The shot hit me. Blood poured from my eye – I felt a profound sadness that I was going to die’ – Focus – Marie Colvin.
Last Monday, award-winning reporter Marie Colvin was attacked as she returned from a rare interview with Tamil Tiger leaders in Sri Lanka. From her hospital bed in New York she writes about her escape.
By Marie Colvin
New York, April 22, 2001
It was the most difficult decision of my life. I was lying in an open field with a clump of tall weeds on a slight rise for cover. The moon had not yet risen and the night was pitch black. Every five minutes or so a flare, fired from the nearby Sri Lankan army base, seemed to expose every blade of grass. Advancing soldiers intermittently raked the field with automatic weapons fire. They had to be as scared as I was.
I just wanted to lie still and wait for it all to go away. I thought I would not mind lying here for hours. I noticed little things. One of my trouser legs had come up to my knee and that meant my white calf might draw attention in the dark.
There were three options. I could crawl away. But if one soldier had night vision goggles – didn’t even the poorest armies these days? – I would be the only moving object on the field and would be shot.
If I was not spotted, I would still be alone in the jungle with no shoes. If I lay here until the soldiers stumbled on me, they would shoot first. If I shouted and identified myself as a journalist they might shoot anyway. There was no fourth option.
It was 10pm, on the forward defence line of the Sri Lankan army at Parayanlankulam, about 3A miles from the Madhu road junction. I thought of how I came to be here. There didn’t seem to be any one moment when it all went wrong.
A week earlier I had secretly entered the Vanni, a 2,000-mile area of northern Sri Lanka that has been the refuge of the rebel Tamil Tigers since the government captured the Jaffna peninsula in 1995. The Sri Lankan government bans journalists from travelling there.
The ban meant journalists could not talk to the leadership of the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam (LTTE), even though the government was involved in negotiations with them through a Norwegian envoy to begin peace talks. The only news of the problems with those negotiations came from the government.
More important, the ban prevented any reporting on the plight of the 500,000 Tamil civilians, 340,000 of them refugees, bottled up in the Vanni suffering under an economic embargo that the government denied existed.
I had travelled though villages in the Vanni and found an unreported humanitarian crisis – people starving, international aid agencies banned from distributing food, no mains electricity, no telephone service, few medicines, no fuel for cars, water pumps or lighting.
I had filed the story and had been trying to leave the Vanni to return to the government-controlled south for three days. This involved walking 30 miles a night through jungle and the knee-deep water and mud of marsh and rice paddies – only to end up sleeping on the same straw mat, on the same dirt floor, in the same mud hut. Even the bugs were starting to look familiar.
Each night I tried to leave, guided by local Tamils. But each time they decided it would be too risky to cross army lines. On Sunday night we came within 50 yards of the border between the two sides. The leader studied the army post we were supposed to slip past. Suddenly, he made a somersaulting motion with his hands and started walking back.
There was no argument; we used hand signals and observed silence until several miles from the army line.
“My mistake,” he said. “Military alert. Too dangerous.” I watched my guides’ tireless brown feet, clad only in black rubber flip-flops, pad unceasingly ahead of me until we reached the base house near the Catholic church at Madhu, home to 10,000 refugees living in tents and huts. At dawn I collapsed into sleep.
MONDAY night was meant to be third time lucky. As the sun slipped below the horizon, I sat with my guides under a banyan tree, looking out over a silvery lake, waiting for dark in a rare moment of peace and beauty.
We were a motley group. The civilians with me were dressed in a collection of shorts and sarongs. An emaciated old man carried a string shopping bag with two bottles of Pepsi, our only drink. A teenager kept trying the little English that he had learnt in St Patrick’s college in Jaffna before the army overran the town and killed his father.
“Tonight, you will be in my father’s house sipping milky tea,” the leader of the group said. He was the only one who was armed; he carried an old rifle to protect us from wild boar or elephants. “We are going a way that is safe and secure.”
