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Our Jim: A Fellow Journalist Remembers James Foley

Journalist Clare Morgana Gillis, who was held captive with James Foley in Libya, recalls the passion of her departed friend.
Photo by Manu Brabo

In the final moments of August 19, I was about to turn the internet off for the night when the first email arrived. "I just want to let you know I'm here for you, if you want to talk just call anytime," and a New York number. I didn't know yet what had happened, but Jim was the first person that came to mind. "That sounds ominous," I replied, dully hoping it was not what I thought.

"Oh fuck, fuck, Clare, it's bad, call me, I am so, so sorry."


Another message came, this time with a video link. Then messages started to pour in, too fast to read. The first reports came across the wires, then the phones began to ring. Links were posted, and there were shocked voices of sorrow and anger — hearts breaking and broken across the continents where Jim worked, lived, and met people who will cherish forever the time they spent with him.

Friends and colleagues urged not to post or watch video or stills from the propaganda film his executioners produced. I have watched it; I won't talk about that here. Right away, journalists asked: How do we remember Jim? The only picture of Jim any of us want to see is him doing his job, and enjoying time with his loved ones.

It has become customary for journalists to set their profile pictures to black when a colleague is lost. My Facebook feed became a sea of black profile pictures, a giant community of Team Jim that, I think, would sweep the earth if there was any way to get him back. But not everyone chose to black out their Facebook picture this week. One of his friends said, "I choose not to honor the color of death and barbarity today." People posted photos of Jim, and wrote up their experiences with him. Whether they'd met days or years ago, each walked away certain they'd just met someone extraordinary.

No one knew what to say to me, but the first question anybody asked was, "Where are you? Are you with people? I wish I were with you."


Photo by Manu Brabo

I had been in Albania for a month on a writing project. It remains an open question whether solitude is good for writing, but it is not good for mourning the violent death of one's dear friend.

Our own friendship began on the dusty roads west of Benghazi in the spring of 2011, when the phrase "Arab Spring" did not yet ring of folly. We worked together there often, and in April 2011, Jim, our colleague, the photojournalist Manu Brabo, and I were captured in an ambush that left another colleague, the Austrian-South African Anton Hammerl, dead. In over six weeks of detention, we all became very close.

Our detention bordered on absurdity: It was clear to us that the Qaddafi regime knew we should be sent on our way, but it seemed to be a question about who exactly should sign the papers.

When I learned Jim had been kidnapped in Syria in November 2012, I feared his experience there would be much worse than ours in Libya.

Last week, the photojournalist Andre Liohn, Manu, and I got a Skype drinking session going. We had all met Jim in Libya and worked with him frequently since then, in both Libya and Syria. From three spots nestled around the Mediterranean, we laughed for hours recalling, red-eyed, our times with Jim. We must do something, we resolved — meet up, live enthusiastically, and honor Jim.

When the three of us had been in a Libyan prison in 2011, Jim, Manu, and I had once hatched a plan to meet in Manu's hometown on Spain's Atlantic coast. But the plan had grown more distant since the day of our release. After Jim's death, it was the obvious choice of where to go.


The village where I was staying in Albania was over half a day's bus ride to the nearest international airport; I purchased a plane ticket and got on a bus to Athens. I was exhausted, confused, and I had been drinking Albanian moonshine. What time is it? Do I need to pack clothes? Where is Athens? It was one 15-hour bus ride away.

In Athens, friends of Jim's and mine from our early days in Libya picked me up at the bus station. We drank raki and ate stuffed peppers. We discovered, with great relief, that the mental fog and confusion was affecting all of us. How could it not? We were all clear about one thing though — our sense of our friend was still intact. We were able to remember Jim as we knew him, to laugh, and to marvel. We dug up photos and videos and shared stories.

Back when we had been held in prisons for three weeks in Tripoli, the three of us were suddenly moved to a private villa belonging to a Qaddafi army general. We had satin bedspreads, fruit baskets, and, vitally for Jim, the essentials for journalism. "We've got coffee, nicotine, and paper," he said. "We've got no excuse for not writing this all down." I was inspired by his diligence in those uncertain times. And I'm sure it served him well in Syria, too.

