Fighting Back

Marie Colvin of The Sunday Times, who was blinded in one eye three months ago while reporting the Sri Lanka conflict, reveals the lingering physical and psychological scars of the ordeal – and describes her new life as ‘the lady with the pirate patch’

By Marie Colvin
New York, July 15, 2001 

[CORRECTION: Mr Neville de Silva of Harrow and Mr Bodipala Wijeyesinghe of Carshalton complained separately to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) that a number of articles published in The Sunday Times in April and July 2001 on the subject of the civil war in Sri Lanka were inaccurate and that no opportunity to reply had been given in breach of the PCC code clauses 1 (Accuracy) and 2 (Opportunity to reply). The complainants said that some of the reports about the history of SriLanka were inaccurate.

They pointed to the date and circumstances of the emergence of the Tamil Tigers, to the number of people who had been killed by them since 1983 and to an account of their methods. The reports had apportioned to the Sinhalese a role in the conflict which was historically inaccurate. Furthermore, they said the reporter’s accounts of her surreptitious movements into government territory, having spent time with a terrorist organisation, were so biased as to be misleading under the code. The newspaper said that it had omitted the full circumstances of the 1983 conflict in order to explain why the Tigers emerged with such force in that year. It had published a clarification in an article in August explaining that references to the number of deaths and to tiger footprints in the July article were inaccurate. It defended the use of the term “ambush” by its reporter to describe a situation in which her group was fired on suddenly and in darkness. Adjudication: As in a number of previous cases, the commission recognised that most history – including the accounts in this case – is open to interpretation and comment. Readers would have recognised the articles in question as the partisan view of an individual journalist. Such matters of historical comment and journalistic conjecture could not be censured under the code. However, the commission was concerned at two aspects of the complaint. First, it had taken the newspaper a number of weeks to clarify acknowledged inaccuracies: while the record had been set straight, the commission did not believe that this had been carried out with the speed required under the code and therefore found a breach of clause 1. Second, it noted that no opportunity to reply had been given to those disputing the newspaper’s historical account of events. Readers’ letters supporting the articles had been published, but none giving a contrary view. This was not within the spirit or letter of clause 2 (Opportunity to reply) of the code, and the commission found a breach accordingly. The complaints were upheld.

The report “Fighting back” (News Review, July 15) mentioned tiger footprints being found in Sri Lanka. This was inaccurate as there are no tigers in Sri Lanka -the type of animal traces arose from a mis-translation. Due to a sub-editing error the number of casualties in Sri Lanka’s armed struggle was stated as 83,000, instead of 60,000 as previously reported.]

Lying on the operating table in New York, sleepy but still awake and very nervous, I could hear the two surgeons chatting as they began cutting into my left eye.

“That lens has to go,” said one.

A tiny pulling feeling. The “buckle” they were sewing into my eye seemed to be causing problems. More tiny pulling sensations. I started feeling claustrophobic under the green mask that covered my good eye but left the injured one exposed to their blades.

I knew what was going on because I had opted to go under the knife with a local anaesthetic. I’d been warned the operation was likely to take so long that recovery from a general anaesthetic would be uncomfortable.

The surgeons weren’t sure what they would find when they went in. A 6mm piece of shrapnel had blasted through my eye, entering the front right side and tearing out through the retina that lines the eye, detaching it completely. The tiny missile had taken some of my iris with it and lodged against my optic nerve. I had been warned the prognosis was not good.

“How are you doing in there?” asked Dr Stanley Chang, the eye surgeon who had invented some of the microsurgery equipment he was using to operate on me.

“Stop the whale music,” I managed to croak. Whale music was playing in the operating room, and I suppose it was meant to calm me down in a new age sort of way, but I’ve always found it incredibly irritating. Something Brazilian came on. They got on with cutting.

From their conversation, I could tell that blood was the main problem. The shrapnel had caused extensive haemorrhaging in the eye and blood had pooled behind the retina. To reattach the retina and save the eye, the blood needed to be scraped out, bit by microscopic bit, so as not to damage the retina further.

Scrape, scrape, scrape; I was now about four hours into the operation. THE days before the surgery had been full of dread.

I had been exhausted but hopeful the night I arrived in New York by air medivac from Sri Lanka. It was late on April 19, three days after soldiers fired the grenade that injured me. My mother and my sister Cat were waiting for me at Columbia Presbyterian hospital. So was Chang.

He examined my eye and then sat with me in his darkened office to give me a verdict I had not expected. He said he would try to save the eye, but didn’t think the chances were good with such a traumatic injury.