The plan was to reach his family’s house in the government-controlled area that night. The Tamils would return before dawn and I would get the morning bus to Vavuniya. I had a last cigarette as the sun went down; there would be no smoking, talking or even coughing as we walked the next seven miles to sanctuary.
We trekked single file along narrow jungle trails, sometimes pushing our way through thickets of thorn trees; we waded waist-deep round the edges of a lake, eyeing the lights of an army base on its far edge. They are dotted along the Mannar-Vavuniya road that marks the border we would have to cross. At about 8pm, we crept through dark scrub about half a mile from the road, then waited crouching in a marsh – letting the mosquitoes bite because slapping could alert a soldier – while the group’s leader scouted ahead.
I took off my shoes to walk more quietly. At a signal from the leader we followed him to the road. Half-crouched, we negotiated our way through barbed wire on both sides of the road and seemed safely across.
We were running through the last dark field for the line of jungle ahead when the silence was broken by the thunder of automatic weapons fire about 100 yards to the right.
I dived down and began crawling, belly on the ground, for some cover. For a few minutes, someone was crawling on top of me – protection or panic, I don’t know. Then I was alone, behind weeds.
A tree was 10 yards away, but it seemed too far. The shooting went on and on. Flashes and light came from an army post nobody had seen.
The shooting stopped and dark and quiet descended. There had not been a sound from my side. I could not tell where anyone was. The only sound was the occasional bellow of a cow which had been hit.
I had a few mad moments of thinking it was over, I had survived. But I knew this was not true. We had been spotted. The army would think this was a Tamil Tiger patrol and would come after us. They would be scared and trigger-happy.
The reputation of the two forces is that the army has superior manpower and weapons, the rebels superior manoeuvrability and commitment. The advantage was to the army this night. I was lying in a field with a decision to make: run for it, lie still or shout.
I lay there for half an hour under the penetrating glare of the flares. I turned my face to the earth when one came drifting down directly above me, worried that my white skin would reveal my hiding place.
Bursts of gunfire began across the road about half a mile away. The search and destroy patrols had come out. I heard soldiers on the road, talking and laughing. One fired a burst from an automatic weapon that scythed down the weeds in front of me and left me covered in green shoots.
If I didn’t yell now, they would stumble on me and shoot. I began to shout.
“Journalist! Journalist! American! USA!”
A soldier sighted on the sound and fired. This army was not taking prisoners.
The shot hit me with an impact that stunned me with pain, noise and a sense of defeat. I thought I had been shot in the eye. Blood was pouring from my eye and mouth onto the dirt. I felt a profound sadness that I was going to die.
Then I thought it was taking an awful long time to die if I was really shot in the head (it was actually shrapnel), so I started yelling again. “English! Anyone speak English!”
There were more shots, but they seemed half-hearted, and lots of hysterical shouting from the soldiers. This was bad. They were as scared as I was. I did not really care because it seemed that I would die anyway, so I just kept shouting.
Searching for a word that non-English speakers might recognise, I fixed on doctor and shouted over and over that I needed one. Finally a voice screamed in English: “Stand up, stand up.” He fired a few more shots for emphasis.
I stood up slowly, hands in the air, saying, “Don’t shoot, American,” and whatever else I could think of just so that they would keep hearing a foreign voice.
“Take off your jacket,” came the voice. I dropped my blue jacket and stood straight up, hands in the air. Blood poured down my face so I could not see much. Someone yelled, “Walk to the road.” I stumbled forward.
Every time I fell, feeling faint, they would shout hysterically, afraid that I was pulling some trick, and I would struggle up again. I made it up the incline to the road and was shoved to the ground, flat on my back and kicked by shouting soldiers. A bright light shone in my face. I could not see any of my captors.
I am not sure how long I lay there on my back. I was searched for weapons, then told to walk at gunpoint, prodded by the weapons. The soldiers live in fear of women suicide bombers carrying explosives underneath their clothing.
