On the morning of June 12, 2014, two days after ISIS took control of Mosul, Kamaran Najm headed to Kirkuk, a city in northeastern Iraq. He’d received a tip that Kurdish forces were launching a counterattack on insurgents south of the city. As a Kurdish-Iraqi photojournalist, there was no way he was going to miss covering the story.
Kamaran and another Kurdish photographer, Pazhar Mohammed, followed the peshmerga from Kirkuk. On the outskirts of a nearby village, ISIS jihadis opened fire with belt-fed machine guns and a torrent of mortars, hitting a building next to Kamaran. It burst into flames.
Pazhar and Kamaran jumped into a dry canal alongside a group of Kurdish soldiers. Slowly, they began to move down the ditch. But there is next to no natural cover in the flatlands south of Kirkuk, and Pazhar said later that he could tell the insurgents were firing from at least two sides, maybe more. Bullets snapped all around and the pall of smoke from the burning building began to drift over them. They were lost and scared and knew they were in over their heads. A flock of starlings, startled by the explosions, whirled in the sky above them.
“Look,” Pazhar said. “Even the birds don’t know where they’re going.”
“Oh, yeah,” Kamaran grinned, flashing his mischievous smile. “They’ll fly right into my ass.”
A group of Kurdish soldiers appeared nearby and opened fire on the insurgents. This gave the pair some cover. Kamaran scooted down the canal for a better view. Just as he popped his head up to snap a photo of the gunner, a bullet whizzed past, pinging off a piece of metal. “Holy shit!” he muttered in English. He tried to reorient himself, but before he could, the ISIS sniper fired a second round. This time there was no ping, just the sound of air escaping a human body. Kamaran grabbed his neck and crumpled to the ground.
Pazhar scrambled towards Kamaran, screaming for help from soldiers dug in further down the canal. He leaned over Kamaran, and whispered that he’d be O.K. Kamaran moaned, but didn’t say anything.
Three peshmerga rushed towards them with a blanket to haul Kamaran out. Kamaran mumbled to Pazhar, “I’m dead,” and then again, softly, “I’m dead.” The soldiers rolled Kamaran onto the blanket and he let out an almost indistinguishable sigh. “I love you all,” he whispered in English, and then, in Kurdish, “I’m dead.”
Pazhar and the soldiers lifted Kamaran onto the blanket and carried him to the closest pickup, pushing him onto the truck’s bed. ISIS spotted them and fired, hitting the windscreen with two shots. The terrified driver slammed the gas; he had no idea that the tailgate was open. As the truck bounced over the uneven terrain, Kamaran fell out the back.
Pazhar yelled again. This time, Sarhad Qadir, the commander of the Kurdish forces, heard him. Sarhad and his men grabbed Kamaran, and started hauling him across the hill. They moved slowly. The jihadis spotted them easily and opened fire. The Kurdish soldiers dropped Kamaran and raced for Sarhad’s bulletproof car. Pazhar tried to stop them, but they grabbed him and pushed him into the car. He was thrown against the door just as a bullet hit the window by his head, webbing the glass with a dull thud.
“Where’s Kamaran?” Pazhar shouted. “Where’s Kamaran?”
Sarhad turned. “Kamaran’s dead.”
I first met Kamaran in 2008, during a photo assignment in Iraqi Kurdistan, when we were both in our late twenties. We were introduced by mutual friends, who thought that two young, ambitious photojournalists would get along well. They were right: from the moment we met, Kamaran and I clicked. In my days off from assignment work, we would travel around the region, shooting in far-flung mountain villages or the dangerous, dusty plains of the disputed territories.
Traveling around Kurdistan with Kamaran was stupidly fun. His penchant for practical jokes was limitless. He’d change out the sugar for salt right before you tried to sweeten your tea, or throw cold water on you while you were in the toilet. But you couldn’t stay angry. He had impish eyes that twinkled under his weighty eyebrows, and before you knew it, you were laughing along with him. His energy and appetite for life were infectious.
At dawn the day after Kamaran was shot, I drove to Kirkuk with his brothers and a small group of his friends to try to retrieve his body from the battlefield. We hadn’t slept the night before, and were running on the toxic adrenaline of grief. We parked on a quiet street, and one of Kamaran’s brothers started making calls to the police.
