Getting Kamaran's Story Out
Freelance photographer Kamaran Najm is one of 11 Iraqi journalists who are currently being held hostage. As Iraq is declared 2017's most deadly country in the world for journalists, Sebastian Meyer tells RPT what happened to his friend and why he and Kamaran's family have lifted their media blackout to tell Kamaran's story.
Earlier that day, whilst covering fighting as an embed with the Kurdish Peshmerga, he was shot in the neck and left on the battlefield when the militia were forced to retreat. Later that evening the Ministry of Peshmerga put out a statement claiming Kamaran had been killed.
When a group of family and friends travelled to the battlefield the next morning to retrieve the freelancer’s body, one of them received a call. It was Kamaran, calling from his captors’ phone. “He said he was in the city of Hawija”, recalls photographer and friend, Sebastian Meyer. “He told us that the commander of the Kurdish forces needed to ring back on that number to speak to the people who had abducted him. We understood that ISIS was holding Kamaran for negotiation purposes.”
A few hours later, as they were on their way to meet the commander, Kamaran’s captors rang. “They said they didn’t want to see any public mention that Kamaran had been kidnapped - on Facebook or anywhere else. That’s why we instated a very strict media blackout. We understood that as a very specific threat to his life.”
In the end the negotiation fell through and nothing has been heard from Kamaran or his captors since, despite huge efforts from his family, friends and colleagues to find out what has happened to him. “We have spoken to everyone and anyone to get news and information. Anything and everything that could be done, we’ve done it, both in Iraq and internationally. You do what you have to do, but of course there are a thousand difficulties in a situation like this.”
Three and a half years later, the defeat of ISIS in Iraq has changed things. “We figured that if he’s still a hostage the media ban wouldn’t play a part." Kamaran’s brother Ahmed, his fiancee Jantine, and Sebastian all decided that the time was right to get Kamaran’s story out into the open - it might give them some help in locating him. “By lifting the ban we are casting the net wider and opening up the story to those who may have information about him.”
Copyright Kamaran Najm/Metrography
In just eight years, Metrography has become an important driver of photojournalism culture in Iraq. Its photographers have had stories published in National Geographic and won prestigious international awards including the Rory Peck Award for Features in 2015 and the Prix Bayeux in 2017. Ahmed is doing “an incredible job”, says Sebastian, keeping the Sulaimaniyah-based agency alive and well, running photography festivals and training programmes, “But we all miss Kamaran’s charisma, passion and drive. None of this would have been possible without him.”
Kamaran is a respected figure in the Iraqi and international media, known not just for his own photographic work but for establishing - with Sebastian - Iraq’s first and only photography agency, Metrography. “He wanted [the international media] to look more deeply at his country and to produce stories other than stories of death. He realised that there were other images that he could bring out of Iraq.” Both men also felt strongly that Iraq’s stories needed to be told by Iraqi photographers, as well as outsiders.
There were multiple ethnic and geographic challenges setting up the agency in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2009. “It was difficult to assemble photographers; trust and language was a big issue and logistically it was tough.” Because of Saddam’s dictatorship there was no culture of photojournalism – or journalism - in Iraq and personally, he says, Kamaran took a big risk. “Sticking your head above the parapet as an Iraqi is very difficult to do. Being a photographer - especially a freelancer who isn’t aligned with a well-known agency but who is actually starting his own – that’s extremely difficult. Kamaran was able to do that and he stood his ground in an incredibly impressive way.”
Despite Metrography’s cultural success the dangers facing Iraq’s journalists, as Kamaran’s kidnapping shows, are still critically high. Today, CPJ declared Iraq the most deadly country for journalists in 2017. Eight have been killed there this year alone and Kamaran is one of at least 11 Iraqi journalists who are currently being held hostage. Many more, including former Metrography photographer Ali Arkady, and freelance investigative journalist Afrah Shawqi have been forced to flee their homeland because of threats, abduction and torture.
“One thing I’ve discovered since being in Iraq is how much better Iraqi journalists know their country, but also how much more dangerous it is for them”, says Sebastian. “In the US I’ve been to parts of my country where people are instantly aggressive to me because of my job, but if you are a journalist in Iraq there are tribes and factions and political groups who want to get rid of you. For Iraqi journalists its not just a question of discomfort but of physical safety. And by that I mean that you could be killed for asking a question of a politician.”
Nevertheless, he believes the story of Iraq is not just a story of death and war. “When I got there in 2008 I realised war was part of the story, but not the whole story.” Kamaran and Metrography taught him that. “If we don’t look at the work of Iraqi photographers we’re not seeing the whole of the country and we’re not properly educating people about it.”
There have been several sightings of Kamaran since 2014 but none of them have been confirmed. For those who love him, what’s most difficult is the not knowing; the inability to mourn. For his best friend, “its very difficult to learn to live with that ambiguity. Keeping your hope alive takes its toll. Everyone has their different ways of coping. For me it's learning to live and find meaning in the ambiguous. There is a lot of writing about that and about kidnap – a lot of resources out there, which are helpful. This is not the first kidnapping and it won’t be the last.”
RSF estimate that at least 54 journalists are currently being held hostage worldwide, the majority of them freelance. “As painful as it is, I know we are not the only ones dealing with this,” says Sebastian. “Too many people—not only in Iraq—are painfully waiting for closure.”
In 2017 RPT supported five Iraqi freelancers who were threatened, abducted or forced to flee the country.
RPT also supports the families of freelancers who are missing or held hostage with financial grants, information, resources and advice.
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