“You are there trying to do your job with a camera in your hand. And then your heart overrules your head.”
Palong Khali, Bangladesh: Hannah McKay was on her first foreign assignment, just three months after joining Reuters, photographing Rohingya Muslims in refugee camps in Bangladesh. Then she and other photographers heard around 5,000 more people were heading to the area, trying to find their way across the border from neighbouring Myanmar. Here is her account of what happened next:
“We were standing, looking out over paddy fields and grasslands – lots of water and one thin path leading to the border with Myanmar.
“In the distance we could see a huge group of people. But they weren’t moving. It was 4 o’clock in the afternoon with only two hours left of daylight. So we decided to move towards them.
“It took us about an hour along the muddy path, meeting border guards and persuading them to let us pass. Then we saw thousands of refugees just sitting there, with more Bangladeshi border guards telling us to go back.
“We could see something was going on behind the crowd. So we waited for an opportunity to move closer, and that’s when we saw them.
“The crowd was sitting on a riverbank and behind them, about three metres below, in the river itself, there were just hundreds of refugees coming across every minute. It was non-stop. There was no end to the people. People carrying babies. Elderly people being escorted through the water and mud, more than knee-deep. And we were just photographing everyone coming towards us.
“Then this woman appeared. She got to the point where she needed to get up to the footpath where we were. But she was just exhausted. She didn’t have anything left to get herself up. Two refugee men on her level were trying to push her up, which was when we reached out to help. Another Reuters photographer, Adnan Abidi, took a hand. Another photographer took another and I got her leg when she got within range. It was a case of dragging her.
“She lay there for a few minutes and then, I have no idea what happened to her. There were so many people around and it was chaos.
“We decided to get down into the river to get a different view. And it was so difficult – even for us who had some energy to spare. All the people around us had been walking for days. When I got back to the bank, I found I had nothing to hold onto, with two cameras weighing me down. That’s when two refugee men reached out with their hands and pulled me on to the bank. I kept saying ‘Thank You’, but they didn’t understand.
“It was overwhelming and made me think of the woman we had pulled out.
“You are there trying to do your job with a camera in your hand. And then your heart overrules your head. I had been in the camps, where everything was quite settled. But then I saw the real chaos and the refugees’ desperate situation. You hear about it. But seeing it is a completely different thing.”