It’s more than three years since Kamaran Najm was captured in Iraq. Now his friends have lifted the media blackoutby Steve Bloomfield / December 7, 2017 / Leave a comment
The death of Kamaran Najm was announced on the evening of 12th June 2014. A photojournalist from Sulimaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan, Kamaran had headed to the frontline alongside Peshmerga forces two days after Islamic State swept into Mosul. The Kurdish militia he was embedded with came under heavy fire in the village of Mullah Abdullah, 12 miles away from Kirkuk. Kamaran was shot in the neck. Bleeding heavily, he was carried back towards safety by Kurdish soldiers, but as the attack continued, they said it became too difficult to take him any further. Kamaran was left behind to die.
At daybreak the following morning, Kamaran’s friends and brother piled into a car and headed from Sulimaniyah to Kirkuk to recover his body. When they reached the city, one of Kamaran’s friends received a phone call from an unknown number.
It was Kamaran.
After being left for dead, Kamaran had been captured by the Sunni militias aligned with IS that the Kurds had been fighting. Now, they wanted to negotiate.
“It was the most joyful moment of my life,” recalls one of those friends, Sebastian Meyer, an American photographer who had moved to Sulimaniyah in 2009. “Suddenly your best friend who you thought was dead has come back to life. It’s a weird, miraculous moment. People were screaming and crying.”
The militia wanted to speak to Sarhad Qadir, the head of Kirkuk’s provincial police and the man with whom Kamaran had headed to the front line. The phone call did not go well. Sarhad played tough, but the tactic didn’t work and negotiations broke down. “And that was that,” says Sebastian.
The phone call took place one thousand, two hundred and seventy three days ago. No-one has heard from Kamaran since.
Two years before he was captured I spent a week with Kamaran and Sebastian reporting in Sulimaniyah. The two friends had established Iraq’s first photo agency, Metrography. They had trained several photographers who had gone on to work for western newspapers, magazines and agencies during the war. Both were photographers in their own right and over the course of the week we sped around the city meeting poets and TV news anchors, politicians and Peshmerga. Kamaran not only has a great eye, he also has charm—not a single person refused his request to take a picture, no easy task in a conservative region like Kurdistan.
He’s easy to get on with and fun to hang out with. The pair of them, Kamaran and Sebastian, bounce off each other, arguing like brothers, goading, mocking and needling. One night Kamaran and I played pool in the basement of a tea room. He insisted that, as we were in Kurdistan, we should play by Kurdish rules. This meant if someone potted the one you had to then pot the nine before you hit anything else, or vice versa. It sounded stupid at the time, but Kamaran insisted it was a rule. Kamaran took great joy in my struggles to pot the damn nine that was stuck against a cushion and danced a little jig in celebration when he relieved me of 20 dollars. Later that evening we all headed up into the mountains and parked the cars overlooking the city. Kamaran’s fiancé, Jantine, and a bunch of their friends joined us. Music blared out from the car radios as we watched the lights twinkling below.
A few hours after the negotiations ended, Kamaran’s friends received a second phone call. It was the captors with a simple message: “We’ll kill him if we see anything about him.” From that day onwards, there was a media blackout. Sebastian, Jantine and Kamaran’s brother Ahmed, formed the “rescue group” and set about meticulously going through all the possible options. Contacts were called, favours were asked. There were sightings, or rumours of sightings, but there was never more than a single source. Someone had seen him in Mosul, someone else claimd he was in Syria. As IS’s state began to crumble, the rescue group hoped they would hear something. But Mosul fell, and nothing. Tal Afar fell, and nothing. One thousand, two hundred and seventy three days, and nothing.
“We talk about proof of life,” says Sebastian. “You also need proof of death. I don’t believe he’s alive if you can’t get me on the phone with him; I can’t believe he’s dead unless you show me a photo. It’s very, very possible that he’s alive. It’s equally possible that he’s dead. There’s no evidence one way or the other. If you put it like that you just have to think he’s alive.”
It has taken its toll on all of them. I spoke to Sebastian last week over Skype. He was in a cheap hotel in eastern Ukraine, where he’d been on a job for Unicef. Propped up against a pillow in his hotel room, he looked exhausted.
“The thing I struggled the most with is not losing my best friend—there’s something even worse than that and that’s the not knowing. The ambiguity. When you lose somebody you love it hurts and there’s an element of catharsis in that pain that I think oddly enough helps. When you lose somebody in a kidnapping, a disappearance, the ambiguity spreads out the pain in a way that makes it hurt even more. I want to mourn him but I can’t because he might still be alive. To all intents and purposes he disappeared out of my life in the same way as if he died. But I can’t mourn him, I can’t grieve. I live in this weird, grey limbo. It’s just continuous.”
Last week the rescue group lifted the media blackout because they no longer think coverage poses a threat. What’s more, they think they have a better chance of finding him if his story is made public. “Maybe there’s been a sighting of him, somebody hears about it. You open yourself up to that. We’re now casting the net really wide.”
Sebastian, Jantine and Ahmed are not the only ones searching for the one they love. The International Commission on Missing Persons estimates that up to a million people have disappeared in Iraq in the last 30 years. “This is one of the biggest issues facing Iraq today,” says Sebastian. “All these families have to deal with this—with no body to mourn.”