Happy Birthday, Jim - The ISIS Hostage (2016)

The ISIS Hostage (2016)

Happy Birthday, Jim

The plane had just taken off from Heathrow Airport and was high above the clouds when Daniel opened his wallet and took out a small piece of cardboard. He silently contemplated the white surface, studying the image of his own face sketched with thin pencil strokes. He wasn’t wearing his glasses in the drawing and he had a beard, but otherwise you could tell it was him.

He showed the picture to his travel companion, Arthur, who was sitting next to him, his long legs stretched out under the seat in front.

‘Actually, some of the stuff we did was quite enjoyable,’ said Daniel, gripping the mini-portrait tightly between his fingers. ‘We played our own homemade version of Risk and I did gymnastic exercises with the other hostages.’

The drawing was the only memento from his time held hostage by ISIS in Syria. It had been drawn by one of the other western prisoners, Pierre Torres, who had sewn it inside his sleeve and smuggled it out of captivity. Pierre was another of the lucky ones whose freedom had been successfully negotiated.

Once freed, Daniel feared the worst. The Islamic State started killing the remaining western hostages, which was the reason why, on 17 October 2014, he found himself flying over the Atlantic with Arthur on their way to New Hampshire. They were on their way to attend James Foley’s memorial.

Daniel put the drawing back in his wallet and ordered a glass of wine to accompany the predictable ‘chicken or beef’ in-flight menu. After the meal he fell asleep, his head resting on the still folded and plastic-packaged blanket he was using as a pillow. His hair was sticking up from the static electricity and his mouth hung open. He woke up five hours later, just as they were preparing to land in Boston. Outside the airport terminal he lit a cigarette in the clear autumn air and inhaled the smoke deep into his lungs. He didn’t usually smoke. In the meantime, Arthur went to pick up the keys for their rental car and they drove to their hotel on the outskirts of Boston.

The next morning they headed towards the Foley family’s home town, Rochester, New Hampshire. The eighteenth of October 2014 dawned with sparse clouds in the sky. On this day James would have been forty-one years old.

In August 2014 the American freelance journalist had lost his life in the Syrian Desert. He was the first western hostage to have his throat slit by the British ISIS fighter known in the media as ‘Jihadi John’.

Daniel had been held captive in Syria for thirteen months, spending eight of them in the company of James and other western hostages. Daniel had thought highly of James, who was always optimistic, even though he had been imprisoned since November 2012. They had had plenty of time to get to know each other and Daniel had listened to James’s anecdotes about his siblings and parents. Now he was on his way to meet them and to pay his final respects to a friendship that had started, and ended, in captivity.

The trees leaned forwards invitingly along Old Rochester Road, the narrow country road that wound its way through New England. Bright red maples stood out among the green pines, and shades of yellow, orange and brown clung to the branches like a final breath before winter fell. The scent of winter’s impending arrival mingled with the smoke from Daniel’s and Arthur’s cigarettes. Daniel scrolled through the music on his iPhone and played the melancholy song ‘Add Ends’ by the Danish band When Saints Go Machine - a song he had listened to countless times since James had been murdered.

Nestling between the trees were tall, well-kept houses and there were pumpkins carved into cheerful faces with star-shaped eyes or else frozen in menacing screams. These jack-o’-lanterns kept a vigilant watch from the lawns and driveways. Even the local grocery store was overflowing with them, almost blocking the entrance.

When they turned into the Foley family’s road, the orange changed to black. They passed a large house where a hooded skeleton guarded the door. The road curved among scattered houses and American flags that were stuck in the grass by the asphalt. The whole neighbourhood was in mourning for the tragedy that had befallen the family in the white house at the end of the road.

The large lawn at the front of the property was dense and damp, and light shone through the windows towards the driveway, where a couple of cars were parked. Daniel strode purposefully towards the front door, followed by Arthur. He knocked and entered when he heard voices. James’s parents, Diane and John Foley, greeted them as soon as they stepped across the ‘Welcome’ mat. Diane gave Daniel a long, maternal hug, her thick, dark hair brushing against his face as she held him close. She squeezed his arm and led him around the crowded kitchen to meet the family. Above the door between the kitchen and the living room were painted the words: ‘With God’s blessing spread love and laughter in this house.’ It smelled of coffee, perfume and toast.

‘Meet Daniel.’ Diane introduced him with a mixture of gratitude and pain in her voice.

After a year in captivity, Daniel had finally got the sense that he might be close to being released. James decided to send a message to his own family through Daniel, but he didn’t dare write a letter. If it were found, it would jeopardize Daniel’s release and might never reach his family. Instead, they sat next to each other in the cell and James dictated the words that Daniel repeated to himself over and over again until he could remember them in his sleep.

As soon as Daniel had been released and had arrived back in Denmark, he called Diane and repeated James’s message, word for word, over the phone. It was the only and final greeting the family received from their son in captivity. Diane wrote James’s words down to remember them.

For the memorial service she had printed out the words so that the guests and the rest of the world could read them too. The title was: ‘A Letter from Jim’. It included a note to his grandmother:

Grammy, please take your medicine, take walks and keep dancing. I plan to take you out to Margarita’s when I get home. Stay strong, because I’m going to need your help to reclaim my life.

‘Thank you, Daniel,’ said James’s grandmother in the kitchen as she gave his hand a squeeze. The slight lady with the pearl earrings wiped her eyes and looked as if she was about to collapse under the weight of her sorrow.

To his younger sister Katie, the woman with the long, smooth hair, James had said this:

Katie, I’m so very proud of you. You’re the strongest of us all! I think of you working so hard, helping people as a nurse. I am so glad we texted just before I was captured. I pray I can come to your wedding.

