August 20, 2014 4:24 pm

Blog: Remembering James Foley

WATCH: James Foley’s murder could be just the beginning of threats to countries outside the Middle East. The man seen wielding the knife in the video of Foley’s murder had a British accent and authorities in the U.K. are trying to identify him. Mandy Clark reports.

I first met James Foley at a small U.S. combat outpost in the remote northern Afghan province of Nuristan, one of the most deadly regions in the country.

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He had done a long, dusty patrol with U.S. troops and billowed fine sand as he walked up to greet me. He was freelancing for the Smithsonian magazine but he was really interested in becoming a freelance TV journalist. I was working for a U.S. station and based in Kabul. He had filmed some footage and wanted me to view it.

Jim looked like a TV correspondent. Ruggedly good-looking, tall, slender, big white teeth, a mop of chocolate brown hair that is warzone-chic with just the right amount of mess to it. I liked him immediately.

We were waiting for a helicopter that was coming to get us back to a bigger base near Kabul. Jim had already been there nearly a week waiting to get out. He told me he used to be a teacher but working as a war correspondent was his dream job. We chatted over a mean game of Scrabble, trying to kill time and jovially argued over the spelling of “gaffe.” He was strongly opposed to the allegedly superfluous E.

From then on, Jim and I would update each other regularly with the stories we were working on or the latest battle we had just been caught up in. Our notes were tinged with that dark humour war reporters relish. Jim had an infectious enthusiasm. “Come to Kunar!” was a subject of an email. Apparently, there was “never a dull moment” in the deadly hostile Afghan valley.

But Jim wasn’t a war junkie. He didn’t go into danger just to feel the buzz of a battle. He loved telling personal stories from the frontline. He wore his compassion like a badge of honour.

The next time I saw Jim, I was in Libya. He was at my hotel lobby wearing his trademark big, warm grin on his face. It was a dangerous war with the frontline constantly collapsing. Jim was caught on the wrong side of it while traveling with three other journalists. Gaddafi’s forces opened up on them. They shot his friend, Anton Hammerl, in the stomach. He was left to bleed out in the desert while they captured Jim and the others. Jim said watching Anton die was the worst day of his life. He and the other journalists were held captive for 44 days and then paraded in front of the rolling foreign media cameras before their release.

But this experience didn’t dull Jim’s love of war reporting. He was back in Libya after the fall of Gaddafi.

He messaged me a month before going into Syria. He was worried about his friend, the American freelancer Austin Tice. It turned out to be a prescient moment in our conversation.

Four weeks later, he himself was kidnapped for the second time and disappeared. My last words to him were “be as safe as possible.” He replied, “definitely! Talk soon.” I never heard from him again.

I always carried the hope that Jim would come out of Syria alive. If anyone could have done it, it would have been him. He was one of the best of us.

War correspondents tend to have a jaded edge, but not Jim. He was generous with his time and sources. He felt stories deeply. Earnest, eager and always seemingly untainted to the horrors we witnessed. I didn’t know anyone quite like him. I doubt I ever will.

© Shaw Media, 2014

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