The Washington Post has 17 foreign bureaus staffed with correspondents covering war, terrorism, big-power politics and refugee crises. But it's often the small moments, the intimate encounters with people at the heart of these stories, that prove the most memorable. We asked our correspondents to reflect on the stories that meant the most to them this year. Here's what they said:
'I was on the beach at 4 a.m. each day, binoculars in hand.'
Griff Witte, London bureau chief
I visited the Greek island of Lesbos half a dozen times between the summer of 2015 and the spring of 2016. Each time the situation was completely different. On my first visit, as the number of refugee arrivals was just beginning to spike, I was on the beach at 4 a.m. each day, binoculars in hand. On my third day, I saw my first boat — a flimsy little dinghy that nearly capsized as its cargo of 49 people careened into shore.
The next time I visited, just over a month later, I stepped on the beach and scoured the horizon. There were 10 rafts on the water, each marked by blotches of life-vest orange that transformed into individual men, women and children as the craft drifted closer to shore. Luckily, the surge in refugees had been accompanied by a surge of volunteers from across Europe, all ready to welcome the new arrivals.
By the time I came back for this story in March, however, the mood in Europe had shifted. Most of the volunteers were gone, as was the warm welcome. Instead, Europe was threatening to send people back across the sea. Just weeks after this story was written, I watched from shore as authorities did exactly that.
'There were so many names to write down, so many details of short lives.'
Liz Sly, Beirut bureau chief
In April I reported a story that will haunt me for a lifetime. Brief news agency reports had said that an Islamic State suicide bombing at a soccer stadium south of Baghdad had killed around 30 people, some of them children. That was all. Even for Iraq, it was just another bombing. The international news media was consumed at the time by the attack on the Brussels airport, but I decided to go report on the Iraqi bombing.
I did not expect what I found. This was not a regular soccer match that had been bombed, but a children’s game, an under-15 tournament in a village. The spectators and the players were children. So were 29 of the 43 dead. The bomber also was a child. In a tiny community, almost every home had lost a son. The weight of the grief was beyond comprehension.
In some ways it was the easiest story I have ever reported. The names and photos of the dead boys were emblazoned on a wall beside the spot where they died. No digging was required to find their families. All we had to do was walk among the houses nearby. Parents too stunned to speak served tea. We drank so much tea. There were so many names to write down, so many details of short lives. All of the boys had been passionate about soccer, had dreamed of becoming stars. Later, I had to unscramble which of them had supported Barcelona, which ones Real Madrid. Now, whenever I catch sight of one of those teams playing on the TV, my heart tugs.
'They were on their way to harvest caterpillar fungus.'
Simon Denyer, Beijing bureau chief
It was July on the Himalayan plateau. We had just crossed a snowy pass high in the mountains when a family rode past on their motorbike: a father and three children. The man wore a cowboy hat, his children woolly hats or baseball caps, and everyone had a trowel stuffed into their belts and cloaks. They were on their way to harvest caterpillar fungus, a strange hybrid species worth its weight in gold, much in demand in China for its health-giving and aphrodisiac properties. We joined them as they combed the grassy mountain slopes, eyes peeled for the telltale stalks that revealed the presence of this unique Tibetan mushroom, buried just beneath the soil.
As the day wore on, we chatted about their lives and their culture. A sacred, snowy mountain dominated the skyline, lines of Tibetans crossed the slopes on the same quest, and, high above us, a herd of yaks grazed, black dots on the high slopes.
'I wanted to shine a light on the things these women go through.'
Anna Fifield, Tokyo bureau chief
This was a heart-wrenching story to write. I spent several days in Vientiane, Laos, with four women who had escaped from North Korea and then escaped again from China, and were on their way to freedom. Hundreds or thousands of women live in the shadows in China, in constant fear of being repatriated to North Korea — where they would face harsh punishment. They live in terrible circumstances in the meantime. I wanted to shine a light on the things these women go through and the perilous journey they have to make to escape.
But it was personally moving, too. One of the women, Ms. Suh, had an 18-month-old daughter who was with them. The girl, Ji-yeon, didn’t have a single toy. While I was talking to her mom, she drew with my pens and highlighters in one of my notebooks. Afterward, I bought her a soft teddy bear. I’m a mom too, and I couldn’t stand the thought of this little girl not having anything to play with. She was delighted.
I was due to meet the women again in Bangkok, but after they crossed the Mekong river into Thailand, they got caught by the police. The mom sent our intermediary photos of them in the prison van and then in the jail — and there was Ji-yeon, holding the teddy bear.
'This article reminded me why I got into journalism.'
Michael Birnbaum, Brussels bureau chief
When you live in Russia, you constantly hear about President Vladimir Putin’s approval rating. The Kremlin keeps a close eye on it and does everything possible to keep it sky-high. Some people even argue the concern over the president's popularity amounts to a crude form of democracy, even if choices don’t happen at the ballot box but instead with pollsters' questionnaires. So I wanted to see how polling agencies actually did their surveys. One state-owned polling group let me tag along with a pollster on a freezing morning as she knocked on doors across a vast Soviet-era apartment complex.
The verdict? Putin is really popular, even if Russians are worried about the price of groceries and drugs, corrupt local officials and the lack of opportunities for the future. But almost everyone we met held Putin above politics, as though he has transcended workaday concerns and transformed himself into a symbol of the state. For a lot of people, asking whether they liked Putin seemed to be like asking whether they liked Russia itself. Reporting this article reminded me why I got into journalism.
'This young man could not comprehend that he had come this far only to be turned away.'
Anthony Faiola, Berlin bureau chief
This is not my most widely read piece this year, and probably not the most impactful. But as a journalist who values giving voice to the voiceless, I felt this story about asylum seekers stuck in Greece because of Europe’s decision to shut its doors captured the high human cost of the policy.
Greece's prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, calls his country a “warehouse of souls” stranded in migrant camps. I most clearly recall a young Afghan economics professor, a 29-year-old struggling to keep up appearances with his pristine shirt and spotless sweater despite his squalid surroundings. He was gentle, shy and genuinely confused. This young man could not comprehend that he had come this far only to be turned away. He seemed to sincerely fear for his life if he returned to Afghanistan because of his pro-American leanings, which could make him a target in a nation battling Taliban insurgents.
We so often write about political decisions on the international stage. I’d like to think this piece managed in some small way to illustrate the toll these decisions can take on the lives of individuals and families.
'It took months to find the right case.'
Annie Gowen, India bureau chief
I tried for over a year to write about village councils in India that often administer their own brand of vigilante justice outside the criminal justice system.
It took months to find the right case. Some people lied. Finally, I found a case where the proof was irrefutable: A local activist had a cellphone video of a village council member beating a teen after learning she had been raped by her father. The council members blamed the young woman for the attack and berated her for not quickly reporting it. It broke my heart when she told us she thought she deserved the beating.
'His highest duty was to protect his men and his country.'
Loveday Morris, Baghdad bureau chief
I first met Col. Ihab Hashem al-Araji back in early 2014, he’d been injured in an Islamic State car bomb and gave a candid critique of the disarray in the Iraqi army at the time. He described in painstaking detail disastrous missions in western Iraq. A few months later the army spectacularly collapsed in Mosul.
After that he always seemed to be in the thick of the fighting against Islamic State. I often wondered how he was still alive after so many near misses.
I had been planning to talk to him for this story that looked at the progress of the Iraqi armed forces, but Ihab was killed in battles near Fallujah as I was reporting it.
His family and colleagues said that before he died he had requested a tank from the Defense Ministry, but had been asked for a $2,000 bribe to secure it. It was exactly the kind of incident that he’d never shied from highlighting, saying his highest duty was to protect his men and his country.
'They were amazed at how green Israel looked compared to the parched Gaza Strip.'
William Booth, Jerusalem bureau chief
This was a quiet little story, just a glimpse into the life of the Palestinians who live in the Gaza Strip. But it took us months to set up. We needed to coordinate with the Israeli military, which canceled several trips. My friend, our Gaza stringer and translator, Hazem Balousha, needed permission from Israeli security to enter Israel. He had to coordinate with the Palestinian Authority, too, to get on a bus. Hamas had to at least nod its approval.
Once aboard the bus, the elderly Palestinians were warm and forthcoming about what it meant for them to see Jerusalem and Al Aqsa mosque again after so many years. I will always remember how they were amazed at how green Israel looked compared to the parched Gaza Strip.
'She was candid, articulate and also fascinatingly alien.'
Nick Miroff, Latin America correspondent
Back in September, I spent a couple days with Yurluey Mendoza, a guerrilla with the leftist FARC movement, who has been fighting in Colombia's jungles for the past 20 years. She was candid, articulate and also fascinatingly alien, like someone rescued from a desert island. Yurluey made a powerful impression on me, and she was the first person I thought about when Colombian voters rejected their government's peace deal with the FARC a few weeks after our encounter. Yurluey was looking forward to peace. She was physically and mentally tired of the war, and had multiple injuries and battle scars from her years in combat.
I wonder what she would do next, and what she might be thinking. But of course I couldn't pick up the phone to give her a call.
I suppose she's still in the lurch like everyone in Colombia now. The government has salvaged its peace deal with the FARC by winning approval in Colombia's congress. But for now Yurluey and the FARC's other 6,000 or so fighters are still in the jungles, waiting for lawmakers to approve the amnesty law that would afford them the legal protections they want before they begin laying down their weapons. When that happens, I'd like to find Yurluey again, and see how she's coping with life after war.
'We loved seeing the United States through their eyes. Readers did, too.'
Emily Rauhala, Beijing-based correspondent
In an otherwise brutal year, my colleague Xu Yangjingjing and I had the pleasure of writing about Chen Aiwu, 64, and her husband, Wang Dongsheng, 66, Chinese retirees who won hearts on their epic American road trip.
So often, the story of U.S.-China relations is told at a distance with spokesmen for the State Department and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in starring roles. There is so much more to the relationship — as Chen and Wang's journey shows.
We loved seeing the United States through their eyes. Readers did, too. Many of you wrote to say how nice it was to read their story, a rare bit of “good” foreign news.
