The war in Chechnya has the dubious distinction of being Europe’s longest running conflict. In August I travelled to the war torn republics of both Chechnya and Ingushetia with the Danish Refugee council (DRC) to photograph internally displaced people (IDPs), who have fled the conflict; and to see how the security situation in the region has improved, if at all.
I flew into the North Ossetian Capital, Vladikavkaz, far later than expected, as the flight had initially been turned back to Moscow, due to engine failure, which is not at all uncommon when flying domestic routes in Russia. I was the only foreigner listed of the souls onboard and many of the passengers, mostly Russian, regarded me inquisitively. An elderly woman from Vladikavkaz, who was returning home, having visited her daughter in Moscow, asked me where I was from and why I was going to the north Caucasus. I explained to her that I was going to Ingushetia and Chechnya to take photographs. “Why on earth do you want to go there?!” she said, “It’s such a horrible place”. I was asked this question many times throughout my visit.
As we descended into Vladikavkaz, I peered through my window and could just make out the faint line of the Caucasus Mountains through the haze. Some of the higher peaks were still peppered with snow from the last winter. Once we had landed, the doors were opened and I was overcome by just how hot it was. The mid afternoon sun was verging on 50 degrees Celsius and the heat off the tarmac, as I stepped from the plane, was like a blast furnace. The terminal stood off at a distance, shimmering in the heat like a mirage, a good 10 minutes’ walk away.
At the terminal, the security guards immediately stopped me and asked me where I was staying, and if someone was at the airport to pick me up. I pointed to an Ingush soldier on the other side of the X ray, who was holding a scrap of paper with my name written in Russian. They then scribbled my name and passport number down in a book, wished me a good stay, and handed my luggage over to me. I dealt with the remaining formalities with the Airport security and the Ingush soldiers, armed with the Kalashnikovs, escorted me off to their car.
The windows on their new-looking Volga were padded up with bullet proof vests, although I was permitted to wind mine down by just 3 centimetres in order to get a bit of fresh air, seeing as the air conditioning inside the Volga was struggling even to sustain a relatively cool 29 degrees. We drove out of the airport and turned left at the sign for Nazran, the capitol of Ingushetia. We sped along the road, zig-zagging between the gaping holes and dodging the occasional lump of concrete. I was to learn that driving in the north Caucasus is a bit like playing chicken – You can drive on the wrong side of the road as much as you like, so long as you can dodge the drunks and the oncoming traffic.
As we approached our first checkpoint, I noticed some people that had gathered by the roadside. They were arguing with one another over what appeared to be a head-on collision between a tractor and a small, red Lada. Needless to say, the Lada was now a total wreck, but there was no sign of the driver. My guards looked out and started laughing, as one exclaimed “welcome to Ingushetia my friend!” We passed through the checkpoint and eventually reached the DRC headquarters in Nazran, where I was greeted by everyone. Most of who were glad that I had arrived without too many problems. No sooner had I arrived, however, I was then driven back out of the compound and taken to my hotel in Vladikavkaz, ingeniously named “Hotel Vladikavkaz”.
The Hotel Vladikavkaz sits in an idyllic setting by a small footbridge over the river Terek; a setting that is a little incongruous with the grey, run-down housing blocks and mosque that stand nearby. Drab shops and restaurants, too, line the streets through the town centre, although the restaurants are, in fact, of a very high standard, yet exceptionally cheap. North Ossetian food is rich and varied, usually accompanied with a strong, green herb, and served with chilled, local vodka.
When I arrived at the hotel my personal guard, Yogi, greeted me at the doors and welcomed me in. My room was sparse and looked as though it hadn’t been used in months, yet it was sufficiently clean. The room maid appeared from her room, wearing an old nightie and asked for my room key. As pointless and inconvenient as this service is, I handed her my key and she shuffled back into her room. I went back to my room and crashed out.
The following day I was collected and taken back to Nazran, where I was informed that I was to go into Chechnya to photograph a psycho-social rehabilitation school for Children in Goyskoe, a small village south of Grozny. We set off on the road to Chechnya and passed through four checkpoints, where my driver simply showed his face and the guards waved us on. The fifth checkpoint was manned by a group of about fifteen Russian federal troops. They stopped our convoy and asked us to pull over on the side of the road. They asked for all of our passports and documents, so I handed over my documents to our driver who passed them to one of the Russian soldiers. After checking my documents and my passport several times over, they told me I was ok to go, and to wait in the back of the car until we were cleared for entry.
We waited in the blistering heat for the best part of an hour, while the Russian troops deliberated over whether or not they were going to accompany us; most of them, fiddling with their rifles, looked fairly bored and looking for something to do. After much fussing and time wasting, the Russians decided that they would follow us into Chechnya. “Bugger” I thought to myself, “This really wasn’t going to be easy.” We got in our cars and drove on to Grozny. We drove straight on through Grozny, sirens blaring from the police car at the front of our convoy. “Fucks sake!” I thought. Ordinary people looked on at us nervously from the side of the road as we barreled through town. I could smell fresh asphalt through the peep hole in my window, as we passed through yet another checkpoint. The guards at the checkpoint saluted me, everyone in the car saluted back at them simultaneously just for a joke.
We finally reached the school later in the afternoon, and I photographed the children who immediately took a liking to me. They performed several traditional songs and dances for me and then invited me to join in. I politely declined and continued to take photographs. We spent a couple of hours at the school before the children waved us off down the road. Our next stop was in Samashki, another small town that took a battering during the first war. We made a visit to a women’s sewing workshop, which was set up to help people with post traumatic stress (PTSD). The women were very shy and most of my pictures show them hiding their faces.
By the end of the day, the Russians had decided to change the rules. Entry requests were to take ten days to process instead of three. That was about the same length of time I was to spend in the North Caucasus. Over the following days I spent my time in Ingushetia, photographing IDPs living in pre-fabricated box tents and in camps where people live more or less like rats in partitioned concrete rooms, underground with no windows, no heating and very little light. The IDP populations of both Chechnya and Ingushetia have largely been ignored by the international community, and now there are very few Aid organizations left in the region, as most have left as a result of failure to comply with strict regulations that the authorities have set.
On the last day of my visit, one of the Ingush guards and my personal guard, Yogi, escorted me back to Vladikavkaz airport. After I had said my farewells I handed my passport and documents over to a woman sitting at a small fold-out desk, who then cross referenced my name and passport number with a list that she had in a large book, and sent me through to the departure gate.
Since 2003, the Russian and Ingush authorities have been putting considerable pressure on internally displaced people in Ingushetia to return to Chechnya. Many IDPs are unwilling to return because of the ongoing security issues or simply because they have no homes or family to go back to. Despite the Kremlin’s assertion that the war in Chechnya is over, the north Caucasus remains a very unstable and violent place.
Author and Photographer – Lightstalker.