The Search: Part 1 When a journalist goes missing in Iraq, his friends and family have to figure out a rescue plan.

* Note: This story contains strong language and sounds of war.
NPR logo

The Search: Part 1

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/727877943/731846740" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Search: Part 1

The Search: Part 1

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/727877943/731846740" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

GREGORY WARNER, HOST:

One afternoon, when he was 7 years old and living in a refugee camp in Iraq, Ahmed Najm fell into a hole. The hole was so big or he was so small that his big brother Kamaran, who had been walking on the road just next to him, could not find him. That's Ahmed's memory anyway - his brother calling for him, Ahmed crying too hard or his voice too soft for him to hear. Finally, Kamaran does spot him and reaches down to lift him out. But Ahmed is stuck deep in the mud, and he starts to panic.

AHMED NAJM: It was a really, like, a really, really scary moment.

WARNER: So Kamaran starts singing to him - and not a song that his little brother likes.

A NAJM: I really hate this song, so you are singing it just to make me angry, just to take my attention to make me fight with him and not remember about this hole.

WARNER: And it worked. Ahmed forgot his fear, and he let Kamaran pull him out. When peace came and the family moved back home - they live in the northern part of Iraq called Kurdistan - Kamaran continued to watch out for his little brother. At school, he would fight with Ahmed's bullies. In the family restaurant, he'd do Ahmed's shifts along with his own. Ahmed is eight years younger. He'd tell him, go outside. Be a kid. But then Ahmed started to see a lot less of his brother. When war came to Iraq again - the Americans invaded - Kamaran bought a camera, and he would go to the frontlines to take pictures.

A NAJM: I still remember one day, one of the local newspapers published Kamaran's photographs, and he was really proud. And he showed that to my mom. And my mom said, Kamaran, congratulation, but I have a suggestion for you. Why you are not going to buy a taxi and be a taxi driver? Kamaran got really, really upset that my family couldn't understand what Kamaran was doing.

WARNER: And Ahmed watched his brother change. He was hanging out with foreign journalists. He was drinking alcohol. He started dating a Dutch aid worker - all of these things that his father did not approve of.

A NAJM: And my father told him that he will not be his son if he continued to do his work.

WARNER: Kamaran moved out. And in his brother's absence, Ahmed took a different path - the path of his older brother Najat. He became an instructor at Najat's driving school and, like him, a pious Salafi Muslim.

A NAJM: I was really, really strong Salafi. I had no beard because I was kind of really young, but I was visiting mosques and reading Quran.

WARNER: And then one morning, he's sitting in his office...

A NAJM: Reading Quran, waiting for my students to come. And someone called me and said, hi, I'm a taxi driver. I brought something from someone that I have to give it to you. And I said, who is this guy that send me stuff? He said, I'm just a driver. I don't know.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

A NAJM: There was a box. And when I opened the box, there was a dessert.

WARNER: It was his favorite dessert - baklava.

A NAJM: And I took the dessert out, and there was a small paper. It said, Ahmed, happy birthday.

WARNER: It was his 21st birthday, but Ahmed did not believe in celebrating birthdays. His Salafi faith told him it was individualistic and wrong.

A NAJM: That was the first time in my life to hear someone to tell me happy birthday.

WARNER: There's only one person in Ahmed's life who would send him a birthday greeting that he did not want - the same person who would sing him a song that he hated to anger and distract him.

A NAJM: Kamaran called me 10 minutes later and said, Ahmed, happy birthday again. I know that you hate me to say that, but you deserve it. And I don't want you to say anything.

WARNER: Just come meet me.

A NAJM: We will make a small party for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

A NAJM: So I was preparing myself to respond by Quran. This is not allowed. I respect that you are my brother, but birthday parties is not allowed. It was - really made me nervous. I couldn't say, Kamaran, thank you, or, Kamaran, I hate you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: I'm Gregory Warner. This is ROUGH TRANSLATION, the show that takes you to far off places with stories that hit close to home. Sometimes, you know someone who is so persuasive that it can almost be scary to let them into your life. They can bring out a side of you that you weren't sure you even had. Kamaran was that person, not just for Ahmed, his little brother, but for so many people around him. Until one day, he vanished. And everybody had to figure out not only where he was but who they would be without him.