By 7 a.m., the June sun was already scalding the bare streets of Kirkuk. Coordinating the retrieval of Kamaran’s body was a slow, painstaking process. We stood around, stony-faced and silent, waiting for the go-ahead. Sweaty arduous minutes crawled by. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Eleven. Twelve. Fifteen. Seventeen
Finally, a phone rang. It belonged to Birwa Hijrany, Kamaran’s childhood friend. Birwa had always dreamed of working for the Kurdish security services and had an app on his phone that recorded all his calls. He picked up.
“Birwa?” said the voice on the other end. “It’s me. Kamaran.”
“Kamaran?” Birwa asked.
“I’m in Hawija,” Kamaran responded. Hawija was a Sunni town that ISIS had recently overrun. The jihadis had found Kamaran, wounded and bleeding, on the ground after the Kurds had retreated and had taken him prisoner.
My clenching rib cage released and filled with light. My eyes, open and unfocused, began to water. Ari, Kamaran’s older brother fell to the ground. “Allah! Allah!” he cried. He began to pray. Ahmed, Kamaran’s younger brother, pitched forward, clutching his chest.
An ISIS fighter grabbed the phone from Kamaran. “We are the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham,” he barked. “Tell Sarhad that if he shoots at us, we’ll execute Kamaran.” Then the line went dead.
Our convoy raced to find Sarhad, still on the outskirts of the village where the Kurdish forces had retreated. As soon as Sarhad heard Birwa’s recording, he dialed the number Kamaran had called from. An ISIS member picked up, and Sarhad demanded that he let Kamaran go. “Kamaran is a journalist with a camera,” Sarhad told the captor, “not a soldier with a gun.”
The captor was unmoved. Only the leader of his group could give release Kamaran, he said, and the leader wasn’t around. He added that if Sarhad attacked again, they’d kill Kamaran. He hung up. Sarhad called back—several times—but the answer was always the same: “We’re not releasing Kamaran, and if you attack us, we’ll kill him.”
After the sixth attempt, Sarhad received a call from his men stationed at the front: ISIS had just launched another attack on the Kurds. He shoved his phone into his pocket and took off for the frontline, leaving the group in stunned silence. We got in our cars and left.
One afternoon in 2008, when I was on my first assignment in Iraq, Kamaran told me a story about covering the aftermath of a car bomb in Kirkuk that had killed thirteen people. It was the height of the sectarian war in Iraq, and he was spending a lot of time in Kirkuk, shooting for the wire agencies.
He’d arrived just moments after the bomb had gone off, and had shot powerful images of the ensuing chaos. But his editor had turned him down with a grunt. There had been a bomb in Mosul that had killed thirty-five people that day, so the smaller bomb in Kirkuk wasn’t going to cut it.
Kamaran explained to me that in his world, photography was just about blood, death, and body counts. Where was the beauty? he wondered. Where was the curiosity? The desire to see the world in a different way? We were in Kamaran’s parents’ house, and he pulled out an old edition of the New York Times that he’d stashed under the family TV. He wiggled free the Arts section, the Sports section, the Real Estate section. Why didn’t they have this kind of stuff in Iraq? We talked for a while about exploring different parts of the country, and what it would take to shoot stories that weren’t just about bombs and death.
The conversation touched me. While Kamaran and his colleagues were only asked to shoot moments of extreme violence, foreign photographers like myself were being assigned more subtle, in-depth stories. Iraq’s nuanced visual record wasn’t being made by Iraqis.
I left Kurdistan that winter unsettled. I felt I’d barely scratched the surface of the place. Kamaran and I stayed in touch, and the following year he told me that he’d come up with an idea to start a photo agency that would represent Iraqi photographers. Did I want to join him?
A few months later, I said goodbye to my life in London and moved to Sulaymaniyah, into the office Kamaran had rented. He’d named it Metrography, a portmanteau of “photography” and “Metro,” the Iraqi news magazine where he’d been working when he came up with the idea. The office was an outer room with two red pleather couches and an inner room with a large faux-wood table and a swiveling chair. There was also a small space for a sink and a hotplate, as well as a bathroom with a spigot coming out of the wall at about head height—our shower. This was Metrography HQ, and it was our home.
