In Spring 2011, I travelled as a staff photographer for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to the Caucasus. This part of the world is little known. But because of the work of the ICRC I was able to visit and photograph people and places that we don’t hear much about, much less see.
My journey into South Ossetia began down a long dark guarded tunnel cut through the Greater Caucasus Mountains. Since the August 2008 hostilities, it is the only way in and the only way out. Beyond the tunnel, destroyed villages line the road leading to Tskhinval/Tskhinvali, the capital of a contested land recognized as a country by a handful of states. There are an estimated thirty thousand people remaining in South Ossetia. The most vulnerable are the elderly living scattered in destroyed and abandoned villages. They are poor, helpless and often alone. In South Ossetia the ICRC is the only international humanitarian organization providing these people with food, and other assistance.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the North Caucasus has been marked by bloodshed and insecurity. Over the past few years, this region of the Russian Federation has seen a spiralling of violence between members of armed opposition groups and local and federal authorities. Today the life of the population in the North Caucasus is still affected by frequent security incidents.
In Ingushetia I met people who had fled fighting in Chechnya and North Ossetia years ago. Yet they continue to live in derelict collective centres for displaced people, some of them since the early 1990's. They have little choice but to call decrepit temporary shelters home. Here elderly people are either too poor to return home or have nothing to go back to. The young have little or no opportunity to find work.
In the neighbouring Chechen Republic I saw Grozny, its capital, undergoing a massive facelift. New buildings rose from the rubble in a frenzy of construction financed in large part by Moscow. Bullet and bomb scarred walls were quickly being covered over in an effort to leave the dark past of two bloody conflicts behind. Notwithstanding the reconstruction efforts, long-lasting humanitarian consequences of past conflicts will be felt for years to come. A striking example is the problem of the missing. The authorities speak of about 700 missing security services and military personnel. In addition, the ICRC has over 2300 registered cases of missing people but has so far been unable to provide families with any answers as to the fate of their missing loved ones.
Over the past few years, as regularly reported in the local and national press but less so in international media, hundreds of people have been being killed, wounded and detained. In Dagestan I met with families who have lost their breadwinner to armed violence. The ICRC supports the most vulnerable among these families. For instance, it provides families of detainees with a means to start their own small businesses and helps family members to visit their detained relative, some of whom are held thousands of kilometres away. The ICRC itself visited people detained in relation with the situation in the North Caucasus between 1999 and 2004.
My journey ended in a small town in North Ossetia called Beslan, in a school gymnasium turned shrine in memory of hundreds of innocent children and adults who were killed during a hostage crisis in September 2004. The portraits of victims hang on scorched walls amongst candles and flowers. Handwritten epitaphs from friends, family and schoolmates adorn the same walls.
It’s impossible to adequately distil all these places, people, stories and tragedies into a single idea or conclusion, much less into a photo. But I am reminded of one unlikely image – it’s of a brick wall in Grozny with a faded message spray-painted on it. I was told that it dates back to the war years in the 1990’s when it was not uncommon for people to write on their homes in the hope that they would be spared. The message is as pertinent today as it was then. It pleads with those fighting to protect the innocent sheltered behind the wall and reminds the rest of us not to forget these people and their troubles. It’s a quiet cry for help. It reads, “people live here”.