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Here’s what James Foley meant to us

GlobalPost's editorial team pays tribute to our slain colleague and friend.


James Foley reporting in Tripoli, Libya in August 2011. (Courtesy of Jonathan Pedneault)

BOSTON — The scene is pure adrenaline.

First, you hear panicked rebels crying “Allahu Akbar” — God is great.

Foley knows better than to turn off the camera, in case there’s more action, or the worst happens. As he runs for his life, the image goes berserk: anxious breathing, a stampede of feet, the ground twisting this way and that as his arms pump. You can almost feel Jim’s death grip on the camera.

Seconds later: the brief, screeching whistle of the incoming shell.

The dull thwack of impact.

The image cuts to a scene in a truck, speeding from the front. Hapless Libyan rebels on foot run madly to escape the advancing troops of Col. Muammar Gaddafi.

Jaws dropped as we watched. Hearts hammered. Yet we were all in the safety of GlobalPost’s editorial offices.

“Holy shit,” someone muttered as the video wrapped. 

That was April of 2011. We published the video under the title, “Who are the Libyan rebels?” 

As always, we urged Jim to exercise caution. In the end, he made it out of Libya, but only after spending 44 days as a prisoner of Gaddafi’s regime, and only after witnessing his friend South African photographer Anton Hammerl take lethal gunfire from the dictator’s forces.

Foley was unstoppable, however. He came back to the US, caught his breath and helped raise money in New York City to support Hammerl’s widow and three children. Then he jumped back on a plane to cover the final hunt for Gaddafi, in the dictator’s hometown of Sirte.

Those were rough days. For several weeks, Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch’s director of emergency research, slept alongside Foley “in a refrigerated truck with a bunch of smelly rebels,” Bouckaert recalls. “The night before Gaddafi was killed we literally had Grad rockets flying over our heads all night.” The next morning, the two men witnessed a battlefield strewn with more than a hundred bodies, a “scene of absolute devastation,” as Bouckaert put it. (The following night, they were lucky enough to discover in their luggage a bottle of Johnny Walker Black that they had forgotten about. Bouckaert confirms that the contents didn’t last.)

“Jim couldn’t bear to watch from afar as the rebel tide finally turned against Gaddafi,” recalls Solana Pyne, his video editor at GlobalPost. On that last day in Libya, “rebels claimed Gaddafi had been killed in a firefight, but Jim found eyewitnesses who confirmed the despot had in fact died at the hands of his former subjects.”

That scoop would change the narrative of Gaddafi’s demise, and prompt United Nations officials to call for a war crimes investigation. It would also win the prestigious Overseas Press Club award for Foley and for colleague Tracey Shelton, who obtained the video of Gaddafi’s final moments.

Not one to embrace accolades, Foley celebrated the recognition in his own way. Jim enjoyed a practical joke, and when GlobalPost Editor Thomas Mucha returned to his hotel room after the award ceremony, he found himself taking the brunt of Foley's humor. “Every chair in the room was upside down. My bed was upside down. The desk lamps were upside down. Pillows were scattered everywhere,” Mucha says. “Foley, of course, had broken in to ‘rearrange the place to my liking.’”

*****

When war broke out in Syria in 2011, it quickly became clear that journalists would take a heavy toll in the fighting, and even be directly targeted. The story was too vital to ignore, but GlobalPost's editors were anxious for the safety of our correspondents working there. Middle East Editor Pete Gelling took to sleeping with his cell phone under his pillow again — a habit he'd started when Foley was in Libya.

Foley was able to file some incredible journalism from Syria — gut wrenching tales of lives annihilated by the violence.

But on Thanksgiving day in 2012, near the Turkish border after reporting from the war zones near Aleppo, he was captured by armed militants, a fact that remained under media blackout to improve his chances of release. For more than a year, his whereabouts were unknown to us and his family.

As the world now knows, he was ultimately turned into a pawn of terrorist propaganda. On Tuesday, Aug. 19, a grisly video emerged of an Islamic State militant decapitating him in the desert.

Aside from being a dedicated correspondent, Jim Foley was a dear friend to GlobalPost. Between stints in war zones, he had worked for months as an editor at our Boston headquarters — although it quickly became clear that wasn’t where he wanted to be. His fearless war coverage was integral to our quest to tell stories no one else covers.

He will remain an inspiration to all of us.

In Jim’s work “I hear his love and passion for journalism,” writes Mexico senior correspondent Ioan Grillo. “He brought fresh, human voices to help us understand one of the most important issues on the planet. I am proud to have my work alongside Jim Foley’s at GlobalPost.”

*****

Having met such a grim fate, however, questions inevitably arise.

Why would he do it? Why would he put his life at risk? Why would he subject his adoring friends and family to the anguish of knowing he could end up dead — especially after he had come so close to it already?

In Jim’s case, it was about altruism, about telling the stories that needed to be told. In the words of Bishop Peter A. Libasci who spoke at his memorial service, Jim risked his life “so that we may open our eyes.” He was appalled by the suffering across the Middle East, and particularly in Syria, where many thousands had died by the time he was captured.

“He cared deeply about his colleagues and the stories he was covering,” says Bouckaert, who became a close friend after working to get Foley released from the Libyan prison. “Journalism is a world with a lot of testosterone and machismo, and Jim was the exact opposite.”

“In a field full of painfully massive and destructive egos, Jim had none whatsoever,” says Peter Gelling, his editor at GlobalPost.

Seeing Jim wallpapered across the world’s media for the past week, sweat and dust on his rugged face, donning dark shades in the desert sun and brandishing a black video camera as if it were an M16 — you could be forgiven for sensing an oversized ego.

On the contrary, Jim was quiet, humble, and at times somewhat awkward. He often spoke slowly, as if struggling to get the words out — but when they came out, he always had something to say.

“In a field full of painfully massive and destructive egos, Jim had none whatsoever,” says Gelling, who edited his work for GlobalPost.

You could say Foley was a journalist’s journalist; that would be a compliment to the rest of the profession.

Although tenacious and driven in his reporting, Jim wore none of his adventures or accomplishments as a badge. Around the office, dressed in jeans, running shoes and an XL polo shirt, you rarely got the sense he was the guy who had seen so much, who had weathered a Taliban ambush and prison in Libya.

“He did not see himself as important,” recalls Gelling. “He hated being the subject of the story after his captivity in Libya. All that mattered to him was the people he wrote about. Telling their stories accurately led him to take risks. But this was why I loved working with Jim Foley.”

*****

Friends remember Jim as sweet and caring. But “selfless” is the adjective used most often in describing him.

His approach was so unorthodox that colleagues who worked with him in war zones sound almost mystified by his generosity. “He was so brave,” remembers Shelton. But “he wasn’t like normal journalists who brag about their own stories. He was always the first to praise you.” She says when the duo won the Overseas Press Club award for GlobalPost, he was always “talking up my contribution to the award.”

Jim's reporting style also impressed his editors. "James had a very raw, riveting approach to his work," says Mark Scheffler, senior video producer at the Wall Street Journal who previously held the same position with GlobalPost.

"He wanted to be immersed in the moments he was covering, often at tremendous risk to himself," Scheffler adds. "What James ended up showing were humans under duress and populations under siege — and the dignity with which they carry on through the fighting. I don’t always know what drove James to the extreme places he went to. I just know that what he found when he got there helped us come away more moved and more knowledgeable than we were before. He was true grit."

Jim had character. He was impossible not to like, or at least to sympathize with. That fact no doubt helped explain the deep kinship GlobalPost Founder and CEO Phil Balboni developed for Jim and his family — a bond that drove Balboni to work tirelessly for nearly two years, at a seven-figure cost, to save him.

"Jim was the kind of extraordinarily brave and dedicated journalist you might be lucky to work with once or twice in a career," says Balboni, a lifelong journalist. "He believed that telling the human stories in these conflicts was vitally important and his respect and affection for his subjects set his work apart." 

The Jim Foley that we knew was willing to risk everything to tell the stories of people whose language he barely spoke, whose faith he didn’t share — so the world wouldn’t ignore the slaughter in Syria. He was driven to do what he could to expose the appalling crimes he witnessed against Syria’s civilians. He was no criminal, terrorist or spy.

“He simply cared about the story, and the people behind these stories. And that's why we loved him,” says Thomas Mucha, GlobalPost’s editor.

To us, who Jim was and what he stood for — that’s what makes his brutal execution so cold-blooded. 

*****

“Jim lost his life doing what he thought was so very important — telling real stories of real people in a troubled world,” notes Mucha. “And while his death is still incomprehensible to many of us, his dedication to this high principle of journalism gives us at least a little bit of comfort.”

The stories Foley told were as insightful as they were unique. “He was not the kind of guy who would just show up for a week or two, write a story and add it to his resume,” Bouckaert says. “He really wanted to delve deeply into these crises and understand them.”

In Foley, his editor Peter Gelling found a kindred spirit. “Jim and I shared a desire to tell stories about how the decisions of the powerful affected the lives of the ordinary — stories that are rarely told because they are too dangerous to tell. He was better at that than most because he was compassionate. Strangers would feel immediately comfortable opening up to him, even in the most harrowing conditions.”

