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Between Propaganda and Reality in the Caucasus

March 26th, 2014 No comments
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.”

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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.

Occupy Sochi

February 12th, 2014 No comments
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

In Darkness

January 24th, 2014 No comments
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).

Enter the Fabled City

January 5th, 2014 No comments
The magnificent ruins of a cathedral in the ancient Armenian city of Ani. Ani was devastated by an earthquake in 1319 A.D. from which it never recovered. This image is from one of my earliest journeys in the historically contested lands of the east. ©1999 Derek Henry Flood

The magnificent ruins of a cathedral in the ancient Armenian city of Ani. Ani was devastated by an earthquake in 1319 A.D. from which it never recovered. This image is from one of my earliest journeys in the historically contested lands of the east. I had a young Turkish conscript as my official escort through the site along Turkey’s tense border with Armenia. He acted as a minder who told what photos I could and could not take in this sensitive military zone. At the time there was an urban myth bubbling on the Turkish youth hostel circuit about a clueless Japanese tourist being shot from an Armenian guard tower for pointing his camera toward its position. The story may have been bollocks but it did the trick of making me extra cautious where I pointed my lens.  ©1999 Derek Henry Flood

New York- The other day I picked up The History of Armenia by Simon Payaslian somewhat at random off the bookshelf mainly to get some regional context for Georgian history during the Menshevik period and subsequent Bolshevik takeover shortly thereafter. Reading about Transcaucasia as a buffer zone between the Ottoman empire and the Russian imperial empire and the folding in of Western Armenia to the Turks, I recalled my visit to the medieval Armenian ruins of Ani today located in Turkey’s Kars Province abutting the border of the modern Armenian republic along the Akhurian River. I went to Ani and a number of other fascinating ancient sites around eastern Turkey while I killed time waiting for my Iranian visa to be processed back in Ankara.

It was at this time that I conceived the idea of the “Fabled City,” a photography project explore the lesser known interconnectivity of the ancient world in order to promote a healthy form of post-Cold War globalism in the present day. This idea died in an instant as I stood stunned in the ashes of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. But I still have many of the images lying around as a kind of pre-9/11 detritus of memory. I thought I’d scan a couple of the prints and share them.

The frescoed dome of the Church of St. Gregory of Tigran Honents at Ani, Turkey. ©1999 Derek Henry Flood

The frescoed dome of the Church of St. Gregory of Tigran Honents at Ani, Turkey. ©1999 Derek Henry Flood

Sunset ioverlooking the Ishak Pasha Palace n Doğubeyazıt, Ağrı Province, Turkey along the iranian border. A splendid view. ©1999 Derek Henry Flood

Sunset ioverlooking the Ottoman-era Ishak Pasha Palace n Doğubeyazıt, Ağrı Province, Turkey along the iranian border. A splendid view. ©1999 Derek Henry Flood

Pakistani army soldiers parked in front of the hulking bastions of the Derawar Fort in the searingly hot Cholistan Desert in Punjab. ©2000 Derek Henry Flood

Pakistani army soldiers parked in front of the hulking bastions of the Derawar Fort in the searingly hot Cholistan Desert in Punjab. The fort was built by the nawab of Bahawalpur in the 1700s. In the post-9/11 era, Bahawalpur may have gained notoriety for being the base of the Sunni Deobandi sectarian group Jaish-e-Muhammed but when I visited there I was far more enthralled by the city’s proximity to southern Punjab’s historic sites. How times change perspective. ©2000 Derek Henry Flood

A movie theatre in Peshawar, Pakistan with South Asian-style hand painted film posters. The poster on the far left depicts Russell Crowe in Ridley Scott's Gladiator which was still a fairly recent release at that time. In the centre appears to be a Planet of the Apes poster. ©2000 Derek Henry Flood

