The War Diaries

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Archive for the ‘Georgia’ Category

Politics is Not a Zero Sum Game

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Georgia’s Forgotten Frozen War from Derek Flood on Vimeo.

Barcelona- In the new issue of Jane’s Intelligence Review, (subscription required) I have an interview out with Ambassador Kaha Imnadze who represents the Republic of Georgia at the United Nations along the banks of New York’s East River . We spoke in early September on the heels of the NATO summit in Newport, Wales. We had a lot to discuss relating the Georgia’s signing of the EU Association Agreement earlier in the summer which acted as a veneer of raison d’étre for Russian’s invasion of Ukraine.

Screen Shot 2014-10-20 at 2.42.22 PMWith Georgia already having two occupied regions where the overt presence of both Russian troops and intelligence agencies act as a shadowy reminder that this frozen conflict can reheat should Russian policy dictate so or a resurgent Georgian nationalism stumble into another fight that it cannot win on the battlefield.

Georgia occupies a unique place in the world in terms of both cartography as a mountainous land bridge between the Muslim and Orthodox worlds in broadest terms and geopolitically where it could potentially act as a robust diplomatic conduit between Iran and the West. Straddling vital energy routes, Georgia maintains amicable relations stretching from Washington to Tehran as if a fusion of its warm hospitality and realpolitik.

When asked how such a small nation can skillfully exploit its underappreciated diplomatic potential, Imnadze mentioned Georgia’s ancient history in relation to how it has lasted mostly intact for centuries.

Despite marauding powers hailing from Slavic, Turkic, Persian and other empires vying for power in a wider South Caucasus which acts as a natural land bridge between the Caspian and Black Sea regions as well as between the Middle East, Iranian plateau and Russia, for Georgians to have survived for so long in this contested environment, they seem to have in inherent diplomacy “in their DNA” as Imnadze put it to me.

Georgia's ambassador to the United Nations, Kaha Imnadze, photographed in his New York office on July 9. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Georgia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Kaha Imnadze, photographed in his New York office on July 9. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

One thing to remember is that Georgia’s democracy is very much a still evolving one. It’s just transformed from a presidential system to a parliamentary style democracy. The ex-president is running around Williamsburg for some reason. The parliament that was relocated out to Kutaisi is being at least partly moved back to its home in Tbilisi.

And though Moscow has pursued two largely different policies with regard to South Ossetia and Abkhazia–the former being a lightly populated space which has a thin veneer as a republic but is thought of a more of a glorified Russian base-building project while the latter has more palpable politics. Abkhazia is also possible to actually visit as an outsider on a tourist visa while what transpires in Tskhinvali is cloaked in mystery.

Despite Georgia’s challenges, it is comparatively a beacon of light when compared to its neighbors, Azerbaijan, Armenia, not to mention the violent republics of the North Caucasus to the north.

Written by derekhenryflood

October 20th, 2014 at 12:19 pm

Posted in Caucasus,Georgia

Tagged with , ,

Diplomats and Hors d’Oeuvres on the River

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A balmy spring evening on the terrace at the UN. It was a bit of world's colliding eating khatchapuri, listening to people speaking kartuli, but while looking at the lights of Long Island City rather than walking down Leselidze Street in Tbilisi. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

A balmy spring evening on the terrace at the UN. It was a bit of world’s colliding eating khatchapuri, listening to people speaking kartuli, but while looking at the lights of Long Island City rather than walking down Leselidze Street in Tbilisi. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

New York- I attended a Georgian diplomatic party marking the restoration of Georgian independence this week hosted by Ambassador Kaha Imnadze. Georgia was briefly independent from 1918-1921 following the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and the collapse of the Romanov dynasty. The Menshevik-led Democratic Republic of Georgia was ultimately subsumed into the Soviet Union as neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan became Soviet Socialist Republics and the Ottoman Empire crumbled giving rise to pragmatic Kemalism.

With badrijani and lobiani wafting through the air (unfortunately there was Pellegrino rather then Borjomi) and interesting discussions being had on the geopolitical primacy of the greater Black Sea region made for an interesting evening.

Georgia's flag of five crosses on display next the North Pole-centric United Nations white and blue flag. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Georgia’s flag of five crosses on display next the North Pole-centric United Nations white and blue flag. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

A portrait of Ghanian statesman Kofi Annan hanging in the lobby of the United Nations headquarters situated along Manhattan's East River. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

A portrait of former Secretary-General and elder Ghanian statesman Kofi Annan hanging in the lobby of the United Nations headquarters situated along Manhattan’s East River. Hailing from an aristocratic background in what was then the Gold Coast, the Annan era at the UN encompassed my coming of age in the world of international affairs. ©2014 Derek Henry Flood

Written by derekhenryflood

May 28th, 2014 at 9:44 pm

Between Propaganda and Reality in the Caucasus

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An elderly refugee from southern Chechnya's Itum-Kale district sits in the home of a Kist host family in Duisi, Georgia. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

