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Sky News cameraman Martin Smith insists his risk-taking days are over

The award-winning Sky News cameraman tells Ivan Little how his week's work experience as a teenager with Rose Neill, then of BBC NI, left him in no doubt what he wanted to do for a living

Martin Smith’s pictures of the Rohingya exodus won a BAFTA
Martin Smith’s pictures of the Rohingya exodus won a BAFTA
Rose Neill
Alex Crawford
Martin Smith’s horrifying images of Rohingya refugees in Myanmar, filmed on his camera with night vision
Martin Smith’s horrifying images of Rohingya refugees in Myanmar, filmed on his camera with night vision
Martin Smith’s horrifying images of Rohingya refugees in Myanmar, filmed on his camera with night vision
Martin Smith’s horrifying images of Rohingya refugees in Myanmar, filmed on his camera with night vision

Cameraman Martin Smith's deeply disturbing pictures of hundreds of gaunt and terrorised Rohingya refugees desperately pleading with outstretched arms for help on that far-off beach re-wrote history.

For until the Sky News operative from Co Down shot the shocking images of emaciated men, women and newborn babies trapped in the hell of Myanmar late last year, people didn't know for sure that the stories coming out of what was formerly Burma were true.

But Martin's harrowing images and correspondent Alex Crawford's emotionally-charged report were the first independent evidence from Rakhine State to confirm for all the world to see the veracity of claims about the nightmarish inhumanity that thousands of stranded Rohingya Muslims were suffering from a brutal crackdown on them by Myanmar's mainly Buddhist government.

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas, described by Amnesty International as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world, were driven from their homes in a sustained campaign of ethnic cleansing.

And hundreds died trying to make the perilous sea journey to Bangladesh where, if they survived, they weren't made particularly welcome either.

In Myanmar, refugees were left to die on the beaches by the country's army who planted landmines behind the Rohingyas, effectively leaving them with nowhere to go.

But the authorities in Myanmar repeatedly denied the allegations about the refugees, seemingly safe in the knowledge that no outsiders were going to get into their country to prove them wrong.

However, the government reckoned without Sky News. Reporter Crawford, cameraman Smith and producer Neville Lazarus took their lives in their hands by travelling to Myanmar under the cover of darkness to film their moving dispatch which recently won them a BAFTA, despite stiff competition from reports about Syria and the Grenfell fire disaster.

Modest Martin, whose first sortie into the news business was on work experience as a Newcastle schoolboy shadowing Rose Neill in her BBC NI days, clearly isn't comfortable in the big picture, preferring to let his footage from Myanmar do the talking.

Seven years ago Martin and Alex Crawford were also honoured in the annual Bayeux Calvados awards in France for war correspondents.

The gongs were for reports about fighting in the besieged town of Zawiya in Libya and Crawford was to describe the battle there as the 'most traumatic day of her life' as civilians picked up whatever weapons they could lay their hands on to defend themselves against the forces of Colonel Gaddafi.

The awards are a source of pride for Martin but he stressed that news reports, including the one from Myanmar, were team efforts.

"Many other people played crucial roles in enabling us to tell the world what was really happening in Myanmar," says Martin (52).

Getting into the country in the first place took patience and a huge level of commitment from Martin and his colleagues.

"We were waiting on the ground in Bangladesh for days trying to find a boatman who would take us across the treacherous waters to the beaches where we were told the refugees were," said Martin.

"Our producer, who's based in Delhi, and local fixers eventually found a boat man who was prepared to take the risks presented by the sea and the potential dangers posed by the army in Myanmar who are renowned for their rough justice."

It really was a journey into the unknown for Martin, a non-swimmer who doesn't like the water.

And what he saw in the first few minutes on board the boat didn't do much to ease his fears as he watched one of the crew bailing out water.

Arriving in Myanmar the Sky team's boat was guided onto the beach by flashing lights from torches. The news crew could only hope that the army weren't watching their every move too.

But what the intrepid journalists discovered among the Rohingyas after they waded ashore was even worse than they could have imagined.

Martin was the only one of the team who could actually see what was unfolding. The journey had been made in complete darkness but the night vision on his camera made things clear to him. It also added to the horror of the scenes that Martin captured.

