A journey of remembrance: Jim Foley

This remembrance was delivered at “The Task of Witnessing: A Symposium in Honor of James W. Foley” at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst on Tuesday, Sept. 20. Foley earned his master’s degree in writing at the university.

It was May 24, 2011, and the early morning sun glinted off the tracks as the Acela from Boston to New York lurched forward out of South Station and began to roll, picking up momentum on its way.

Jim Foley and I had just barely made it, bounding aboard about 30 seconds before the doors closed to the sound of the conductor’s whistle. A fitting start to a journey for two members of an unruly tribe of foreign correspondents who need deadlines to get things done, and have a penchant to push just about everything to the edge, to the last few seconds before the whistles blow and the doors slam shut.

But there was no way we were going to miss this train. This journey was sacred. Just six days earlier, Jim had been released after being held in Libya for 44 days. He was still shaken from the experience and the death of his friend Anton Hammerl, who was killed and left for dead when they were overtaken by government troops near Brega.

Despite the fatigue and the trauma, Jim was with me that early morning because he wanted to be there for the memorial service that would be held later that day in New York for the photographer Tim Hetherington, 40. Hetherington was killed in Misrata, Libya on April 20 with another colleague Chris Hondros, 41.

Both suffered shrapnel wounds while covering some of the most intense days of the civil war that erupted amid the Arab Spring and the pro-democracy wave of protests sweeping the Middle East in that fateful year of 2011. Hetherington and Hondros had been traveling with rebel fighters who came under a furious mortar attack launched by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s brutal regime. They bled out before they could get to a hospital. Jim wanted to be there at the service to bear witness to their work, to their lives.

Jim had worked alongside both men in Libya as a freelancer for GlobalPost. Jim was one of the best field correspondents we had. His early work in Afghanistan stood out, particularly a report on an embed where he captured an ambush of an armored Humvee from inside. The gunner in the turret suddenly collapsed into the vehicle as it rumbled forward under fire. There was chaos and profanity and blood as they realized the gunner was shot in the head. Through it all, Jim kept his humanity and never trained his camera on the wounded soldier. That was the profane image, not the deeper storytelling that Jim was there to do. So instead Jim allowed the gaze of his lens to drift down to the soldier’s helmet which lay on the floor of the Humvee.

Jim focused on the dent in the metal where the bullet entered and then focused in on the Kevlar mesh which provided the reveal of the deeper story: the bullet was trapped in the Kevlar.

Jim was focusing on that reality just as the soldiers tending to their wounded comrade realized he was okay. That even though he was out cold, he was going to live. It was like filming a small miracle.

And there was a profane joy as the soldier opened his eyes, and came to. That moment was as real and profound a moment of war as I have ever seen a journalist capture. I will never forget it. Jim was there bearing witness to a moment of life amid war, a sacred moment. And he wanted to go into the fighting in Libya with the same desire to be close to the action, to tell stories that reveal the life of the people who are caught up in war. He wanted to bear witness.

And he did that, reporting on the victims of the war in  hospitals long after the network crews had moved on, reporting on children standing on the side of the bombed out roads watching what was happening to their country, to their futures.

James Foley, a well-known journalist abducted by ISIS in 2012,  was killed on Aug. 19, 2014. His abduction and death led to national conversations about journalists' safety.
James Foley, a well-known journalist abducted by ISIS in 2012, was killed on Aug. 19, 2014. His abduction and death led to national conversations about journalists’ safety.

But when he was bearing witness, he often got too close, and we worried about him. On April 5, 2011, he took his reporting too close to the edge. He was with Hammerl and freelance reporter Clare Morgana Gillis and Spanish photographer Manu Brabo while traveling with a rebel unit that was charging forward.  

The unit was crossing a chaotic and shifting frontline and the group of freelance journalists and friends jumped out of the vehicle and tried to take cover on the side of a road. Hammerl was shot and killed by the advancing government troops. Jim, Clare and Manu were seized and taken to a Libyan detention facility and held for 44 days. We celebrated with the Foley family when they were finally released. And I had asked Jim to take the immediacy of the moment to write an essay for our field guide about lessons learned. A teaching moment for a former teacher, I thought.

The idea was that we would use the train ride to do some editing. But Jim had a penchant for passing out when he was tired. He was an epic napper. Soon he was curled up and sound asleep with his face leaning against the window of the train, and the sun bouncing off his sunglasses as Rhode Island flickered past us.

While he slept, I read the essay he had written. It needed some work, but it was all there. It was a Spartan, but riveting account of the moments before, during and after the capture. It was a meditation on how he survived and held on to his faith and his dignity. And it was a reflection on mistakes he made in the field. Above all, it was honest.

And if there was anything that really captured the signature of Jim’s writing in the field it was that: honesty. He always wrote honestly about people caught in conflict. This time it just happened to be about him and how he got caught and watched a good friend killed and almost lost his own life. It was sobering. But I could feel in the writing that Jim was less comfortable bearing witness to his own life, he was less comfortable teaching a lesson where he was at the center. Telling his own story was not Jim’s style as a journalist.

