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Journalist Foley Details 6 Weeks of Captivity in Libya: ‘I Could Make it’

May 25, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
GlobalPost correspondent and producer James Foley was captured and imprisoned for six weeks by Moammar Gadhafi's forces while reporting in Libya. Foley discusses his experiences in captivity and his take on the Libyan uprising with Ray Suarez.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to the struggle in Libya, Egypt’s neighbor, and to the second of our interviews with correspondents covering that story.

Tonight: the perspective of GlobalPost correspondent and producer James Foley, who was captured and imprisoned for six weeks by the government. Foley was seized April 5 in Brega, along with Clare Morgana Gillis, who writes for USA Today and The Atlantic, Spanish photojournalist Manu Brabo, and South African photographer Anton Hammerl.

Ray Suarez spoke to Foley yesterday about the ordeal.

RAY SUAREZ: James Foley, welcome.

Let’s begin when you were taken. How were you captured?

JAMES FOLEY, GlobalPost: There was four of us, myself, Manu, Clare, and Anton. We were riding in a rebel vehicle. We exited the vehicle. About — a few minutes later, two heavily armed Gadhafi vehicles came over the hill firing, and shortly after that we were all captured.

RAY SUAREZ: So, you realized right at that moment that this was something more serious than simply being stopped, having your papers checked, being momentarily detained?

JAMES FOLEY: Oh, definitely. That — the level of fire, direct fire, towards us was something I hadn’t experienced ever before. And I have been in Afghanistan — accurate fire directed at us. We pressed our bodies to the ground. And they got out of the vehicles and came closer, firing.

RAY SUAREZ: So, you identified yourself as a journalist. How were you treated by the soldiers?

JAMES FOLEY: I had to jump up and say, “journalist.”

I wasn’t sure if they knew we were journalists. We were certainly unarmed. We were hit a couple times, struck with the butt of an AK-47 and punched. And Clare was dragged by her hair and also punched, as well as Manu.

But, after that initial moment of aggression and hyperactivity, things calmed down. And there wasn’t a sense where we were going to be beaten anymore than that.

RAY SUAREZ: Along with the other reporters you mentioned, weren’t you also traveling with South African photographer Anton Hammerl? What happened to him?

JAMES FOLEY: We were traveling with Anton Hammerl.

Anton was shot, and we believe he was killed in the initial capture. He cried out. And I asked if he was OK. He said, “no.” After that, he did no longer respond. The bullets were coming so fast and quickly, at that point, we knew we had to surrender.

Unfortunately, there appeared to be no medical treatment. And the loyalist soldiers may have indeed hidden his body, recognizing that he was a Western journalist.

RAY SUAREZ: Cause he’s still listed as missing, isn’t he?

JAMES FOLEY: Well, right now, Human Rights Watch, the South African government, all kinds of organizations are looking in that area where we were captured for his body to confirm for his family if he is indeed 100 percent gone.

RAY SUAREZ: Once you were in custody, did you have any sense that the Libyan authorities were aware of who you were, what you had written, what you had been covering before you were arrested?

JAMES FOLEY: We tried to be very accurate and very truthful, who we worked for, how many stories we had filed. We wanted to make sure that we weren’t considered spies.

And we kept repeating the same story when they kept asking us. But there was no sense that they had actually checked any of our articles. They appeared to be pretty Internet-illiterate, or incapable of connectivity at that point in Tripoli.

RAY SUAREZ: As your captivity began to wear on, did you start to worry about whether you would get out at all?

JAMES FOLEY: I never worried that I would be in captivity for, let’s say, a year.

I was concerned, I was really concerned to tell my mom that I was OK. And when we hit that two-week mark, I knew, OK, this is going to be a long time. They’re telling us two to three days, but they’re just playing mind games with us.

RAY SUAREZ: Eventually, you did get to talk to your mother.

JAMES FOLEY: Yes, I did. I talked to my mother about 21 — or about 20 days after I was captured.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, were you able to reassure her at all? I’m sure she was petrified.

JAMES FOLEY: She was — she was worried that I was being forced to say everything I was saying over the phone. And I just wanted to tell her I was strong, I was praying, I could make it. I knew it was going to be more time, but I was doing — physically, I was fine, and I wasn’t being harmed.

And she was worried that they were making me say these things, but she also said, oh, so many people have been praying for you and so many of your friends and family have come to our assistance.

And it just filled me with a tremendous amount of hope — tremendous.

RAY SUAREZ: Was that the first time you realized how aware the rest of the world was that you were in a Libyan jail?

JAMES FOLEY: You know, it was. It was, Ray. I had no idea.

We had no access, of course, to any kind of media, and talked to very few people that weren’t Libyans. So, it was a sense, wow. I didn’t even know whether we were on the world’s radar at the time.

RAY SUAREZ: Did you learn anything while you were inside, I mean, from fellow captives, from the conditions under which you were held, even from watching if demeanor and behavior of the people who were holding you?

JAMES FOLEY: Oh, it was very interesting.

Once we were in the general prison, all of the prisoners there, from younger 20s to 60s, were in there for purely political reasons, for protesting against Gadhafi, for sending text messages against him, for talking on the phone about what they had heard on the news — more serious ones, an imam for preaching against Gadhafi, another, a doctor, a Libyan — British doctor for helping an Al-Jazeera team.

So, there was a real mixture of people who were being held by this regime.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you got to watch this civil war from a very strange vantage point. What conclusions did you make about the Libyans, the tenacity of the regime, whether they will be able to hold on for the long term?

JAMES FOLEY: Well, all I can — all I can say is, you know, the people who I talked to and the small views of Tripoli that I got through the sides of the paddy wagon from underneath my blindfold, but there certainly was a sense amongst the political prisoners that Gadhafi had shot his own people, and that they wouldn’t accept any compromise by which any of his sons would share power or transition power.

There was a strong sense: We’re willing to stay in prison until this regime is dead.

But there wasn’t a sense a revenge. Many of these people had been tortured, and severely tortured, but they wanted to bring Gadhafi to a court, and they wanted to bring these men who had tortured them into some kind of legal process. So, there was some hope that there will be serious democratic reforms if and when this regime falls.

RAY SUAREZ: How did you finally get sprung, and are you OK now?

JAMES FOLEY: It was amazing.

The organization I work for, GlobalPost, friends from college, friends where I used to teach for Teach For America, family were constantly in the media and constantly contacting senators from New England. Reconstructing that has just filled me with a tremendous awe for what people have done.

And, finally, some Hungarian — the Hungarian ambassador to Tripoli showed up — and, you know, that was the first Westerner we had seen in well over a month — and said, you know, your case is in our attention now.

And there was a sense, OK, this process is going to start to move. And, about a week-and-a-half later, we were free in the Hungarian Embassy.

RAY SUAREZ: So, are you going to head back?

JAMES FOLEY: Not in the immediate future. I think my mom is — has my passport.

But, no, it’s a tremendous story. I mean, this revolution here is — it has — it has become an armed struggle. It appears it started as a peaceful protest, and it turned into an armed struggle. And it’s appeared — it’s the bloodiest of the Arab uprising.

And it will be very, very interesting to see if these revolutionaries can eventually get power and harness it for some kind of democratic reforms.

RAY SUAREZ: James Foley from GlobalPost, nice to have you back. Thanks for talking to us.

JAMES FOLEY: Thanks so much, Ray.