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By Andrea Januta
(Reuters)

When a Rohingya refugee boat capsized on the Bangladesh coastline, photographer Damir Sagolj rushed to the scene and saw locals collecting the drowned and arranging their bodies next to the road

In the torrential night-time rain, the sheets that covered them clung to the bodies.

“You couldn’t see how many were under the sheets, but what I could see was that most were children,” Sagolj said.

 

AWARD WINNER: Pulitzer for Feature Photography
Rohingya refugees scramble for aid at a camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh September 24, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

 

The photo he captured was one of a series awarded the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography on Monday, described by the judging committee as “shocking photographs that exposed the world to the violence Rohingya refugees faced in fleeing Myanmar.”

The latest crackdown by authorities and Buddhist civilians against the Rohingya population in Myanmar’s Rakhine state created a mass exodus of over 600,000 Rohingya children, women and men who fled their homes at the end of 2017.

 

AWARD WINNER: Pulitzer for Feature Photography
Rohingya refugees try to take shelter from torrential rain as they are held by the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) after illegally crossing the border, in Teknaf, Bangladesh, August 31, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

 

The refugees have reported killings, rape and arson on a large scale, and senior United Nations officials have described the violence against the Muslim Rohingya population as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

Myanmar has denied ethnic cleansing or systematic human rights abuses, saying it waged a legitimate counter-insurgency operation. The army has said its crackdown was provoked by the attacks of Rohingya militants on more than two dozen police posts and an army base last August.

 

AWARD WINNER: Pulitzer for Feature Photography
Rohingya refugees cross the Naf River with an improvised raft to reach to Bangladesh in Teknaf, Bangladesh, November 12, 2017. Picture taken November 12, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

 

Reuters has covered the plight of the Rohingya since 2012, but in 2017 it became clear that the scale of this exodus was far larger than previous migrations.

For the next several months, a team of photographers, including Sagolj, Cathal McNaughton, Danish Siddiqui, Soe Zeya Tun, Adnan Abidi, Mohammad Ponir Hossain, and Hannah McKay, working under the direction of Asia Pictures Editor Ahmad Masood, documented the journeys of refugees by sea on rickety fishing boats and over land through barbed wire and along other routes.

 

AWARD WINNER: Pulitzer for Feature Photography
An exhausted Rohingya refugee fleeing violence in Myanmar cries for help from others crossing into Palang Khali, near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh November 2, 2017. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

 

They also visited refugee camps to tell the stories of the new lives the Rohingya built and the scars they brought with them.

While the size of camps expanded, one thing that never changed was the stories the refugees brought with them.

“The same horror stories of killings and rape and massacres that we were hearing when the first refugees started crossing in August and September, the exact same – if not worse – stories were being told three months after that,” Sagolj said.

 

 

Even as the team captured images of the refugees at their most vulnerable – mourning mothers, scarred children, survivors of violent attacks – the journalists found that the refugees were surprisingly open. The photographers experienced almost no resistance from refugees as they photographed the refugees and asked about their experiences.

“I had the impression that these people want everybody to know what happens to them,” Sagolj said. “They all really wanted their story to be told.”

 

(Reporting by Andrea Januta, Editing by Leela de Kretser and William Maclean)

 

AWARD WINNER: Pulitzer for Feature Photography
Rohingya refugee children fly improvised kites at the Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh December 10, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

 

AWARD WINNER: Pulitzer for Feature Photography
Smoke is seen on the Myanmar border as Rohingya refugees walk on the shore after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border by boat through the Bay of Bengal, in Shah Porir Dwip, Bangladesh September 11, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

 

AWARD WINNER: Pulitzer for Feature Photography
Bodies of Rohingya refugees, who died when their boat capsized while fleeing Myanmar, are placed in a local madrasa in Shah Porir Dwip, in Teknaf, near Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, October 9, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

 

AWARD WINNER: Pulitzer for Feature Photography
People gather under heavy rain around bodies of Rohingya refugees after the boat they were using to flee violence in Myanmar capsized off Inani Beach near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh September 28, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

 

AWARD WINNER: Pulitzer for Feature Photography
Betel leaves cover the face of 11-month-old Rohingya refugee Abdul Aziz whose wrapped body lay in his family shelter after he died battling high fever and severe cough at the Balukhali refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, December 4, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

 

AWARD WINNER: Pulitzer for Feature Photography
Rohingya refugees are reflected in rain water along an embankment next to paddy fields after fleeing from Myanmar into Palang Khali, near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh November 2, 2017. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

 

AWARD WINNER: Pulitzer for Feature Photography
An exhausted Rohingya refugee woman touches the shore after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border by boat through the Bay of Bengal, in Shah Porir Dwip, Bangladesh September 11, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

 

AWARD WINNER: Pulitzer for Feature Photography
The remains of a burned Rohingya village is seen in this aerial photograph near Maungdaw, north of Rakhine State, Myanmar September 27, 2017. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

 

AWARD WINNER: Pulitzer for Feature Photography
Mohammed Shoaib, 7, who was shot in his chest before crossing the border from Myanmar in August, is held by his father outside a medical centre near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

 

AWARD WINNER: Pulitzer for Feature Photography
A security officer attempts to control Rohingya refugees waiting to receive aid in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton