New York- Sitting in a cafe on a bitterly cold winter day, I’m doing some writing regarding a character in my as yet unpublished manuscript who I found out perished fighting jihad in Syria’s tragically beleaguered Aleppo Governorate in late May 2013.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.