I appreciated his honesty – he is a quiet-spoken man whose manner inspires unquestioning confidence – but it hadn’t occurred to me my injured eye might have to come out. I went to sleep in tears, the first time I had cried since being shot. I think it was because it only hit me then that my life would never be the same.

In the next few days, I wrote myself questions to ask the doctor in a pre-op examination. Rereading them last week, I relived my fears.

“Are you saying that I may wake up from the operation with only one eye?” I wrote. It was a new and very strange world. “You were talking about shrinkage of the eye. How does that happen?” Although I knew I had probably lost my sight, the idea of my eye being removed was unbearable.

The worst part of the operation came towards the end. Chang tried again and again to reattach the retina, but couldn’t do it. I remember at one point hearing him saying with grim determination: “We are going to attach this retina,” in a voice that made it clear he was not going to give up.

Five hours into the operation, the pulling in my eye became unbearable and I asked for more anaesthetic. Finally, Chang succeeded and silicone oil was placed into my eye to keep the retina in place. The operation had taken five and a half hours.

Claustrophobia overwhelmed me and I tried to pull the head covering off. A nurse calmed me, took it off and wheeled me into recovery.

The ordeal had just begun, however. Nurses were under orders to lay me on my stomach to keep the retina and oil in place in the eye. Waves of nausea and pain engulfed me. Every bump of the bed knifed into me as I was wheeled to my room. It was a reaction to the anaesthetic.

I lost any sense of politeness, yelling at the nurses to please give me something to stop the pain. It’s an impossible position, having to lie on your stomach and keep your head down, when all you want to do is vomit and have the pain go away.

The next three days passed in a haze. I remember thinking I want this eye out, regretting ever agreeing to surgery to save it, just wanting the pain to go away.

Chang was unexpectedly poetic when I saw him to hear his verdict on my operation. “Your retina was like a morning glory folded in on itself,” he said, making a slow, clenching motion with his hand to illustrate the floral image. “A morning glory full of blood.”

The good news was that I would keep my eye. I had lost the perception of light and dark; that was depressing. But I would keep the eye, blind as it now was.

The other good news was that there was no evidence yet of “sympathetic ophthalmia”, a condition which can blind the second eye once one is injured.

On the fourth day, I went to a rented service flat in New York City to recuperate. My eye was covered in a bulky white bandage. I presented a bizarre spectacle to the curious, because I had to walk looking at the ground to keep the retina and oil in place.

I was still under doctor’s orders to lie on my stomach for a week. This seemed torture just to think of. But there was one thing I had to do before getting into bed.

I smoked a couple of cigarettes and went into the bathroom. I took off the bandage and looked up into the mirror for the first time.

No flower comparisons came to mind. The pain made my eye feel like the enemy. The eye itself looked even worse.

It was swollen to the size of a peach, bright red, with a thin line – like that little indentation that peaches have across their middles – the only evidence that the two lids had ever opened or would ever open again.

I went and lay on my stomach, my head off the foot of the bed, looking face down through a weird contraption that seemed like an inverted and padded toilet seat. With one eye, I examined the carpet. RECUPERATION is not always restful. Friends sent books and flowers, and one provided the most thoughtful, if daunting, of gifts, a box of 84 tapes entitled Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition. I thought I might make up for all those university lectures I skipped.

My former husband, Patrick Bishop, with whom I’d been reunited about a year ago, flew from London and turned out to be a pretty good nurse, squeezing into my swollen eye endless drops of steroid and antibiotic drugs.

My mother sent home-cooked comfort food. The most successful was meatloaf, which Patrick, being British, had only seen on the Simpsons cartoon show.

With nothing to distract it, my mind began playing endless reruns of what had happened to me. I didn’t feel the need to consult Freud; my subconscious was clearly seeking an outcome it liked better. The pain of being shot was not the focus of my nightmares, but that didn’t make them much more bearable.

I had been wounded trying to leave the northern, Tamil area of Sri Lanka and re-enter the government-controlled south at the end of an assignment to visit the Tamil Tigers, the LTTE.

Leaving LTTE territory was not a simple matter of hitching a ride. For the past six years, the government in Colombo has banned journalists from the area, hoping to hide the catastrophic humanitarian crisis engulfing 500,000 Tamil civilians bottled up behind a siege line of army bases. I had to cross this line clandestinely.