'It’s often difficult to put the ongoing suffering into context.'
Erin Cunningham, Istanbul-based correspondent
Afghanistan’s story for the past few decades has largely been one of conflict and displacement, so it’s often difficult to put the ongoing suffering into context or to explain to readers why it matters. But that does not mean we should shy away from covering the war, particularly as the U.S. military scales back its presence and support.
What was important for me in covering this new wave of displacement was the ability to at least partially access the story, in a country where that has become increasingly difficult — if not impossible — due to rising threats to civilians and journalists. My colleague Sayed Salahuddin and I were able to meet displaced Afghans face-to-face, observe the conditions they were living in, and document the effort to assist new refugees crossing the Afghan border. Because of this, and accompanying images from photographer Andrew Quilty, our story ran on the front page, bringing attention to an important but underreported crisis.
'At no point did any of the mothers or relatives caring for these infants express anything other than love.'
Dom Phillips, Rio de Janeiro-based correspondent
We were among the first foreign media to go to Recife to report on Brazil’s microcephaly outbreak, linked to the Zika virus. It was both emotional and inspiring to meet the generally low-income families struggling to deal with a daunting new reality — that their newborn babies were disabled. And yet at no point did any of the mothers or relatives caring for these infants express anything other than love and a determination to deal with the challenge. That’s something that Lianne Milton was able to capture in her remarkable photos.
Recife, a big, noisy city in Brazil’s northeast, felt like it was on alert, with troops checking houses for stagnant water. Many of the people we talked to had caught one of three related mosquito-borne diseases that are hard to distinguish between — Zika, dengue and chikungunya — or had friends or relatives who had. Brazil’s microcephaly outbreak is a story we have returned to again and again. And with scientists and researchers still trying to understand why so much of this rare birth defect is concentrated in a limited area of northeast Brazil, it's a story that is likely to continue.
'It was a current affairs event that always fascinated me as a child.'
Ruth Eglash, correspondent based in Jerusalem
Having the opportunity to accompany Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Entebbe, Uganda, this past summer was certainly one highlight of 2016. That was not only because it was a chance to visit Africa and be able to record the Israeli leader’s emotional recollection of the brother he lost during Israel’s dramatic hostage rescue operation there in 1976, but because it was a current affairs event that always fascinated me as a child.
Before the trip, I had the chance to meet with some of the former hostages. Like me, they were children at the time an Air France jet was hijacked by German and Palestinian terrorists — but they actually lived through the nightmare. One of their stories will always stay with me, that of Anat Brodesky Charniak. One minute she was in the terminal building, she recalled — the next, Israeli special forces burst in. Being only six at the time however, what was her most vivid concern? That she did not have time to put on her shoes.
'I was fascinated to see the way the entire country stopped for a night.'
Karla Adam, London-based correspondent
As a native Canadian, I pitched this story about a quintessentially Canadian event. I should mention that I live in London and don’t normally write about Canada. But in the lead up to the event, whenever I bumped into someone from my native land, we ended up chatting about this — always a sign there could a story there.
It’s a story about Gord Downie, the lead singer of the Tragically Hip and Canada’s unofficial poet laureate. He is dying and the band gave one last concert. I was fascinated to see the way the entire country stopped for a night — this seldom happens, barring a major hockey game — and I wanted to explore why this band, which never really caught on in the United States, meant so much to Canadians.
'This young lower-caste woman is embracing the oldest and most dreaded caste-slur in India.'
Rama Lakshmi, India-based correspondent
I like this story because this young lower-caste woman is embracing the oldest and most dreaded caste-slur in India, turning it into a point of pride in her hit rap song. It is a very important moment of empowerment and aggressive self-pride for members of the Dalit group, who were called the “untouchables” for centuries.
What was especially interesting was the way the “Chamar Pride” songs are mirroring the “Black Pride” narrative in the United States. Ginni Mahi's embrace of the “chamar” word resembles the manner in which African American singers have used the “n-word.”
'The mood in my home town foreshadowed much uglier things to come.'
Rick Noack, London-based writer
When the influx of refugees into Germany started to take on unprecedented dimensions in summer 2015, I happened to be in my home town, Dresden, in the east of the country. That city had become the center of Germany's anti-immigration movement, Pegida.
Whereas hundreds of people welcomed refugees at Munich's central train station and applauded their arrival, residents of Dresden appeared more suspicious. The mood in my hometown foreshadowed much uglier things to come: arson attacks on asylum seekers' homes and violent protests. Months later, German authorities warned of a “climate of fear.”
Refugees I spoke to in fall 2015 said they felt unwelcome in some parts of Germany but were thankful to Chancellor Angela Merkel for allowing them into the country. It was around that time that my editor, Tiffany Harness, suggested that I follow six refugees as they tried to navigate their way through their first few months in the country. During that time, terrorist attacks shocked the country and the continent, and far-right movements across the world gained momentum. Germany has changed since the summer of 2015.
The six profiles I published in September along with Hani Zaitoun — a Syrian refugee himself — are only a snapshot of the refugee surge. But their accounts are worth considering amid the ongoing debate on immigration, in which we often miss the voices of those most affected by it.