KAREN DUFFIN, BYLINE: We're back.

SEBASTIAN MEYER: We're back.

DUFFIN: We're recording.

MEYER: Testing, testing, one, two.

WARNER: Karen Duffin has been reporting this story with Kamaran's close friend Sebastian Meyer. He's collected recordings that you just don't normally get from Iraq.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Kamaran, Kamaran.

WARNER: It is the sound of a country at war with ISIS...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Kamaran.

WARNER: ...But from inside the life of one family...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Kamaran, (foreign language spoken).

WARNER: ...Their terrifying phone calls, their urgent conversations recorded in real time. Quick warning about that - we do hear the sound of gunfire, and there is cursing in this episode.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

WARNER: The story of Kamaran and the people whose lives he changed when ROUGH TRANSLATION returns.

MEYER: Actually, you know what? I'm just going to pop this sweater off.

DUFFIN: Yeah, do whatever you need.

MEYER: It's going to get hot in here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: We're back with ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner. Karen Duffin has spent years following the story of this Iraqi photojournalist, and we're going to start it right where we left off, with Ahmed receiving that forbidden birthday gift. Here's Karen.

DUFFIN: Ahmed is staring at this birthday baklava, thinking, Kamaran knows I'm a Salafi Muslim now. He knows I can't accept this. So he decides that he will go see Kamaran. But when he gets there and Kamaran tries to tell him happy birthday, Ahmed will give him a Quranic talking-to.

A NAJM: This is not allowed. Birthday parties is not allowed. We have to pray. You have to go to mosque.

DUFFIN: Ahmed drives the two hours to see Kamaran. But when he gets there, there is no birthday party, no birthday greeting.

A NAJM: He was so smart. He was not talking about the birthday. He was explaining why he was doing photojournalism.

DUFFIN: He started telling Ahmed about why he walked away from the family to become a photographer, why he wasn't doing what their father insisted.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAMARAN NAJM: I always have thought that I have something a little bit more different not more important - I can't say this - but different than what they ask from me.

DUFFIN: This is from a video of Kamaran telling the story that he shared with Ahmed that day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

K NAJM: So I was...

DUFFIN: Kamaran says he started out as a war photographer, but this thing happened that changed him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

K NAJM: I was covering an explosion - a suicide bomb in Kirkuk. And then I phoned my agency, say, OK. I'm on my way, going to file the pictures. So they say, well, we're not going with that story. We have another story in Mosul.

DUFFIN: His editor said, look. There was a bigger bomb somewhere else, so we're going to run those pictures instead.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

K NAJM: That was the moment that I say, hold on. Like, there's something wrong with what I'm doing. Like, we are actually making our money by the number of people getting killed.

DUFFIN: He tells Ahmad no one is telling the full story of Iraq. And there's no training school, no agency for Iraqi photographers in the entire country, so I'm building one. I have started Iraq's first photo agency. We'll train local photographers and place their photos - our way of seeing Iraq - in outlets around the world.

A NAJM: We have to show the beautiful side of Iraq as well.

DUFFIN: Kamaran brings Ahmed to his new office, and Ahmed realizes Kamaran has built himself a new family. There are all kinds of people coming in and out of the agency. His business partner even looks like he could be their brother.

MEYER: OK. Here we go. Stop laughing. Stop laughing.

DUFFIN: Sebastian Meyer is a photojournalist from New York. They met when he was on assignment in Iraq.

MEYER: And with the same regularity...

DUFFIN: He and Kamaran are the same height, same dark hair...

MEYER: The smugglers continue to spill - stop laughing.

K NAJM: No (laughter).

DUFFIN: ...Same big smile that's both earnest and mischievous. They lived together, worked together.

MEYER: OK, we're going to start again.

DUFFIN: They were together so often that people started just referring to them as a pair.

A NAJM: They were always mentioning their name together.

MEYER: Into, into, into, into...

DUFFIN: Kamaran introduced Sebastian to Kurdish food, the Kurdish language.

MEYER: Do you want me to tell you what he taught me how to say...

DUFFIN: Yeah.