A movie theatre in Peshawar, Pakistan with South Asian-style hand painted film posters. The poster on the far left depicts Russell Crowe in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator which was still a fairly recent release at that time. In the centre appears to be a Planet of the Apes poster. While the 9/11 plot was partially brewing next door in Afghanistan, Peshawar at this time was free of suicide bombs and was well open to the intrepid tourist or wandering student. ©2000 Derek Henry Flood

In the town of Darra Adam Khel in what was then known as the Northwest Frontier Province, Craig "Bones" Martin, an hilarious Australian adventurer fires off a Kalashnikov into a nearby hillside in what was a kind of bizarre tourist attraction. ©2000 Derek Henry Flood

In the town of Darra Adam Khel in what was then known as the Northwest Frontier Province, Craig “Bones” Martin, an hilarious Australian adventurer fires off a Kalashnikov into a nearby hillside in what was a kind of bizarre tourist attraction. Darra is famous for its indigenous smalls arms manufacturing but when foreigners show up, the local men of the Adam Khel clan of the Afridi tribe of Pashtuns insisted on us firing a time tested authentic Soviet model. The boy in the foreground was running to scoop up the empty bullet casings  the sell them back to the gun shops to be refashioned. ©2000 Derek Henry Flood 

On Perspective

January 3rd, 2014 No comments
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

Categories: Caucasus, Georgia Tags: , ,

The Beauty of a Misunderstood Place

November 20th, 2013 No comments
An effusive Chechen elder I met at sundown in the village of Birkiani. What a cool guy! A random Westerner shows up at his gate and he immediately offers warm, old school Chechen hospitality. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

An effusive Chechen elder I met at sundown in the village of Birkiani where I stayed in 2002. What a cool guy! A random Westerner shows up at his gate and he immediately offers warm, old school Chechen hospitality. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

New York- I haven’t done a blog post in nearly a month and felt like posting a few images if for no other reason than to do an update for the sake of doing an update. In October I visited the Pankisi Gorge for the third time in my career/life whatever I should call it. The first two visits were filled with tension and suspicion that had the feel on journalistic espionage. On this recent trip, I was able to take a few moments to remember the splendor of this far off place. Pankisi is beautiful because much of the Caucasus is gorgeous in general. Low slung cloud formations above the peaks, horses trotting along, and stunning young Chechen and Kist  women.

The Chechens are perhaps the most globally vilified people in recent history thanks to tireless propaganda efforts up north at the Lubyanka. Seemingly nearly everyone around the world bought into rather unsophisticated FSB pay-ops since the late 1990s from Hollywood screenwriters to Pakistani generals. But beyond all of this hype, most of which is completely unsupported in an empirical sense, are a very real people with a pained history. Yes, Chechens are  renown for anti-state warfare. However they also make a good cup of chai and are good conversationalists.

A boy and his horse between Duisi and Jokolo. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

A boy and his horse between Duisi and Jokolo. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Soviet-style gravestones in Duisi's main cemetery written in both Cyrillic and Arabic scripts. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Soviet-style gravestones in Duisi’s main cemetery written in both Cyrillic and Arabic scripts. These visages definitely wouldn’t fit into the Salafi ideology that has been seeping into the valley in recent years. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

This guy was hilarious. How many times have you heard "Chechen" and "hilarious" in the same sentence? My guess is…never. The difference between removed analysis and field work is that you must actually interact with real people rather than study them in some abstraction. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

This guy from southern Chechnya was hilarious. How many times have you heard “Chechen” and “hilarious” in the same sentence? My guess is…never. The difference between removed analysis and field work is that you must actually interact with real people rather than study them in some abstraction. The results can sometimes be amusing. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Chasing Old Ghosts in Georgia

October 22nd, 2013 No comments
The Marjanshvilli metro station. If there is a long escalator anywhere in this world I haven't seen it. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

The Marjansihvilli metro station. If there is a longer escalator anywhere in this world I haven’t seen it. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Tbilisi- After inhabiting this post-9/11 realm for so long now,  I occasionally find myself in locales of yore retracing old steps in the name of an unfinished book. I sometimes photograph places and people (if I can still find them). I first came to Georgia in 2002 to inspect for myself the hype about the Pankisi Gorge/Valley with the West’s sudden fascination with Zarqawi, ricin and the think-tank obsession with foreign mujahideen (the meme that still won’t die) going to fight in Chechnya next door.