James’s brothers Mark, John and Michael were also standing in the kitchen. They all wore dark suits and shared the same features as James: brown eyes under wide, dark eyebrows and a broad smile. Daniel felt as if he had known them for a long time, as James had talked about them at length, because he missed them so much. Daniel also knew that the brothers had been longing for good news about their brother. His message had given them a new burst of hope for a while:

I have had good days and bad days. We are so grateful when anyone is freed, but of course yearn for our own freedom. We try to encourage each other and share strength. We are being fed better now and daily. We have tea, occasionally coffee. I have regained most of my weight lost last year […] I remember so many great family times that take me away from this prison […] I feel you especially when I pray. I pray for you to stay strong and to believe. I really feel I can touch you, even in this darkness, when I pray.

James had finally found peace from his torment and now the family was trying to find its way back from the darkness. Mark and his wife Kasey were expecting their first child.

‘His name will be James Foley,’ Kasey said proudly of her unborn son as she stood in the kitchen in slippers, caressing her belly.

The service was set to begin at 10 a.m. Everyone emptied their coffee cups and put on their shoes and coats to go to the church. Kasey kept her slippers on when the family went out to the car. Diane insisted on sitting next to Daniel in the back seat; she took his hand and held it tight, while John drove in silence towards the church.

Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Church in Rochester was packed with family and friends. In front of the altar was a picture of James Wright Foley. He was smiling his charming, lopsided grin, which by all accounts had brought him great success with women. Yellow and red flowers encircled his face, the eyes giving a sense of the affectionate troublemaker he was.

There was no coffin to put in the grave. James’s body had already been laid to rest somewhere in Syria. His family couldn’t bring themselves to look at the last image the world had seen of him: a body in an orange prison uniform lying on its stomach in the desert with the arms by its sides. On top of the body, between the shoulder blades, was the head.

Most of the media had refrained from showing the ISIS propaganda video of James’s murder. Daniel had watched it only to ensure that James was finally at peace. He had so many other images of James etched on to his brain and they flooded back to him as he sat in one of the front pews, staring straight ahead. His white shirt lit up like a moon against the dark jackets filling the church.

He thought back to one year earlier, 18 October 2013, when they had been together in captivity. Late in the evening James had casually remarked that it was his fortieth birthday. Daniel and the other prisoners had congratulated him and said they hoped his birthday would be better the following year.

Now Daniel was sitting in front of a photo of James, while Michael wept through his speech about a warm and loving big brother who had fought for a better world.

‘James died for what he believed in,’ he said.

Daniel could see James in Michael. He leaned forwards and put his elbows on his knees, his broad back shaking uncontrollably. It was the James he had known that Michael was describing to the guests; the James who always had time for others - even when they all knew that James might end up dying in captivity.

Daniel took off his glasses and sobbed towards the church floor, unable to repress a desperate wail, which came thundering out in convulsions from his stomach and along his spine. He let it all come flooding out for the first time since August, when Arthur had told him the news of James’s death. He wiped away the tears with both hands, exposing the red scars around his wrists. They were imprinted into his skin like tattooed bracelets. Daniel put on his glasses again and looked towards the altar with flushed cheeks.

‘Happy birthday, Jim,’ concluded the priest, and the congregation said a prayer for all the refugees in the world and the Syrians who were living in a bloody warzone for the third year. They finished the service by singing ‘I Am the Bread of Life’.

Outside the church, Daniel smoked another cigarette.

‘A demon has just left my body,’ he remarked to Arthur, before he screamed out loud to himself and to the autumn air: ‘James, you asshole! I miss you! Why the hell did you have to go and die?’

The family drove out to the graveyard. A flat grey headstone lay in the grass, surrounded by red maple leaves and yellow flowers. Diane put her arm around her mother’s shoulders as they stood in a semicircle and silently prayed. The clouds cleared and the sun’s rays hit the burial plot. Daniel looked at James’s headstone. It read: ‘A man for others’.

‘Look, here comes the sun. It turned out to be a bright day after all,’ commented Diane.

After the ceremony James’s family paid tribute to his life by holding a reception at the church. His former nanny remarked that he had died dressed in the bright orange colour of life, while the executioner wore the black robes of Satan. The priest, Reverend Paul, recalled one of the last evenings when he had eaten dinner with the family before James travelled to Syria.

‘I said to James that his brothers and his sister were not thrilled about his decision to travel to Syria, back into the lion’s den. “Father,” James answered. “I have to go back and tell the stories of the Syrian people. They’re living under a dictator who tramples all over them as if they were grass.”’ Reverend Paul added: ‘Here, we have food on our table, but we have no idea what the Syrian people are going through. I know that James’s mission came from the heart.’

Diane stood in the same spot for several hours, receiving condolences from the guests, who stood in a queue that wound around the entire room.

‘God bless you all,’ she whispered.

The next morning Daniel impulsively bought a sweater featuring New Hampshire’s revolutionary war motto ‘Live Free or Die’. Arthur and he also bought a couple of beers, some water and biscuits from an old lady’s convenience store and drove out to the enormous forest surrounding Lake Winnipesaukee, where James had spent time as a child.

Daniel pulled the burgundy ‘Live Free or Die’ sweater over his head and wandered with Arthur along the humid forest paths for hours, getting lost between the bare trunks and russet leaves. Daniel took a deep breath. It was just as quiet as it had been sometimes in captivity - or back in the field near his childhood home in Hedegård. He knew what it felt like to long for death rather than life. Among the tree trunks, in the clinging mud that weighed down their shoes, he shouted, ‘That’s my motto from now on, Arthur: Live Free or Die!’