MEYER: ...In Kurdish?

DUFFIN: Sure (laughter).

MEYER: (Speaking Kurdish).

DUFFIN: We cannot say any word of this in either Kurdish or English.

Wow.

MEYER: Yeah.

DUFFIN: That's offensive at every possible level.

MEYER: Every possible - yeah.

DUFFIN: Sebastian taught Kamaran American music...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MEYER: (Singing) Take me home...

DUFFIN: ...Brought him home to New York to meet his mother, and then to D.C., where they sat down at the Lincoln Memorial and read through the Gettysburg address together.

MEYER: (Singing) West Virginia...

A NAJM: As my mom was always saying, They were brothers. They were real brothers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DUFFIN: Ahmed was not surprised to hear that Kamaran had convinced Sebastian to pack up his entire life and move to Iraq to help him build this agency.

A NAJM: Kamaran - he could change your mind pretty easily.

DUFFIN: Kamaran could talk people into almost anything. One of his first shoots with Sebastian, Kamaran talked their way into an oil smuggler's den.

MEYER: You know, these guys, who live in the shadows, who don't want to be photographed, were so happy to have him around.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

K NAJM: (Foreign language spoken). Do you speak English?

DUFFIN: Here they're interviewing foreign day laborers in Iran.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

K NAJM: (Foreign language spoken).

DUFFIN: And you can hear, as Kamaran walks through this crowd of workers, he's trying to make sure that he greets each person in their own language.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

K NAJM: This is Arab family. (Foreign language spoken).

MEYER: There was something about Kamaran that was just so captivating that you just wanted to be part of it.

DUFFIN: Now Kamaran told his little brother Ahmed he wanted him to be part of this agency too. He says, we're calling it Metrography, and this is the kind of work that we can do together.

A NAJM: What I can do as a photographer to show that these are actually individuals like us - they have a family. They have mother. We talked a lot.

DUFFIN: Kamaran tells Ahmed, I want your help.

A NAJM: We have some activities that I want you to help me. I was not - I was speechless. I couldn't say anything. And I was just thinking about what I'm doing right now, why I am rejecting all the appreciation.

DUFFIN: Kamaran is inviting Ahmed into this whole different way of thinking about who he can be, but he's scared. If he agrees to Kamaran's offer, his own family might reject him. So Ahmed decides he'll keep his job at the driving school. But every chance he gets, he also starts secretly helping out around the Metrography offices.

A NAJM: Kamaran was saying, Ahmed, I'm counting on you. You have to be a coordinator in this project. You have to be an administrator for this project. You have to go to Security Forces Department.

DUFFIN: Kamaran starts to introduce him to foreign journalists, to the Dutch girlfriend who will later become his fiancee. He invites Ahmed to parties.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in foreign language).

DUFFIN: And Metrography starts taking off. Their photographers are getting assignments from The Washington Post, The Times of London, Der Spiegel in Germany.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DUFFIN: And then they get invited to present at this big photo festival in the country of Georgia. A dozen of their photographers were going, and Kamaran wanted Ahmed to come too. This would be the first time Ahmed left Kurdistan. Kamaran rarely talks to his father at this point. But he makes a trip to their family home just to tell him...

A NAJM: I want to take Ahmed to - with me to the trip. And my father said, do not make him to be out like you. He said, no, no, no. I'm teaching him how to start on his feet. They had a really big fight. And he said, Ahmed, what're you going to say? And my father was looking into my eyes, and Kamaran was looking into my eyes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

A NAJM: I born at this time because Kamaran gave me a option. You want to be like past or you start quite new. And I said, Benas - Benas was my sister. I said, Benas, prepare a bag for me. I saw that there was a small smile on Kamaran's face. And when we went out, my father threw a flip-flop to us...

DUFFIN: A single flip-flop.

A NAJM: ...And said, fuck you. You are not my son.

MEYER: And we all flew over to Georgia. And I mean, every single one of them had been a refugee multiple times in their lives. We had, you know, slept in filthy checkpoints together. Like, we'd just done, like, a lot of rough living. And there we are with cameras over our shoulders. There's a quartet playing string music, and we're sipping white wine and discussing photography. I have such a smile on my face just remembering this. Like, they stole the show. Our slideshow played - and, like, standing ovation today. And everybody - and Kamaran and I just sort of, like - I just remember standing with him and looking back at this scene and just thinking, like. Look at what we've done. Look at what we built.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

A NAJM: Yes (laughter).