An elderly refugee from southern Chechnya’s Itum-Kale district sits in the home of a Kist host family in Duisi, Georgia. I was struck by how incredibly hospitable these people relentlessly vilified by the FSB were. They told me of the horrors of Putin’s onslaught on their villages while offering endless cups of tea and bread me. I felt powerless, having nothing to givein return  but a sympathetic ear. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

New York- I have an article out in this month’s edition of the CTC Sentinel about the evolution over the last two decades of the fight for the North Caucasus which has morphed a great deal. In my view, Syria has been a game changer with regard to Chechens and other ethno-linguistic nationalities from that region fighting with abundant documentation outside their homeland. I first encountered members of the Chechen community in Georgia in 2002. The stories of their under reported struggle fascinated me.

Screen Shot 2014-03-26 at 7.20.21 PMPersonally, I was in an early career lull between 9/11 back here in NYC and covering the Afghan war yet before the Iraq would begin in 2003. I was roving around the Levant and the Caucasus in the summer of 2002 looking for original stories to cover on my own. Sure there were the mostly crude analogies to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan of a grass roots holy war being fought by righteous bearded guys against cruel, drunken Russian officers and their hapless young conscripts, but I wanted to meet ordinary people whose lives were gravely affected by the war that solidified Putin as the Russian Federation’s post-Yeltsin czar.

I’d wanted to meet Ruslan Gelayev (an infamous side-witching warlord present in northeastern Georgia at the time) and perhaps travel with his mujahideen unit onward to Ingushetia and Chechnya. I ultimately decided that the risk didn’t measure up to the reward, particularly in the case of being a freelancer with a story no one in the West much cared about anyway. I also wanted to make sure I was back in New York to document the one year anniversary of 9/11 which was of paramount importance at that time to me.

I settled for trekking around villages populated with refugees who had crossed from souther Chechnya in the autumn of 1999. I ended up staying in what I determined was basically a hostel for foreign volunteers heading northward through the ravines of the Greater Caucasus range to wage war against a dehumanized enemy.  Russian soldiers and officers from various federal organizations like the OMON were portrayed as soulless cannon fodder in muj propaganda videos produced in the GCC which were used to draw attention to the fight for Chechnya among Arab audiences. These videos–some of which I were shown by Chechens in Tbilisi–painted the conflict as a righteous cause. The whole situation was a mess and Georgia itself was in a state of contained chaos back then.

One of the major points I have tried to make in my new piece is that propaganda has–over time–become a kind of new reality. From the fantasies of the Lubyanka to the web forum hosts of the Gulf, Chechens are other North (and South) Caucasians are now really, undeniably fighting abroad. I remember being at a terrorism conference in Washington in the mid-2000s and a young Marine officer stood up during a Q & A session and spoke of his unit having fought ‘Chechens’ in Iraq. But when pressed, he had no method of verifying this. Of course there are Chechens who are semi-indigenous to Iraq from their expulsion to the Ottoman empire–though that nuance was rarely, if ever, mentioned. Then there were the stories of Chechens fighting ISAF troops in Afghanistan and the Pakistani Army encountering Chechens in various battles in the FATA. But not one of these assertions was ever proven with even a shred of evidence.

Ismail with his scruffy cat in the village of Birkiani. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

Ismail with his scruffy cat in the village of Birkiani. He was a young refugee living in limbo like thousands of others. Though there was condemnation of all-out war in Chechnya at the time, there was no real action to back it up. Or should I say nothing ‘actionable’ was ever done. Challenging so-called tin pot regimes in weak states was acceptable and even fashionable for a time among liberal internationalist and neoconservative circles for a time but challenging Russian neo-imperialism directly has never been on the table. One could even draw a continuity between inaction on the Caucasus then and Crimea now. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

Now, however, Chechens (many coming from the EU or those who were already present in the Arab world), Dagestanis, Azerbaijanis, Georgian Kists, Tatars and all sorts of other guys are indeed fighting in Syria. It is as if the FSB and GRU’s dream has come true…albeit over a decade too late. This situation serves several interested parties but in my view does a great disservice to the Chechens themselves. As a colleague and friend messaged me earlier this year: “[It is] sad what has happened to my people.”


A peace plan forth by ChRI’s Ilyas Akhmadov which went essentially nowhere. By 2003, it was far too late.

When Chechen rebel officials were asking for the internationalization of the situation in their republic, they were ignored. When moderate Syrian rebels asked for a no-fly buffer zone along the Turkish border, they were ignored. Then when these places descend into nihilism, people condemn them devoid of context.

The Chechens were villains in poorly scripted Hollywood films and novels but the reality has always been they were mostly an embattled people consumed with the fight for their own homeland as a opposed to global salafi-jihad in general. A pillar of this sort of thing was the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (ie the Taliban) recognizing the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (the rebels).

