ABC News was devastated this week by the kidnapping and subsequent killings of two of its employees in Baghdad. Details surrounding the killings of cameraman Alaa Uldeen Aziz and soundman Saif Laith Yousuf are not entirely clear but they bear the markings of the sectarian violence ravaging Iraq today.
Aziz and Yousuf left the ABC News Baghdad bureau in Yousuf's car with another colleague after work on Thursday. Driving through Baghdad involves navigating an obstacle course of choking traffic jams, hurrying pedestrians, military blockades, police checkpoints and countless deadly threats.
The three men made it to their first destination and the first passenger made it home safely. As they approached Aziz's home, witnesses at the scene say a car pulled in front of them, blocking the way. Before Aziz and Yousuf could react, a second vehicle arrived and gunmen poured out, surrounding the journalists' car and ordering them onto the street.
Neighbors describe a bold and violent confrontation where the gunmen were threatening witnesses while assaulting the two men. Aziz and Yousuf were taken away in separate vehicles.
ABC's Baghdad bureau learned about the kidnapping several hours later, when a family member contacted the bureau to say neither man had arrived at home. ABC employees tried calling Aziz's cell phone, which appeared to be off. When Yousuf's phone rang, however, an unidentified man answered. He did not reveal who he was or where the men had been taken, but said they would be sent home safely.
It was a promise that did not come true. Friday morning the families of Aziz and Yousuf identified both men in a city morgue. Aziz and Yousuf had been beaten and shot to death.
'The Eyes and Ears'
Cameramen and soundmen are by nature unsung heroes. Aziz and Yousuf were especially invaluable as Iraqi employees who filled multiple roles in the war zone.
"They are really our eyes and ears in Iraq," ABC Baghdad correspondent Terry McCarthy said. "Many places in Baghdad are just too dangerous for foreigners to go now, so we have Iraqi camera crews who very bravely go out. Without them, we are blind. We cannot see what's going on."
Aziz, a 33-year-old father of two girls aged 10 and 4, was a gregarious presence. In his two years working for ABC News he became famous for his jokes and positive attitude even in the most dangerous circumstances. He had an outsized sense of humor.
ABC producer Mike Tuggle met Aziz on Tuggle's first trip to Baghdad. "I had some down time and got into a game of pool with Alaa. He beat me badly," he remembered. "Just before he hit the last ball in he looked up at me and said, 'My name is Alaa Uldeen, but you can call me Aladdin, because I have his magic on the pool table.' As he reared back and hit the cue ball he said, 'The balls, they just disappear.' And his face lit up with that big smile of his."
His instincts were also about survival, Tuggle said.
"In February, we were shooting a story on Iraqis getting married. Even with the bloodshed and turmoil this hope remains that two people will live happily ever after. We shot for about 45 minutes. At that point I couldn't tell that anything had changed, but Alaa felt something. He looked at me and said, 'It is time to go. Now.' I trusted him. I don't live there and the small things that a local sees go right by me. I didn't hear about anything bad happening after we left…but maybe it didn't because we left. In Iraq you learn to trust the people you are with."
Yousuf was new to ABC, but not to journalism. The 26-year-old joined the bureau a few months ago and quickly became a beloved member of the team. He was described as quiet and shy; Yousuf and Aziz complemented each other's personalities and had known each other for 12 years.
Yousuf was engaged and spoke to his fiancée sometimes twice an hour to assuage her fears about his safety. They had planned to get an apartment together as soon as he had saved enough money to move out of his parents' home.
Baghdad today is a storm of violence and religious hatred that is incomprehensibly complex for Iraqis to navigate.
As a Sunni, Aziz faced the threat of Shiite insurgents. Before he was killed, Aziz reported increased Shiite militia activity in his neighborhood, though there is no proof that murders were motivated by sect or religion.
Aziz, a Muslim, and Yousuf, a Christian, remained close despite being from separate sides of the divides tearing the country apart.
There is no exception, even in death. Aziz's family said they want to bury him next to his father but may not be able to, because the risk of snipers at the cemetery makes a funeral a potentially deadly affair.
They put themselves at great risk every day because they felt it was important not just as journalists, but as Iraqis.
Aziz once joked that working as an Iraqi journalist, "does give you more chances to get arrested" by Iraqi or American authorities. Not to mention being shot or bombed by insurgents. But, he remarked at that time, the risk carried rewards. "It makes you feel that you are doing something important for your life, that you are covering everything every day, trying to be the first," Aziz said in an interview.
Working with Aziz meant you were never bored, said ABC producer Beth Loyd. "He realized you have to have a sense of humor to get by in this place," she said. "Alaa always gave me the old-fashioned Iraqi army salute when he walked in the newsroom. I really looked forward to seeing that again."
"We've had some bad days in Baghdad and this is one of the worst," McCarthy said. "We've lost two family members. It really hurts."
The Committee to Protect Journalists said 104 journalists of all nationalities have been killed in Iraq since the beginning of the war, 82 of them Iraqis.