the people are saying and feeling and thinking, or you can report from a press briefing. It depends on how much you want to be the eyes and ears of a story," he said as he walked toward a bookcase.

He returned with a dog-eared copy of Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski's "Shah of Shahs," depicting the final years of Iran's Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was toppled in 1979, and the buildup to the revolution. The foreign correspondent had covered civil wars, revolutions and social conditions in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. Shadid read the book in college and found it "an inspiration" for his life's work.

"His writing is evocative, very sparse," he said as he settled down on the couch and began paging through the slim volume, pointing one of his favorite passages. Asked why Christmas decorations were still hanging over the mantle in March, he replied, "Because Laila likes them there."

His home was a shrine to the Arab world. The ornate couch had been shipped from Cairo. The stunning wall hangings were from Iran and Afghanistan. There were carved silver boxes decorated with camel bone from Yemen. There were plush oriental rugs and pillows decorated with tiny mirrors. But there was a distinctly American touch as well: A Green Bay Packers cap was prominently displayed in his office. "I am crazy about them," Shadid said. While he grew up in Oklahoma City, he graduated from the University of Wisconsin in Madison, about a two-and-a-half hour ride from Green Bay.

Shadid generously shared his expertise with colleagues. In July 2006, Hezbollah guerrillas made a daring raid into Israel, kidnapping two soldiers. Shadid was the only Washington Post correspondent in Beirut at the time and one of the few Western journalists in the region. He was on his way to the port city of Tyre when I caught up with him by mobile phone. At a time when U.S. news outlets were shuttering foreign bureaus, AJR wanted to look at the consequences of not having seasoned reporters based in regions that commanded international headlines. I needed on-the-scene information and contacts.

In the whirlwind of a breaking story, Shadid took time to help. Through a series of e-mails and phone calls from a seaside hotel 10 miles from the Israeli border, he rattled off the names of news organizations that had rushed personnel to Tyre from Asia and Africa.

During a phone conversation, I could hear bombs exploding in the distance. No, he wasn't in any danger, he said. The firepower was headed in the opposite direction. Earlier, he had driven over treacherous roads, braving attacks by Israeli warplanes, to get to the devastated town of Bint Jbeil. It was a crapshoot. "I had no idea what I would find," he said.

As he entered the town, he saw people clawing their way out of rubble. "I stood there staring, then I started interviewing. Getting out in the field is the best option," Shadid said over a crackling phone line. He led his page-one story out of Bint Jbeil with a single sentence: "The ghosts climbed out of the rubble in this southern town Monday."

Once when I was headed to an assignment in Yemen, he took the time to send a list of contacts. "Try to spend as much time as you can in the old city," he advised. "It's splendid."

Shadid won the first of his two Pulitzer Prizes a few weeks after I first interviewed him. He knew he was a finalist but considered talking about it bad luck. When the winners were announced in April, I shot an e-mail to Baghdad. "How did you find out?" I asked. Shadid recalled that it was around 11 p.m. Iraq time and he was on the phone to the Post newsroom discussing a story on the Shiite uprising when then-Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. broke the news to him. "Len put me on a speaker phone, and they announced it to the newsroom," Shadid said.

Post correspondent Karl Vick came up with a couple of bottles of champagne, a rarity in Baghdad. They shared a box of Wheatables and listened to songs by Merle Haggard. "That was as raucous as it got," he recalled.

Like Shadid, Marie Colvin was dedicated to chronicling the intimate miseries of war. During a series of telephone interviews in February 2000, Colvin talked about "playing chicken" with her life and reporting from hellholes other correspondents dared not enter. It was her calling, she said. There was no turning back.

"It's a human mechanism. You put your fear, emotions and physical exhaustion on hold. You get so cold, hungry and dirty. You exist on a few bites of stale bread and drink water out of mud holes but, no matter what, you don't walk out on the story," said Colvin, a reporter for the Sunday Times of London.

At first, we played phone tag. Colvin left messages saying, "Call me at 4 p.m. your time." The phone would ring. No answer. When we finally connected, it felt more like two journalists sharing a beer in a pub than talking with an ocean between us. (Colvin was in London at the time, about to leave for Kosovo.) She was charming and witty, yet deadly serious about "slogging around in the mud with my pen" to bring the suffering of "the innocents" to light. She had reported on the civil war in Sierra Leone, where thousands of people had their limbs amputated. She had witnessed the carnage of the Balkan war of the 1990s and the bloodletting in Rwanda.

In East Timor in 1999, she won a standoff with the United Nations. She refused to leave a compound full of refugees vulnerable to attack by Indonesian militias. "Once the U.N. and journalists left, they would have been slaughtered," Colvin said, her voice rising with emotion. "I refused to leave and kept filing stories about what was happening." In the end, the U.N. backed down and took the refugees to safety in Australia. Colvin believed she was the catalyst. "When people ask me what I'm proudest of, that's it. Helping get those people out of there," she said.

After the AJR profile of Colvin ran, we shared one more phone call. "Thanks for giving me a fair shake," she said. Colvin loathed being portrayed as a "cowgirl" in perpetual pursuit of an adrenaline high. "I don't do this for fun," she said. "I do it because it is necessary."

Shadid and Colvin made the "voice of the people" their trademark. They reported with compassion and great sensitivity about humans trapped in modern-day horrors. That commitment won Shadid that first Pulitzer for international reporting. The judges cited his ability "to capture, at personal peril, the voice and emotions of Iraqis." He won a second Pulitzer in 2010, again for his reporting from Iraq.

Colvin twice was named Foreign Reporter of the Year in the British Press Awards and won the International Women's Foundation's award for courage in journalism. Her editor at the time, Sean Ryan, described her as a crusader who helped shape the world's perspective on big events. "At her best, she's making a vital difference," Ryan told me.

Both Colvin and Shadid bore the physical scars of their brave reporting. Colvin lost the sight in her left eye after being hit by shrapnel while covering the conflict in Sri Lanka in 2001. She wore a black eye patch and had one decorated with rhinestones for parties.

Shadid was shot in the shoulder by a sniper in 2002 while on assignment in the West Bank for the Boston Globe. Obituaries and news reports describe both as among the most courageous foreign correspondents of their generation.

Even in brief conversations, these two journalists forcefully drove home their message: The human condition was a sacred beat. When Shadid drove into an Iraqi village, he went straight to the barber shop or the local mosque. "You can find out everything there if they trust you," he said. Colvin traveled with Chechen rebels, sleeping in caves with bags of grenades for a pillow. "You eat what they eat, you drink what they drink, you never act like you are above them," she said.

Shadid discovered journalism when he was 16. "I knew I wanted to work in the Middle East since high school," he said. Colvin wanted to be a marine biologist. Jacques Cousteau was her hero. Then she took a writing class at Yale with famed author John Hersey. Around the same time, she discovered the works of war correspondent Martha Gellhorn. She was hooked.

Colvin described her "bottom line" when operating in a war zone.

"I always ask myself, 'Can I survive this?' I try not to get into situations that are really stupid. You have to remind yourself, every bomb can kill you. You can never let yourself get used to it. So much of this is just luck," the war reporter said during our interview in 2000.

Rosemarie Colvin told reporters that her daughter planned to leave Syria the day before she died but stayed to finish a story "she felt was very important." That is not surprising. Marie Colvin was not one to walk away.

* * *

Following are links to dispatches Colvin and Shadid filed shortly before their deaths.

"American Reporter Marie Colvin's Final Dispatches From Homs." Wednesday, February 22, 2012.

"Islamists' Ideas on Democracy and Faith Face Test in Tunisia." Friday, February 17, 2012.