a lot of questions, no answers

The last time I talked to James was November 21st, 2012. The day before he was kidnapped.

It was midday Haiti time, evening Syria time, when he popped up on Skype — that moody pixelated avatar that looked like he’d snapped it in a foggy bathroom mirror.

On 11/21/12, at 11:26 AM, Susana Ferreira wrote:
> homie. where you at? how are you?

On 11/21/12, at 11:26 AM, James Foley wrote:
> Hey you!

On 11/21/12, at 11:26 AM, James Foley wrote:
> what’s the word Doggg???

We’d met earlier that year when we participated in the first RISC training, an intensive medical course for freelance journalists, hosted by the Bronx Documentary Center. By day we’d learn about tourniquets, head trauma, spinal injuries, and shoved bloodied gauze into a plucked chicken as practice for packing wound cavities. By night we’d drink pints, eat greasy New York slices, and trade stories about our respective corners of the world. It was a great, friendly group of people, and I was in awe of the cross-section of talent, camaraderie, humility. On the last day of our training, April 20th, we gathered at The Half King on 23rd and 10th to toast the memories of two journalists who had died the year before in Libya, Tim Heatherington and Chris Hondros.

James had been to Libya. He’d been kidnapped in Libya, too, and watched as his friend, South African photojournalist Anton Hammerl, was killed by pro-Gaddafi forces and his body abandoned to the desert. He’d seen the ugliness of war in Iraq and in Afghanistan, too, but he didn’t carry that ugliness with him. He had a youthfulness to him, a tremendous light behind his eyes. Every other eulogy I’ve seen since the news broke makes mention of Jim’s lady-killing grin, but that giant smile started way up his face, behind his eyes. Then again, it could be that my memory is fuzzy — we’d been drinking the last time we crossed paths, after all. Most of my Blackberry photos from that night at The Half King are a gleeful mess, war reporters and photojournalists mugging goofily, flushed, caught mid-joke or mid-giggle.

I kept in touch with some of the extraordinary colleagues from the RISC training, but none more closely than James. He added me on Skype right away and we talked frequently over the next months as I went back to Haiti and he pinged between the States and the Middle East.

On 11/21/12, at 11:29 AM, James Foley wrote:
> I’m in Syria, just a had close call with a tank round yesterday so we pulled back to a safe town, nice to have a sunny day with no shelling

Our conversations often circled the same themes: we bemoaned the crap pay and lack of support we got as freelancers, laughed at ourselves for accepting that crap pay and lack of support with gusto, talked about upcoming assignments, enthused over dream assignments, made promises to move away from our respective regions and on to other parts of the world by year’s end, and lamented our mutual chronic indecisiveness in finding a next spot to settle. He wanted to keep bearing witness, but wondered aloud if it was time to step back from war. He forever downplayed his own discomforts and worried after my well-being to an extent I found comical, checking in post-Sandy or scolding me for getting dengue fever while he was the one wearing Kevlar, ears still ringing from nearby shell blasts. His regular pop-ups and pep talks were a comfort, they were motivating, often hilarious, and they were absolutely a blessing. Before we logged off for the last time, we talked again about a reunion in New York around the New Year. He’d be leaving Turkey and Syria by mid-December to spend the holidays with his family in New Hampshire, and I’d be flying to Toronto around that time for the same. A little freelancer career counseling and commiseration session back at The Half King was just what we needed to start 2013 and a year of fresh adventures off right.

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James Foley is in the far back row, last on the left. Matt Power, wearing green and also in the far back to the right, passed in March. Photo by Ricky Flores.

A month later, as I wondered why his foggy avatar hadn’t popped up in so long, I found out from another journalist. Kidnapped. The new year started with a public countdown by the Foley family, marking the days since gunmen nabbed their son, their brother on his way back across the Turkish border with almost no trace and no news. The count ended yesterday, day 636.

I didn’t know James long, but I’ve felt his absence heavily. I can’t say how many times I tucked away an anecdote, usually about some goof-up I’d made, thinking: “When Jim comes back, I’ve got to tell him this.” I thought of him when I finally decided to move away from Haiti, wondering whether he’d be proud or laugh at me for dragging my feet for so long. I thought of him every time another journalist was kidnapped, or another journalist released. I thought of him as Syria spiraled, and I thought of him as ISIS rose up and swept through. When the headlines and stills from that video exploded across my timelines yesterday afternoon, I couldn’t help searching the face in those images to see if it was really him. I have not and will not watch the video of his murder. I have a long list of questions about what happened to him during those 636 days, but I’m not sure I want to hear any answers right now.

I don’t know why I wrote this. It’s self-indulgent in a way that I’d normally find repellent — his kin and oldest friends could say so much more about Jim, the sound of his laugh, the flaws that made him infuriating and uniquely him, his goodness and humour and openness and curiosity. I suppose I just wanted to say something. That I feel grateful to have known him, even so briefly, and to have had his positive presence in my life during some trying months. That I admired and respected his commitment to following front lines, to documenting injustices, to bringing connection and friendship and light to some dark corners. I can’t tell him this any more, because I know now that his fuzzy blue avatar will never again pop up in a Skype chat, but I’m so glad James Foley existed.

Rest in power, homie.

 

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One Response to a lot of questions, no answers

  1. Judi Hume says:

    What a beautiful tribute to your friend. I didn’t know him, but I wish I’d had that privilege. I’d forgotten that people like him existed. The world was surely a brighter place with him in it.

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