I arrived in Eduard Shevardnadze’s pot-hole ridden, shattered Caucasian republic after my efforts to meet with Iraqi Kurds in Syria were thwarted by the pervasive paranoid of Assad’s rather recently inherited police state. I lived with a widowed grandmother who gave shelter to Japanese backpackers (once ubiquitous in Eurasian budget travel scenes) and ended up in a mujahideen hostel in Pankisi with a Russian Federation Sukhoi (or a Georgian one in a version thinly sourced and convoluted) flying menacingly overhead.  The following are pictures that will appear random but are part of the narrative I am visually reconstructing to aid in my writing efforts.

Tsiela, the Georgian babushka I lived with in August 2002. She insisted I not go to Pankisi. She was a bit surprised that I found her 11 years on to shoot her portrait. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Tsiela, the Georgian babushka I lived with in August 2002 on Chitaya Street. She insisted I not go to Pankisi. She was a bit surprised that I found her 11 years on to shoot her portrait. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

My Chechen fixer's apartment block in Tbilisi's Saburtalo District. I was curious to go back there after reading that the Chechens involved in the August 2012 Lopota incident had been housed in this district supposedly by Georgian authorities who had recruited them in the EU if you're inclined to believe that version of events. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

My Chechen fixer’s depressing Soviet apartment block in Tbilisi’s Saburtalo District on Kavteradze Street. I was curious to go back there after reading that the Chechens involved in the August 2012 Lopota incident had been housed in this district supposedly by Georgian authorities who had recruited them in the EU if you’re inclined to believe that version of events. Saburtalo was where many of Tbilisi’s Chechen exiles once lived and now is home to part of the city’s migrant community including Pakistanis and Bangladeshis judging by my observations the other day. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

The barber shop where I ran in after my arrest by Georgian intelligence to get my beard shaved off. First and only time I ever had a woman shave my beard I think. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

The barber shop where I ran in after my arrest by Georgian intelligence to get my beard shaved off. First and only time I ever had a woman shave my beard I think. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

The lobby of the Sheraton Metechi Palace where the adventure started. There was a USAID office there and I asked a friendly yet clueless AID guy about going up to Pankisi and the prospect of getting in: "Oh yeah the refugees are there. I don't see why you can't go." Umm yeah, ok. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

The lobby of the Sheraton Metechi Palace where the adventure started. There was a USAID office there and I asked a friendly yet clueless AID guy about going up to Pankisi and the prospect of getting in: “Oh yeah the refugees are there. I don’t see why you can’t go.” Umm yeah, ok. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

In order to try and blend in with the guests while shooting photos at the Metechi, I ducked in for a beer in order to not seem suspicious. And of course there were working class BP guys at the bar talking Baku this, and pipeline that. I've been meeting BP guys every time I go out here it seems like. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

In order to try and blend in with the guests while shooting photos at the Metechi, I ducked in for a beer in order to not seem suspicious. Sometimes snooping around has its perks. And of course there were working class BP guys at the bar talking Baku this, and pipeline that. I’ve been meeting BP guys every time I go out here it seems like. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

TWD Chechnya/North Caucasus Reading List

April 29th, 2013 No comments
A Turkish-language poster of the late Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

A Turkish-language poster of the late Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov. The poster reads “Chechen Republic of Ichkeria State Leader” with “Noxçijcö” in the center being the endonym of “Chechnya”as transliterated into Turkish. This term is surrounding  a wolf which is the animal symbol of the Chechen people favored by nationalist separatists. I photographed this poster in a school in the village of Duisi, Georgia south of the Chechen border along the Alazani river. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