He was more cautious than one might think while watching the arresting footage he produced. He was simply determined and focused, and didn't take foolish risks. He lost himself in the momentum of a story sometimes. We all do, and we are probably lucky more often than we are judicious.


Photo by Manu Brabo

Freelance journalism is a competitive habitat, peopled mostly by short-tempered anarchists. Yet reporters in conflict zones instinctively team up, gravitating towards colleagues whom we like and trust and eventually love. Jim would be on anyone's team, contributing his signature mix of wit, generosity, compassion, and dedication. He forced those of us who didn't get along — due to some mixture of ego, misunderstandings, and people just being assholes sometimes — to do so. "You don't know what he's been through," he would remark upon hearing the postgame at the bar, where journalists occasionally sniped about each other's behaviors and motivations. Jim saw that everybody had a story, and that even monstrous things come from somewhere human.

Identity, we are told, is a shifting construct — we act one way with family, another at work, differently with lovers and friends and strangers. Jim's unique characteristic is that every story his friends tell makes the rest of us laugh and shake our heads about how we all knew exactly the same man.

People often wonder how journalists who work in the midst of so much death and sorrow handle it. I, and I suspect most of my colleagues, practice a variety of the same tactics. I write up my reports into a narrative that helps me make sense of what I've seen — and once it's published, I can leave it for others to consider. If we were not able to leave at least some things behind, we would likely find other jobs.


For Jim it was different. Long after he filed his dispatches he still asked himself and others, "What can we do to help?" He organized an auction to support the children of Anton, who was killed during our capture in Libya. He helped raise money for an ambulance for a hospital in Aleppo where he'd worked for months, and he kept in touch with every single person he met along the way.

Jim and I were in contact throughout the fall of 2012, until he was captured in northern Syria. When I was in Latakia province in October of that year with two Spanish colleagues, I sent him daily emails letting him know I was safe, just as he'd sent to me during his earlier trips to Syria.

It was early in that October that we last spent time together. We met in Istanbul, when he was on his way out of Syria to go back to the US. Fresh from vacation in the US, I was on my way in.

Even after months at the frontlines, Jim had trouble accepting the need to take a rest — he was haunted by the civilians, doctors, fighters, and families he had met. He wondered what was becoming of them, he wanted to keep working now that I too had shown up, along with the many others he'd been working with all that summer. Over beers that night, he was unlike himself — quiet and preoccupied, limp from inside out. We fell asleep watching the first episode of The Walking Dead. In the morning, we went to a courtyard café where we ate omelets and drank coffee. He took his bags, packed with weighty equipment, and got on the bus to the airport.


But anyone can tell you he could never drag himself away from the frontlines at the bar either. He was the first to dig in, buy a round, grin that marvelous grin, and bellow that marvelous laugh. He'd be high-fiving the whole miserable walk to the subway in the rain, and uncomplaining through a cold night in a Brooklyn church during Occupy Wall Street.

* * *

Who could do such a thing to the most open-hearted person any of us knew? Whose god asked for this? What kind of prejudice, of hatred, must this gang have experienced in their time on this planet, to make them think that this was the answer?

Many of us wondered, too, at the US government's stance on not negotiating with terrorists. France, Spain, and other countries do negotiate, and get their citizens back, even some who were held by the same group that killed Jim.

Jim's value to these captors — and surely he was the first to come to grips with this — was that he could be killed. Jim was always keenly aware of his value as an American man — in Tripoli he was held an extra week in the civilian prison because of a clerical error, but he recognized it as their holding onto their highest value target.

One of the experiences that links me most profoundly to Jim is the death of Anton Hammerl, the aforementioned Austrian-South African photojournalist who in 2011 was killed by assault rifle fire just a few meters from us in Libya. Anton's death had no logic and no justice. In Jim's case, there is also no justice, but his death emerged from a gruesome and inevitable logic. If negotiation is diplomacy, war is the opposite of diplomacy.

Jim's true value is that he is so loved by so many. That is what they are trying to take away from us. We all knew the same man, and we all know what he would want us to do. See friends, drink red wine, eat jamon, swim in the sea, work the hell out of an assignment. Raise a glass to him. Take care of each other, and of ourselves: honor him as he was.

Everybody remembers Jim

Photo by Manu Brabo