DUFFIN: Ahmed says Kamaran never left his side throughout the entire festival.

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

DUFFIN: But Ahmed was worried. Like, what if he loses the rest of his family?

A NAJM: I was thinking about my father's reaction and feeling, what I'm going to do?

DUFFIN: Kamaran just kept reassuring him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

K NAJM: One day, they will also understand the value of what I'm trying to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DUFFIN: Kamaran's vision of a photo agency that told more than war stories seemed particularly suited to Kurdistan, where they lived. Kurdistan is part of Iraq but separate. It has its own borders, its own government. And it had been a pocket of peace in Iraq until June of 2014.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: As many as 500,000 people have been forced to flee.

DUFFIN: The Islamic State took over the city of Mosul.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: ...The second city to fall into the hands of Islamist militants.

DUFFIN: ...Just three hours south of where they live.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Thousands of Iraqi families, left homeless and scared, have fled to the Kurdish region in Iraq's north.

DUFFIN: And then ISIS advanced into Kurdistan. That day, Ahmed and Kamaran are in their car. And Kamaran gets a phone call. It's a Kurdish military commander. And he tells Kamaran the Kurdish forces are about to launch a counterattack against ISIS. And he invites Kamaran to come cover it, so Ahmed drops Kamaran off to meet the commander in the city of Kirkuk.

A NAJM: Kamaran hugged me when he left.

DUFFIN: Kamaran goes with the Kurdish forces to the frontline, where they're launching this counterattack. He's with another journalist friend, and he turns on his camera mic.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

DUFFIN: They're moving with the soldiers closer to the center of the battle. They stop in a canal.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

K NAJM: (Foreign language spoken).

DUFFIN: "I think they saw you."

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

K NAJM: (Foreign language spoken).

DUFFIN: "It's getting dangerous. Maybe we should leave." Kamaran moves to his friend's right, and a bullet whizzes right past his head.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

K NAJM: Holy shit.

DUFFIN: The next bullet hits Kamaran in the neck.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Kamaran. Kamaran. (Foreign language spoken). Kamaran. (Foreign language spoken).

DUFFIN: He says to his friend...

K NAJM: (Foreign language spoken).

DUFFIN: "I'm dying."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).

K NAJM: I love you all.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

A NAJM: We left Kamaran - was at 2, I think. And I drove to my home.

DUFFIN: After dropping Kamaran off to cover that battle, little brother Ahmed had gone home to wait. And after waiting a few hours, he fell asleep - one of those weird afternoon naps, where you go to sleep when it's light. And you wake up, and it's dark.

A NAJM: And when I opened my eyes, there was some noises, some voices of people knocking the door. And I was hearing some people was crying, crying. And I slept again.

DUFFIN: Finally, he gets up and goes into the living room. His mom is crying.

A NAJM: And the first thing that I saw on the TV - Kamaran Najm, a Kurdish photojournalist, just killed in Kirkuk.

DUFFIN: He picks up the remote.

A NAJM: And I change it to NRT TV, same - Kamaran's photograph. Kamaran killed by ISIS. Change it. PUK TV - Kamaran killed.

DUFFIN: The only place he can think of going right then is to Metrography - to the agency.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DUFFIN: When Sebastian hears the news, he's on assignment a few hours away.

MEYER: Tons of people are calling, tons of text messages coming through, people offering to help.

DUFFIN: Sebastian also drives to the agency. And by the time they both get to the office, there are hundreds of people there - in the parking lot, in the streets. And they're all crying and hugging them.

A NAJM: But I was saying, no, no, no, no. I don't want to believe in that...

DUFFIN: Ahmed does not believe that his brother is actually dead.

MEYER: We don't believe it. I don't believe it.

A NAJM: Because Kamaran is smart. Kamaran is smart. I was always saying, if he can talk, he will survive.