New York- In the two weeks since the tragic double bombing of the Boston marathon with improvised explosive devices, the media has fixated on the ethnic and religious background of the Tsarnaev brothers of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Though various mass casualty attacked have been carried out in the United States in the past year, media outlets did not fixate on whether James Eagan Holmes, who killed 12 people in Aurora, Colorado or Adam Lanza, who killed 26 people in Newtown, Connecticut were Protestants or Catholics nor what their precise ostensibly ethnic European backgrounds were.  But the fact that Tamarlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were ethnic Chechens and [I would think Sufi] Muslims while also not being native-born Americans has become an obsession of U.S. national media which has almost no knowledge of the history nor present dynamics of the North Caucasus region of which Chechnya is a central part.

In the wake of the Boston attacks and with the Sochi Winter Olympic Games just 10 months away and the insurgency’s western most fringe not far with just 250 kilometers (155 miles) drive separating Sochi and Nalchik, it may behoove some of the ultra ambitious yet very young D.C. jihadi wonks or overnight area experts in the Dupont Circle-Think Tank Row (Massachusetts Avenue) zone to read up on some of this stuff before inadvertently advancing an FSB narrative on the North Caucasus.

With so many people suddenly thrust in writing about a region with which they appear to have only the faintest familiarity (judging by for instance referring to Dagestan as “Russia” rather than as a constituent republic of the Russian Federation), it struck me that a minimal reading list might be useful.

This is by no means meant to be a comprehensive list but more of books in my collection the influenced me into the intrigue that is the Caucasus region. A longer list would have to begin with Anatol Lieven’s Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power which was published only months before the start of the second war in 1999 or say Thomas de Waal and Carolotta Gall’s Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus all the way to Emma Gilligan’s Terror in Chechnya: Russia and the Tragedy of Civilians in War.

Here is my very short Chechnya/North Caucasus reading list in no particular order as drawn from my personal library:


1. A Dirty War-A Russian Reporter in Chechnya by Anna Politkovskaya

I stumbled upon an autographed copy of the incredible book in New York’s legendary strand bookstore not long after returning to the U.S. from covering the Afghanistan war in the fall of 2001. With a classic James Nachtwey cover photo catching my eye in the book stacks, I quickly became enthralled with the story of Chechnya forever. Part of the reason I went to the first D.C. conference I ever attended was because Ms. Politkovskaya was slated to be a speaker. Disappointed she wasn’t actually there, all day throughout the conference I wondered what happened to her.

Finally a very frustrated audience member shouted out that she didn’t come to Washington because she had been threatened by the Kremlin that were she to speak about war crimes in Chechnya to [an anti-Kremlin] D.C. crowd, she would not be allowed to return to Russia (she was a dual Russian/American citizen). She was then killed by a “control shot” less than three years later while entering her Moscow apartment building.

My autographed copy of the English translation of Anna Politkovskaya's A Dirty War from 2001.

My autographed copy of the English translation of Anna Politkovskaya’s A Dirty War from 2001.

2. The Chechen Wars-Will Russia Go the Way of the Soviet Union? by Matthew Evangelista

This analysis of the first Chechen war (December 1994-August 1996) and the early stages of the second war beginning in the fall of 1999 discusses the role (or lack thereof) of international law in the Chechen conflict and what it meant for the future of democratization in the Russian Federation. Done from an in-depth sociological angle, Evangelista examines the broader problems inherent to Russian federalism when faced with ethnic and regional nationalisms in places other than Chechnya such as Tatarstan, Bashkortostan and even Sakhalin island facing the Sea of Okhotsk. A fascinating read.

