For Dmitry

Moscow, May 21, 2007, the night of Dmitry's Funeral. Photo by Eduard Korniyenko.

BAQOUBA, Iraq (AP) _ In the last hours of his life, Russian photojournalist Dmitry Chebotayev was doing what he lived for: taking pictures. And laughing.

Chebotayev died Sunday when a massive bomb exploded under the U.S. Stryker troop carrier he was traveling in as it moved down a trash-strewn road in this insurgent-plagued city northeast of Baghdad, killing him instantly along with six American soldiers. He was 29.

Chebotayev is the first Russian journalist known to have died in Iraq.

At least 101 journalists have been killed here since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Born Jan. 20, 1978, Chebotayev graduated from Moscow State Technological University in 2001 with a degree in economics.

He loved to snowboard and was an avid cyclist, said his girlfriend of six years, Natalia Kolesnikova.

After he suffered from a spinal ailment at age 24, Chebotayev was forced to give up a career in sports. He became depressed, but Kolesnikova said she suggested he become a photographer and they bought a camera together.

Chebotayev quickly developed a passion for the craft.

"He took the camera, he liked it, he made real progress," said Kolesnikova, a 28-year-old photographer for the French news agency, Agence France-Presse, in Moscow. "By age 29, after just 4 years, he became a role model for many of his colleagues."

Chebotayev began freelancing for the Russian news photo agency Photoxpress in 2003. Two years later, he became a contract photographer with the Russian edition of Newsweek magazine. He also worked for the news photo agency World Picture Network, the German-based European Pressphoto Agency and the independent Moscow daily Kommersant.

He took assignments in Russia's war-scarred Chechnya region, India and Lebanon.

The trip to Iraq was his first.

"He understood everything," Kolesnikova said of the risks of his trade. "He tried to reassure his loved ones that he would be fine ... Dima was that rare type of person who felt that he had to work" in dangerous areas.

Arriving in Baghdad in March, Chebotayev embedded with U.S. Marines for several weeks in remote towns in troubled Anbar province, west of the capital.

In April, he transferred to U.S. units in Baghdad before flying to Baqouba at the end of the month. He said he had planned to stay in Iraq until the end of May.

Chebotayev said the war was different than he imagined it would be. He found many places unexpectedly quiet -- but always dangerous.

While on a patrol in Baghdad's Dora neighborhood last month, Chebotayev said the Humvee he was riding in was hit by small arms fire. Window glass from his door struck his face but did not injure him.
Days later in Baqouba, he bought a US$67 set of protective eye-wear, saying, "I'm a photographer, I have to protect the most important part of my body -- my eyes."

In Iraq, Chebotayev produced extraordinarily thoughtful works of art, taking pictures of civilians and troops indoors or at night that resembled centuries-old oil paintings and showed a mastery of light composition.

While on one patrol last week, he said: "I don't want to take many pictures of everything, I want to take a few great pictures."

Chebotayev got along well with American soldiers -- including one from Ukraine -- who struck up playful conversations easily with him when they noticed his Russian accent.

He was warm, curious, laughed easily and often joked with soldiers about the U.S.-Russian space race and the Cold War.
While embedded, he traveled so light he chose not to even take shampoo, washing his hair with soap and saving the weight in his backpack for the essentials of his trade: his cameras and portable computer, which had a permanent backdrop of Natalia, whom he said he loved deeply.

Chebotayev spent his free-time drinking coffee at a small shop on base, and often lay on his cot in a large green military tent, playing backgammon on his cell phone and editing photos.

He was eager to explore Baqouba but had been frustrated after spending several days on base without going out.

On Sunday, Chebotayev woke up at 6 a.m. and skipped coffee because he didn't want to miss the chance to go out with troops from the 2nd Infantry Division's 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment.
He left the base an hour later with a platoon of four Stryker vehicles wearing a maroon shirt, kneepads, a blue flak vest, a helmet and two cameras strapped over his shoulders.

After spending several hours at an Iraqi police station with troops who picked up a wounded Iraqi policeman from a checkpoint, helicopters spotted several armed men gathered at a nearby intersection and several others apparently planting a bomb in a road.

Chebotayev climbed into the back of a Stryker and the troops headed out around noon to another street to cut off the insurgents. As the vehicles inched down a trash-strewn road, a thunderous blast consumed one of them in a huge ball of gray debris that flipped the eight-wheeled, 37,000-pound (16,783 kilo) troop carrier upside down and tore out the inside of it.

The explosion killed everyone inside except the driver.

As troops scrambled to recover casualties, gunmen opened fire from a large yellow domed mosque across the street, sparking a brief firefight that saw rounds ping off the wreckage.

The Strykers riposted, blasting small chunks of concrete off the mosque with 40mm grenades and heavy caliber guns.

Later, three insurgents wearing armored vests -- probably stolen from police -- were found dead inside the mosque.

That night, Chebotayev's remains were loaded onto a Blackhawk helicopter on a darkened runway without lights and blessed by an Army chaplain.

The aircraft pulled straight up and disappeared into a starry sky, the first step of a return journey back to Russia.

Chebotayev is survived by his father, Vyatcheslav Chebotayev, and his mother, Tatjana.

AP reporter Todd Pitman spent two weeks embedded with the same unit as Chebotayev. He was in a vehicle behind Chebotayev's when the Russian journalist was killed.

Associated Press writer Maria Danilova contributed to this report from Moscow.

First photo by Eduard Korniyenko. All others by Todd Pitman, except the picture above, which I understand was taken by Dmitry on his cell phone and was distributed by AP and other news wires.

The photos below are of Dmitry's grave in Moscow.

Rest in Peace, Dmitry. You will be missed, and never forgotten. I wish we had had the chance to become better friends.