DUFFIN: Then the journalist who was with Kamaran in the battle shows up at the agency, and he tells them what happened. He says Kamaran got shot in the neck, so the Kurdish soldiers put him in the back of a pickup truck, but they didn't latch it. So when they took off, Kamaran rolled out the back. The commander - Sarhad - and his men, they jumped out of their armored car to try to grab Kamaran, but they came under fire and had to retreat. Sarhad told him Kamaran was dead when I left him. And then the Kurdish forces released a statement.

MEYER: Saying that he was, you know, officially dead.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MEYER: Very early in the morning - say, yeah, about 6 in the morning - we all get in two different cars and drive to Kirkuk.

DUFFIN: The police in Kirkuk said they knew where Kamaran's body was, so Kamaran's brothers and some of his friends drive to Kirkuk. And they pull over to wait for specific instructions about where to go. They get out of their cars to wait. No one's talking. It's getting hotter.

MEYER: We're standing there. And then all of a sudden, Bidwa's phone rings. And Bidwa is Kamaran's best friend from growing up. And he picks up. And you just - we have a recording of it.

K NAJM: (Foreign language spoken).

MEYER: "Bidwa, it's me, Kamaran."

BIDWA: Kamaran.

MEYER: It's Kamaran on the phone.

BIDWA: Kamaran, Kamaran.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).

BIDWA: Kamaran.

MEYER: And he starts shouting Kamaran, Kamaran, Kamaran, Kamaran, Kamaran. Like, everyone just went crazy. You know, everyone's trying to grab the phone out of everyone else's hand. Everyone's trying to shout something at him. And...

K NAJM: (Foreign language spoken).

DUFFIN: Kamaran tells them, find Sarhad Qadar - that's the commander he had been with the day before when he went to cover that battle.

A NAJM: He said, go and find Sarhad Qadar to negotiate with ISIS.

MEYER: It becomes very apparent very quickly that we're not out of the woods yet.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Arabic).

MEYER: Kamaran's captors take the phone back.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Arabic).

MEYER: When he said, who is this? We're like, who are you?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Arabic).

MEYER: They respond, we are the Islamic State.

DUFFIN: The captors are speaking in Arabic, so they hand the phone to the one person who speaks Arabic there, which is Kamaran's older brother Ari. And Ari is this very tough guy. He's a former body builder. He's been to prison twice for attempted murder.

ARI: (Speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Arabic).

DUFFIN: On this call, he sounds scared.

ARI: (Speaking Arabic).

DUFFIN: He's calling the ISIS guy habibi, which means my dear.

ARI: (Speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Arabic).

DUFFIN: And ISIS tells them, you need to get Sarhad not to attack this village near Kirkuk.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Arabic).

MEYER: Don't attack the village or we're killing Kamaran.

DUFFIN: So now they have to find Sarhad before he sends in his fighters. So they're looking around, like, who has Sarhad's phone number? No one. They ask Kamaran for Sarhad's phone number.

K NAJM: (Speaking foreign language).

A NAJM: Kamaran said, I don't know. But the start to the number is 1, 5, 0. I - just find the f****** number.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Arabic).

MEYER: And then they hang up the phone.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DUFFIN: Now they have to find Sarhad, the commander, and get him to pause the war in order to save their friend.

MEYER: We now are headed straight out to the battlefield, like, to the frontline. And there's a lot of checkpoints. Then it's - you start to move into more and more dangerous territory.

DUFFIN: They find Sarhad at a police station near the frontlines. He's in the parking lot. They jump out of their cars, explain what happened and hand him a phone. He dials the number that ISIS gave them.

MEYER: They pick up, and he says, you give me back the journalist. And they say, the only thing you need to know is, if you attack us, we're going to kill him. And they just descend, almost instantaneously, into an argument. You attacked us first. No, we didn't attack you. You're working with the Americans. We're not working with the Americans. We're Iraqis just like you. Well, f*** you. Well, f*** you.

And at one point, they call back. And Sarhad says, it's Sarhad. And they're like, no, it's not. And he's like, it is me. Like, it's me on the phone. And, like, we know what Sarhad sounds like, and it's not you. And then suddenly Sarhad was like, f***, we're being attacked. Like, I've got to go lead my troops. And so he left. And then all of Kamaran's friends were just sitting there. And they're like...