Jim woke up somewhere in Connecticut and we did a few edits. He asked that I wait to publish the essay until he had a chance to return to the field, and dateline it from there. I didn’t promise that, and we wanted him to stop and work with us in Boston and not immediately go back into the field, we wanted him to process his trauma.

But we set all that aside for now and we fell into a conversation about his work, about his commitment to the craft and his desire to return to the field, particularly back to Libya to bear witness to what was unfolding there.

I wanted to ask him about one passage in the essay where he said that his faith played an important role during his ordeal. He told me about how he prayed in captivity and said the rosary on his knuckles, and shared the simple rhythm of the Hail Mary of the rosary with a fellow captive through an electrical socket in the wall.

He was not overtly religious, but I could feel he was definitely dialed into his faith and prayer as a way he stayed in touch with his family when he was held captive. The Jesuits at his alma mater Marquette University had given him a path to connect his Christian faith to a penchant for the poor and the suffering, and perhaps a spiritual grounding in the act of bearing witness. This is not the case for many journalists, particularly international correspondents. They tend to be a uniquely secular, and often irreligious crowd.

Irreverence is part of the culture of reporting. I am not sure why that is, maybe because we too often end up witnessing people doing terrible things in the name of religion. Maybe it’s because we see too many phony believers covering up misdeeds with sanctimonious words. But Jim carried his faith with a casual strength and considerable grace.

We made it to the memorial service ahead of time, and Jim was surrounded by colleagues who were very glad to see him. All of us had been pulling for his release and doing everything we could to pressure the government to let him go. He was part of the tribe, and the tribe had circled around him, to protect him and now to celebrate that he was home. Jim talked with some of the photographers he saw there about an auction he planned to do at Christie’s to raise money to help Anton’s widow.

Every photographer there was ready to donate prints for the auction. Jim’s presence at Hetherington’s service was like a slice of light coming through the stained glass into the shadows of the First Presbyterian Church on Fifth Avenue. When the service actually began, the journalists looked noticeably uncomfortable in the hard bench seats of the carved-oak pews.

But Jim looked very much at home. He was in prayer, and not afraid to be seen that way. It was something I admired about Jim, that he had a true faith. Not a phony spirituality, but a genuine belief in Jesus’ message to help the poor. It may have been formed by the social justice teaching of the Jesuits of  Marquette, but I know now it was so clearly an inheritance from his parents whose faith shines through at every turn in their life.

It was an agonizing time, that spring of 2011 and into 2012, when so many journalists were facing the rising peril in the field as Libya and then Syria began to erupt in civil war. Dear friends Marie Colvin of the Sunday Times of London and Anthony Shadid of the New York Times were both killed in Syria in early 2012. We did not know then that it was about to get much worse, that we were on our way to the most deadly year on record for journalists in the field. Eventually Jim would return to the story in Libya and that was the dateline of the essay he wrote for our field guide.

He wrote, “It’s good to be back. This story matters and I wanted to be here telling it from the front lines.” To bear witness.

From Libya, Jim went on to cover the war in Syria where he was freelancing for GlobalPost and other outlets. On Thanksgiving weekend, we received the devastating news that Jim was missing, and soon we learned that he was believed to have been taken by unknown gunmen. Ultimately, it would be revealed that Jim was held hostage by a faction of Islamic militants, which would later become the Islamic State. In the agonizing months that he was held, I often wondered if he was still communicating through prayer with his family, as he did in Libya.

In July 2014, we learned of Jim’s murder at the hands of the Islamic State. For any of us who watched John and Diane respond to this tragedy, it was clear that they hadn’t given up on their religious faith or faith in the work that their son felt was his calling. They spoke to media from around the world and tried to shine a light on Jim’s life and his work and how important it was to him, and it was a light that pierced through the darkness of the moment and the cruelty of his captors. John and Diane were now bearing witness to Jim. And as they did so they and their family were the embodiment of amazing grace.  

So here is what Jim wrote in the essay about his capture in Libya, nine months before he would be captured again in Syria:

“I prayed as much as I could, kneeling with my fellow captives whether they were American Christians or Libyan Muslims. The act of collective prayer and building faith in a higher power to guide me through a situation I could not control was perhaps the critical piece to maintaining the right attitude to locked prison cells and kangaroo courts. My patience and my faith that I’d be released was all I could control.

“I used to be the one who went down the road. I took it as a challenge, but after almost losing my own life and spending 44 days in captivity, I now ask myself very carefully, as one colleague put it — to what end?”

To what end? The end, as we now know, was the act of bearing witness.

Charles M. Sennott is the co-founder and former executive editor of GlobalPost, now the founder and executive director of The GroundTruth Project. UMass-Amherst is Sennott’s alma mater.