The first thing I told him was that we needed to change the name. Metrography wasn’t just unpronounceable, I said; it didn’t say anything about what the agency did, namely representing Iraqi photographers to the international news media. Kamaran disagreed; he loved the name. And so began a lesson in his mischievous charisma. Over the following months, I would press him on changing the name, but just as I’d begin to argue, I’d find myself laughing about something completely different. By the end of the conversation, the agency’s name would still be Metrography. Every few days, I’d give it another shot, but there was no changing his mind. Metrography it was.
In the early days, we were hectic and scattered, writing emails to magazines and newspapers, traveling around interviewing photographers, sitting in the office and building the website. Most evenings, we’d hang out at a restaurant with friends, and then, more often than not, everyone would end up in the office, where we’d turn on Kurdish music and dance around like idiots, holding cellphones and pillows under our noses, pretending to be Aziz Waisy, a Kurdish singer with an elephantine mustache. I’d fall asleep on the pleather couch, and despite my blanket, would wake in the morning with my face stuck to the cushions.
Within a few months, we’d assembled a team of photographers who were eager to shoot, but also to improve. Kamaran and I added an educational wing to the agency, and in 2011 we ran a weeklong masterclass with photographers and editors from Time and National Geographic. We organized lectures, dinners, shoots, and even a final gallery show. By the end, Kamaran and I were exhausted, but as we stood back and looked at the images up on the gallery’s walls, we realized that we had turned a group of amateur photographers into actual professionals.
One member of the team, Aram Karim, who had grown up in a tiny village on the Iranian border, began working on a project about the life and culture of Kurdish smugglers. More often than not, Aram was flat broke, and had to borrow cameras, batteries, memory cards, cash—and even, at one point, shoes—to go off into the mountains and shoot. After five years, the New York Times bought Aram’s story, and published it under the title “Following Smugglers in Kurdistan.” Normally that kind of success would send other photographers into paroxysms of jealousy, but Aram’s humility and quirky artistic sensibility were so endearing that the other photographers nicknamed him “Mr. New York Times” and would shout it out whenever they ran into him in the bazaar.
Successes like Aram’s were a huge deal for both the agency and the photographers. Two years earlier, Hawre Mohammed, a policeman with a passion for photography and a breathtaking natural eye, had his photograph of the Kurdish New Year run as a two-page spread in Time. The night the photo was published, and for the next thirty-six hours, Hawre stayed awake, just so he could field the deluge of “likes” and comments he was receiving on Facebook. For the next year, I feigned yawns whenever I saw him, mercilessly mocking him for his ego-driven Facebook all-nighter.
As the years progressed, the publications and awards began to stack up. Seivan Salim had her portraits of Yazidi women published in National Geographic. Binar Sardar, another of our female photographers, had a story in the New York Times. Zmnako Ismael won the Rory Peck Award for his Channel 4 News documentary about Sinjar. And Ali Arkady, our hardest working photographer, won the Prix Bayeux-Calvados—the top award for war correspondents—for his work uncovering human-rights abuses during the Mosul campaign.
The year after the masterclass, Kamaran and I decided it was time to introduce the photographers to the wider photojournalism community. In 2012, we organized a trip to the Tbilisi Photo Festival, in Georgia. Our group stole the show during the final evening of the open-air slide show. That night, our team dressed up in traditional Kurdish outfits; Aram played folk songs on his Iranian sitar; and Pazhar, Rawsht and Ahmed performed traditional dances on the cobbled streets of old Tbilisi. Kamaran and I beamed like proud parents.
By this point, Kamaran and I were inseparable. We’d spent three years side by side, on the road or in the office. Together, we’d covered P.K.K. guerillas, anti-terror raids around Kirkuk, daily life in Baghdad, and an extremist madrassa on the Iranian border.
In that time, we’d become cultural and linguistic ambassadors to each other. Kamaran taught me about Kurdistan and Iraq, taking particular pride in cultivating my ability to string Kurdish swear words together in a litany of filth. I also took pride in my friend’s growing ability to cuss in a new language, but I was in awe of his bottomless cultural appetite. One evening, Kamaran and I went through Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential victory speech. “It’s been a long time coming,” Obama intoned to the Chicago crowd, “but tonight, because of what we did on this date, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.”
