The nightmare began on July 31, 2009. I was living in Damascus, covering the Middle East as a freelance journalist, with my girlfriend, Sarah Shourd, a teacher. Our friend Josh Fattal had come to see us, and to celebrate, we took a short trip to Iraqi Kurdistan. The autonomous region—isolated from the violence that wracked the rest of Iraq—was a budding Western tourist destination. After two days of visiting castles and museums, we headed to the Zagros Mountains, where locals directed us to a campground near a waterfall. After a breakfast of bread and cheese, we hiked up a trail we’d been told offered beautiful views. We walked for a few hours, up a winding valley between brown mountains mottled with patches of yellow grass that looked like lion’s fur. We didn’t know that we were headed toward the worst 26 months of our lives.