This move of non-state diplomacy served to benefit neither party. The Taliban wanted to be recognized worldwide well beyond the just littoral states of the Arabian Sea and when their efforts were rebuffed, they recognized the ChRI government. Moreover, the late Aslan Maskhadov, who was then president of the ChRI, was less than thrilled with the Taliban recognition and apparently believed it to be a play by Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev and Movladi Udugov to strengthen their position within a growing rebel schism.

The outside world’s contempt in the form of apathy for the horrors perpetrated in Chechnya with it relegated to an “internal affair” for Moscow to resolve struck me as simply sad. Interventionists patted themselves on the back for aleviating suffering the Balkans and lashed themselves (to a far lesser extent) for doing nothing in Rwanda,  while they let the internal affair in the Caucasus fester for years.

In other news, my CTC Sentinel article on Syria from 2012 was cited The War Report: 2012, edited by Stuart Casey-Maslen, published by Oxford University Press and an interview I did with a top former Afghan police official was cited in Policing Afghanistan: The Politics of the Lame Leviathan by Antonio Giustozzi and Mohammed Isaqzadeh by Columbia University Press.

I appeared on BBC Arabic on March 22 with presenter Rasha Qandeel and former Russian diplomat Vyacheslav Matuzov to discuss Russian's foreign policy of protecting its external minorities.

I appeared on BBC Arabic on March 22 with presenter Rasha Qandeel and former Russian diplomat Vyacheslav Matuzov to discuss Russian’s foreign policy of protecting its external minorities. I pointed out what I see as a staggering hypocrisy in Russian policy with regard to internal minorities within the Russian Federation and Moscow’s military adventures in the post-Soviet space.

Written by derekhenryflood

March 26th, 2014 at 6:09 pm

Occupy Sochi

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A Georgian refugee walks toward her home in a an IDP camp on the outskirts of South Ossetia on October 25, 2013. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

A Georgian refugee from the August 2008 conflict walks toward her home in a an IDP camp on the outskirts of South Ossetia on October 25, 2013. Certainly no Olympic spirit here. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

New York- The Sochi Olympics currently plod awkwardly ahead, the trendy stories have tended to be about the brand new, dilapidated hotels confounding journalists and athletes alike in this modern day “Potemkin village” and gay rights or lack thereof in the Russian Federation. These two themes have been largely dominating the spectrum of the ethical debate that has been surrounding the games for some time. Last week I decided to post my reportage on Buzzfeed (linked to screen grab I’ve posted below) along the “Administrative Boundary Line” that serves as the de facto border separating the ‘Republic’ of South Ossetia and the Republic of Georgia in the South Caucasus region.

In addition to all this mess, the games are also occurring under threat from Doku Umarov’s Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate) which has ostensibly sought to garner world attention with a trio of bombings in Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) which were automatically attributed to it by Russian security services. All in all, not an ideal location for a world sporting event meant to bring in prestige and hard currency.

Perhaps the most troubling ethical issue at present is that “Olympic Coastal Cluster,” transforming the village of Adler on the Black Sea is within walking distance to the banks of the Psou River. The Psou separates  Russia proper from Russian-occupied Abkhazia which is internationally recognized as Georgia territory despite decades of quasi independence after a civil war there in the early 1990s. In internationalist speak, ‘occupation’ has been a dirty word for quite some time and is employed ubiquitously when describing the West Bank today and Gaza before the Israeli withdrawal in 2005.

Evidenced by the recent controversy over the actress Scarlett Johansson promoting Soda Stream, an Israeli company that operates a manufacturing plant on an Isaraeli settlement in the West Bank, ‘occupied’ is most  often an electric term, at least when employed by activists decrying injustice in the post-war Levant. Within Georgia, Sochi-adjacent Abkhazia and South Ossetia that abuts the Russian-adminstered Republic of North Ossetia are commonly referred to as “occupied territories” to little effect outside the political spectrum of the immediate region.

This has partly to do with the incredible complexity of the the ethno-lingustic patchwork of the broader Caucasus region when compared with the binary Israeli-Palestinian dispute that is known across the world. And it is partly due to ignorance of the so-called “frozen conflicts” of the South Caucasus (unlike the hot conflict to the north). Alas, there has been no great global outcry to boycott the Winter Olympics that has managed to gather steam. Although some Abkhaz may be grateful from Russia’s protection from a militarily weak Georgia, aside from the export of gravel for flimsy construction projects, Abkhazia has almost nothing to benefit from Putin’s $50 billion-plus extravaganza practically on their shores.

The other under-emphasized ethical issue with the games is that they are occurring on land that the global Circassian diaspora claims is the site of their genocide exactly 150 years ago in the winter of 1864 when it is alleged the czarist forces ethnically cleansed the Circassian people from what is now Russia’s Krasnodar Krai.

