NORTH ANDOVER — James Foley sat at a picnic table in a New Hampshire park last weekend near his parents' home.

His brother Michael Foley, of North Andover, said his two children were kicking a bouncy ball as James, surrounded by family, took in the scene.

James Foley was back in the United States after 44 days in Libyan prisons.

"You could just see the smile on Jim's face," said Michael. "The things you take for granted."

Libyan soldiers loyal to leader Moammar Gadhafi released James Foley on May 18, six weeks after taking him and two other journalists captive near Brega. Foley was in the country covering the ongoing revolt against Gadhafi for the Boston-based news website GlobalPost.

James Foley said his time in Libya — where he was detained for reporting without permission, shuffled between three prisons, transported while blindfolded or handcuffed, and watched a fellow journalist lose his life — has given him a deeper respect for the United States.

"I took it for granted. I'll admit it," James Foley said. "Due process of law. A government that will advocate for its citizens even if you're a nobody. I think I've come back with a tremendous appreciation for our system, our civil rights."

Foley made it out of Libya May 18, crossing into Tunisia with the help of members from the Hungarian Embassy in Libya. Hungarian diplomats had lobbied the Libyan government for James' release after Turkish officials evacuated their embassy — and their effort to free Foley.

"There was no formal agreement with the (U.S.) Department of State," Michael Foley said. "(The Hungarians) were doing it because it was a humanitarian effort and they wanted to help."

A private security team met James and Connecticut-native Clare Gillis at the border, transporting them to a hotel resort in Djerba.

Michael Foley had jumped on a plane to Tunisia after a May 17 report that James would soon be released. He had spent about four hours each morning and another four hours each evening coordinating efforts among family and friends to bring James home — relying, gratefully, on his wife Kristie to run the house.

"It was just a crazy 44 days," Michael Foley said.

He was waiting in the hotel in Djerba and walked into a room to interrupt a conversation to see James.

"I just kind of interrupted," Michael Foley said. "I just had to say hi."

"It felt pretty darn good to see Mike there," James said.

But James Foley had the difficult task of explaining to South African and Austrian officials that photojournalist Anton Hammerl, a dual citizen, was dead.

"There was no 'kissing the pavement' moment," James Foley said.

From crossfire to cages

Hammerl had died April 5 in the confrontation with Libyan forces that landed Foley, Gillis and journalist Manu Brabo in Libyan prisons — a detail Foley, Gillis and Brabo did not reveal until their May release out of fears that releasing the news while in captivity could have endangered them.

Three weeks after arriving in Libya, James Foley was traveling with three other journalists, including Hammerl and Gillis, on the morning of April 5 outside Brega. The group was headed between what James Foley described as checkpoints on a trip to go survey recent damage.

Heavily-armed Gadhafi forces appeared over the hills coming directly for them and started shooting.

"'OK, this isn't a crossfire, they're shooting right at us,'" James Foley said he realized.

Hammerl was killed. James Foley and the other journalists were trapped on the ground withstanding gunfire when James jumped up and shouted the word "journalist" in Arabic.

"You either jump up and try to tell him that you're a journalist or you might be mowed down like (Anton) was," James Foley said. "Simple as that."

After his capture, James Foley was beaten by the soldiers and taken to a detention center in Sirte, Gadhafi's home town. Facing charges of entering the country illegally and reporting without permission, James Foley would spend 14 days in detention centers, and spend 17 more days in a general prison with Libyan political prisoners. He was routinely told he would be released in the next two or three days, and he had no access to outside information. There were also no books, and he was not permitted to go outside.

"It's the most powerless you ever feel in your life," James Foley said.

James Foley relied on his faith to get him through the time, as well as the advice of other prisoners. He said he learned from the Libyans to have faith and to hope.

"Just take it one day at a time. Don't think too much," James Foley said was the advice he received.

In the middle of the night on April 23, James Foley said, officials took him to meet a Libyan who spoke English who said, "I think it's time you call your parents."

"Finally to have that happen, I just started praying immediately that my mom would be home," Foley said.

On May 7, James Foley and Gillis were moved to a luxury villa, where they were guarded and detained.

"It's like you were in a gilded cage," James Foley said.

At the villa, they could watch television, they were allowed outside, and their meals improved, including multiple courses. But the journalists, James Foley said, knew they were still prisoners.

"We'd be watching the news and then we'd be watching a cheap Hollywood movie and then we'd hear bombs at night and then we'd wonder what that would mean for our imminent release," James Foley said.

And the month in prison, he said, pales in comparison to the fate Hammerl suffered.

"Wouldn't being in there for a year be 10 times better than losing your life?" James Foley said he and Gillis would discuss. "We got off easy."

Michael Foley said the website that he started to free James — www.freefoley.org — is now raising money for Hammerl's family.

One regret

James Foley said Friday that a week after being home, he's blown away by the work of family and friends to get him back.

During his time in prison, his family and friends maintained a relentless diplomatic effort and a constant media campaign, working with senators and television stations alike to bring James and the three other journalists home.

"I've come home from Afghanistan, I've come home from Iraq and those are extreme places, too, but what my family had to go through this time was like nothing will ever be the same," James Foley said.

James Foley's mother Diane mentioned some of his friends to him in that April 23 phone call — James' only permitted call during the 44 days in prison — but James said he assumed that the friends had simply called his parents' home. He did not know they were ardently working for his release.

"I've just been humbled, I'm just in awe of the love some of your friends will show you," James Foley said.

Rick Byrne, GlobalPost's director of communications and marketing, said the company, which started in 2009, knew that its journalists would be in danger.

Byrne said GlobalPost journalists are dedicated to finding the facts and reporting the stories they believe Americans should read.

"I'm always humbled by the kind of passion that the journalists that work for GlobalPost have for the work that they do," Byrne said.

James Foley said he will remain a combat journalist.

"I'm changed by that incident and I'll never do things the same but will I do the same assignment? Yeah, of course," Foley said. "I love doing it. I love showing the human side of the conflict."

James Foley said he does not regret going to Libya. But he does have one regret.

"I will regret — to the day I die — that day."

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