For three nights my guides led me from a hut at Madhu, a shrine to the Virgin Mary and home to 10,000 refugees in tents and wood shelters, to the army lines. We padded along jungle paths, sloshed through abandoned rice paddies and waded waist-deep through lakes surrounded by banyan trees.

As I lay face-down in the New York apartment, I remembered cascades of white butterflies in shafts of sunlight that penetrated the emerald foliage. The air had been filled with the cries of peacocks, which sounded more like deranged cats, and we came across the footprints of tigers and the spoor of elephant.

For two nights the guides decided it was too dangerous to cross. The third night, April 16, after we had squatted for hours in a rice paddy, bitten by mosquitoes I couldn’t swat for fear the noise would be heard, the lead guide waved us quietly forwards.

Ahead lay ditches, a road and a deep expanse of open ground. In the distance was the jungle. I took my shoes off; one of the things I had learnt was how difficult it is to walk in water wearing shoes. A young man grabbed my hand to haul me more quickly between the two barbed wire fences that lined the road, whispering “bang, bang” to himself. I wasn’t the only one who was frightened.

As we ran, stooped low, towards the safety of the jungle, a rolling flash erupted from the right. Sri Lankan soldiers in a forward listening post had opened fire. I crawled on my belly as long as the gunfire lasted, frantically, as if I could somehow escape. Flares went up, arcing high into the sky and falling slowly, turning night to day. I was trapped in a field, behind a clump of weeds, alone. And that’s where the nightmares always begin.

My mind has recorded in exact detail what happened next, except that the tape is slowed down and spools endlessly. Soldiers are coming for me in the night, and I have to make a decision. They come forward inexorably, endlessly.

In reality, I think I only lay in the field for about half an hour. Finally, aware that if they stumbled on me they would shoot me, I shouted “journalist”. They fired a grenade at the sound of my voice. Shrapnel hit me with a shocking impact of pain and noise.

Usually that wakes me up, but sometimes the dream continues and I am walking forward – as I did that night when I figured out I wasn’t going to die, and I kept yelling, and someone speaking English told me to stand up, and I went on walking and falling down at times from weakness and shock and loss of blood. Only, in the dream, I am being shot at each time I fall, and I can feel what it is like to be shot across the chest.

The dream now has flashes of the horrific injuries I have seen in other wars – an old man lying in a basement in Chechnya, the back of his head blown off by a rocket fired from a Russian plane, somehow still rasping out breath until he died. A body I found under a bush in Kosovo, his chest riven by bullets, still wearing the worn wool suit of a peasant who has dressed up for the day. The knowledge of the fragility of the human body never leaves you once you have seen how easily flesh can be rent by hot flying bits of metal. What shocked me after the operation was my sheer exhaustion. I asked Chang what was wrong. “Let’s recap,” he said. “You’ve been hit by a grenade in Sri Lanka. You’ve travelled halfway across the world, not to mention the trauma. You have just undergone a 5A-hour operation, and we’re not even taking into account what is going on in that stubborn head of yours. And you ask me why you’re tired!”

The first time I went out alone on the street with my new pirate-patch look, I couldn’t cope. I had left my bag of clothes – along with my computer and satellite phone – behind at the scene in Sri Lanka, and I thought it would be a simple matter to buy some more.

I like shopping, but I had got only two steps into Barney’s department store before I just had to get out again. People were coming at me. I couldn’t trust the steps.

People on the street glanced at my eye patch and looked away, but the doorman at my apartment block asked: “What the heck happened to you?” American friends said they loved the patch but wanted see what was behind it.

On a week’s recuperative holiday on the Ligurian coast, I was told by Italian men that the patch was very sexy. Back in London, I find that friends are surprised I don’t appear worse. People in the street still glance away, but children ask me why I am dressed as a pirate, which is delightful.

Everyone professes to like the patch. A designer friend offered to make me a party patch with rhinestones for evening wear; and even the Prince of Wales pronounced it “very fetching” when I was introduced to him at a reception.

I have become very fond of my patch. At home I usually take it off; but when I see myself in the mirror without it – rarely, as I am not a great looker in mirrors – I am taken aback. What I see doesn’t look like me. So I put the patch back on as it makes it clear to my mind what has happened to me.

In some ways it is harder to cope with the frustrating tiredness. I used to be so energetic. Now I have to have a nap after lunch like a little child. I also can’t drive, which is fine as I have always hated driving in London. But the Undergound is also out, as I don’t trust myself on the escalators. I now know what “blind-sided” means.