Despite the best efforts of Circassian advocacy groups such as “No Sochi 2014” to bring attention to the horrors their people faced during Russia’s violent conquest of the Caucasus, other than write ups from a cadre of sympathetic journalists and historians, No Sochi has sadly gained little actionable traction such as a mass boycott of the event by participant countries. Jimmy Carter’s boycott of the 1980 Summer Games in then Soviet Moscow in reaction to the Soviet invasion of independent Afghanistan is looked upon today as a bout of foolhardy diplomacy.

Nonetheless, there are plenty of people who hoped some sort of mass global outrage would suddenly materialize after a hard fought grass roots campaign and perhaps at least deter the mainstream media from glorifying Putin’s vanity project just by their presence on the Black Sea coast, even if they are poking fun at hotel oddities.

To their collective disappointment, this has not happened. It is often said that sport should remain free of politics, but should it remain free from the most basic humanistic ethos?Screen Shot 2014-02-11 at 6.51.17 PM

Written by derekhenryflood

February 12th, 2014 at 12:34 am

In Darkness

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Murad Mazaev, right, in Birkiani, Georgia, August 2002. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

Murad Mazaev, right, in on a dim , rainy evening in Birkiani, Georgia, August 2002. Murad died near Aleppo, Syria in late May of last year. I was shocked to learn someone I once knew perished apparently as a salafi shaheed in war not concerning his own people. Murad had been living in Sweden as a refugee but decided to leave his young family and seek martyrdom in the war against the Ba’athist regime of Bashar al-Assad. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

New York- While concluding a nearly month-long research trip to the Republic of Georgia in October, on my final night in Tbilisi I met with an analyst from Georgia’s MFA to discuss current trends in Islamic militancy in the North Caucasus and how those trends are currently tied to the civil war in Syria. As we concluded our dinner at a traditional restaurant on Rustaveli Avenue, my contact informed me that a Chechen filmmaker called Murad Mazaev I once knew back in 2002 had died months earlier in northern Syria. I was taken aback and disturbed by this bit of information and sought to dig deeper once I returned to the United States.

Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 9.31.22 PMMy Georgian contact pondered that Murad may have died trying to work as a documentarian but it began to seem more and more like he died as a jihadi perhaps fighting for Jaish al-Muhajireen wa’l-Ansar, a constituent movement of ISIL or ISIL proper. Who knows? When I tried to contact his former filmmaking partner in Canada about the circumstances under which Murad died, he replied “why are you asking me about this?” (I think they had had a falling out years previously) When I tried to contact a Chechen friend of Murad’s in Stockholm looking for answers about what motivated him to leave the cold comforts of Sweden, no reply.

As I began working on an article on the topic for IHS Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst, I decided to weave Murad’s tragic tale of refuge, asylum and ultimately doomed salafi jihad, into my work. Murad never struck me as the type to pick up arms. Sure he was a die hard Chechen nationalist and devout Muslim, but a jihadi abandoning his young family to seek martyrdom in Syria? That was hard for me to digest.

Murad and I had last been in touch in the autumn of 2010 via email. In his very broken English he informed me that he was living in Sweden but was not then currently still pursuing his dreams of becoming an internationally acclaimed filmmaker. He struck me as being enamored of the mujahideen when we first met, but still an erudite kid from Grozny who wouldn’t be very effective marching through a battlefield with a Kalashnikov rather than a camera,

When Murad snuck me into the Pankisi Gorge 12 years ago, the first photos he let me shoot were of kids playing basketball at the main school in Duisi. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

When Murad snuck me into the Pankisi Gorge 12 years ago, the first photos he let me shoot were of kids playing basketball at the main school in Duisi. He was nervous if the wrong people found out he had smuggled a Western journalist into the territory that was out of the hands of then President Eduard Shevardnadze. I’ll never forget Murad putting a traditional Chechen cap on my head as we boarded a bus from Akhmeta to Duisi. I did my best to blend in when a Georgian soldier boarded the bus asking “dokumenta!” ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

Over eleven years on I revisited the school in Duisi which had become the Roddy Scott Foundation.

Over eleven years on I revisited this school in Duisi which was now the home of the the Roddy Scott Foundation. Roddy was an English journalist who had known Murad and later traversed the Greater Caucasus range with a unit of Ruslan Gelayev’s mujahideen with Murad’s knowledge. He was then killed by a Russian sniper in the town of Galashki in the Republic of Ingushetia.

Murad’s proudest achievement was making the world’s first Chechen-language film…and with genuine mujahideen from Ruslan ‘Hamzat’ Gelayev’s Pankisi-based unit as extras no less. It was partly through meeting Murad in Tbilisi nearly a dozen years ago that I became fascinated by the struggle for Chechnya and the oppressed people of the Caucasus who suffered wildly under the Czars, Stalin all the way to Yeltsin and Putin. Murad acted as my fixer in meeting the Chechen refugees inhabiting the Pankisi Gorge when it was making headlines around the world but few journalists were actually venturing there.

