My Friend James Foley

Clare Morgana Gillis is an American journalist. She has reported from Egypt, Libya, Syria and Mali for The Atlantic Monthly, Foreign Policy and USA Today, among others. Currently based in Istanbul, she holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University.

Written byClare Morgana Gillis Published on May. 1, 2013 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

How do I sum up my friend Jim?

Around this time last year, having returned to the U.S. from his first trip to Syria, he was emailing me repeatedly.  “Come to NYC, dude,” he said, the nickname he used with everyone. “We need you ASAP.”

He needed me there because he was helping put together an auction at Christie’s to support the children of Anton Hammerl. Anton was a South African photojournalist who was killed in an ambush that saw the three of us, along with Spanish photographer Manu Brabo (winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize), detained in Tripoli for six weeks in 2011.

Jim had mourned our friend, befriended Anton’s widow and young children, and moved on to the question that drove both his personal life and his work: “How can we help?”

It’s the same impulse that compelled him to cut short his much-needed break from reporting in Syria when a colleague went missing last summer, and to raise money for an ambulance for Aleppo’s Dar al-Shifa field hospital, where he spent weeks filming the plight of doctors who struggled to save lives with minimal space equipment.

If it were any of us who’d been captured, Jim would no doubt be organizing events, raising money, and trying to put together recon and rescue missions to get us out. But with the radical uptick in journalist abductions in Syria over recent months – Jim’s fellow freelancer Austin Tice has now been missing since August 2012, and even NBC’s chief foreign correspondent, Richard Engel, was kidnapped at the beginning of the year – the latter isn’t an option.

*

I first met Jim the day he arrived in Benghazi, in March 2011, and we became fast friends. While trying to get to the front line via a giant bus organized by Libya’s rebel media center, we got sent back at a checkpoint near the hot spot of Ajdabiya. We banded together and eventually made our way to the front, catching rides on rebel gun trucks and in civilian cars.

I’d never been to a war zone before. Having spent years reporting on conflict, Jim told me when to duck and when to run. If he had a sandwich, he’d offer me half; if down to one cigarette, he’d pass it back and forth. He saved my life twice before I’d known him a full month.

Jim sees the good in nearly everything and everyone. He is a master motivator. “You got this, dude!” he’ll say. “That story’s great, just file it already.”

Jim is impatient with checkpoints, inaction, anything that slows his forward momentum. He is always striving to get to the next place, to get closer to what is really happening, and to understand what moves the people he’s speaking with. Captivity is the state most violently opposite his nature. But when we were detained in Tripoli, Jim automatically turned his energies to keeping up our strength and hope.

We shared a cell for two and a half weeks, and every day he came up with lists for us to talk through. Top 10 movies. Favorite books. The fall of the Roman Empire and the rebirth of Western civilization. Which famous person would you most like to meet? What’s your life story? How does war change you? How can we be better people when we get out of here?

When I was in tears after a six-hour interrogation that ended at sunrise, he observed matter-of-factly, “It’s their job to break you. They did it to you today, and they’ll do it to me tomorrow. Get some sleep.”

Once we were moved out of prison into a safe house with a markedly improved standard of life, Jim set to work. “We’ve got paper, pens, nicotine and caffeine,” he said. “There’s no excuse not to be writing all this down.”

Jim is famously even-tempered. In the field, he raises his voice only on occasion. Photojournalist Nicole Tung [a Syria Deeply contributor] is a close friend and colleague of Jim’s. When we spoke, she recalled a day in Aleppo in July 2012, when she and Jim accidentally crossed into regime-controlled territory while interviewing internally displaced persons who had taken refuge at Aleppo University.

A Syrian Red Crescent worker became suspicious and asked what they were doing, and if they had visas. “I said, ‘I’m an American, we came in illegally, of course we have no visas,’” Nicole recalled. “It was stupid. Jim said ‘Yo, Nicole, what are you doing? Shut up. We have to get out of here. Get in the [expletive] car.’ I’d never seen him lose it before. But I hadn’t realized how dangerous it was.”

*

Everybody, everywhere, takes a liking to Jim as soon as they meet him. Men like him for his good humor and tendency to address everyone as “bro” or “homie” or “dude” after the first handshake. Women like him for his broad smile, broad shoulders, and because, well, women just like him.

Wherever he is now, I can only assume that he’s charmed his guards with his ready laugh and 20 words of Arabic, and is now drinking tea and smoking cigarettes with them, praying for strength and waiting for what comes next. I still call his phone sometimes and listen to the outgoing message. I’m waiting for the day he’ll pick up.

*What grieved Jim most about detention was the worry he knew he was causing his family. Support them at an event to mark World Press Freedom day in Boston on Friday, May 3. You can also add your name to the petition requesting his release, available at http://freejamesfoley.org