Courage Knows No Gender

Award-winning war reporter Marie Colvin, who has roughed it in Kosovo and East Timor, argues that women don’t have to use feminine wiles to win the battle for stories

By Marie Colvin
October 10, 1999

Do women report wars differently from men? The question used to make me 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.

My feelings were hardly new. “Feminists nark me,” wrote Martha Gellhorn, one of the great war correspondents of the century. “I think they’ve done a terrible disservice to women, branding us as ‘women’s writers’. Nobody says men writers; before, we were all simply writers.”

I have been covering wars for 13 years now, ever since the Americans bombed Libya in 1986. In those days war reporting was very much a man’s world. It seemed important to blend in and the only way to do that was to be “one of the boys”. Now, roughly a quarter of the correspondents covering any conflict will be female.

The image of the glamorous female correspondent, weighed down by mascara, fluttering her eyelashes and showing a bit of leg, is as dated as a 1950s Life magazine spread, if it ever was true. Yet Ann Leslie, foreign correspondent of the Daily Mail, has just revived the myth in a book, Secrets of the Press. Acting the “harmless bird brain”, “chirruping” about cooking and “twittering” about babies, helps to land the scoops, she argues.

I have only to think of myself in Kosovo and East Timor to laugh.

In March I walked over the Albanian mountains into Kosovo with a unit of the Kosovo Liberation Army. The war was being reported second-hand from videos and briefings in Nato headquarters and from tales told by fleeing refugees. I wanted to see what was happening at first hand. That doesn’t seem to me a very male or female notion, just a commitment to what all journalists should be doing – trying to find out the truth for ourselves.

The idea that I was glamorous would have seemed pretty comical to the guerrillas who took me in. I walked and slept in the same clothes for days. I had to carry my own gear and, as far as I was concerned, a satellite phone was heavy enough. A change of clothes just wasn’t a priority. I was quickly covered with mud up to my knees. On the one day that the sun came out, I took off my flak jacket. I was so smelly, I quickly put it back on. Even I couldn’t stand the odour. And when you are huddled in a cold gully under shellfire with 12 men, fear is as great an equaliser as dirt.

My decision to stay in the United Nations compound in East Timor incited a lot of comment, because the three journalists who refused to leave were women (the other two were Dutch reporters). Again, there was little glamour involved. I was sleeping rough, mostly on the ground, and was once again short of clothes. I had been forced to leave my hotel when it was overrun by angry Indonesian soldiers and militiamen and, in my haste, I escaped with only a computer and satellite phone.

It underestimates men to say they are suckers for women who behave like sex kittens on the battle front. There are very few soldiers on a front line who wouldn’t take up the offer of a drink or a flirt with a woman correspondent – not least because there is not a great deal of female companionship around. But that doesn’t mean the femme fatale will land the story – she may get a drink at the price of enduring a really boring hour or two. Most likely, she will then be considered a lightweight and the object of her wiles, if he has a big story, will give it to somebody he considers a serious journalist. Men aren’t fools all of the time.

That said, there are differences. 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 towards the “weaker sex” means they are more likely to help, or at least less likely to hurt.

This happened in East Timor, when I was trying to walk into the centre of Dili and was accosted by a militiaman with a machete, who drew his hand across his neck as a warning of what would happen to me if I continued on my way. An Indonesian officer rescued me, and drove me around the burning city.

I also think that gender can work in men’s favour. Male reporters can play on the boys’ club mentality, swapping dirty jokes with soldiers, or discussing the merits of different weapons. I’ve never been interested in types of guns, just what the people firing them mean to do.

There are other differences which are more difficult to pinpoint. Women, I think, tend to try harder to understand what is really happening to people on the ground. They are less inclined to settle for writing an analysis of a situation and leaving it at that. I think of Maggie O’Kane of The Guardian, who covered Bosnia and most recently the East Timor conflict with fearlessness; her war reporting is marked by vivid observation and tireless interviewing. This is a huge generalisation, and by no means always true, but writing about the “big picture” seems to carry a certain prestige that, to me, often misses the point of journalism.

I remember talking to a male colleague after writing a story about a man whose wife and five young children had been executed by the Serbs. It didn’t seem enough for me to simply report on his loss. I sat for hours with him, by their grave on a river bank, staring at a bloody and bullet-ridden romper suit, listening to his memories and his guilt.

My colleague mused that he simply would not have stopped. “There would have been other things to do that day, a briefing, whatever, more important or not. I would have written down his details and moved on.”

Why? That’s hard to work out. From experience I know men think differently from women, but since I’ve never been able to figure out their behaviour in other walks of life, I find it just as impossible to explain why they think differently in wars. Again, Gellhorn said it best describing her 40 years of reporting wars. “Beware of the Big Picture,” she wrote. “The Big Picture always exists. And I seem to have spent my life observing how desperately the Big Picture affects the ‘little people’ who did not devise it and have no control over it.”

There is probably a darker side to all this. Fewer women than men become foreign correspondents, and even fewer cover wars. Those of us who do are probably more driven than most, simply because it is harder to succeed. Maybe we feel the need to test ourselves more, to see how much we can take and survive. Bravery is personal.

But it is wrong to say that women are inevitably more sensitive. Since my return from East Timor, people have said to me that I must have stayed in the UN compound after my male colleagues had left because I felt more strongly about the women and children who would have been slaughtered had the UN evacuated it.

I felt proud that my reporting contributed to the reversal of the UN’s decision to pull out. I embarrassed the decision-makers and that felt good because it saved lives. It is rare to see such a direct result in journalism. I was moved by the children, who greeted me with “Hello, Mister” as I walked through the compound. But for me, it was a moral decision, made passionately but not out of sentimentality. I simply felt it would have been wrong for the UN to have promised these people protection and then to have abandoned them to certain death. It would have been a betrayal. I can’t believe that is a judgment that has a gender.

(c) Times Newspapers Ltd, 1999. All rights reserved.