At the school building in Duisi, then being run by a Norwegian NGO, a Chechen refugee boy stands beneath a Turkish-made poster of Aslan Maskhadov, the emblematic leader of Chechen national liberation movement. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

At the school building in Duisi, then being run by a Norwegian NGO, a Chechen refugee boy stands beneath a Turkish-made poster of Aslan Maskhadov, the emblematic leader of Chechnya’s national liberation movement. Maskhadov was killed by Russian federal forces in March 2005.  At the time, the Guardian labeled Maskhadov “Chechnya’s Arafat.”As nationalism waned, salafism became the dominant ideology ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

But in Chechnya as the war there has mercilessly ground on since it first began in the mid-1990s, the ideology powering the fight has transitioned from Sufi-inflected Chechen nationalism to destructive transnational salafism. No longer was merely an independent Chechen republic the goal, but the proclamation of an Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate) spanning from the shores of the Caspian to the rocky beaches of the Black Sea.

Murad took me to meet this Kist woman in Duisi who was baking bread for the Chechen refugees that had sought safety there. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

Murad took me to meet this Kist woman in Duisi who was baking flat bread for the Chechen refugees that had sought shelter there from relentless Russian aggression and the ensuing guerrilla warfare that attempted to counter it. He wanted the world to know of the suffering of his people. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

Rustam Gelayev's aunt holds up a smartphone image of her late nephew who, like Murad, died in northern Syria in August 2012. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

When I revisited Pankisi again in 2013, it was not to learn about foreign militants traveling north to wage jihad in Chechnya, but to learn about who the next generation of Chechens were going in the opposite direction to fight and die in Syria. Rustam Gelayev’s aunt holds up a smartphone image of her late nephew who, like Murad, died in northern Syria at the age of 24 in August 2012. Above is a very different image of a slightly younger Rustam than the one that circulated on twitter of him holding a rifle presumably in Aleppo Governorate. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

When I was back in Pankisi in October to meet with members of the Gelayev family to find out their version of events surrounding the death of Ruslan’s son, Rustam in Syria in mid-August 2012, no one admitted to remembering Murad but when I mentioned Roddy their eyes lit up. Roddy’s parents, Robin and Stina Scott set up the Roddy Scott Foundation to teach English to the youth of Pankisi in their effusive son’s memory. Sadly, Murad sought to put Chechnya on the map in terms of global conscience but he was killed in Syria in what remain murky circumstances. From my canvassing of residents in Duisi, Jokolo and Birkiani, no one seemed to remember his contribution to collective Chechen culture.

What the deaths of Murad and Rustam do indicate is the significant fact that Chechens are now participants in a war outside the North Caucasus. For those of us who covered the wars on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq and war theaters elsewhere after 9/11 where Chechens were never proven to have fought, this feels like a sea change.

On another very grim note, I belatedly found out that someone whose work I really admired died in the Taverna du Liban attack in Kabul.

 Alexandros Petersen who was a colleague of my colleague Rafaello Pantucci was murdered in the recent attack on the Lebanese restaurant in Wazir Akbar Khan. Petersen was an analyst of big-think Eurasian geopolitics in the style of Sir Halford Mackinder and authored The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West which I’ve had in my Amazon queue for some time now and been meaning to read. Now I must. Though I never had the pleasure of meeting him, we wrote for the same D.C. think-tank where I once served as an editor and analyst a few years ago. We are now less one brilliant person who went to great lengths to understand and explain the geopolitical trends shaping today’s world. For shame.

When I first heard about the Taliban operation in the Afghan capital, I recalled spending a fun evening at the Levantine hangout with journalist Jason Motlagh and another guy based in Bangkok who talked about his mission of interviewing Viktor Bout multiple time in a Thai cell before Bout was extradited to the U.S. for prosecution. The latter guy-whose name I don’t remember five years later-and another journo and I walked from WAK all the way back to Shar-e-Nau at about 2 a.m. and I, in a sort of gallows humor, half joked, “we couldn’t do this in Baghdad” (i.e. walk home in the middle of the night). That was back in 2009. Things got worse as that year went on with the attack on the UN compound that September and suicide bomb walls going up around the Indian embassy and so forth.

Are things arguably worse now in 2014? It’s tough to say from sitting here in the West. But I can say this much-I may go back to the old school routine of donning a shalwar kameez and beard when I go back to Afghanistan. Kabul has often been considered a world apart from the rest of Afghanistan in terms of its comparative cosmopolitanism in relation to life in the provinces but it is still Afghanistan. The Taliban want to let the world know that they retain the ability to strike at will anytime, anywhere in the country.

In other news, I have a photo contribution in the new issue of The Washingtonian in the article titled This Is Danny Pearl’s Final Story by Asra Q. Nomani. My image is that of Nomani and Pearl’s home in Karachi’s tony Defence Housing Authority (DHA).