The LTTE has a ruthless reputation as a result of the activities of the Black Tigers, an elite unit for suicide missions, who have bombed government buildings, assassinated a president and killed Rajiv Gandhi, the Indian leader.
I thought the soldiers were taking me somewhere to shoot me. I remember thinking that they were all scared and that I should act scared and vulnerable. I reached the limit. I could not walk any more and fell, telling them to get a doctor. They relented and put my arms round the shoulders of two men. But they pummelled me again when my hand fell and a soldier shouted that I was going for his grenade.
The nightmare seemed endless. We reached some lighted space outdoors and I was thrown on the ground on my back. A bright light again was in my face and questions shouted in Sinhalese and broken English. Someone ripped open my shirt and pulled it off. They shouted for my weapons. I kept saying, “Journalist, I need a doctor.”
An officer, or someone in authority, came on the scene and the questions changed into an interrogation: “Where did you get your training? How many people were with you? Where is your vehicle? Ah, you say you are American but you have no vehicle?”
Things were calming down and my sense of the ridiculous returned. If I had a vehicle, why would I be lying in a field on a dark night?
“Admit that you came to kill us,” he said. “At least admit that your side fired grenades first. This is true, is it not?”
I said, “No sir, there was no fire until your soldiers shot at us.”
THEN began an endless series of journeys. I was put in the back of a truck and driven, bouncing over potholes, hyperventilating because I could not seem to breathe. I thought it was shock; later, I found that my lungs had been bruised by the shock of the grenade and were filling with fluid.
Someone kind was in the truck. He kept telling me in English: “We are taking you for medical treatment, you are going to be okay.” I fixed on his voice, and he held my head up so that I could breathe.
At the first hospital I was taken to, the military hospital in Vavuniya, shrapnel was taken out of my head, shoulders and chest. I realised I could not see out of my left eye and I think the doctors panicked the soldiers into some sanity.
I was put in the back of another truck and driven for an hour to Army Victory hospital in Anuradhapura, where an x-ray revealed shrapnel in my eye. A truck took me to a third hospital, the Anuradhapura general hospital. I was never out of army custody.
The doctors seemed scared for me and I asked one to call the American embassy. But an army surgeon kept insisting that they should operate immediately.
“You are going to lose your eye anyway. I can operate now,” he said. I fended him off, but he would appear again, sharpening his imaginary knives, asking to operate.
Telephone calls were being made. It seemed that my request to be taken to Colombo was going to more senior people. At one point I heard a conversation in English. A soldier was saying, “No, she cannot come to the phone. What is your message?”
I heard him trying to pronounce the name of Steve Holgate, the personable public affairs officer of the American embassy. I shouted: “Give me the phone.” I had a huge sense of relief that someone knew where I was.
At dawn, someone in the Sri Lankan army hierarchy relented. I was put aboard a military helicopter and flown to Colombo. At the eye hospital, I was shoved on a stretcher against a wall in the crowded emergency room surrounded by hostile soldiers.
Miraculously, Holgate showed up moments later, clipboard in hand, and simply told the soldiers he was taking me into the custody of the American embassy. It was like the moment in a classic Wild West movie when the quiet guy faces down the armed and dangerous gang. I was safe.
WHY do I cover wars? I have been asked this often in the past week. It is a difficult question to answer. I did not set out to be a war correspondent. It has always seemed to me that what I write about is humanity in extremis, pushed to the unendurable, and that it is important to tell people what really happens in wars – declared and undeclared.
War has changed remarkably little over the centuries. Do not believe the nice clean videos where Gameboy jets hit Nintendo tanks framed in a satisfying and sanitary “X”. War is not clean. War is about those who are killed, limbs severed, dirt and rock and flesh torn alike by hot metal. It is terror. It is mothers, fathers, sons and daughters bereft and inconsolable. It is about traumatised children.
