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Colvin's death highlights risk of bearing witness to war

Journalist Marie Colvin is seen in a June 2011 file photograph.

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters/Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

On Tuesday, family and friends gathered in Beirut to bury Anthony Shadid, an award-winning journalist who died last week in Syria at the age of 43.

Less than twenty-four hours later we would learn of two more journalists killed. Marie Colvin, a veteran foreign correspondent from Britain's Sunday Times newspaper and Remi Ochlik, an award-winning photographer from France were killed in a mortar strike in Homs, Syria, Wednesday morning.

Their deaths highlight the continued suffering of the Syrian people and the dangers encountered by journalists seeking to cover the story.

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Mr. Shadid collapsed and died from an apparent asthma attack on his way back to Turkey after a week of reporting covertly from the country. Ms. Colvin and Mr. Ochlik also entered Homs on a smuggling route, without permission from Syrian authorities.

"I entered Homs on a smugglers' route, which I promised not to reveal, climbing over walls in the dark and slipping into muddy trenches. Arriving in the darkened city in the early hours, I was met by a welcoming party keen for foreign journalists to reveal the city's plight to the world," she wrote in her last dispatch.

They were in a makeshift media house with a number of other foreign journalists when the building was struck.

Her final dispatch, about a "widow's basement" in Homs, describes in searing detail the hardships endured by those living in the besieged city, where food and medicine are running in short supply as the death toll climbs.

"It is a city of the cold and hungry, echoing to exploding shells and bursts of gunfire. There are no telephones and the electricity has been cut off. Few homes have diesel for the tin stoves they rely on for heat in the coldest winter that anyone can remember. Freezing rain fills potholes and snow drifts in through windows empty of glass. No shops are open, so families are sharing what they have with relatives and neighbours. Many of the dead and injured are those who risked foraging for food," she wrote

Ms. Colvin, 55, from Oyster Bay, New York, was largely unknown in America. In Britain, however, she was an absolute legend. All of her work was driven by the belief that the true value of journalism lies in bearing witness, in exposing the front-line suffering of hardline regimes and making the world care about people's plight.

"Throughout her long career she took risks to fulfill this goal, including being badly injured in Sri Lanka. Nothing seemed to deter her. But she was much more than a war reporter. She was a woman with a tremendous joie de vivre, full of humour and mischief and surrounded by a large circle of friends, all of whom feared the consequences of her bravery," Ms. Colvin's editor, John Witherow, said in a statement.

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The foreign editor of the Times, Richard Beeston expressed his dismay on Twitter: "Terrible news about Marie Colvin. First worked with her in Beirut 85. Most courageous, glamorous foreign corr I have ever met. Tragic loss"

To meet Ms. Colvin on assignment was to understand her dedication to her craft. It was to be in awe. She lost her left eye covering the war in Sri Lanka in 2001 but preferred an eye patch to a prosthetic. She was tireless, obsessive in her quest to tease out every detail in an interview and question every assumption.

She was always a step ahead of everyone else, but always the first to help others catch up, generous with her contacts and advice on how to stay out of harm's way.

Ms. Colvin believed a journalist's job wasn't to take risks; rather, it was to tell the story. Inevitably, however, one would have to do the former to accomplish the latter.

When others questioned the judgment of journalists risking their lives to report wars, Ms. Colvin always argued why we must continue:

"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, not just for yourself but often for people who work closely with you," she said in an address in 2010 at a service to commemorate fallen colleagues.

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"Despite all the videos you see from the Ministry of Defence or the Pentagon, and all the sanitized language describing smart bombs and pinpoint strikes, the scene on the ground has remained remarkably the same for hundreds of years. Craters. Burned houses. Mutilated bodies. Women weeping for children and husbands. Men for their wives, mothers for children… Our mission is to report these horrors of war with accuracy and without prejudice."

"Many of you here must have asked yourselves – or be asking yourselves now – is it worth the cost in lives, heartbreak, loss? Can we really make a difference?

"I faced that question when I was injured. In fact one paper ran a headline saying 'has Marie Colvin gone too far this time?' My answer then, and now, was that it is worth it."

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About the Author

Sonia Verma writes about foreign affairs for The Globe and Mail. Based in Toronto, she has recently covered economic change in Latin America, revolution in Egypt, and elections in Haiti. Before joining The Globe in 2009, she was based in the Middle East, reporting from across the region for The Times of London and New York Newsday. More

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