Written by derekhenryflood

January 24th, 2014 at 8:10 pm

On Perspective

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These digital flight path monitors on planes can act as an indicators of regional perspective on the relativity of place names. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

These digital flight path monitors on planes can act as an indicators of regional perspectives on the relativity of place names. Flying to Tbilisi on a Turkish budget airline, Grozny or “Groznyj” appears onscreen as you approach the Georgian capital. For many abroad, Grozny is still a place name that still evokes a modern day Stalingrad writ small after its infrastructure was relentlessly pummeled by artillery in the 1st and 2nd modern Russo-Chechen wars. For a Turkish tycoon it may simply be a future destination for his passenger planes or potential sphere of Turkish influence. This graphic however does not recognize the hard, bitter border between the independent republics of the South Caucasus and those under control of Moscow to their north. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

New York- Sitting in a cafe on a bitterly cold winter day, I’m doing some writing regarding a character in my as yet unpublished manuscript who I found out perished fighting jihad in Syria’s tragically beleaguered Aleppo Governorate in late May 2013. I was taken aback by the very idea that someone I once knew went to Syria to fight ideological warfare and quickly became cannon fodder for the very same Soviet weaponry that caused him to fleee his homeland of Chechnya for safety in neighboring Georgia at the outset of the 2nd Russo-Chechen war that began in the autumn of 1999. This story became part of a recent article I authored for IHS Jane’s in London. When I set out from Tbilisi in October for the Chechen/Kist villages of the Pankisi Gorge, I never expected learning something like this would be the end result.

How Chechen militancy has transmogrified from the struggle for national liberation to more generalized jihadism is a reflection of how the world has failed the people of the Caucasus as a whole and how radical Sunni doctrines encouraging relgio-polical violence have metastasized, subsuming a largely Sufi people to the point where a handful of them are drawn to Aleppo like moths to a flame. As a Chechen colleague said to me in a recent exchange, “it’s sad what has happened to my people.”

So now I’m in the midst of dusting off an old writing project and breathing new life into it by adding in a dark epilogue. If those nitwits at the National Security Agency parsed this particular blog in their endless big data mining project I might become even more a “person of interest” or some other bureaucratic catchphrase to further justify their vast invasion of privacy and the violation of journalistic confidentiality.

The people I encountered on my earliest forays into the “war on terror” are still somehow relevant. From a guy I met in 2002 becoming “martyred” in Syria in 2013 to Dr. Abdullah Abdullah–who I first photographed in November 2001 and later in August 2009–being the chief candidate for the Afghan presidency in the April election there in 2014, these stories and the people populating them don’t just simply fade away.

One of my favorite quotes from all the years doing this stuff was when I was at the Corbis photo agency here in New York in January 2002 and an editor there told me “Afghanistan is over” and that I needed to move on and look for the next story (did she mean Iraq?). Afghanistan was never, and is still not, “over.” In 2014 Afghanistan is still a major story. As is the legacy of 9/11, the Chechen conflict, and even Iraq in my stubborn view.

The check-in counters at Sabiha Gökçen International Airport, Istanbul's 2nd airline hub. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

The check-in counters at the seriously revamped Sabiha Gökçen International Airport, Istanbul’s 2nd airline hub. This airport handles more obscure destinations east of Turkey, with an emphasis on former Soviet republics and Iran akin to Dubai’s Terminal 2 where you go if you need to fly to Najaf, Iraq or Hargeisa, Somaliland. I first came here in October 2001 to fly to Dushanbe, Tajikistan in order to cover the war in northern Afghanistan. Then I met an exasperated, award-winning Canadian/Texan photojournalist named Christopher Anderson who I helped navigate the Byzantine ticketing and boarding procedure. I remember him saying he paid $50 USD for taxi there, far from central Istanbul, while I had taken a ferry, 3 buses and then hitchhiked the final leg. He took an iconic photo that continues to be resold for book jackets to this day while most of my images have never seen the light of day.  He now resides comfortably in Brooklyn, photographing celebrities and politicians as a staff photographer for New York magazine while I am still going to war zones with no money and photographing mustachioed guys with Kalashnikovs. Perhaps I was too helpful… ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Written by derekhenryflood

January 3rd, 2014 at 5:59 pm

Posted in Caucasus,Georgia

Tagged with , ,

So Long 2013

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An Iraqi Army soldier mans a lonely checkpoint in Dibis District, Kirkuk Governorate, Iraq. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

An Iraqi Army soldier mans a lonely checkpoint in Dibis District, Kirkuk Governorate, Iraq. Soldiers here have to be wary of both the Dawlat al-Islamiyya fi al-Iraq (Islamic State of Iraq) led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Jaish Rijal al-Tairiq al-Naqshbandi led by Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri. These insurgent groups constantly target Iraq’s federal security forces whom they see as representing Maliki’s ‘apostate’ or pro-Iran Shia government. Aside from that constantly morphing nightmare, they are also along a sort of front line with Kurdish peshmerga militiamen. Seeing a post-Western troops Iraq gives one pause for what may happen in Afghanistan once the NATO ISAF coalition is eventually disassembled. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

New York- As the worst year of my life comes to a quiet close, I can look back and be thoroughly grateful for the two reporting trips I was able to make to Iraq and Georgia and for the friends I was able to reconnect with in Catalunya and Greece. I thank heaven for all those who graciously supported me in 2013.

