WASHINGTON: American journalist James Foley was a beloved companion to colleagues in dangerous corners of the Middle East and battled to tell the human stories of civilians caught up in chaos.
The 40-year-old freelance reporter was kidnapped in northern Syria in November 2012 and held for almost two years before being beheaded Tuesday by militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) in revenge for U.S. airstrikes.
Colleagues from across the world’s media paid tribute Wednesday to the bravery, compassion and good humor he brought to his chosen task, shining light on communities trapped in the darkness of war.
Reporter Daphne Benoit of Agence France Presse worked alongside Foley in the rebel Libyan city of Misrata in October 2011, covering the bloody final days of Moammar Gadhafi’s collapsing but still vicious regime.
“A handsome lad, his chiseled features always coupled with a smile, he was inseparable from two other freelancers,” she said.
“All three had been kidnapped in Brega by Gadhafi loyalists in April and held for a month, but that didn’t stop them coming back to Libya to cover the fall of the final stronghold.
“One evening my astonishment got the better of me. Why had he wanted to come back? James responded shyly, but with his smile. It seemed obvious to him – he needed to see the story through to the end. He wasn’t foolhardy, just a stubborn reporter.
“He did the right thing. On Oct. 11 he was one of the few journalists on the ground in Sirte to cover Gadhafi’s capture and execution.”
Foley’s comrades and former cellmates, American reporter Clare Morgana Gillis and Spanish photographer Manu Brabo, have spoken of his bravery and companionship while in their Libyan detention.
The experience gave Foley pause for thought, as he explained to student journalists from his former college the Medill School of Journalism after his return.
“When you start to take risks, when you have a close call, you really need to look at that,” he said. “It’s not worth your life.”
But, when the young would-be reporters asked why he chose to work in such areas, he explained: “There’s an amazing humanity in these places.”
Colleagues remember Foley’s focus on the human face of the conflicts. Middle East video coordinator Djilali Belaid said the freelancer’s first work for AFP had been footage shot in Syria’s Idlib province.
“Images of a dumbfounding violence of a civilian population under a deluge of tank shells,” he said, recalling Foley’s bravery and resourcefulness in shooting and transmitting footage from the most difficult of places.
“With a discreet little camera, helmet and bullet-proof vest, James Foley was able to slip into the front lines, often meeting fleeing refugees coming the other way, sometimes taking shelter with them when the shelling was intense. He tried to show childhoods cut short by indiscriminate bombings, elderly survivors pulled from wreckage.
“His images often spoke for themselves, but his accompanying mails always mentioned the names of those he had interviewed and even of those he filmed after they had died under the bombardment.
“For him, no victim was anonymous; he made it a point of principle to find out their names, to gather information about their lives.”
Foley’s work in Idlib was not forgotten by the Syrian people there, either. Shortly after his death was announced, a picture began circulating on Twitter of a dozen young men carrying the flags of the Syrian rebellion and a tribute banner.
“Humanity is proud of James: The Syrian Revolution, Idlib countryside, 20 August 2014,” it reads, praising Foley for his work exposing the brutality of both Bashar Assad’s regime and ISIS.
AFP chief video editor Henri Bouvier said Foley captured “moments when humanity gained the upper hand over war, such as a marriage in Aleppo in the dead of night between a rebel and a nurse as bombs fell in the distance.”
Fellow AFP journalist Fabienne Bruere worked with Foley over shaky email and telephone links from the field for six months before finally meeting him in person in Antakya, Turkey, shortly before he crossed into Syria for the last time.
“He didn’t hesitate to travel tens of miles simply to put a face to my name, to grab a drink together,” she recalled.
“I found a man who was the very image of his emails: down to earth, cheerful and modest. It was a few days before he disappeared.”