Kamaran nodded along, but I could tell he didn’t understand the hidden reference. I pulled up the Sam Cooke version of “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and went through it line by line, a cursory lesson in African American history. Then I put on the Otis Redding version, and Kamaran began to cry. “I’ve never heard a politician in my country give a speech like that,” he said softly. Otis Redding became a Metrography favorite.
A few months later, Kamaran and I flew to the US for a full-immersion tutorial. We holed up in my childhood apartment in New York, where my mother still lived. It was a struggle to keep up with Kamaran’s ravenous cultural hunger. My mom, who used to teach in the Manhattan private school system, worked her contacts and managed to wrangle a backstage tour of the Metropolitan Opera and private access to the Frick, where we were allowed to bowl in the bespoke wooden alley in the basement. We ate sushi, pizza, curry, bagels, hotdogs—anything and everything that caught our eye. Kamaran’s appetite was not just cultural.
Kamaran had grown up with snowy winters in the mountains of Kurdistan, so January in New York didn’t faze him. We went to synagogue with my cousin and joked about sending a photo of Kamaran in a yarmulke to his older brother, a very devout and conservative Muslim. We attended a New Year’s Eve house party in some achingly cool part of Brooklyn, where I had to explain why the guests kept taking secret trips to the bedrooms, reemerging louder and even more self-involved than they’d been before.
Later, we travelled to DC and toured the monuments. At the Lincoln Memorial, Kamaran and I sat on the floor and went through the Gettysburg Address line by line, just as we’d done with Sam Cooke. I’d forgotten what a beautiful and moving speech it is, a consecration of the ground where men gave their lives for their country, but also a call for the continued fight for democratic ideals. A Kurd who had lived through decades of violence as his people fought for self-determination, Kamaran was overwhelmed by the eloquence and idealism. By the time we reached the end of the address, we were both in tears.
These were optimistic times in Kurdistan. The region was booming as international investment poured in. Untapped oil reserves were being developed; luxury hotels and mega malls were being built. Construction cranes dominated the skylines of all the major Kurdish cities, and even some of the towns. Kamaran and I easily found commercial work to supplement the agency’s meager editorial income. Oil companies from Australia, Switzerland and Norway were looking for photographers. So were US construction companies and French cement corporations.
Kurdistan was a bright spot of emerging peace in a country at war. What made this so remarkable was that the Kurds were barely emerging themselves from decades of oppression and violence. In the 1980s, Saddam Hussein had waged a genocidal campaign against the Kurds, in retribution for their perceived allegiance to Iran during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980 to1988. Saddam appointed his cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, better known to the rest of us as “Chemical Ali,” to carry out the pogrom, which he named “Anfal”—a word from the Quran that translates as “spoils of war.”
Chemical Ali rained poison gas on the Kurdish civilians. Many of those who survived were rounded up and bussed into the desert, where they were executed and dumped into mass graves. The villages they left behind were bulldozed. Their animals were killed, their wells poisoned. By September 1988, ninety percent of Kurdish villages had been destroyed, and as many as a hundred-fifty thousand people had been slaughtered.
This was not the first time the Kurds had fallen victim to political violence, nor would it be the last. Only three years later, buoyed by the success of the US military against Saddam’s army in the Gulf War, the Kurds rose up and overthrew the Ba’athist regime in northern Iraq. But without backing from the US military, the uprising failed. Saddam launched a vengeful and bloodthirsty counterattack, sending his elite Republican Guard to quash the rebellion and murder Kurdish civilians. Thousands of Kurdish families fled Kirkuk. Those who could fled across borders to neighboring Iran and Turkey; those who couldn’t were killed and their bodies tossed into collective shallow graves.
One cold December day in 2009, Kamaran and I drove out to one of those mass graves, in a town called Topzawa, southwest of Kirkuk, where an Iraqi forensic team was excavating a new site. Just as we approached, Kamaran got a call saying that the central government had decided to block journalists from the excavation site. I was surprised. I’d thought the forensic excavation would be good news for the government.
