I had just finished cuddling our toddler daughter to sleep when my husband told me, grim faced, that another Western journalist had been killed in Syria. Marie Colvin, a legend among foreign correspondents, was dead.
It was a rough week for foreign journalists there—earlier we had been shocked by the death of Anthony Shadid, the New York Times correspondent, and a French photographer, Remi Ochlik, died with Marie. But this one took my breath away.
I met Marie, as every journalist in the Middle East covering any serious story eventually did, during our posting in Jerusalem, on the party circuit dominated by idealistic young aid workers and conflict-hardened hacks. I cannot pretend to have known her; she certainly would not have remembered my name. But in a field dominated by an old boys’ network, Marie was in her own league, filing compelling and colourful copy from wherever in the world was most dangerous. Though recalled by her many friends as generous and full of life, to me she was intimidating as hell because of her reputation. The black patch over one eye, earned after she was injured in a grenade attack in Sri Lanka, only reinforced that.
As the newbie correspondent for London’s Sunday Telegraph in Jerusalem, I would privately moan when I heard Marie was in town, and look forward to the incredible read that would follow in that weekend’s rival Sunday Times. No one could match Marie’s work, and the funny thing was, even my fiercely competitive editors didn’t seem to expect us to. She was too brave, too passionate and too experienced.
Marie was talented and fearless. She achieved the thing we all get into the business for, and eventually grow cynical about: she made a difference in the lives of the people she wrote about. But her life also illustrates the question that almost every female foreign correspondent in the game faces sooner or later: a career, or a family life? Before her dedication to her craft took her life, there had been other sacrifices, namely two marriages ending in divorce.
In a decade abroad I have met some truly incredible female correspondents. But not many long-term foreign correspondents working in conflict zones, men or women, have happy marriages and children. And the pressure to choose one or the other falls primarily on those of us capable of child-bearing.
Some manage both, often with the help of incredibly understanding spouses with incredibly flexible careers, or at least with fantastic child care. My admiration for these women knows no bounds. But again, it’s often the women who have to justify themselves at every turn. Lara Logan, the CBS correspondent who was sexually assaulted and nearly killed in Egypt’s Tahrir Square last year, was pilloried in public for doing her job while leaving her young children at home. Over the years I’ve heard countless behind-the-scenes whispers about my colleagues’ efforts to keep working—Pakistan while pregnant? Afghanistan with a three-month-old at home? These are damaging and discouraging to others who might try the same.
I have several friends who’ve left the field completely after having children. Some have gone back after a hiatus of a few months or years, though often to less demanding positions. Another friend, a successful and very talented correspondent, is expecting her first child and worries about the future. I don’t know what advice to give her. My instinct is to urge her to continue. But long hours compounded by time zone changes, grueling travel schedules and inflexible deadlines are not exactly compatible with breastfeeding or noontime preschool pickups.
My decision to leave the Middle East and the flak jacket behind is not one I regret, mostly thanks to those moments when I tuck our beautiful, precocious two-year-old into bed at night. Perhaps the choice was made easier because foreign corresponding was something I fell into, not something I dreamed of. And I’m still writing— just not ducking mortar fire and Katyusha rockets.
But I’m still fixated by those big stories, and can’t help recalling a little wistfully the days when an explosion or natural disaster meant the adrenaline rush of the phone call to the desk, the hurried packing, the dash to the airport, the reporting that felt like it really meant something. I have few regrets, but that doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally envy others who’ve made different choices.
Mostly, though, I think my choice shouldn’t be the default position for every woman in this business. I hope Marie Colvin will be remembered as courageous and dedicated. I hope her tragic death will make a difference by drawing attention to the people still dying in Homs. And I hope that other young women will be inspired by her career to forge their own path, one that doesn’t have to involve forfeiting a private life to make a public mark.
Carolynne Wheeler is a Canadian journalist now based in Beijing.