DUFFIN: I guess it's on us now.

MEYER: I guess the negotiations are over.

WARNER: They have to figure out how to get Kamaran home. And they will become the detectives in a case full of false leads and double-crossings and a chess match of tribal loyalties when ROUGH TRANSLATION returns.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: I'm Gregory Warner. We're back with ROUGH TRANSLATION. This may be obvious to point out, but if Kamaran were a Western journalist kidnapped off a battlefield in Iraq, there would be calls to the FBI and the State Department. There's actually a U.S. presidential appointee for hostage affairs. Someone professional would step in to coordinate this investigation. But the vast majority of journalists kidnapped in war are local, and there's often very little the authorities do. So after that one failed negotiation with the military commander, that was pretty much the end of any official help for Kamaran. So his friends speed back to the photo agency. They're going to do this on their own.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MEYER: So we go back to the office and immediately just set up a command center in the upstairs room. We've got a bunch of whiteboards. We've got a big map of the province of Kirkuk so we could trace everything in terms of geography.

DUFFIN: The first pin in the map goes on the city of Hawija - that's where Kamaran called them from.

MEYER: We created this impromptu rescue team.

DUFFIN: There's this photo of them in the command center. They're huddled around a table - some standing, some sitting, all serious faces, all intensely focused on this cellphone that one of them is holding.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Arabic).

DUFFIN: They're listening to a recording of the phone call from ISIS.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Arabic).

MEYER: We're picking over every word, trying to figure out what tribe he's from, what region he's from. Why did he answer the phone without giving the full Islamic greeting?

DUFFIN: The team now coming in and out of this office at all hours are people who, two days before this, would have never been in the same room. You have both sides of Kamaran's life - Sebastian, the American, Jantine, his Dutch fiancee, and then a bunch of journalist friends. Like, there's the editor of a local paper, who has a lot of on-the-ground sources that might be helpful. And there's also his religious family. There's Najat, the businessman who runs the driving school. Ari, the body builder ex-felon, who is now a chef. And then there's the little brother Ahmed, who is not a journalist. He's also no longer religious like his family. And he's not quite sure where he fits in.

A NAJM: The team of Sebastian and me and Jantine and also the family team.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DUFFIN: From the friends' side of the team, they get one of their very first leads. On day one, someone saw Kamaran at 6:30 a.m. in the back of a pickup truck. And then later that day, he sees three ISIS fighters eating sandwiches, saying Kamaran was killed. But then the day after that, another friend finds an eyewitness.

MEYER: A doctor who said that he saw Kamaran. He's like, you know, I treated this Kurdish photographer - Kurdish journalist who came in. His name was Kamaran. He had a neck wound. All that I was allowed to do was give him painkillers, but he needs surgery. And it's important.

DUFFIN: That lead matches up with another lead - the same exact description of Kamaran's wounds. And Sebastian is collecting all of this intel.

What's the - what's your system? Do you have a spreadsheet?

MEYER: Oh, right. Yeah, so I have an Excel spreadsheet. And I - every time I get a piece of information, I write it down.

DUFFIN: The spreadsheet was something a hostage negotiation expert advised them to do. He told them, take good notes.

MEYER: If nobody writes this down, it'll be forgotten in 10 seconds and certainly be gone by the next day.

DUFFIN: He also told them, keep your emotions in check. But meanwhile, no one's sleeping. It's also 100-plus degrees. And Kurdistan is at war, so there's a water shortage. Gas is being rationed. And every day of that first week looking for Kamaran, they're getting a different picture of what's happening. He's at the Hawija checkpoint. No, he's actually at a sheikh's house sleeping on a bed. No, no, no, he's being held at a high school. Some people were trying to sell them information. Other people were just telling them things they thought might make them feel better. It was hard to know what to trust.

MEYER: Every piece of information was - this is the thing that will lead to Kamaran's release, so we threw everything at it. Everything - you know, time, emotion. It was like...

DUFFIN: Go.

MEYER: ...Go...

DUFFIN: Yeah.

