Meet the multi-awarded Filipino photojournalist who covered the Rohingya crisis

enablePagination: false
maxItemsPerPage: 10
totalITemsFound:
maxPaginationLinks: 10
maxPossiblePages:
startIndex:
endIndex:

“All of the refugees were arriving dehydrated and hungry,” says photojournalist Cheryl Diaz Meyer about what she witnessed in Bangladesh. “Many had been waiting on the Myanmar side for days, drinking sea water, and only eating rice. I saw women and children who simply fell unconscious.” Photo by CHERYL DIAZ MEYER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The Rohingya crisis is known to be the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis. The mass exodus ensued in August 2017 when Myanmar’s military carried out what they called “clearance operations,” which burned down villages and forcibly displaced the Rohingya people from their homes in the Rakhine State of Myanmar.

By October 2017, over 600,000 Rohingya people arrived in Bangladesh, carrying almost nothing but their desire to survive.

 “The main challenge in covering the Rohingya crisis was reaching the southernmost tip of Bangladesh where the Rohingya were landing by boat,” says Cheryl Diaz Meyer, a Filipino photojournalist who was in Teknaf, Bangladesh for two weeks to cover the plight of the most persecuted minority in the world.

“All of the refugees were arriving dehydrated and hungry. Many had been waiting on the Myanmar side for days, drinking sea water, and only eating rice. I saw women and children who simply fell unconscious,” she recalls. “Many were weeping, the children were crying, there were injured, [and] many of the feeble, aged or incapacitated were being carried in slings that two others would carry by stick on their shoulders.”

This scenario, Meyer explains, was just a small, perceptible part of the Rohingya’s more horrific experiences: refugees seeing their houses being firebombed, family members dying in burning homes, walking through jungles for weeks, and waiting in fear as Bangladeshi boat smugglers help them cross the waters.

Cheryl_Italy2 copy.jpg Cheryl Diaz Meyer, now based in the United States, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for her coverage of the war in Iraq. She also recently took home a total of five awards from the White House News Photographers Association’s “Eyes of History” contest for her coverage of the Rohingya crisis. Photo by CONCHITINA MIGUEL

“I was only getting about four hours of sleep each night, so it was wearing me very thin. I was with my translator almost always. He was my guide, my eyes, my ears. If I return, I will pace myself differently. But it was hard as the news was incredibly intense as continuous,” she says.

Meyer, now based in the United States, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for her coverage of the war in Iraq. She also recently took home a total of five awards from the White House News Photographers Association’s “Eyes of History” contest for her coverage of the Rohingya crisis.

CNN Philippines Life talked to Meyer through e-mail about her experiences in working on the Rohingya crisis, what she went through as a photojournalist in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as how she navigates emotions when covering the most unfortunate states of the human condition. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

Can you share how you were able to get access to the refugees and what the experience of covering their journey was like?

I was held in immigration for five hours for requesting a journalist visa upon arrival. I was eventually granted a visa and flew on to Cox’s Bazar, where a lot of NGOs were based. I had no contacts upon arrival because I left the US in such haste, so I needed to get acquainted with the situation on the ground, hire a translator, and determine a plan of action.

From Cox’s Bazar, I took a local bus to Teknaf, a small town about four hours away, but that was still another 45 minutes from ground zero of the refugee crossings. I stayed in a hotel in Teknaf, hired a local journalist as my translator/driver and we would ride his motorbike to the southern tip of Bangladesh to an area called Sabrang. At times, we’d take a local motorboat from Sabrang and meet the refugees in Chalpuridip. The weather was extremely hot and despite drinking as much water as possible, I often felt sick from the heat.

The refugees kept coming and coming — at that time in mid-October, over 1,000 a day … Families had been separated and parents were searching for children and spouses. It was utter chaos. And it was honestly, emotionally overwhelming not be lost in the sheer pain these people were experiencing. And all of this, after they had experienced the worst terror of their lives.

diazmeyer9.jpg The mass exodus ensued in August 2017 when Myanmar’s military carried out what they called “clearance operations,” which burned down villages and forcibly displaced the Rohingya people from their homes in the Rakhine State of Myanmar. Photo by CHERYL DIAZ MEYER

What were the challenges that you had to face while covering the Rohingya?

The main challenges in covering the Rohingya Crisis were the excessive heat, the lack of sanitary food, the mosquitoes, the suicidal drivers who liked to drive straight at each other until the very last moment on minuscule roads, and in Teknaf, power outages and no WiFi.

It was hard to transmit images, it was hard to conduct research with the power cutting in and out. The simple logistics of functioning day to day — much less trying to do work — was a constant battle.

On the upside, Bangladeshis are some of the loveliest people you will ever meet. They are friendly, helpful and genuinely kind. I could not have worked on that story if it had not been for some very good Samaritans who stepped in to help me.