Kamaran killed the engine and turned to me. Topzawa was a disputed town, he explained, claimed by both the Kurds and by Baghdad. A mass grave of Kurdish civilians there could underline Kurdish claims of victimhood and give the Kurds moral authority over the area. The bodies being unearthed were not just victims; they were political weapons.
The situation reminded me of a poem by Abdulla Pashew, one of Kurdistan’s great modern poets. In “The Unknown Soldier” the narrator directs an imaginary foreign delegate who is looking to pay his respects at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. “At the bank of every stream,” the narrator tells him.
Under the dome of every mosque,
At the threshold of every house, every church, every cave,
Under the boulder of every mountain,
Under the branches of every garden in this country,
Over every inch of earth,
Under every yard of sky,
Don’t be afraid, bow your head and there set down your crown of flowers.
The tomb, nowhere and everywhere at once, is Kurdistan itself. So many Kurds have died in the struggle for independence that the entire country has become a grave, consecrated like Gettysburg by the bodies of the fallen.
As we sat just a few miles from Topzawa, Kamaran started making calls. By this point, I’d seen him negotiate access to Sunni extremists in Mosul and smugglers on the Iran-Iraq border, or sweet-talk a skeptical mechanic when our car broke down in an al-Qaeda village. I sat back and let him work.
As Kamaran talked, I stared out the window. I was struck by the blandness of the place where I could just make out the forensic team working, sheltered under tents—a flat, yellow-brown expanse that started at the edge of low-slung, cheaply made concrete houses and yawned outward to nothing except for a few scrubby brushes here and there. I hadn’t had expectations exactly, but this landscape felt like a betrayal. Something as devastating and important as a mass grave deserved more.
Then, Kamaran started the engine, an impish smile spreading across his face. He’d done it again. We continued toward Topzawa and stopped at the forensic team’s first tent. I hopped over the razor wire that encircled the excavation area and looked down. Human bones poked up through the earth. Everything was silent. All I could hear was the quiet scrape of trowels in the dirt. I put my camera up to my eye and pressed the button. The clack of the shutter was deafening. I looked up, expecting to see everyone staring at me, but no one else had taken notice. I drew the camera up to my face again and started working. A broken sliver of belt still in the loops of crumpled trousers. A tattered T-shirt from the 1990 World Cup, once white, now the color of earth. Scattered ribs. The remnants of a lower leg—a tibia and fibula—quietly lying next to each other. A solitary vertebra.
The site of that mass grave at Topzawa is about twenty miles west of Mullah Abdullah, the village where Kamaran was wounded and taken prisoner. But this didn’t occur to me that afternoon in 2014, as we left Sarhad Qadir and headed back to Sulaymaniyah, exhausted and furious.
Back at the Metrography office, I transformed our guest room into a war room. I printed out a map of Kirkuk Province and taped it to the wall. In the corner, we propped up a white board, where we listed leads, contacts, and phone numbers. I started a spreadsheet with an official log of our progress, and took notes fastidiously.
Hiwa, a friend of Kamaran’s with connections to Iraqi officials, called politicians and tribal leaders in Iraq and across the Middle East. Dana, a Kurdish journalist who had translated for the Kurds at Saddam’s trial in Baghdad, was working contacts in Hawija to find Kamaran’s exact location. All of this had to be done carefully, discretely. ISIS had told us that if they saw anything about Kamaran’s capture online, they’d kill him. We instituted a strict media blackout.
That evening, we huddled around Birwa’s phone, replaying the recording of Kamaran’s call, trying to extrapolate any tidbit of information. We analyzed the tone of Kamaran’s voice, the accent of the kidnappers.
In those first few days, everything we learned was treated as gospel truth. We rejoiced over every new piece of information, as if it were the breakthrough moment. The day after the kidnapping, Dana made contact with a doctor in Hawija, who said he’d managed to hand off some painkillers to Kamaran. He thought Kamaran needed surgery badly. It was terrible news, but at least it was an eyewitness account that Kamaran was still alive.
I logged everything. Somehow, I thought that the more I wrote, the faster we’d get Kamaran back.
June 15: “Dana speaks to Sheikh X: A group has Kamaran and he’s well.”
June 16: “Ari speaks to Aqit Karim who speaks to Sheikh Ali: Kamaran is either in Baghara or at the Hawija/Riyad Checkpoint.”
