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May 28, 2011

After release, James Foley recounts ‘dark secret’ in Libya

(The Boston Globe) An interview with journalist James Foley, back from Libya (Video by Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff, produced by Lane Turner/Globe Staff)
(The Boston Globe) An interview with journalist James Foley, back from Libya (Video by Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff, produced by Lane Turner/Globe Staff)

Note: This story is from the Globe archives. It originally ran on May 28, 2011.

Three journalists kept a secret during their 44 days in captivity in Libya, fearful that talking about it could endanger their lives and jeopardize their chances of freedom.

Yesterday, as he recounted his ordeal, James Foley, a correspondent for Boston-based international news site GlobalPost, said it was only after he and his colleagues were freed May 18 and safely out of Libya that they felt it was safe to reveal that they saw soldiers aligned with Libyan strongman Moammar Khadafy gun down an unarmed South African photographer who had been traveling with them.


“There was this deep, dark secret that Anton was dead,” said Foley, 37, of Rochester, N.H. The Libyan government reported the photographer, Anton Hammerl, was missing, but Foley knew that wasn’t true.

“We decided we couldn’t talk about it because it would be dangerous if they knew what we knew,” he said.

During an interview at GlobalPost’s offices overlooking Boston Harbor, Foley urged the international community to pressure the Libyan government to investigate Hammerl’s shooting and return his body to his family.

“I want to get out the fact he was killed ... and the Libyan government kept it a secret from the world and kept putting out misinformation,” Foley said. “I believe it is a war crime when an unarmed journalist is killed, and it’s not reported and covered up.”

On April 5, Foley; Hammerl; Clare Morgana Gillis, a Connecticut resident and freelance journalist who has reported for several outlets, including the Globe; and Spanish photographer Manuel Varela who works under the name Manu Brabo, hitched a ride to the front lines with a small group of rebels while reporting on efforts to oust Khadafy.

The journalists were traveling in the back of a red bus with two rebels, part of a three-vehicle convoy, when they stopped on the road outside the eastern port city of Brega. They left the bus to interview another group of rebels who said Khadafy’s forces were close, Foley said.


In what Foley now says was a critical error, the journalists waited in the desert brush while the rebels drove a short distance, then turned and sped away as two heavily-armed vehicles carrying Libyan soldiers approached, firing machine guns.

“I quickly realized this isn’t crossfire - this is them firing directly at us,” said Foley, recounting how he pressed his body to the ground. “I heard Anton shouting, `Help, help.’ I shouted, `Anton are you OK?’ He responded, `No.”‘

Foley said he jumped up with his hands in the air and shouted, “sahafi,” which means journalist in Arabic. Foley, a writer and videographer, said none of the journalists was armed. He was carrying a camera, and Hammerl had two cameras strapped to his body.

He said the soldiers struck him in the head with an AK-47 several times and punched him and also hit Gillis and Brabo.

The soldiers threw the three journalists into the back of a pickup and drove them to a house in Brega. Hammerl, who was severely wounded and appeared dead, was left behind, Foley said.

During the next six weeks, Foley said he was interrogated about whether he was a spy and what he knew about the rebels. He was transferred from one prison to another, and repeatedly brought into court to face charges that he entered the country without a visa and conducted reporting without permission.


While in prison in Tripoli, Foley said he could hear the sound of NATO bombs dropping nearby and feared his captors might harm him in retaliation.

“Soldiers would say stuff to mess with you, like, `Oh, American, you’re not getting out,”‘ Foley said.

He said he was treated fairly well, fed regularly, and never tortured or beaten. He shared a cell with political prisoners, incarcerated for acts such as sending disparaging texts about Khadafy. Foley said he saw physical evidence that some of the other prisoners suffered electrical shock, beatings, and whippings.

Foley said he begged his captors to let him call home because “all you want to do is tell your Mom you’re OK. ... She might think I’m dead.”

It was an emotional moment, he said, when they let him call his mother, Diane, the day before Easter.

Foley said he became worried when the other two journalists were moved from the Tripoli prison on April 29 and he was left behind without explanation. Then, eight days later, Foley said he was blindfolded, placed in the back of a van and driven to a luxury villa. He was greeted by Gillis and Brabo, who had been staying there since their removal from the prison. Another captured journalist, Nigel Chandler, a British freelancer, was also there.

Foley said he spent his last days in custody at the villa, eating three-course meals, sleeping in a room of his own, and watching cable television, which included world news reports on the BBC. He said he was told that Khadafy’s son, Saadi, believed Western journalists should be treated well.


On May 9, Foley said Hungarian officials showed up to check on the conditions of the journalists and told them many people were working to win their release.

Liberation finally came May 18 as Brabo was handed over to Spanish authorities, and Foley, Gillis, and Chandler were driven to the Tunisian border. A hostage team of American and British soldiers, media, and Foley’s brother were there to greet them.

Foley said he was overwhelmed by the support he received from family, friends, and various officials who worked behind the scenes.

While committed to journalism and reporting on conflicts around the world, Foley said he believes he owes it to his family and friends to stay home for awhile.

Foley, who completed his graduate studies in 2008 at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, worked as an embedded reporter with US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan before arriving in Libya about three weeks before his capture. He said he believed he was careful and had assessed the risks. He was wearing a helmet and body armor while the Libyan soldiers, some younger than 18, fired at him.

“I still want to be a conflicts journalist, but I realize this is life and death,” Foley said. “What’s been tough to realize is Anton passed away, and it could have been any one of us.”