Remembering Jim Foley
My dear friend Jim Foley, the American journalist brutally executed by the Islamic State this week, was one of the kindest and most caring people I’ve ever worked with. In the often competitive and macho world of war reporting, Jim stood out with his humbleness, his compassion, and his deeply collegial nature.
Jim Foley came into my life during the 2011 Libyan uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, when he and three other journalists were captured by Gaddafi’s army and disappeared. I made the first agonizing calls to their families to inform them of what had happened. In the weeks that followed, I joined the tireless efforts of their families, colleagues, and friends to try to locate them and get them home.
When Jim and two of the other journalists were eventually released, we tragically learned that one of the four, the South African journalist Anton Hammerl, had been shot during their capture, and left to bleed to death in the desert. Despite extensive attempts, his body was never found, buried in an anonymous grave.
Following his release, Jim and I became fast friends, celebrating his freedom with his many friends at the Half King Cafe in New York, a traditional journalist hang-out. Jim was very grateful for all of the efforts to get him released, but made it clear that despite his family’s reservations, he intended to return to war reporting after spending some time recovering at home.
In October of that year, Jim joined me on a mission for Human Rights Watch to Sirte, the Libyan city where the final battle of the 2011 war was unfolding. It was a brutal fight, and we spent our first night sleeping rough side-by-side in a metal shipping container, as powerful GRAD rockets fired by the rebels flew overhead and impacted nearby, constantly shaking the ground under us. The next morning, we found ourselves on the front lines to witness the end of that war, with rebels all around us breaking out in tears and joy at the end of their ordeal.
Amidst all the madness, Jim just kept filming and working, never losing his cool. All those hard days and nights, I never heard a single word of complaint from Jim. Whatever hardship presented itself, he just accepted it and kept going. The night of Gaddafi’s death, while everyone else was trying to get an iconic picture of Muammar and his son, Mutassim, lying dead in a nearby house, Jim spent the evening helping a colleague get the only footage of Muammar’s capture out, filmed by a rebel on his mobile phone, spending hours reducing the files and sending them out over the slow internet connection.
Jim wasn’t the kind of journalist who flew in, filed a few stories, and flew out. When Jim went in, he wanted to live with the local people, share their suffering, and tell their stories. He would commit months to different places, traveling around with local taxis and making local friends. As a former teacher, Jim knew how to connect with people: he could deescalate the wildest of situations and always seemed able to win the trust of those who mattered.
That is what it takes for the rest of the world to know what is happening in places like Libya, Syria, and Iraq: people like Jim must take the calculated risk to go there and document and report what is happening. Without courageous and dedicated people like Jim, our world would be a much less informed place.
And then, nearly two years ago, in the early days of the Syrian conflict, Jim disappeared one day. A group of men stopped his taxi near the town of Binnish, grabbed him, and told the taxi to keep going. His colleagues at the Global Post and his friends and family scrambled to find out what happened and to try and locate him. They followed up on every lead, however improbable, and despaired as trail after trail grew cold. For months, then years, there was nothing but rumors, not a single sign of life. He literally just disappeared.
I wish there was no video showing his brutal execution to haunt his family and friends forever. It is unbearable to think of Jim’s final terror-filled moments, designed by the Islamic State to horrify us all. It is unbearable to think that there are still other hostages in the hands of the Islamic State, hostages kept for the same purpose. It is unbearable to think of the hundreds of mostly nameless Iraqis and Syrians who have suffered the same fate as Jim at the hands of the Islamic State, but Jim would want us to think of them.
Goodbye, dear Jim, and we will remember you for the beauty of your life well lived and not its brutal end.
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