How different was this experience from your coverage of Iraq or Afghanistan? On the other hand, were there any similarities?

The main difference between my coverage of the Rohingya Crisis and my previous coverage in Iraq and Afghanistan is that Bangladesh is not a war zone. I was not in fear for my life while I was covering this story. There were no bullets flying, no Myanmar army attacking the Rohingya on Bangladeshi soil. The Rohingya were arriving to a safe zone, and for the most part, were being welcomed by Bangladeshis.

Another notable difference from my previous experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan was the sheer number of refugees fleeing. I had never witnessed such a mass movement of people from one country to another. And they were in pitiful condition. They were carrying very few belongings, and only had the clothes on their backs, yet they moved forward with stoic determination.

diazmeyer8.jpg "I’ve always been drawn to women and children in conflict zones. They are usually the most vulnerable in any society under stress. As a mother myself, I empathize with how vulnerable one is when a little one is depending on you for everything," says Meyer on her affinity to photographing women in her work. Photo by CHERYL DIAZ MEYER

As with other experiences I’ve had with refugees who have survived much, many continued to smile despite tremendous adversity. The children are the most resilient, making toys of bottle tops or a simple piece of plastic, and ironically, it is they who would give me hope.

Finally, I had never seen a receiving country like Bangladesh so welcoming of refugees. So many people went to the camps on their own to distribute aid to refugees. Mullahs from all over the country would walk through the camps and distribute monetary aid directly to the needy. Bangladesh has its own internal political struggles, but it was the citizens who stepped in [to] assist.

You have an extensive coverage of women facing adversity across the globe. When taking photos of situations like the Rohingya crisis, I noticed that your subjects were mostly women and children. Was this deliberate and is this something that you always consider in your work?

I’ve always been drawn to women and children in conflict zones. They are usually the most vulnerable in any society under stress. As a mother myself, I empathize with how vulnerable one is when a little one is depending on you for everything. For the Rohingya who believe in large families, this usually means that mothers have multiple young ones fully dependent on them. So ripping one’s family out of their home, and running through forests for days in search of safety, is harrowing to say the least. As in most parts of the globe, men’s voices speak for everyone, but I strive to give an ear to the tiny voices, the voices that have been silenced, so we can better understand the world in ALL its complexity.

You see human suffering in some of their most dire states. Have you felt desensitized? How do you navigate around personal emotions when covering humans in a time of war or crisis?

I have witnessed a lot of suffering through my work as a photojournalist. And yes, sometimes I do try to turn off my emotions when working. At times, that is possible, while other times, I’m consumed by it. It’s a difficult thing to manage. But I’m no good as a storyteller if I’m unable to function. What good can I do for the victims of war, the refugees, if I cannot be their voice? I must stay strong when I’m covering these harrowing stories.

Simultaneously, I am human. And when it becomes too much, then I have learned to forgive myself, to allow myself to feel and process the emotions. We can only take so much before we overflow. The key is knowing how to be kind to oneself, even as each day I’m pushing and demanding higher and higher standards of myself.

diazmeyer7.jpg By October 2017, over 600,000 Rohingya people arrived in Bangladesh, carrying almost nothing but their desire to survive. Photo by CHERYL DIAZ MEYER

You've also covered the Philippines in the past. What was it like covering a country that you once called your home?

I’ve covered a few stories in the Philippines, namely the Abu Sayyaf in Mindanao, and a reporter and I tracked a couple of Filipino priests who had abused children in the US, but were allowed by their Bishops to return and hide in the Philippines to escape US authorities.

I do love working in the Philippines. There are different issues in how a journalist works in the Philippines, but for the most part, Filipinos welcome journalists. During the Abu Sayyaf assignment, I had the opportunity to work alongside my Filipino colleagues in the field, and they have the deadliest sense of humor. It’s one of the things I do miss about the culture. Filipinos may live a simple life, but we do love a good laugh. Even when things are dire. It all helps keep things in good perspective.

For the record, I still call the Philippines “home.”

diazmeyer4.jpg "The children are the most resilient, making toys of bottle tops or a simple piece of plastic, and ironically, it is they who would give me hope," says Meyer. Photo by CHERYL DIAZ MEYER

Is there a particular subject or situation now in the Philippines that interests you?   

Definitely. I think the Mayon Volcano’s current eruption and the aftermath of how the affected villages will recover are worth a long form narrative picture story. I think it’s fascinating that you have a volcano in the midst of a populated region, (Mt. Pinatubo is another), where people live decade after decade knowing that that the volcano will erupt. There are many families who call the volcano home, and don’t have another place to go. What will happen to them? How will the ash affect people living in the vicinity? I grew up on community journalism, and the Mayon’s eruption is screaming for good, old-fashioned storytelling with powerful visuals.

 

***

For more information on Meyer's work, visit her website.