Foley had a previous career as a teacher in Phoenix, and friends say he brought to war reporting the skills of controlling a classroom, interacting with people and crossing cultures.

As a teacher, “He was this East Coast white guy, trying to speak Spanish,” says former student Carlos Garcia. “His Spanish was terrible,” Garcia adds, but he earned respect and admiration just for trying. Garcia, who now works for Verizon, credits Foley with “pointing a lot of us in the right direction,” in a school district where drugs, crime and teen pregnancy were the norm.

“Jim knew how to get the reporting details that make a story come alive,” Editor Thomas Mucha says.

Foley’s journalism gave voice to people the world may never otherwise know: shy, gentle gun-wielding men who had left mundane jobs as welders or accountants to fight for freedom against Gaddafi, or Syrian mothers who lost their sons to Bashar al-Assad’s merciless crackdown. His videos had an understated pacing, with telling details — a rebel’s toe sticking out through worn boot leather, for example, or a soldier struggling to fire a weapon he couldn’t handle.

“Jim knew how to get the reporting details that would make a story come alive: the vernacular and mannerisms of US soldiers fighting in Afghanistan; the way Libyan rebels in the desert used homemade artillery and RPGs; how rebels and civilians of Syria's bloody civil war fought, suffered and grieved,” observes Mucha. “He never complained about how much work that really takes to pull off. Time and again he would go back into the field and back to his sources to get those details. And time and again that dedication and work ethic paid off.”

And then there were moments of sheer mayhem. 

The Gaddafi assault in Libya was hardly the first time Foley was nearly seared by the heat of combat. On a US military embed in Afghanistan’s hostile Kunar Province, Taliban fighters ambushed his convoy. As always, Foley is right up there with the action, lying on his back, filming a 19-year-old Army private gunning from the turret just a few feet away. Then you hear the dull whack of a bullet slamming into his helmet (at 1:55 in the video).

“Ahhh shit,” cries the private.

“Are you hit?” hollers a voice from inside the vehicle.

“In the head,” he responds.

Foley continues filming. There’s no evidence that his hands are shaking.

On Location Afghanistan: A firefight in Kunar Province from GlobalPost on Vimeo.

For sure, like most war correspondents, Jim was seduced by the adrenaline, by getting close to the action and witnessing life at its most extreme.

Violence “does a strange thing to you,” he told an audience at the Medill School of Journalism after being released from prison in Libya. “It doesn’t always repel you. Sometimes, as you know, it draws you close.  ... It’s a strange sort of force.”

Foley was feeling that force on the morning of April 11, 2011, when he passed the last checkpoint near the front lines outside Brega, Libya, along with journalists Clare Morgana Gillis, Manu Brabo and Anton Hammerl. He later shared his recollections of that day in a GlobalPost interview.

“This doesn’t look safe,” he quoted Hammerl as saying. “This seems a little crazy. The adrenaline was starting to race.” Then a group of young teenagers in a car warned the reporters “Gaddafi forces 300 meters away.”

“I didn’t want to be the guy that said, let’s turn around,” Foley said, the regret visible on his face. “I didn't want to do that.”

Because Gaddafi forces had typically targeted the roads that rebels used to attack, the journalists strayed off into the desert. “That was a huge, huge mistake,” Foley said. Almost instantly, two heavily armed Gaddafi pickup trucks came over the rise, guns blazing. Moments later, Hammerl lay bleeding in the sand. The others were beaten and taken captive. They never saw their friend again.

When he worked at GlobalPost’s office, Foley seemed haunted by that incident. He spoke of the responsibility he felt for Anton’s death, about how Anton’s children would never know him. “We made mistakes, and it could have been any of us who were killed. But Anton was killed,” he later told the BBC.

It would be easy to speculate that Foley’s selflessness in Syria — his willingness to put the needs of other prisoners above his own — stemmed from this guilt, from a yearning to make things right after the Hammerl tragedy.

Garcia, his former student, argues that’s just the way Jim was.

Foley coached the school’s basketball team, and Garcia says he would dig into his own wallet to make sure the students had things the school couldn’t afford. There was no gym available, so Foley arranged for them to play at a local YMCA. “We couldn’t afford buses, so Mr. Foley would carpool: He’d put us in his car, take us to the gym, and go back and get another bunch of guys.” The team came in second place, Garcia recalls. “We presented him with a plaque because he put so much effort into it.”

Foley’s style may have been rugged, fearless, and not exactly fine-tuned for corporate success. But he made an impact, and he left a legacy that will endure with all of us at GlobalPost, and with many others around the world.

After his death, a group of men from Kafranabel, Syria paid him tribute.

We couldn’t agree more.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/americas/140827/what-james-foley-meant-to-us