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'Rough Translation': A Photographer Goes Missing In Iraq

NOEL KING, HOST:

Kamaran Najm started the first photo agency in Iraq in 2009. He wanted to train local photographers to tell stories about Iraq that were not just about war. And then in June of 2014, he was kidnapped by ISIS while on assignment near Kirkuk in the north. Kurdish authorities made a brief effort to find him, but then Kamaran's friends and family were left on their own. Karen Duffin reported on what happened next for NPR's Rough Translation podcast.

KAREN DUFFIN, BYLINE: The day they learned Kamaran had been kidnapped, his friends and family converged at the small office that had been Kamaran's photo agency.

SEBASTIAN MEYER: And immediately just set up a command center.

DUFFIN: This is Sebastian Meyer. He's an American photographer who co-founded the photo agency with Kamaran. They cleared out the office, put up a huge map, a bunch of whiteboards.

MEYER: We created this impromptu rescue team.

DUFFIN: Before the kidnapping, Kamaran's family had disowned him because they didn't approve of his work or his lifestyle. But the kidnapping brought together both sides of Kamaran's life - his journalist friends and his conservative, religious family. Many of these people weren't talking to each other just the day before this, but now their differences were an asset. Kamaran's religious family might have contacts inside ISIS.

MEYER: There was a lot of sympathy for ISIS amongst very conservative Muslim Kurds.

DUFFIN: And the journalist friends have a lot of on-the-ground sources. This impromptu rescue team starts to figure out, how do you free someone from ISIS?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Unintelligible) Kamaran.

DUFFIN: They poured over a recording they have of a call from Kamaran and his ISIS captor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

DUFFIN: They listen to that again and again, searching for clues.

MEYER: We tried to glean as much information from that as possible.

DUFFIN: They map out who might have Kamaran and how they might get to those people.

MEYER: We are trying to figure out the different tribes, which tribe is with ISIS, which tribes are against ISIS.

DUFFIN: And they fielded a flood of leads, many of which were contradictory. They hear he's at the Hawija checkpoint. No, no, he's at a sheikh's house sleeping on a bed. No, no, no, he's being held at a high school. It was hard to know what to trust. And then about nine days into the search, the leads started to converge. Five different people on the team get five different pieces of intel from different sources independently confirming the same thing. ISIS is releasing Kamaran. The team thought maybe we're getting the hang of this. The next morning, Kamaran's brothers and his friends pile into two cars, and they drive to the city of Kirkuk to pick him up.

AHMED NAJM: And we were laughing. We were singing.

DUFFIN: This is Ahmed, Kamaran's younger brother and the one family member who had supported Kamaran even before the kidnapping. He had actually started working with Kamaran at his photo agency called Metrography.

NAJM: And me and Seb, we were always singing the song of John Denver, "Country Roads." So on our way to Kirkuk, we were changing the lyrics to Kirkuk roads, take home to the place I belong.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MEYER: (Singing) Almost heaven, West Virginia.

NAJM: I'm so sorry for that, John Denver, but we did this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MEYER: (Singing) Shenandoah River.

DUFFIN: They get to Kirkuk. They go to a cousin's house to wait.

MEYER: And then we just waited for hours and hours and hours. And then we realized nothing was happening, and we had to go back.

DUFFIN: The kind of despair that follows this much hope is a poisonous kind. It feels like a betrayal. Kamaran's impromptu search team starts blaming each other. Why did you lie about that lead? Or why didn't you double check? But, really, what they're saying is, how could you let me hope like that?

MEYER: And then little by little, the underlying tension that we sort of plastered over, that started to crack.

NAJM: My family felt that because of Kamaran's friends and because of his work, that's why Kamaran disappeared.

DUFFIN: What had been one team became two. The family set up a separate command center at their home. They stopped sharing intel with the friends team. And then one night, the brothers put a bike lock on the front doors of the photo agency. They locked the friends out of the office they had been using as a command center.

MEYER: And just, like, without even knowing how and when, we were almost at war with each other.

DUFFIN: There was only one person on both sides of this divide.

NAJM: I was in the middle because I was the only one to go to the family and to come back to the friends.

DUFFIN: Ahmed, Kamaran's little brother. He knows Kamaran's journalist friends and was, of course, part of the family. Ahmed had been driving between the agency and his family home trying to sew the two teams back together.

NAJM: I was thinking let's try to be a team.

DUFFIN: But two days after they shut down the agency, Ahmed's brother told him to come home. They were going to have a family meeting. When he got there, they told him...

NAJM: You are not allowed to work with the friends team. You have to respect our family, and you have to be in this group.

DUFFIN: And Kamaran's photo agency Metrography will stay closed. As he sat in the living room, Ahmed thought about Kamaran.

NAJM: And he was always telling me, Ahmed, break the rules. Make the new rules but better than the past one.

DUFFIN: So Ahmed told his family...

NAJM: I'm not letting you to do that because Kamaran sacrificed himself for Metrography.

DUFFIN: Ahmed stepped defiantly into Kamaran's shoes. He took the reins of the search for his brother, building a network of high-level sources. And while still searching for Kamaran, Ahmed also began running Kamaran's photo agency, Kamaran's dream to help Iraqis tell their own stories. Ahmed built it from one office to four across Iraq and hired 74 new photographers. And recently, as he was running a conference on copyright laws, Ahmed saw a familiar figure in the fourth row.

NAJM: I saw someone that looked like my father. And when I finish my speech, he was the only one that was standing and he was clapping. And after that, he told my mother that he's proud that I can carry on Kamaran's dream.

DUFFIN: Kamaran has not been heard from since June of 2014, more than five years ago. He is one of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who've gone missing in the past few decades due to foreign invasions, a brutal dictator, a war with ISIS - hundreds of thousands of Kamarans.

Karen Duffin, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAHIM ALHAJ'S "GRAY MORNING")

KING: That story came to us from NPR's podcast Rough Translation. They're out with a new season now about rebels around the world. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.