As Colleagues Salute Marie Colvin, Recent Losses Cast a Pall Over War Correspondents

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Chris Helgren / Reuters

Friends, colleagues and relatives are seated during a memorial for late Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin at St Martin-in-the-Fields church in central London, May 16, 2012.

The dress code for the memorial service was bright colors and, for women, pearls — hardly funereal, but then, the person being remembered, American journalist Marie Colvin, was hardly a conformist. Nearly three months after Colvin was killed while covering the battle raging in the besieged Syrian city of Homs, some 500 people gathered Wednesday at London's St. Martin's in the Fields Church to pay tribute to the Long Island native hailed by her editor as "the greatest war correspondent of her generation."

"Marie was always being given advice," John Witherow, editor of the London Sunday Times, told the packed church, in front of two large photos of Colvin, wearing her trademark pearls, standing atop a balcony in Beirut. "It was advice she routinely ignored."

One such piece of advice repeatedly ignored by Colvin was the urging by her colleagues to stay out of danger — she found their words of caution impossible to obey. She was, in the words of one friend, BBC correspondent Lyse Doucet, a "gurl's girl — and that's with a 'u' for guts."

"Now when we travel, we still somehow feel that Marie is still with us," Doucet told mourners.

It was Colvin's determination to bear witness at the scene to conflicts ranging from Chechnya and Bosnia to Libya and Syria that cut short her life. Though one of the most experienced journalists working on the front lines, in the end her luck simply ran out. She had sneaked across the Lebanese border as Syrian forces encircled the opposition stronghold in Homs, filing a memorable dispatch from a makeshift media center in the Bab Amr the night before her death. Early next morning, on Feb. 22, rockets hit the building. Colvin had run to the front door of her place of refuge to fetch her shoes, apparently in order to flee. There, in the doorway, she and the French photographer Rémi Ochlik were killed when a rocket struck. Four others — including the French photographer William Daniels, who was on assignment for TIME — survived the attack, and were smuggled out of Homs days later in a harrowing escape, recounted the following week in TIME's cover story

Though raised in Oyster Bay, New York, she had moved to London and made her name and fame through her compelling Sunday Times dispatches that focused on small human dramas to illuminate grand politic conflicts. As a measure of the mark she left, British Foreign Secretary William Hague and his opposition counterpart David Miliband sat in the front row of those paying tribute to Colvin at St. Martin's in the Fields on Wednesday.

But among colleagues, Colvin was famous too for other attributes: her hard drinking and an ability to keep conversations going through the night — including, according to Witherow, with Yasser Arafat, while Colvin was covering the Middle East. No matter how intense the story, Colvin always sought out the company of friends. After a long day covering the Tunisian Revolution last January, Colvin cornered me in the lobby of the journalists' hotel. "Come! We have to see Tunis!" and dragged me out to see not riots, but architecture; it was just one of many such walks in curious places we had shared over the years. No matter how grim the conflict zone in which she found herself, Colvin had a rare gift for making her colleagues feel better. "Seeing Marie always made you feel like you were not in the wrong place," Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch told me at the lunch gathering after Wednesday's church service.

At the lunch, hosted by Colvin's family, each person seemed to have stories of their dead friend, including the time Colvin paid for her friend Inigo Gilmore, a freelance documentary filmmaker, to be upgraded to business class on a flight to the Middle East, so the two could sit together and drink. Although Colvin never published a book while alive, her writings are now collected in a 530-page volume titled "On the Front Line," the proceeds of which go to the humanitarian charity her family has established in her name.

Yet for all the good cheer, several journalists admitted privately that the deaths of colleagues during the past 18 months' coverage of the Arab Spring had deeply affected them, causing them to step back from their work, and reflect on the challenge of protect themselves while getting the story. Aside from Colvin and Ochlik, the British filmmaker Tim Hetherington, American photographer Chris Hondros and the South African photographer Anton Hammerl were all killed while covering Libya last year. Anthony Shadid of the New York Times died from an asthma attack whilesneaking out of Syria, just days before Colvin's death.

To those gathered in London on Wednesday — many of whom have built up close ties through years of working in one another's midst in various war zones — those deaths have taken a toll on morale. Privately, one seasoned journalist said he'd been "devastated" by the death of Hetherington, and had taken time off work to absorb the loss. "We've lost more people this last year than ever," Bouckaert says. "The whole sense of invincibility has gone."

Nothing has stripped away journalists' sense of invincibility as much as the conflict in Syria, where the government only recently begun to issue visas to a limited number of reporters. Until last month, many journalists had smuggled themselves across Syria's borders to cover the conflict — and some, like CNN correspondent Arwa Damon, were in London on Wednesday to toast their fallen colleague. For others, however, the risks of covering Syria appear too great, in the wake of Colvin's death. "Someone said to me that it would be terrible if Marie's legacy was that we didn't cover Syria," said Lindsey Hilsum, the award-winning foreign correspondent for Britain's Channel 4 News, who was a long-time colleague of Colvin. "But I have to say it is hard to carry on," she said, choking back tears. "Quite a few of us have taken a step back and are trying to figure out what we are going to do." And sadly, Hilsum added, when those war reporters venture back into conflict zones, there will be wars aplenty to cover.