Best of AP — First Winner


Myanmar attacks, sea voyage rob young father of everything

In this Sept. 30, 2017, photo tears roll down the cheeks of Rohingya man Alam Jafar as he recounts the story of his journey from Myanmar to Bangladesh, at a transit shelter at Kutupalong camp for newly arrived Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. In Myanmar, the 25-year-old farmer owned a verdant rice field, a boat that ferried passengers up and down the river and lived in a four-room house made of wood and bamboo surrounded by coconut and mango trees. When the mob came to his village on Sept. 25, Jafar had no choice but to flee with his wife and three children. The boat they were traveling on capsized on Sept. 28 and left him as the sole survivor in a family of 5. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)


Asia’s worst refugee crisis in decades is a tragedy of epic proportions as more than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled state-led violence.

Beyond the enormous scope of the exodus are the individual harrowing stories of life, death and the struggle for survival. Reporter Todd Pitman and photographer Gemunu Amarasinghe from Bangkok, videojournalist Rishabh Jain from Delhi and photographer Dar Yasin from Kashmir teamed up to produce a riveting package that reconstructed the heartbreaking journey of one Rohingya man and his family from Myanmar to Bangladesh.

Their package earns the Beat of the Week.

Pitman and the others focused on Alam Jafar,the sole survivor of an ill-fated 18-hour sea journey in which his wife,newborn twins and 7-year-old son died when their overcrowded boat capsized during a ferocious monsoon. With poignant detail, Pitman’s story captures Jafar’s agony as he recalls how his 7-year-old son pleaded “Papa! Papa! Help Me!” as the boy flailed in the water,gasping for breath.

The team was connected to Jafar,the only survivor in his immediate family,through a translator, a Bangladeshi journalist Pitman had met through a series of contacts. Pitman was working on other stories when his editors asked him to focus on the capsizing of the boat that had left about 60 dead.

The translator knew there were 17 survivors in one place in a camp called Kutapalong. They happened to be right next to some friends of the translator who live there.

Pitman spoke with Jafar an entire day and they still hadn’t reached the part where the family boarded the boat – he needed four days of interviews to capture Jafar’s entire story.

They reached the survivors on a Saturday and did some brief interviews in a tiny classroom of a school that had turned into a temporary transit shelter for newly arrived Rohingya refugees. After Jafar told them he had lost his wife and three children,Pitman asked if he’d be willing to speak in-depth and to answer lengthy,detailed questions,such as who said what at any given moment.

Pitman explained it’s important for people to know what is happening to the Rohingya and an intimate story like this is one way to do that. It was a painstaking, emotional process. Pitman spoke with Jafar an entire day and they still hadn’t reached the part where the family had gotten on the boat.

It took four days of interviews for Pitman to capture Jafar’s entire story. Jain and Yasin also conducted interviews with Jafar and others later to check on facts and get additional detail. There were times when Jafar was just too mentally exhausted to speak.

Another big obstacle was verifying what Jafar said. Pitman checked with other survivors and witnesses to verify just about every main fact in the story of what happened to the boat, what the waves and weather was like and what the boatmen said. It took 30 minutes just to verify the name of the beach they all left from. And even verifying the name of the village Jafar came from took time. These village names don’t appear on any map.

The entire team had to be sensitive to the horror that Jafar had experienced – knowing when to step back and when to offer a comforting word.

Before Jain got Jafar on camera,he sat down with him for an hour-long chat. This not only helped him get some of the timeline questions out of the way,but it was an opportunity to build a personal connection before he went behind the camera. When Jafar burst into tears during one conversation,Jain leaned in and held his hand until he stopped crying.

Amarasinghe spent two days documenting the refugees at the school, trying to figure out what to do with a group of people who just sat on the ground doing nothing but staring at the roof.

He started to take portraits of survivors initially to break the ice using the blue door of the classroom as the backdrop. He followed them in the few occasions when they left the classroom but mostly waited patiently for something to happen.

He discovered the mood of the fellow survivors changed when they were reunited with the group who’d been released from hospitals. Tears rolled down their cheeks. There were almost silent weeping when they recounted the stories of their journey

Along with the others on the AP team, Yasin was concerned about whether his questions would reopen wounds that had only just begun to heal.

A woman who lost three children kept touching the screen of Yasin’s laptop, then kissed her hand as if she was kissing her dead children.

One day when Jafar was not in his shelter,Yasin talked to his relatives and a few others who were living in the same area of the refugee camps. One woman approached and asked if he was the guy who’d shot the pictures of dead bodies on the day their boat capsized. When he confirmed he was,she asked to see those photos,explaining she’d lost her three children and didn’t even get to see their faces one last time because she was recovering in the hospital while they were buried.

She told Yasin if he showed her the pictures she would always be in his debt for providing her the last glimpses of her three children. He returned the next day with his laptop to show her the photos. With tears in her eyes,she kept touching the screen of his laptop, then kissed her hand as if she was kissing her dead children.

“For me,showing her those pictures will always haunt me for the rest of my life,” Yasin says.

For their compassionate retelling of this tragic story,Pitman,Amarasinghe, Jain and Yasin share this week’s $500 prize.

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