But the most distinguishing feature of this man who had just fled across the border from Kosovo to Kukes, Albania, was his hands. They were very heavily bandaged and appeared to be wearing white boxing gloves. My low angle of view shortened his arm, and a giant white mitten waved his hand across the camera foreground.
For two decades in the 1980s and 1990s, as a video journalist for CNN in Central America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East, I watched people escape conflict and turmoil. It can also be packed behind an overflowed truck. I have seen them cross borders, through forests, and up mountains. I was panicking and looking for sanctuary.
Being a witness to the world is not only a difficult task. It’s a privilege. It’s an honor. It is a prayer and a transmission of images around the world as a “first alarm” system.
I spoke to a man who had a burn on his hand. He said Serb troops came to his village in tanks the morning after the NATO bombing began. He said the villagers tried to flee into the forest but were soon surrounded. “Then they gathered all the villagers and separated the men from the women. They said to the women, ‘You can go to the border,’ but they put us men in two big rooms, They started shooting us, NATO can save you, when they finished shooting us, they covered us with straw and set them on fire, we were 112 I survived with another man.
He said he survived by pretending to be dead as soon as the shooting started and fled when the Serbs went to get fuel to burn the bodies.
Thousands more people flooded across the border with similar tales of horror. I remember running to an interview with a colleague at CNN and quickly scribbling “Man with Burns” on the label of a videotape. His image hung in my mind, along with the cryptic explanation I assigned him.
Even now, it’s hard to say the word “refugee” without cracking your voice.
As breaking news journalists, my colleagues and I scrambled from one story to the next. It seemed that the turmoil in the world would never stop. There was civil war in El Salvador and Nicaragua. The Soviet Union dissolved. Yugoslavia split. There was famine and anarchy in Somalia, and war in Sudan and northern Iraq. Abstract political ideas translated into images and stories of countless people forced from their homes.
I rarely had time to draw conclusions from each person I encountered. My camera always caught them on the precipice of their lives, in the midst of chaos. Has a woman in Grozny, Chechnya ever found her missing son? Did a shrapnel-hit baby survive her wounds? Did a family in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina survive the war? Capturing a personal tragedy was like a frame in a long movie, and each frame had to flow thousands of times. I never felt like I was doing enough.
In April 1991, I arrived at the Turkish-Iraqi border with the CNN team. Kurds in northern Iraq rose up against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein at the end of the First Gulf War. Their rebellion was put down by the Iraqi army, causing a mass exodus to the north. Kurdish families fled to the mountains along the Turkish border in search of safety. Filmed a family walking his truck in the freezing cold weather. Many of the women wore dresses embellished with sequins, and the sequins shimmered across my lens. This element of celebration was at odds with the life-threatening situation they faced.
After such an assignment, I returned home and lived a safe and comfortable life, but it seemed like a betrayal. I made tea from the leaves. As an act of pure trust, I felt like I was letting people down who had their lives bare in front of my lens.
In 1993, in southern Sudan, I visited an outpost of thousands of orphaned refugee boys who had been repeatedly displaced from their homes by what my colleague Richard Blystone described as a “civil war within a civil war.” visited. Fighting between rebel factions fighting the government in Khartoum prevented food aid from reaching the area on a regular basis.
The boys were thin and wore nothing but rags. They welcomed me with a welcome song that I learned in English. “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s great to meet you today!” Their serious faces lifted towards my camera as they sang and concentrated on pronouncing the sounds of an unfamiliar language. They seemed to be asking us for help and blaming the shortcomings of the world for allowing the misery they were facing to continue.
In 1996, I went to Grozny to cover the war between Russia and the then-separated Chechnya region. Residents fled the city to escape the fierce fighting. I remember a family having to push a wrecked car full of household goods across a destroyed bridge.
Elsewhere, a young woman was filmed walking with a bag down a muddy road on the outskirts of the city in the opposite direction, toward the danger zone. They told me they were returning home after weeks of sheltering in the countryside with relatives. It seemed irrational for them to be back in the realm of heavy fighting, but it was the allure of being in the comfort of their own home.
The scenes I shot were part headlines, part history, and part unsolved fragments in my memory. They were both a global report and a very personal moment for my subject and myself.
My lenses, my eyes, were the best I had to offer.
And what about the “burnt man”?
His name is Mehmet Krasniki. Shortly after I met him at the border with his hands bandaged, he was reunited with his wife and children.
International aid workers flooded in to assist the Kosovar refugees and help them return home. Soon after, war crimes investigators arrived.
I was able to get in touch with him by phone recently. His hand is long healed and he is back in his village, working the land as he did before the day he had to flee for his life in 1999.
He told me that while he tries not to think about what happened to him and his neighbors these days, it was important for him to tell the truth about what he witnessed.
I’d like to think that the presence of the camera made a difference. Images, at their best, can call to action. If they are ignored, large numbers of people can be abandoned or endangered. I tried to carry each scene I shot with a sense of urgency that my colleagues and I felt in the midst of the unfolding situation on set.
But most importantly, the moment of testimony was only made possible by the trust placed in us by those who told us their stories. Most of all, that gravity stays with me.