He says: "The people I was filming had no idea I was there because they couldn't see me and their reactions were totally genuine.

"The image the night vision gives is quite haunting in itself. The way the camera reproduces that on top of what was already a haunting scene magnified the whole enormity of what was happening."

Normally TV cameramen try to detach themselves from what they're filming.

But for Martin, Myanmar ripped up the rule book as he saw hundreds of hungry and frightened people in front of him, all of them desperate to get away from their deadly entrapment.

"It was a harrowing sight which was at times like something you might have seen at Auschwitz," says Martin, whose colleague Alex Crawford was able to put her first finger and thumb around the wrist of one skeletal old woman who was close to collapse.

"The woman's legs and arms were just skin and bones. How she survived to that point was remarkable," he adds.

After completing the filming on the beach, the thoughts of the boat and TV crews turned to rescuing some of the people on the beach on the return trip to Bangladesh.

Martin says: "The captain of the boat wanted to get as many people on board as possible. But the fear was that his vessel could be overwhelmed and overturned if there was a stampede of refugees."

Twenty people had been killed just a few days earlier in a rescue mission after a boat capsized just short of Bangladesh.

In the end the number of refugees who clambered on to Martin's boat was high but because many of the people were so thin and there were so many babies there, the physical weight on board wasn't unduly heavy.

A freak wave hit Martin's camera as he climbed on to the boat and his viewfinder went black so he didn't know if he was recording or not. But he was.

The frail and elderly woman Martin had filmed on the beach was carried on to the boat but the cameraman and the correspondent thought she might not make it to Bangladesh. But she did.

Neither Alex nor Martin fully appreciated what they'd recorded on the beach until they viewed the pictures during the preliminary editing process.

He says: "I initially told my bosses in London that I thought the images were powerful but it wasn't until we started to edit that we realised that the footage was staggering and more to the point it was the proof that the Myanmar government and military had been lying and that there was a genocide going on."

A Sky team have just returned from another visit to another part of Myanmar and Martin said they discovered that Christians were now being wiped out by the Burmese army too.

"There are still people trapped on the beaches because no one is going to stand up to the government and military. And the question that I keep coming back to is why the aid agencies can't do what we did - and travel in on bigger boats and bring refugees out when it's dark," adds Martin, who has literally travelled the world as a Sky cameraman but who has been a casualty of conflict himself.

In Syria he was filming the battle against Islamic State extremists in Raqqa when he lost 90% of his hearing in one ear as a result of a number of the explosions he was filming.

"We were in a hospital just as Raqqa was falling. Kurdish rebels were fighting ISIS who were holed up in the building. A weapon was fired inside the hospital that should have been fired in a field and that's how I lost the hearing in my ear," says Martin, who decided that it was time to stay away from the frontlines covering conflict.

He adds: "I know things like that happen but I didn't want to take that risk any longer. So I'm going back next month to London to work on general news."

Which will bring his career with Sky full circle. For covering news is where it all started for the man from the Mournes who always dreamt of a life behind the lens.

He said: "I was obsessed with photography from an early age. And the week I spent in the BBC in Belfast on work experience with Rose Neill, (inset) made an impression on me. Something went into my blood and I just couldn't let go.

"When I was doing my O-levels at school, I was glued to the TV because the Falklands war had started and I thought that going there to record those pictures and tell that story would be brilliant.

"After I left school, I spent a year in the Down Recorder newspaper as a trainee photographer but I knew I wanted more excitement on TV news."

Martin returned to college to study physics and photography to increase his chances of becoming a cameraman and he later worked in the audio-visual unit of Queen's University, Belfast, before he got his big chance with Sky 26 years ago.

"I was in London for 18 years and in Dubai during the Arab Spring before being based in Los Angeles for four years. And now I'm in the bureau in Istanbul," says Martin, who also worked back home in Northern Ireland during the difficult years when the Drumcree dispute was ongoing.

"I was in and out of the province working with reporters like Gary Honeyford and David Blevins, and it gave me the opportunity to get back home to Newcastle."

Belfast Telegraph


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