Editor’s Note: Maria Fleet is a veteran journalist who covered the first Gulf War, the US intervention in Somalia (for which she earned an Emmy), the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia and the wars in Chechnya and Kosovo for CNN. After the September 11 attacks, she won a Peabody Award for reporting on al Qaeda. She was a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan in 2004, and later returned to work on CNN’s international news desk until 2021. Fleet now works as an independent journalist. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN. For more information, watch “No Ordinary Life” on at 10 p.m. ET Monday on CNN.
The man was very tall. I had to tilt my camera up at a sharp angle to frame him against the overcast sky. He had ink black hair and expressive eyes that were almost hidden in the deep shadow of his brow. There were burn marks on his face.
But the most prominent features of this man, who had just fled across the border from Kosovo into Kukës, Albania, were his hands. They were so heavily bandaged he looked like he was wearing white boxing gloves. With my low angle of view foreshortening his arms, the giant white mitts waved across the camera’s foreground as he told us his story: he had barely escaped being burned alive.
I was in Albania with my camera as part of a CNN team. It was spring 1999, and Serbian President Slobodan Milošević had stepped up a campaign of ethnic cleansing against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, despite NATO airstrikes meant to drive the Serb army out of the autonomous region. Kosovar Albanians were flooding to safety across the border with horror stories about their treatment by Serb police and soldiers.
For two decades in the 1980s and 1990s, as a video journalist for CNN in Central America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East, I saw people on the run from conflict and unrest, carrying children and whatever belongings they could, sometimes on foot, sometimes packed into the back of overflowing trucks. I saw them fleeing across borders, into the woods, up mountains – in panic and looking for sanctuary.
It is not only a daunting assignment to be the world’s witness. It is a privilege. It is an honor. It is a prayer – sending images out as a “first-alert” system to the rest of the world.
We asked the man with the burned hands to tell us his story. He said Serb forces came to his village with tanks the morning after the NATO bombing began. Villagers tried to escape to the woods, he told us, but were quickly surrounded. “Then they rounded up all the villagers, and separated men from women. To the women they said, ‘you may go to the border,’ but they put us men in two big rooms and started to shoot us. They said, ‘Now, NATO can save you.’ When they finished shooting us, they covered us with straw and set us on fire. We were 112 people. I survived with one other man.”
He said he survived by playing dead as soon as the shooting started, and ran when the Serbs went to get more fuel to burn the bodies.
There were thousands more people pouring across the border with similar stories of terror. As my CNN colleagues and I ran to interview them, I remember scribbling “burned man” on the videotape label in haste. His image hung in my mind, along with the cryptic description I assigned to him – its chilling brevity weighted with the incomprehensibility of man’s inhumanity to man.
To this day, it’s hard for me to utter the word “refugee” without a crack in my voice.
As breaking news journalists, my colleagues and I scrambled from one story to the next. There seemed to be no end to the world’s tumult. There were civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua. The Soviet Union dissolved. Yugoslavia broke apart. There was famine and anarchy in Somalia, war in Sudan. Abstract political ideas translated into images and stories of countless individuals uprooted from their homes.
I rarely had time to follow each person I encountered to a conclusion. My camera always caught them in the middle of chaos, at a precipice in their lives. Did the woman in Grozny, Chechnya ever find her missing son? Did the baby hit by shrapnel survive his wounds? Did the family in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina make it through the war? Each personal chronicle of tragedy I captured was like one frame in a long movie, and each frame had to stand in for thousands, streaming past. It never felt like I was doing enough.
In April 1991, I arrived with my CNN team to the Turkish-Iraqi border. The Kurds of northern Iraq had risen 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 north. Kurdish families fled into mountains along the border with Turkey for safety. I filmed families trudging on dirt tracks through freezing cold. Many of the women wore dresses decorated with sequins, which glinted in the light as they crossed my lens – this festive element incongruous with the life-threatening circumstances they faced.
After such an assignment, I would return home, to a safe and comfortable life, in what seemed like a betrayal. I left people behind – cold on a mountainside, huddled in a tent or making tea from gathered leaves over a fire. I felt like I was letting them down, people who had stripped their lives bare in front of my lens in an act of pure trust.
In southern Sudan, in 1993, I visited an outpost of thousands of orphaned refugee boys, displaced multiple times by what my colleague Richard Blystone described as “a civil war within a civil war.” Fighting between rebel factions, who were also fighting the government in the Khartoum, prevented food aid from arriving regularly to 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 so very glad to see you today!” they sang, their earnest faces lifted toward my camera as they concentrated on pronouncing the sounds of an unfamiliar language. They seemed to be both beseeching us for help and rebuking the world for its shortcomings in allowing the misery confronting them to continue.
In 1996, I went to Grozny to cover the war between Russia and the then-breakaway region of Chechnya. Residents were running away from the city to escape the fierce fighting. I remember one family having to push their broken-down car, laden with household goods, over a destroyed bridge, grimly passing the bodies of deceased civilians.
Elsewhere I filmed some young women walking with their bags along a muddy road on the outskirts of the city, headed in the opposite direction – into the danger zone. They told me they were returning home after having sheltered in the countryside with relatives for weeks. It seemed irrational for them to be running back into an area of intense fighting, but such was the magnetic draw of being in the comfort of their own home.
The scenes I filmed became part headline, part history and part unresolved fragments lingering in my memory. They were at once global reports and deeply personal moments, both for my subjects and for me.
My lens, my eye, was the best I had to offer.
In the case of the Iraqi Kurds, a US-led coalition took action and settled refugees in a massive tent city on a plain in northern Iraq out of harm’s way, providing security until it was safe enough for them to return to their hometowns.
In Chechnya, there was a peace settlement in 1996, but the region later suffered through more brutal separatist conflict that again sent people fleeing.
Thousands of orphaned boys from the Sudan civil war – though not, to my knowledge, those who I filmed – resettled in the United States, Canada and Europe.
And what of the “burned man?”
His name is Mehmet Krasniqi. He reunited with his wife and children shortly after I encountered him with his bandaged hands at the border.
International relief workers flooded in to assist the Kosovar refugees and help them return home. War crimes investigators arrived soon afterwards.
In 2009, Krasniqi provided testimony at a war crimes tribunal in the Hague.
I was able to reach him by telephone recently. His hands have long healed and he is back in his village, farming the land, as he was doing before that day in 1999 when he had to run for his life.
He told me nowadays he tries not to think about what happened to him and his neighbors, but it was important for him to speak the truth about what he witnessed.
And it is important for me, personally, to know that he is home. I can replace the image of him in my mind with a new one, of him working on his farm.
I’d like to think the presence of my camera made a difference. Images, can, in the best of cases, spur action. When they are ignored, a swath of people can be left bereft or endangered. I tried to somehow freight each scene I filmed with the sense of urgency my colleagues and I felt in the midst of the unfolding situation on the ground.
What matters most, though, is how those moments of witness were only made possible by the trust placed in us by those who told us their stories – even when they were at their most vulnerable. The gravity of that, above all else, stays with me.