Opinion: After a lifetime in war zones, this is what I’m left with above all else

But the most salient features of this man, who had just crossed the border from Kosovo to Kukës, Albania, were his hands. They were so heavily bandaged he looked like he was wearing white boxing gloves. With my low-angle angle of view shortening his arms, the giant white mittens rippled in the foreground of the camera as he told us his story: he had barely escaped being burned alive.

For two decades in the 1980s and 1990s, as a video reporter for CNN in Central America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East, I saw people fleeing conflict and unrest, bearing children and all what they could, sometimes on foot, sometimes crammed into the back of overflowing trucks. I saw them fleeing across the borders, into the woods, into the mountains – in panic and seeking refuge.

It is not only a daunting task to witness the world. It is a privilege. It’s an honor. It’s a prayer – sending images as a “first alert” system to the rest of the world.

We asked the man with the burnt hands to tell us his story. He said that Serb forces arrived in his village with tanks the morning after the NATO bombardments began. The villagers tried to escape into the woods, he told us, but were quickly surrounded. “Then they gathered all the villagers and separated the men from the women. To the women they said, ‘You can go to the border’, but they put us in two big rooms and started shooting at us. They said, ‘Now NATO can save you. When they finished shooting at us, they covered us with straw and set us on fire. We were 112 people. I survived with another man.

He said he survived playing dead as soon as the shooting started, and fled when the Serbs went to get more fuel to burn the bodies.

There were thousands of other people crossing the border with similar stories of terror. As my CNN colleagues and I ran to interview them, I remember scribbling “burnt man” on the video’s label in a hurry. His image stuck in my mind, along with the cryptic description I attributed to him – his chilling brevity weighted by the incomprehensibility of man’s inhumanity to man.

To this day, it’s hard for me to pronounce the word “refugee” without a crack in my voice.

Northern Iraq, April 1991

As last-minute reporters, my colleagues and I rushed from story to story. There seemed to be no end to the tumult of the world. There were civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua. The Soviet Union dissolved. Yugoslavia broke up. There was famine and anarchy in Somalia, war in Sudan and in northern Iraq. Abstract political ideas translated into images and stories of countless people uprooted from their homes.

I rarely had time to follow every person I met to a conclusion. My camera has always taken them in the midst of chaos, at a precipice in their lives. Did the woman from Grozny, Chechnya ever find her missing son? Did the baby hit by shrapnel survive his injuries? Did the family in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, survive the war? Each personal chronicle of tragedy I captured was like a frame in a long movie, and each frame had to represent thousands of people, streaming past. I never felt like I had enough.

Iraqi Kurds seeking refuge, 1991

In April 1991, I arrived with my CNN team at the Turkish-Iraqi border. Kurds in northern Iraq rose up against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein at the end of the first Gulf War. Their rebellion was suppressed by the Iraqi army, causing a mass exodus north. Kurdish families have fled to the mountains along the border with Turkey for their safety. I filmed families trudging along dirt roads in the freezing cold. Many of the women wore sequin-embellished dresses, which shone in the light as they passed through my lens—that festive element incongruous with the life-threatening circumstances they faced.

After such an assignment, I was returning home, to a safe and comfortable life, to what felt like a betrayal. I left people behind – cold on the mountainside, huddled in a tent or making tea with picked leaves over a fire. I felt like I was letting them down, people who had laid their lives bare before my lens in an act of pure trust.

Refugee boys at Palataka school in southern Sudan, May 1993.

In southern Sudan in 1993, I visited an outpost of thousands of orphaned refugee boys, displaced many times by what my colleague Richard Blystone described as “a civil war within a civil war”. Fighting between rebel factions, which were also fighting the government in Khartoum, has prevented food aid from arriving regularly in the area.

The boys were thin and wore nothing more than rags. They greeted us with a welcome song they had memorized in English. “All of you visitors, we are very happy to see you today!” they sang, their serious faces raised to my camera as they concentrated on pronouncing the sounds of an unfamiliar language. They seemed to both implore us for help and berate the world for its shortcomings in allowing the misery they face to continue.

In 1996, I went to Grozny to cover the war between Russia and the then secessionist Chechnya. Residents were fleeing the city to escape heavy fighting. I remember one family having to push their broken down car, laden with household items, over a wrecked bridge, ominously passing the bodies of dead civilians.

Grozny, Chechnya, August 1996.

Elsewhere, I filmed young women walking with their bags along a muddy road on the outskirts of town, heading in the opposite direction – into the danger zone. They told me they were returning home after sheltering in the countryside with relatives for weeks. It seemed irrational for them to return to an area of ​​intense combat, but such was the magnetic pull of being in the comfort of their own home.

The scenes I filmed became part titles, part story, and part unresolved fragments that linger in my memory. They were both global reporting and deeply personal moments, both for my subjects and for me.

Grozny, Chechnya, August 1996.

My lens, my eye, was the best I had to offer.

In the case of the Iraqi Kurds, a US-led coalition stepped in and settled refugees in a huge tent city on a plain in northern Iraq, safe from harm, providing security until ’til it’s safe enough for them to return to their hometowns.

Tent city for Iraqi Kurdish refugees in northern Iraq, April 1991.

In Chechnya there was a peace settlement in 1996, but the region then suffered from a more brutal separatist conflict which again caused people to flee.
Thousands of boys orphaned from Sudan’s civil war — though not, to my knowledge, those I filmed — have been resettled in the United States, Canada and Europe.

And what about “the burnt man?”

His name is Mehmet Krasniqi. He was reunited with his wife and children shortly after I met him with his hands bandaged at the border.

International aid workers have poured in to help Kosovar refugees and help them return home. War crimes investigators arrived soon after.

In 2009 Krasniqi testified in a war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

I was able to reach him by phone recently. His hands have long been healed and he is back in his village, cultivating the land, as he did before that day in 1999 when he had to run for his life.

He told me that today he tries not to think about what happened to him and his neighbors, but that it was important for him to tell the truth about what he witnessed .

And it is important for me, personally, to know that he is at home. I can replace the image of him in my mind with a new image of him working on his farm.

I would like to think that the presence of my camera made a difference. Images can, at best, spur action. When ignored, large numbers of people can be left behind or at risk. I tried somehow to load every scene I filmed with the sense of urgency that my colleagues and I felt amid the situation unfolding on the ground.

What matters most, however, is that these moments of witnessing were only made possible by the trust placed in us by those who told us their stories – even when they were most vulnerable. The seriousness of this, above all else, stays with me.

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