Medill ’08 alumnus and GlobalPost correspondent James Foley spoke Thursday to a packed McCormick Tribune Forum just two weeks after Libyan authorities released the detained reporter.
In his informal conversation with Medill lecturer Timothy McNulty, Foley discussed overseas conflict reporting, what it means to be a journalist and his 44-day stint in a Libyan prison.
“It’s really a cautionary tale,” said Foley.” Some of the things, I’ll never be able to change, but I wish I could.”
Working as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, Foley always knew he needed to get to the front lines to get the story. If reporters don’t take risks finding the true stories within conflicts like Libya’s right now, “you don’t understand the world, essentially,” Foley said, though he admitted the front lines in Libya are very dangerous; his editor even told him not to go there.
But he did. Foley joined Clare Gillis, Manu Brabo and Anton Hammerl, three other freelance reporters staying in the central rebel city Benghazi. Curiosity pulled the journalists, riding in a rebel vehicle, across the last front line and, according to a rebel soldier, just 300 meters away from Gaddafi forces. They were detected by Gaddafi soldiers, separated from their vehicles and shot at by two tan pick-up trucks armed with machine guns and filled with soldiers. Foley’s colleague Hammerl was caught in the line of fire.
“As the bullets began to stream directly over my helmeted head and shoulders, terror completely kicked in,” Foley read from some notes he’d taken in prison to keep his mind occupied and to piece together his memories of the attack. He’d stored the notes in his shoe to avoid detection.
Soldiers arrested Foley and his companions, and they were thrown in a truck, beaten and bound.
“I saw [Hammerl] lying there,” Foley said. “When…you see your colleague probably dead and then you get hit a couple times, you have so much adrenaline in you that I didn’t even feel it.”
Foley kept sane in the Tripoli prison through prayer and conversation with fellow journalist Gillis and the many imprisoned Libyans he encountered. He said though they were beaten, they were never tortured during their stay.
“Their system is inhumane, but there is humanity in them,” Foley said of the Gaddafi guards.
Finally released, Foley said that no matter the romantic ideals you’re upholding, they’re never worth sacrificing your own life. When pure luck is the only reason you survive, it makes you think about risk-taking in a new way.
“I was very impressed that it’s only been two weeks and he’s able to talk about it with such reflection, and seeing how he can move forward,” said Medill junior Elise De Los Santos.
“I had no idea what people were doing for me,” Foley said of the Free James Foley campaigns and petitions started back in the U.S. and heavily supported on Northwestern’s campus. He learned all of it from his mother when, after 18 days of detainment, he was able to speak to her over the phone.
Despite his experiences, though, Foley said he wants to go back to Libya for closure and to interview his fellow prisoners. “Conflict journalism is very important…we need to know the injustices that are being done,” he said.
Though he said he feels he’s physically ready to go back to Libya, emotionally he’s still struggling with what’s happened. “You can’t be at peace until you confront that reality, I guess.”
Foley and others involved with the Free Foley campaign are now collecting donations for Anton Hammerl’s family.