June 17: “Hiwa speaks to contact: Kamaran is with Sheikh Abu Maher whose 4 sons are prisoners of Sarhad.”
By June 16, the sleepless nights and constant stress had begun to overwhelm us. “Heart rate pumping from the moment I wake up,” I wrote three days after the kidnapping. “Shaking from time to time.” We never really rested; we just crashed out wherever we happened to fall when our exhaustion overwhelmed our will—a bed, a chair, a blanket bunched up on the floor.
Around Kamaran, wherever exactly he was, there was a war raging. As we followed contacts across northern Iraq, ISIS was making huge advances, even threatening to invade the Kurdish safe haven where we lived. We were oblivious. We didn’t pay attention when ISIS massacred fifteen hundred Shia cadets at Camp Speicher, and we barely took note when, two months later, they overran Sinjar, murdering three thousand Yazidi men and imprisoning three thousand Yazidi women. Our world had narrowed. There was only the kidnapping.
One afternoon—six days after Kamaran was taken—I was in the war room with Ahmed, Kamaran’s younger brother, and thought I’d cheer us up with some Michael Jackson, who was Ahmed’s favorite. We danced, we laughed, and Ahmed sang along to every word, including—especially—M.J.’s falsetto squeals. We collapsed, out of breath, grinning from ear to ear. When Ahmed left to meet his brothers, I put on some Otis Redding. Alone and without anything specific to do for the first time in months, I lay my head on the desk. The adrenaline dropped off; my mind went blank. When I lifted my head a few minutes later, my face was soaked with tears, but I have no recollection of having cried.
Each new day meant dozens more leads. Dana with his contacts in Hawija. Hiwa with his contacts in Baghdad, Jordan and Beirut. Kamaran’s family was contacting Kurdish tribes who might have backchannels to ISIS. Each new piece of information made us dizzy with excitement. Then a lead would go dry or our intel would contradict itself and we’d be back to square one. The head of the elite Kurdish military wing said that Kamaran was dead. Dana’s contacts said that Kamaran was about to stand trial. Another source said that Kamaran had been taken to Tikrit. My spreadsheet grew, but I’d started to feel that Kamaran was slipping through our fingers.
Meanwhile, we could no longer ignore the world around us. Kurdistan was in an economic downslide that had forced the government to cut electricity. By mid-afternoon each day, the temperature hit 115 degrees Fahrenheit. With no electricity for a fan, let alone air conditioning, we would sit and sweat, our nerves in tatters. Then Iraq began to run out of gasoline, and the government rationed each car to eight gallons twice a week—hardly enough to travel the distances we needed to meet our contacts. We hacked the system as best we could: each of us would fill up with the allotted amount, then syphon all the gas into one car, so we always had a vehicle with a full tank.
We were nauseated from siphoning gasoline, anxious about the faltering rescue operation, and helpless in the oppressive heat. With so many different stresses, our rescue group began to collapse. Trust had worn away between Kamaran’s family and the rest of us. By July, I was asking Birwa to pass me information from Kamaran’s family on the sly. We were supposed to be a unified front; instead, we’d started spying on each other. “WHAT THE FUCK???????” I wrote in my diary.
June turned to July and then August. The spreadsheet dwindled to one item a day, then one a week. My acute, adrenaline-fueled sleeplessness morphed into to a dull, plodding anger. Anything that didn’t involve finding Kamaran felt frivolous. I only wanted to talk to people involved in his case. I deleted my Facebook account, ignored messages from friends, spent evenings alone whenever I could. Some days, I would go running at noon, when the air turned acrid with heat, intentionally scorching my throat and lungs in an effort to dispel my anger.
Information became more sporadic and farther flung. Kamaran was seen in Mosul. Kamaran was taken to Syria. Kamaran had joined ISIS and they were using him to film their beheadings. One person even claimed that they had recognized Kamaran’s distinctive photography style in a video of Muath Safi Yousef al-Kasasbeh, a downed Jordanian pilot, being burned alive in a cage.
By early 2016, our most reliable information placed Kamaran in Mosul. But without a single proof-of-life in eighteen months, we were losing hope. Ahmed was working nonstop, with diminishing results. Even a trip to Baghdad to meet high-ranking members of the Iraqi intelligence service came to nothing.