My job is to bear witness. I have never been interested in knowing what make of plane had just bombed a village or whether the artillery that fired at it was 120mm or 155mm.
War is also about propaganda. Both sides try to obscure the truth. Foreign journalists arriving in Sri Lanka are told in a government handout that parents in the rebel area keep their children home from school because the Tamil Tigers are recruiting them for service. But the parents told me they keep their children at home because they are hungry and faint in the classroom and do not have money for school supplies.
The Sri Lankan government reacted with anger to my presence in the Tamil-held area of the Vanni. It made no apologies for what had happened to me. I had no permission to go there, the government said, therefore I must have had a “secret agenda”.
I had no secret agenda. I had a journalist’s agenda. I went to the rebel-held areas because talking to the Tamil Tigers and writing about a previously unreported humanitarian crisis are important issues.
I am not going to hang up my flak jacket as a result of this incident. I have been flown to New York, where doctors are going to operate on my injured eye in about a week’s time. They have told me it is unlikely I will regain much use of it as a piece of shrapnel went straight through the middle. All I can hope for is a bit of peripheral vision.
Friends have been telephoning to point out how many famous people are blind in one eye. They seem to do fine with only one eye, so I’m not worried. But what I want most, as soon as I get out of hospital, is a vodka martini and a cigarette.
Editorial, page 16
MARIE COLVIN: COURAGE UNDER FIRE
Marie Colvin, 45, has earned a reputation as one of the most courageous foreign correspondents of her generation. She has been compared to the pioneering war reporter, fellow American Martha Gellhorn. Colvin joined The Sunday Times in 1986 as the Middle East correspondent. In that role she covered Beirut, the intifada in Israel, the Iran/Iraq war, the Yemen (she smuggled herself in from Djibouti by boat) and the Gulf war. Colvin has received awards for her reports from the world’s most dangerous trouble spots. Most recently she won the British press awards foreign reporter of the year for her work in Chechnya and Zimbabwe.
‘Marie has been in the front line for many years, operating with unfailing bravery. Her escape from Chechnya was a superb adventure, grippingly told. It was one of the great adventure stories of all time, they should make it into a film,’ said the judges. Warren Beatty agreed. He said that a film of Colvin’s life would be a great role for his wife Annette Bening.
East Timor, September 1999
Colvin is credited with helping to save the lives of 1,500 refugees stranded in a United Nations compound in Dili, besieged by the Indonesian army.
The army wanted to remove the UN as witnesses to their terrorising of the Timorese who had voted for independence. UN staff were preparing to flee but the Indonesian government refused to let the refugees go. By staying long after other correspondents had fled, Colvin and two Dutch women journalists shamed the 80 UN staff into staying. Colvin reported from the siege and eventually international pressure forced the government to allow the evacuation of all refugees.
Chechnya, December 1999
After being pinned down by fire from Russian aircraft and troops while reporting the plight of Chechen rebels and civilians, Colvin found her last line of retreat cut off by Russian paratroopers. Four days before Christmas she escaped by the only route left open – a treacherously icy path over a 12,000ft mountain range. This perilous four-day walk ended in a helicopter rescue from Georgia
GRATITUDE FROM TAMILS WORLDWIDE
Sri Lanka, April 2001
Colvin was the first foreign reporter in six years to enter Sri Lanka’s dangerous northern Vanni region where the Tamil Tigers are waging a civil war against government forces. She went to interview the leaders and was ambushed while trying to walk out of the area last Monday. After reports of Colvin’s ordeal last week The Sunday Times received many letters from Tamils all over the world offering their support.
This one was typical
‘We Tamils are so proud about your brave foreign correspondent Marie Colvin…We (are) all aware of the risk she undertook and we appreciate her visit to (the) Vanni area of north Sri Lanka for bringing the news to the outside world. We are deeply concerned about her health and wish her to get well soon. Thank you.’
Signed Elan Ramalingham, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.
(c) Times Newspapers Ltd, 2001. All rights reserved.