This world is filled with all kinds of people from pathetic nihilists to selfish materialists all the way to gentle altruists. The former are reported on and/or lionized far too often while the latter often fail to receive the credit they so rightfully deserve.

One of the biggest events on the near term horizon slated for 2014 is of course the wobbly future of a post-Karzai, post-America/NATO Afghanistan. With a presidential election scheduled–replete with some candidates of questionable repute–for early April in which Hamid Karzai is ineligible to run for another term and the planned pullout-be it partial or total–of American troops a year from now, it is possible the Afghan Taliban’s writ in the parts of Afghan Pashtunistan that make up its power base may be reenergized.

The pull-out of the Americans would likely lead to an immediate abandonment by its NATO partner nations and others non-NATO contributors such as Georgia. Like the Kurds, the Pashtuns are one of the world’s largest ethno-liguistic groups devoid of a nation-state to call there own.

The Taliban are not akin to al-Qaeda but are rather an Islamist ethno-nationalist movement that seeks to rule Pashtunistan as it is sometimes referred and other adjacent parts of Afghanistan–and now Pakistan as the movement’s once limited ideology has continued to metastasize– inhabited by Tajiks and Punjabis. Uzbeks and Sindhis. Although of course Taliban leadership would never admit such, even though the emirate they once proclaimed back in the 1990s was within Westphalian border principals in the land they inherited and conquered.

It should be remembered that while for the West the raison d’être for its presence in Afghanistan was Mohammed Atta sitting in Tarnak Farms when he wasn’t in Hamburg-Harburg, the conflict is really one of and for the people of that region to decide. The West would be and likely have been best keeping the Afghan war a low impact intelligence effort rather than a swelling-in-troop-numbers vast boots-on-the-ground mission that ended up being more of an obstacle to genuine institution building in the ensuing years.

An effusive Sunni Punjabi taxi driver said to me the other night with great passion: “the [Pakistani] Taliban are bastards. They want to kill Shia, Ismailis, Christians, Sikhs and Hindus (all of whom are minorities in Pakistan).” And while Deobandism has planted its flag here in New York City, thus far it has not materialized as a threat (despite some close calls emanating from or tied to FATA in recent years where Deobandi ideology has traditionally held sway) the way that transnational Salafism has in terms of highly localized security issues here.

A Georgian police officer stands in a cemetery in the village of Zemo Nikozi in Shida Karli region--better known as the Republic of South Ossetia. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

A Georgian police officer with an AK-74 rifle stands in a cemetery in the village of Zemo Nikozi in Shida Kartli region–the northern part of which is better known as the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia. The officer looks off into Russian-occupied Tskhinvali, the “capital” of South Ossetia. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Besides the somewhat predictable events hoped for or dreaded in Afghanistan depending on one’s perspective, there will be the other likely events in the news cycle: natural disasters in the Pacific or Indian Ocean regions, mass shootings in the United States, suicide bombings or other insurgent/terrorist actions in the Russian Federation before and after the Sochi Olympics, large scale protest movements driven by economic grievances in capital cities around the world, deaths of old guard leaders, inter-religous violence mislabeled as “sectarian” forever reminding us of the impact Iraq has had on our journalistic lexicon, unabated unrest in the Sykes-Picot legacy states of the Middle East and so forth. Shaping up to be an interesting year already!

A solemn ceremonial fire on perhaps the last patch of entirely undeveloped East River waterfront land after a dozen years of Bloomberg rule in New York. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Closure. A solemn ceremonial fire on perhaps the last patch of entirely undeveloped East River waterfront land after a dozen years of Bloomberg rule in New York. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Written by derekhenryflood

December 29th, 2013 at 6:40 pm

The Long Shadow of Vladimir Lenin

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I bought this 3 Chervontsa note (30 rubles) at a Soviet flea market in Tbilisi.

I bought this 3 Chervonetsev note (30 rubles) at a flea market in Tbilisi the hawks Soviet stuff back in October. In any part of the world conquered by Lenin’s unflinching ideology, you can’t seem to get away from him. This reddened visage was staring up at me from a blanket on the sidewalk and I scooped it up from the vendor for 5 lari (about €2). This was issued in 1937 following the 1936 constitution ushered in by Stalin and at the height of regime infighting known as the Great Purge or Great Terror. This banknote is likely commemorating the 20th anniversary of the October Revolution of 1917.

New York- When news broke on December 8 of organized protestors toppling a Lenin statue in Kiev, after pro-Moscow (generally speaking) President Viktor Yanukovych abandoned the EU Association Agreement in what is believed to have been under Kremlin pressure at the recent EU summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, some people were surprised that some 22 years after the Soviet collapse a Lenin would still be standing in Kiev in 2013.