Ridiculously, I can’t even light a cigarette – I’m always lighting them in the middle or waving the flame two inches from the end – and I’m learning again to pour a glass of wine without missing.

At the back of my mind all the time is the fear for my good eye and the phenomenon of sympathetic ophthalmia. As I understand it, the auto-immune system can react to the injury and operation in one eye by attacking the other. At Moorfields hospital two weeks ago, I was assured there was no sign of this. But I discovered that the retina in the injured eye had become detached again. This isn’t unusual, but it was depressing.

Next month, I’ll go to New York to consult Chang about another operation. It’s a toss-up, of course, as further surgery could increase the danger to the good eye.

I have been asked if my trip to Sri Lanka was worth it. One blunt BBC reporter last week argued in an interview, not unkindly: “Some people would say it was stupid, Marie.” Was it? That’s a hard question to answer.

Certainly, Sri Lanka is a forgotten conflict. Some 83,000 people have died since the country exploded in civil war in 1983, a loss barely noticed except by their families. The public message for the Sri Lankan government that I was given by the Tamil Tiger leadership was barely noticed, either. They said they were willing to negotiate for autonomy rather than the independence they had sought for 18 years. After I left, they ended a four-month unilateral ceasefire, saying the government had refused to reciprocate. Fighting has resumed. On a smaller scale, however, the trip did seem to me worthwhile. I may be exhausted and haunted, but not all the images that flash back to me evoke dread. I remember a government agent in a town in the Vanni – the region controlled by the LTTE – who put his neck on the line just to give me information. He received me late at night in his office, very formal but resolute. He put a suit on and asked me not to reveal his name for fear of retaliation from the very government that paid his salary.

He had facts and figures of the type that make on-the-ground reporting worthwhile. I wanted to resolve two contradictory stories: the government in Colombo claimed to be distributing food to Tamil civilians on the same monthly basis as the rest of the country, yet in village after village people told me they received little. Many were painfully thin.

This government agent explained. He said he notified Colombo monthly that 36,400 families in his district (about 140,000 people) qualified for food aid. They sent him food for 8,900 families (about 35,000 people), claiming he had inflated his figures.

“So I hold the first shipment, and divide up what I have to distribute every two months,” he said. “There is no basis for this misery.”

Not everyone was as easily persuaded that I was worth talking to. Father Xavier, the Roman Catholic priest of Mallawi, was garrulous, opinionated and angry. He told me he had given up on the West: nobody cared about the plight of the Tamils, why should he waste his time talking to me. So what if I was the first journalist to come to the Vanni in six years? Western television cameras went to famines in Africa every year. They sent back pictures from Kosovo of Serbian killings. What about here?

When he calmed down, he served me sweet tea and we talked about his parishioners. He said people were tired of the war, mostly, but that it had its own dynamic.

“People tell me they feel they have suffered so much, it is not worth ending the war to return to the same situation,” he said. “They have lost their homes, their land, their sons and daughters. The only way to end the war is for the Tamils to have their self-determination.” The government siege had turned people to the Tamil Tigers. “I know you in the West say they are terrorists,” he said. “Here, they are the only people that have protected us Tamils from being chopped up.”

Weeks after my operation, a letter arrived wrapped in brown paper. It had been smuggled out somehow by Father Xavier – no doubt at great risk, there being in the Vanni no electricity, few cars, much less any postal service.

“I was sorry to hear of your injuries,” he wrote. “You are remembered here as a brave and honest person.” It meant a lot to me.

A surprising amount of mail arrived from Sri Lanka during my weeks of recuperation. Messages from Tamils were mostly sympathetic. None was under the impression that I supported their cause, but they sent heart-rending appreciations for providing the first report on their homeland in years.

The Sinhalese majority was divided. A man wrote from Colombo: “I am not a Tamil, but if there were more journalists reporting the truth as you did, this war would be over in 24 hours.”

Others were less kind. One of the more printable Sinhalese critics – a woman claiming to be a doctor – wrote: “If you sleep with dogs, you wake up with bugs.”

So, was I stupid? Stupid I would feel writing a column about the dinner party I went to last night. Equally, I’d rather be in that middle ground between a desk job and getting shot, no offence to desk jobs.

You can only describe what I do as “stupid” if you agree wars shouldn’t be covered by journalists, or think they should be reported by way of government press conferences. If journalists are to report on what really happens in war, on the atrocities and pain and death, they are going to face risks.

For my part, 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.

(c) Times Newspapers Ltd, July 2001. All rights reserved.