Pull of danger for executed journalist

MANUEL ROIG-FRANZIA
Last updated 05:00 22/08/2014
james foley
Reuters

FINAL MOMENTS: A masked militant brandishes a knife before beheading US journalist James Foley.

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Afghanistan. Libya. Syria.

Jim Foley had to go. Had to. He had to be there. 

In 2011, editors at GlobalPost - a Boston-based international news site - talked him into a stateside writing job. He had just been released after being kidnapped and held by Libyan forces for 44 days while covering the civil war there for the site, and they wanted to give him a safer perch. But he wasn't satisfied.

After six months, "he was chafing to return" to Libya, GlobalPost President Philip Balboni said in an interview Wednesday. And so Foley boarded a plane again, and he was there to document Muammar Gaddafi's fall.

Foley returned safely from Libya, but the world is full of conflict, and Foley needed to see more of it. He made his way to Syria, where he was kidnapped again, this time in November 2012. In a gruesome video released This week, Foley — looking gaunt and weary in an orange shirt and pants — is beheaded by a masked extremist dressed in black.

James Foley - everyone mostly called him Jim - moved among a particularly intrepid and courageous set of international journalists: freelancers who chase big stories without the guarantee of a paycheck or the continuous support of a major news organisation.

No editor sent him to Syria. Foley, who was 40 at the time of his death, got there on his own, then contacted editors at GlobalPost to pitch his stories. The site was glad to take them. The staff admired his knack for assembling the voices of residents traumatised by war, his ability to get in close. Still, Balboni said, "we wished he had not put himself in harm's way another time."

Friends describe Foley as a thinker, a cerebral sort with a tendency to mull the big issues of the world, to turn them over and over in his head, trying to make sense of them. And he seemed to be trying to make sense of his attraction to the dangerous places of the world.

"When you see something really violent, it does a strange thing to you," Foley said during an appearance shortly after his release from captivity in Libya, at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, where he earned a master's degree in 2008. "It doesn't always repel you. Sometimes, as you know, it draws you close. . . . It's a strange sort of force."

A New Hampshire native, Foley took creative writing courses as an undergraduate at Marquette University, said a longtime friend and college classmate, John Fitzpatrick. "He had a very gentle, sensitive, sort of honest way about him," Fitzpatrick said.

Foley was the one who always wanted to do something a little different from the rest, Fitzpatrick said. Once, on a trip to Chicago, all their pals wanted to go to a bar to pick up girls. Foley tried to talk them into going to the Turkish Baths. Why? "Because it would be an adventure!" Fitzpatrick recalls Foley telling everyone.

Foley was searching. After graduation, he took the law school entrance exam along with a group of friends. Foley got the best scores, Fitzpatrick said, but he wasn't interested in law school.

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He became a teacher, working with juvenile offenders at a Cook County, Illinois boot camp. In his mid-30s, Foley, who was single, decided to go back to school to study journalism, making a career shift at a time when many of his friends were already well-entrenched in their professions and families.

Foley had a quick smile and a mellow manner. As his freelance portfolio grew following his graduation, he fell in easily with other journalists. They often worked together. Safety in numbers. They looked out for one another.

Foley easily could have skipped the Libya conflict. He told students at Medill that one of his editors at GlobalPost said, "Don't go there." Foley thanked the editor for the advice. But, he said, "I had to go."

In Libya, Foley and a small group of journalists came under fire as they were approaching the city of Brega. It was a dangerous place. But Foley had to get there. He wanted to know whether the rebels had truly taken control, as they'd been hearing.

His group came under fire. A journalist who was working alongside him, a seasoned South African photographer named Anton Hammerl, was killed in a barrage of gunfire as they approached the city of Brega. Foley and two others were kidnapped.

Foley was deeply affected by the death of Hammerl, friends and acquaintances say. After he was released, he helped organise a foundation and an auction at Christie's to raise money for Hammerl's wife and children. "Following one of the worst years for photojournalism in recent memory, the community is banding together around this event," Foley wrote in an email to friends and colleagues announcing the auction.

In Syria, Foley was appalled at the lack of resources at the Dar Al Shifa Hospital in Aleppo, where he did some in-depth reporting. Once again, he became the organiser, building support among freelance reporters and their networks to raise money for a much-needed ambulance that was later delivered from Europe. He started his pitch with a quip, recalls a friend who worked closely with him, the freelance photographer Nicole Tung.

"I know you guys are all battling your gastrointestinal issues," Tung remembers Foley writing in an email.

The dangers in Aleppo were acute, but Foley was dug in. "He kept working there, even as the situation got worse and worse," said Daniel Etter, a freelance photographer.

In particular, Etter remembers a piece Foley filed to GlobalPost from Syria's Idlib Province — a month before he was abducted. Foley got people talking who didn't normally talk. Yet even in that violence-strafed land, Foley found a way to start his article with a twinkle.

"Behind the mansion they were occupying, a group of half-naked rebels whooped with joy as they cannonballed into the murky, half-filled swimming pool," Foley wrote.

But once he'd drawn in readers with a smile, he showed them how bad things had gotten, interviewing a former taxi driver named Faez: "While Faez visited his children in Idlib province last month, one rebel group broke down his apartment door and set up shop.

"They use everything. They changed my house into a camp," he said. "They make a mess of everything." When he complained they were wearing his clothes and destroying his property, the young rebel commander told him: "This is a time of war."

And Jim Foley was there. He had to be.

 

-The Washington Post

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