MEYER: ...Every single time. If you go hell for leather on every piece of information and then the next piece, you're like, I'm not going hell for leather on that. I'm not going to believe that necessarily.

DUFFIN: Yeah.

MEYER: How do you know that's not the piece of information that is the right one?

DUFFIN: Right, right. How do you pick the one that you decide, I'm going to sleep on this?

On the whiteboard, they keep a to-do list.

MEYER: Yeah. It says on the board, who will ask ISIS re: Kamaran?

DUFFIN: That just is, like, so meeting minute-y (ph).

MEYER: Yeah.

DUFFIN: Like, OK. Who is this - who in the room - raise your hand. Who's going to talk to ISIS?

Who will talk to ISIS is actually the most important question. And here's where the religious brothers' side of the team might be able to help. They have friends with ties to people in ISIS.

MEYER: There was a lot of sympathy for ISIS amongst very conservative Muslim Kurds. A way for us to access ISIS was going through those ISIS-sympathizing Kurds.

DUFFIN: Most ISIS fighters are locals. They're Iraqis, but it's not like Kamaran's brothers can just call up and say, hey. You know your friend who's in ISIS? Can we grab dinner together? In this moment, people with ISIS connections are being jailed. If you know ISIS people, you're hiding it.

MEYER: We are picking apart the tribes. Which tribe is with ISIS? Which tribes are against ISIS? Which sheikh can we get to? How do we get to them?

DUFFIN: Eventually, a cousin does manage to get them a meeting with one of the most prominent sheikhs in Kirkuk, near where Kamaran was kidnapped. He has a lot of influence. They just have to convince him to take the risk of contacting ISIS on their behalf. So all of the men in the family will go to this meeting - Kamaran's father, all of his brothers, even Ahmed is invited, which he's a little surprised about.

A NAJM: They're always telling me, Ahmed, you're still a kid.

DUFFIN: Even though he's now 25.

A NAJM: I'm not allowed to be involved in so many meetings.

DUFFIN: So on the two-hour drive to Kirkuk, Ahmed is trying to remember everything he can from his Salafi days so he can impress the sheikh.

A NAJM: We were walking inside the mosque. And when we entered the door, it was a big hole. And the head of that tribe was sitting in the end of the room.

DUFFIN: He starts citing passages from the Quran. The sheikh turns to him.

A NAJM: He touched my hand, and he asked me to sit beside him. He didn't ask my father to sit beside him. I was sitting there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

A NAJM: I was watching my father and my older brothers. And I was checking with them, like, you see? I'm a big man. I'm sitting beside the sheikh. (Laughter) And they were not happy about it.

DUFFIN: They can't just start asking about Kamaran right away. In order to win this guy over, they have to first pass a hospitality test.

A NAJM: A cup of coffee, you know, it's - in Arabic rules, you have to drink it.

DUFFIN: The sheikh is Arab. Ahmed's family is Kurdish, and Kurds tend to drink tea not coffee. In fact, this is the first time Ahmed's ever tasted Arabic coffee.

A NAJM: And I said, OK. Thank you. You know, Arabic coffee is really strong. It's really strong. And the head of that tribe was thinking that I really like it.

DUFFIN: On his sixth cup, Ahmed's hands are shaking. His heart starts racing. Finally, Najat, who's a businessman and has worked with Arabs, signals to Ahmed just shake the cup, and they'll stop pouring.

A NAJM: And I had a fight with Najat. OK. Do I look like that I really am a big fan of Arabic coffees? I said, why you're not telling me? Like, I'm dying. And then (laughter) he start laughing, but I absolutely was sick for two days.

DUFFIN: That was a hard night for Ahmed, but that Sheikh does agree to help them. He reaches out to some of his ISIS-related contacts for them. And for the team, it feels like maybe they're getting good at this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DUFFIN: Finally, a week and a half in, all of these contradictory and confusing leads start to point in one direction. On day nine, a friend hears Kamaran was in ISIS court three times. He was found innocent, so he'll be released soon. On the same day, a tribe tells a different friend that Kamaran's release is imminent. Another family member hears the governor of Kirkuk has good news. A brother finds out that his imam is arranging for Kamaran's release. And a different brother hears that Kamaran is already in a car on his way home. This is five pieces of intel from five different sources independently confirming the same thing - Kamaran is coming home.

