Journalists and Aid Workers Are Targets for a New Brand of Extremists

James Foley, whose gruesome death was the first of three execution-style killings of foreigners in recent weeks in the Middle East.

By Joe Lowry

The tragic and highly mediatized deaths of two journalists and an aid worker at the hands of militants in the Middle East may seem to have little to do with migration, but they are in many ways a defining chapter for all who work in perilous situations.

Humanitarians and foreign correspondents are also migrants: they moving from their homes to work, each in their own way bringing a human face to disasters.

Without knowing the men (reporters James Foley and Steven Sotlof, and ACTED logisitican David Haines), I feel a great sense of loss at their untimely, gross passing. Their lives are of course of no more nor no less value than any of the thousands of casualties of war that have transpired this year, last year, every year. But they are priceless to their families, as are the lives of every fallen son, daughter, father, mother.

The ransoms demanded by their eventual murderers have no real meaning – the money would have been used to further a conflict that by now seems intractable.

To focus on James Foley, the first to die: what he did with his 20 or so years of professional activity, now that has real value. The emotional, desperate scenes he captured in Aleppo’s hospitals, his interviews with volunteer doctors, his pictures of wounded children, wailing mothers… some may see it as prurient, but I see it as essential.

The horrors of war, of the suffering of the innocents, must be witnessed. The real prurience is that of his killers and of those who seek out the video of the execution. This murder makes all journalists, all aid workers, targets; our emblems and our mandates now count for naught. We are cheapened by the price tag on our skins.

Journalists and humanitarian workers meet on the frontline – not just as witnesses but as colleagues. The camera can be as effective as the scalpel or the bag of rice.

My own work has taken me to scenes of great suffering, and I sometimes wonder what good I am doing by filming the wounded, the sick, those fleeing for their lives.

But there is another dimension. My IOM colleague in the Central African Republic, Sandra Black, a woman I have never met but admire immensely, is working amid war, displacement, disease and desperation every day. She recently penned an incisive, inspiring editorial in the Huffington Post for World Humanitarian Day, the day we commemorate aid workers who have died on duty. In it, she made the humanitarian case for making suffering visible.

‘”During a recent assignment a man caught up in the CAR conflict said to me, ‘Take my picture. My family thinks I'm dead.’ I realize the importance of my communications work not only to bring attention to crises, but also for the beneficiaries I meet. My interview and photo requests valorize the struggle of those affected by conflict, demonstrate respect for their situation, and provide a sense of recognition for those in dire situations.”

James Foley was a humanitarian. And a migrant, who died miles from home. We are right to feel a great sense of loss at his gruesome death.

James Foley started out as a poet and writer. His namesake, American Poet James W Foley (1874-1939)  could not have penned a better obituary, had they ever met.


The castle totters,
With earth is blent

The offcast mantle
And tenement.

Claims its ashes
The waiting sod,

But something lingers
That came from God.

The something voiceless,

Shapeless, vast,
The sweeter perfume

That lives at last.

In dust the flower,

The life is fled,
But something lingers

And is not dead.


Joe Lowry is a Senior Media and Communications Officer for IOM