Disenfranchised Ukrainians subsequently took to the streets in protest to demand more integration with the EU, cooling of ties with Russia, and that President Yanukovych step down. Many in western Ukraine do not want their country to forever be an economic vassal state to suzerain Moscow. Even if that Lenin had stood still after 1991, one might think that after the 2004 Orange Revolution (Помаранчева революція) that any works of Soviet socialist realist art would have been eradicated in Ukraine but not so. Nor in many other places in formerly Soviet lands.

So pervasive is Lenin’s stoic gaze that he may show up just when you think he’s gone. In June 2010 when I was reporting on the anti-Uzbek pogrom in Osh, Kyrgyzstan there stood a massive Lenin statue untouched in a square outside the city’s main ministry building (where I was meant to get a journo accreditation but never did when I felt it was too convoluted a process). As this blog somewhat humorously shows, Lenin statues, many of them quite sizable, are still found throughout the post-Soviet space.

Lenin and his much more horrifying successor Stalin–like Mao in today’s China–are at nowhere near the level of vilification as Hitler, though it is commonly believed that many more were killed in Stalin’s USSR and Mao’s PRC than the parts of Europe in the relatively brief throes of Hitlerism. Stalin’s and Mao’s respective rules each lasted for several decades.

Though of course the adulation of Lenin, Stalin and Mao has been greatly toned down over the years, their bitter legacies are still felt in much of Eurasia today. Case in point: I was reading a recent article in Outside Magazine (“The Sochi Olympics Are a Five-Ring Mess”) about the upcoming Winter Games and it featured an image of Stalin’s dacha in Krasnodar krai with a wax figure of “The man of steel” sitting at the desk of one of his favorite retreats. So the Winter Olympics will be held in place where Stalin is insufficiently demonized I suppose.

Can one imagine going to Berlin or Obersalzberg today and seeing a dull wax figure of the author of Mein Kampf being passively celebrated? And in the lead up to a major international sporting event no less?

When I visited Gori in central Georgia in 2009 (see the post “Hollywood Comes to Gori“) as the Finnish director Renny Harlin was recreating the August 2008 war that occurred barely a year earlier, there stood a giant statue of Stalin in Gori’s main square as a backdrop of Harlin’s abysmal flop Five Days of War.

Stalin standing atop his plinth in Gori in October 2009. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

Stalin standing atop his plinth in Gori in October 2009. This relic was torn down in 2010 but some in Georgia are threatening to resurrect this painful memory in the name of him having put Georgia on the map–for all the wrong reasons. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

Mikheil Saakashvili tore down the above statue of the hideous Soviet dictator in Gori in 2010 but others in Georgia are defiantly planning on re-errecting it,  partly to humiliate the former president and partly to perhaps bring in tourist dollars via a depressing attraction. It’s just hard to shake some of these guys. They are so 20th century.

The back face of the 3 Chervonetsa bill which names the note in Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian, Armenian,

The back face of the 3 Chervonetsev bill which names the note in Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian, Armenian, and various other languages still in Latin script at the time of minting.

In the wake of the fall of the Lenin statue in Kiev, I randomly met a young guy from Tiraspol, the capitol of the unrecognized Republic of Trans-Dniester (which broke away from Moldova during and after the Soviet collapse) the other week. Of course for those who know just a shred about Tiraspol and its retrograde Lenin-idolatry regime, then you know that there is a heck of a big Lenin statue there today in front of the parliament building in the city’s main square. I asked him not only how he got to the United States, but how he left Trans-Dniester with a passport not even accepted by the Russians as Trans-Dniester is only recognized by the mostly un-reocgnized Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabagh in the South Caucasus.

He told me that as an ethnic Ukrainian he was able to obtain citizenship  in that country as well as a passport valid for international travel and that the Black Sea port of Odessa with its international airport is the lifeline for young Trans-Dinistrians trying to leave their ideologically anachronistic mini state. “Everyone needs either a Russian or Ukrainian passport to get out. And our airport is only for military flights so we have to travel by land to Ukraine to leave” he told me.

Not much is really understood about this very obscure, very non-EU corner of Europe but for years Trans-Dniester has been said to be a source point for both arms and human trafficking in the Black Sea region.

After I mentioned that he was the first Trans-Dnistrian I’d ever met in the U.S., he smilingly replied “and you’re the first person here who has ever heard of my country and our capital.” In Ukraine the Euromaindan protests go on, but in neighboring Tiraspol all is quiet on the pseudo-Soviet front. Russia may have military footholds in Moldova and Georgia’s breakaway regions, but at least Chișinău and Tbilisi will be able to sign EU Asssociation Agreements of their own free will.

Written by derekhenryflood

December 16th, 2013 at 5:46 pm

Posted in Georgia,Russia

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