That night, everyone gathers at the family's house. It's the first time in years that many brothers have been in one place. The friends also join. And everyone is telling their favorite Kamaran story. Kamaran's sisters keep hugging and kissing Jantine, his Dutch fiancee. They're talking about all the kids she's going to have when Kamaran returns. The brothers even risk teasing Ari, the bodybuilder, ex-felon brother, for calling the ISIS captor dear - calling him habibi.

Early the next morning, all of them - Sebastian, Jantine, Ahmed, the brothers, a few friends - they pile into cars and drive to Kirkuk.

A NAJM: And we were laughing, we were singing. And me and Seb, we were always singing the song of John Denver, Country Roads.

SEBASTIAN MEYER AND AHMED NAJM: (Singing) Blue Ridge Mountains. Shenandoah River...

A NAJM: So on our way to Kirkuk, we were changing the lyrics of the song to, Kirkuk roads, take me home to the place I belong. But we were not saying West Virginia. We were saying Sulaymaniyah.

DUFFIN: (Laughter).

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

DUFFIN: (Laughter) We will apologize to John Denver for you.

A NAJM: Yeah. Yeah, OK.

MEYER AND A NAJM: (Singing) Take me home, country road.

DUFFIN: They get to Kirkuk, call the governor. All right, where should we go to pick him up? They go to a cousin's house to wait.

MEYER: We just sat in a house in Kirkuk and waited for the - you know, for what to do next.

DUFFIN: They have lunch. No one's talking.

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: They got back into the car, and they drove home.

A NAJM: We were totally silent, and no one said anything.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Singing in foreign language).

DUFFIN: That night at the Metrography office, a bunch of Kamaran's friends show up. They're drinking and playing guitar and singing until the wee hours of the morning. Metrography has become this place for these raucous memorials. But on this night, Ahmed is having none of it. He's furious. Who are all these people laughing and joking while my brother is a hostage? He shouts at Sebastian and storms out.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Singing in foreign language).

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

A NAJM: Being hopeful is killing us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Next time on ROUGH TRANSLATION, a romantic story from Kamaran's past threatens his release. And his search team sits down with ISIS.

MEYER: We were told, you know, you're going to have the worst fighters. You're going to have the nastiest people.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

A NAJM: And I promise you - I promise you, like, this time is not the other times...

MEYER: Yeah.

A NAJM: ...Like, I'm really sure about it.

MEYER: I got a call at 1 o'clock in the morning being like, Ahmed's in hospital. One of his brothers has thrown him down the stairs.

WARNER: That's next time on ROUGH TRANSLATION. In the meantime, you can see photos of Kamaran and by Kamaran on our site, npr.org/roughtranslation - that includes a photo that Kamaran took on that last trip to the frontlines. Today's show was produced and edited by our ROUGH TRANSLATION team - that is me, Jess Jiang and Marianne McCune with Karen Duffin. Thanks also to Sebastian Meyer for reporting and editing. So many people listened and helped us with this episode.

Thanks to Hanna Rosin, Nancy Updike, Lu Olkowski, Michael May, Audrey Quinn, Autumn Barnes, Sana Krasikov, Jess Benko, Jason Basso (ph), Eroy Hijani (ph), Donna Asad (ph), Sourti Pinamanani (ph), Pajar Mohammed (ph) and Iud Mury (ph). Our interpreter is Hussein Ibrahim (ph). Sebastian Meyer just published a photobook about Kurdistan and Kamaran. It's called "Under Every Yard Of Sky." A link is on our site. The ROUGH TRANSLATION executive team is Neal Carruth, Will Dobson and Anya Grundmann. Aaron Register (ph) is our project manager, mastering by Andy Huether. John Ellis composed music for our show. Mike Cruz (ph) scored the episode.

If you want more stories like this in your podcast feed, tell a couple of friends about the show. Leave us a review on Apple podcasts. It really helps us continue what we're doing. Drop us a line at roughtranslation@npr.org or on Twitter, we're @Roughly. I'm Gregory Warner. Next time, part two of Kamaran's story on ROUGH TRANSLATION.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.