My frustration gave way to despair and self-recrimination. I felt that I should be doing more. I tried getting the State Department involved and appealed to the White House Special Envoy on Hostage Affairs. When nothing came of any of it, I blamed myself. My mind was spinning, repeating the same thing over and over: “You can do more. You can do more. You can do more.”
Despite that incessant phrase—skipping like a scratched CD in my head—I made my final diary entry on February 9, 2017. It had been almost three years since we’d heard Kamaran’s voice. Despite all the leads, sightings and promises, we were no closer than we’d been when he disappeared. In November, we decided to break the media blackout and officially announce his disappearance. We knew that Kamaran was most likely dead, his body probably somewhere in the dusty landscape of southern Kirkuk. We couldn’t say for sure.
We weren’t the only ones in Kurdistan to lose hope. After almost a decade of peace, optimism and prosperity, a bitter cynicism had settled on the region. Thousands of Kurdish civilians were dead or missing. Millions of refugees had fled to Europe, among them all of our founding Metrography photographers. Aram—Mr. New York Times—was claiming asylum in France, as was Ali, the winner of the Prix Bayeux-Calvados. Binar was in the U.K. Pazhar was in Germany. Rawsht and Bahar were in Italy.
Kamaran’s kidnapping was one in a long history of disappearances and death in Kurdistan. Anfal. The Kurdish uprising. The civil war. The sectarian war. ISIS. The International Commission on Missing Persons estimates that over the past thirty years, up to one million Iraqis have disappeared. The “uncertainty surrounding the fate of the missing,” the report reads, “is a continuing source of anguish and an obstacle to rebuilding civil society in Iraq.”
A friend told me that the word anguish makes him think of groups of mourning women, clad in black, tearing their hair out and beating their chests. According to that definition, anguish is absolutely the correct word—a feeling so overwhelming and painful that you need physical suffering to express the heartbreak. I didn’t tear my hair out or beat my chest, but I found other ways to externalize the pain, like those lung-scorching midday summer runs.
In the fall of 2017, the Kurds called for a referendum on independence. The region had changed dramatically in the past twenty years. Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and Duhok, once major battlegrounds between the peshmerga and the Iraqi Army, were now Kurdistan’s major cities, with those mega malls, luxury apartment buildings, and extravagant theme parks we’d watched rise in the skylines. Kamaran had told me stories about growing up so poor that, for a time, he’d used a piece of metal to hold up his trousers. The metal dug into him so deeply that it had left a permanent scar on his stomach. At the end of these stories, he would hold up his phone—always a brand-new iPhone—to show what he could now afford.
Yet the changes that had come to Kurdistan hadn’t affected every region equally, and opinions about the referendum differed wildly. I was traveling around, documenting reactions. Deep inside the borders, in the safe and wealthy areas of Kurdistan, people were ecstatic about the possibility of independence. But for those living around Kirkuk and other disputed areas, the feeling was different. If forced to choose, they would, of course, vote for independence. But the violence, recent and historical, weighed heavily on their minds. Kurdistan, I was told over and over, might be wealthier and safer than it had ever been, but chaos still lurked terrifyingly close.
These fears turned out to be well-founded. Three weeks after the referendum, Shia militia, backed by Iran and the central Iraqi government, swept into Kirkuk, killing dozens and taking the city back from the Kurds.
One morning, I drove to Tuz Khurmatu to interview a Kurdish militia leader. As I pulled out of Kirkuk and onto the long highway, the buildings fell away, and the dusty scrubland of southern Kirkuk extended all around me. My mind flashed back to that December day in 2009, eight years before, when I’d been looking at the remains of some of Kurdistan’s disappeared with Kamaran in Topzawa. Only a few miles away, Kamaran had vanished, too. No more charming his way through checkpoints as we tried to access villages hidden behind the boulders of the same Kurdish mountains in Pashew’s poem. No more staying up till the small hours, listening to music. No more traveling, collaborating, or laughing together. In the seven years we lived and worked side by side, Kamaran and I had become brothers, our lives intertwined. Now his body lay somewhere out there, an unknown tomb in the dusty plains, and I had no idea where to lay my crown of flowers.