Finding truth in the sandstorm

Covering a war "means going to places torn by chaos, destruction and death . . . and trying to bear witness. It means trying to find the truth in
a sandstorm of propaganda when armies, tribes or terrorists clash. And yes, it means taking risks."

Marie Colvin spoke these words at St Bride's, the journalists' church on Fleet Street, London, in 2010. The service was to commemorate the 49 people killed on assignment for the British media so far this century. On 22 February, Colvin joined their number.

To look at the Sunday Times correspondent was to see the sacrifices she had made in a 30-year career "bearing witness". Her left eye was covered by a black patch: it was lost to shrapnel while covering the civil war in Sri Lanka in 2001. She was convinced that, as a journalist, she had been deliberately targeted.

As news spread of her death alongside the French photographer Remi Ochlik in the Syrian city of Homs, her reports from the country took on a new power.

She was the only journalist for a British newspaper in the Baba Amr enclave, under siege by Syrian government forces since
4 February. She described those huddled in the "widow's basement", one of the few refuges as the army rained down rockets, shells and tank rounds.

Although the bombardment is ostensibly to drive out the opposition Free Syrian Army, there is no pretence here that civilian deaths are only "collateral damage". Colvin reported in the Sunday Times that snipers would pick off anyone who tried to escape the area.

Without prejudice

In a makeshift clinic, she watched the deaths of several men and the grim survival of more. One had a testicle removed with only paracetamol for pain relief. Later, in an audio report for the BBC, Colvin said that she had seen a two-year-old with a fatal chest injury. "His little tummy kept heaving until he died."

According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 7,636 people have died since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad
began last March - 5,542 of them civilians.

It is unlikely that Colvin was surprised by what she saw in her last few days in Homs. She had seen conflict in Chechnya, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka and, most recently, in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. "Despite all the sanitised language describing smart bombs and pinpoint strikes . . . the scene on the ground has remained remarkably the same for hundreds of years," she said in 2010. "Craters. Burned houses. Mutilated bodies. Women weeping for children and husbands. Men for their wives, mothers, children. Our mission is to report these horrors of war with accuracy and without prejudice."

For her, the indiscriminate killings in Homs prompted one question: why had the rest of the world done nothing to stop them? As she told the congregation at St Bride's: "The public [has] a right to know what our government and our armed forces are doing in our name." Or, in this case, what they are not.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The God Wars