Marie Colvin, 1956-2012

Last Summer, the Corinthia hotel in Tripoli was filled with reporters and photographers. They had propped their laptops on tiny marble tables in the lobby. Waiters brought Turkish coffees but the reporters’ eyes flicked only from their screens to their phones, checking for messages about Gaddafi’s whereabouts, a recently discovered palace, prison, or press conference. Only one person seemed to look around the room: Marie Colvin.

A tall, elderly Libyan man had driven me to the hotel in a battered Japanese car, so small that he seemed barely to fit under the steering wheel. In the hotel, he studied the chaos politely. The new Minister of the Interior had just entered, flanked by recently promoted policeman, and the Minister of Finance had apparently just left, grinning, in a phalanx of eager, American-educated advisors.  Some of the reporters thought they should interview the Ministers but no-one was interested in my friend, the elderly water engineer. But Marie immediately asked us to join her. Since she was the journalist who knew Libya best – the only one who had known Gaddafi – she might have felt she didn’t need to bother with my friend. Instead, she took a patient, courteous interest – just as I had seen her do in other countries, when everyone else was too busy.  In our hotel in Iraq, in 2003, she had been the only person to talk to the hotel pianist. She discovered he had been in the national orchestra. “I used to play with the greatest musicians in the world,” he would tell her, “now I am in a hotel bar, and all I get to play is ‘Feelings….Feelings….'” Eight years later no-one could remember his name, except Marie. On this occasion, my friend in Tripoli said nothing remarkable: he repeated that his country was a peaceful place, and that now Gaddafi had gone, everything would be fine. Piqued by Marie’s interest, other younger journalists shuffled over. A couple asked questions, but they could get little from him, and they moved on. Only Marie sat patiently, took notes, thanked him warmly, took his number and promised to be in touch.

The other correspondents seemed worn down by weeks of reporting. Most didn’t speak Arabic, so they needed a translator; colleagues were being kidnapped, so they needed a sensible driver; and the only place where they could get internet (to file their stories), or indeed basic security, or a few hours of running water was this five-star hotel – which might have reduced its sewerage, but not its prices. Everyone was short of money. And everyone was being chased by editors to beat each other to the same stories.  People were not going out of their way to help each other.

Marie, however, had an adopted family: a Libyan woman, who was staying in her room, a Libyan man who was borrowing her laptop, and two young English stringers – from the Telegraph and the Independent – who she had offered to take along with her to share her interview with a Minister. She wondered whether I needed a shower, and lent me her satellite phone to me to call home. Satellite calls are very expensive, so I made a quick call and handed it back. She told me not to be ridiculous and to take my time. She wondered whether we should all try to find supper in the old city – it was Ramadan and since the city had only fallen two days earlier, most places were shut  – but there was a chance. She met me there a few hours later with some young Libyan activists. She persuaded a café to put a plastic table in the street, right next to the arch of Marcus Aurelius, bluffed her way past a Zintani militia group who had appropriated a courtyard house and, by taking great interest in the boss of an American television company, acquired us some extra food and Coca-Cola. It was almost one in the morning when she wandered into Green Square. We followed. Her blonde hair was tied back in a pony-tail, her sleeves were rolled up, revealing golden hairs on her brown arms. On her feet, under a pair of skinny jeans, were some soft slippers, and over her shoulder a backpack which contained her notebooks, water, camera, and satellite phone.

People were firing heavy machine-guns into the air. A pick-up truck raced towards us. The radiator grill was missing, and there were bullet holes in the olive paint. Everything, including the windscreen, had been stripped off to give an unrestricted field of fire to the anti-aircraft gun pointing straight at us. The passenger in combat fatigues had a long black beard. They braked hard in front of us, leapt out, grinned, and greeted Marie. “It’s some of the Misrata boys”,  she said, “I think they’ve confused me with Portia.” Portia is 27 and does not have an eye-patch.

When I heard she had been killed in Syria, what I first remembered most was her generosity, the lack of pomposity or competitiveness, the kindness she showed to younger journalists, to Libyan activists – even to travelling politicians. But what was great in both her character and her journalism was her ability to listen. When I returned to Tripoli this week I found that the quiet, tall elderly engineer, in his battered car, who the others ignored, was now the Prime Minister. I’m sure she knew. But, still, I would have liked to have called and praised her.

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