3. Open Wound-Chechnya 1994 to 2003 by Stanley Greene

Nearly all of the books in my collection on Chechnya have covers and are illustrated by black and white photography. The Chechen wars were perhaps the last great era of black and white photojournalism before the American intervention in Afghanistan after 9/11 heralded in the mainstreaming of digital photography writ large. The defining photography book of both Chechen war is Open Wound by Stanley Greene by Trolley Books of London. As a fellow photographer, I cannot recommend this stunning, chilling book highly enough.

Stanley Greene's photo of Chechen rebel President Dzhokhar Dudaev. Dudaev was assasinated while talking on a satellite phone on April 21, 1996. To Daudaev's right is rebel Vice-President Zeilmkhan Yanderbiyev. Yanderbiyev succeeded Dudaev as president and was later assassinated in Doha, Qatar on February 13, 2004

Stanley Greene’s photo of Chechen rebel President Dzhokhar Dudaev  in Grozny in February 1994. Dudaev was assasinated while talking on a satellite phone on April 21, 1996. To Daudaev’s right is rebel Vice-President Zeilmkhan Yanderbiyev. Yanderbiyev succeeded Dudaev as president and was later assassinated in Doha, Qatar on February 13, 2004.

4. Chechnya Diary: A War Correspondent’s Story of Surviving the War in Chechnya by Thomas Goltz

This book by veteran Caucasus correspondent Goltz is centered around in the notorious Samashki massacre that took place in April 1995 near Chechnya’s eastern border with Ingushetia. Goltz’s book, a sort of sequel-at least in title anyway-to his earlier Azerbaijan Diary, is a real journo’s type of book. It contrasts the viciousness of war and it attendant crimes with the banal egotism and tiresome logistical challenges of getting a tough story out of a deadly environment.

5. The Man Who Tried to Save the World: The Dangerous Life and Mysterious Disappearance of an American Hero by Scott Anderson

My current read about the disappearance of The Open Society Institute’s Fred Cuny who was on his way to Bamut, Chechnya in February 1995 and was never seen again. With a stark cover photo diptych by the above mentioned Stanley Greene, this book reads like a fictious thriller save for the scary fact that it is real.

6. A Small Corner of Hell-Dispatches from Chechnya by Anna Politkovskaya

Politkovskaya’s 2003 follow up to a A Dirty War with a dramatic cover photo by Dutch photojournalist Eddy van Wessel. Hard to read but of course well worth it.

7, To Catch a Tartar: Notes from the Caucasus by Chris Bird

A memoir of the chaos taking place in the post-Soviet Transcaucasus of the 1990s by a former AFP and AP Tbilisi-based correspondent with cover photos by my colleague Thomas Dworzak.  This book focuses not solely on the first Russo-Chechen war but also on the tumult in Georgia and even a bit on Abkhazia-which are essential to understanding the overall situation in the greater Caucasus region today.

8. Caucasus: Mountain Men and Holy Wars by Nicholas Griffin

Griffin’s book explore the legacy of the legendary ethnic-Avari anti-colonial warrior Imam Shamil from a sector of Avaristan in what is now Dagestan. Griffin writes about the difficult sectarian and communal history of the Caucasus ending with the rise of the late Shamil Basaev, named after the 19th century Sunni Avari resistance leader.

9. Allah’s Mountains-The Battle for Chechnya by Sebastian Smith

Smith, an AFP correspondent during the first Chechen war and later IWPR analyst in Tbilisi, profiles Russia’s geopolitical enfant terrible that is the Caucasus. All in all, a complex, fantastic read.

9. Chienne de Guerre: A Woman Reporter Behind the Lines of the War in Chechnya by Anne Nivat

Nivat’s recollection of 6 months spent behind the lines after sneaking in Chechnya from neighboring Ingushetia during Putin’s re-invasion of the rebellious independence-minded republic. Nivat’s book highlights the importance of refusing to follow rules imposed on modern journalists by both authoritarian and democratic states (think of the French military impeding journalists in northern Mali at present). A decade ago, Nivat very astutely put the hopelessness of the conflict in a passionate context in an excellent NPR interview.