American journalist Marie Colvin, who once called herself a “fireman for the world,” built a reputation as one of the most courageous foreign correspondents of her generation. Her black eye patch — which she had worn since being blinded in her left eye by shrapnel in Sri Lanka in 2001 — made her a recognizable figure during her frequent appearances on cable and broadcast networks internationally.
Hours before her death Wednesday at age 56 in the besieged city of Homs, Syria, Ms. Colvin was interviewed on American and British TV news programs. Speaking with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, she described the “horrific” experience of watching a 2-year-old Syrian boy die after a shelling by the Syrian military.
When Cooper pressed her on the propriety of publishing such graphic accounts, she was insistent: Media outlets must disseminate stories from war zones.
“That baby,” she said, “probably will move more people to think, ‘What is going on and why is no one stopping this murder in Homs that is happening every day?’”
Ms. Colvin was covering the ongoing armed insurrection in Syria for the Sunday Times of London, which announced her death. She died along with a French photographer, Remi Ochlik, 28, in what Sunday Times editor John Witherow described as a “devastating bombardment by the Syrian army.” At least two other journalists were wounded in the attack, which struck an improvised news media office.
The news came less than a week after Anthony Shadid, a former Washington Post correspondent, died of an apparent asthma attack while on assignment in Syria for the New York Times. At least five other journalists have been killed in the country since November, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonprofit organization that promotes freedom of the press.
Ms. Colvin grew up in New York and was deeply influenced by a writing class she took at Yale University with John Hersey, author of a landmark account of the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima in Japan. His writings, along with those of war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, drew her to journalism.
In her 26-year career with the Sunday Times, Ms. Colvin reported from conflict zones on three continents. She eschewed news conferences and repeatedly risked her life to cover wars from the perspective of ordinary people, particularly women and children. In 1999, she was reportedly one of three journalists — all women — to remain in East Timor to cover the more than 1,000 refugees in a U.N. compound that was under attack by militias.
Some observers credited her reportage with saving the refugees. The United Nations had decided at one point to remove its peacekeepers, but Ms. Colvin’s reports made that position politically unsustainable.
“Craters. Burned houses. Mutilated bodies. Women weeping for children and husbands. Men for their wives, mothers, children,” she said in 2010 in London at a tribute to journalists killed on assignment. “Our mission is to report these horrors of war with accuracy and without prejudice.”
In her final dispatch, published Feb. 19 in the Sunday Times, Ms. Colvin described such horrors as she witnessed them in Homs.
“They call it the widows’ basement,” she wrote. “Crammed amid makeshift beds and scattered belongings are frightened women and children trapped in the horror of Homs, the Syrian city shaken by two weeks of relentless bombardment. . . . Everyone in the cellar has a similar story of hardship or death.”
Ms. Colvin twice received the British Press Award for foreign reporter of the year. She routinely stayed behind in war zones that other reporters abandoned because the danger seemed too great.
During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, she stayed behind enemy lines in Baghdad. Reporting on rebels in the breakaway Russian province of Chechnya in 1999, she came under fire and, despite frigid temperatures, crossed the mountains by foot into neighboring Georgia.
During the Kosovo conflict of the late 1990s, she embedded herself with guerrilla fighters. Her working principle, she told the American Journalism Review in 2000, was to “go in bare and eat what they eat, drink what they drink, sleep where they sleep.”
Being a woman presented Ms. Colvin with certain added difficulties. She said the late Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi repeatedly tried to seduce her during interviews. Reporting from Muslim countries in general was a struggle. But she expressed her appreciation for the sometimes unexpected displays of respect that she received.
Once, introducing her to his fighters, a Chechen commander said: “There are no women here. Just a journalist.”
Marie Catherine Colvin was born Jan. 12, 1956, in Queens, N.Y., and grew up in Oyster Bay, N.Y. After her graduation from Yale in 1978, she started out as a reporter for United Press International in Trenton, N.J., and within four years had been named Paris Bureau chief. Not long after, she was recruited to the Sunday Times by the newspaper’s Middle East correspondent, David Blundy. He died in 1989 while reporting in El Salvador.
Ms. Colvin’s mother, Rosemarie Colvin, said in an interview Wednesday that her daughter had planned to leave Syria shortly before she died but stayed to finish a story.
Besides her mother, of East Norwich, N.Y., survivors include two brothers and two sisters.
Ms. Colvin’s first marriage, to Patrick Bishop, ended in divorce. She was also married to Juan Carlos Gumucio, a Bolivian journalist who died in 2002.
“If journalists are to report on what really happens in war, on the atrocities and pain and death, they are going to face risks,” she wrote in 2001. “The next war I cover, I’ll be more awed than ever by the quiet bravery of civilians who endure far more than I ever will. They must stay where they are; I can come home to London.”