Photographers' Blog

Parallel world of Chechnya

Grozny, Chechnya

By Maxim Shemetov

What did I know about Chechnya before last week? For someone who grew up in the 1990s the very word Chechnya meant a string of grainy images on TV showing people in battered camouflage outfits, shooting at each other amid destruction and ruin. Fear, wahhabis, Shamil Basayev, terrorism, mountains: these were the words that used to spring to my mind when someone mentioned Chechnya.

It still has a reputation as a frightening place where people get kidnapped and entire villages are razed. When I told my friends I was leaving for Chechnya on assignment they asked me in jest if I would need an armored vehicle. Many of then were visibly worried. But then I spoke to a colleague who had worked there for more than 15 years. He said: “You won’t find a safer place in Russia, be smart and you’ll be okay”.

I flew to Grozny, with mixed expectations. When we got there and I stepped out of Grozny’s Severny Airport, I knew this wasn’t Russia. It was a totally different, parallel world, a cross between Singapore and the Middle East, with veiled women, men in camouflage, Islamic skull caps and long beards, and armed police on every street corner. There was a mosque outside the main airport terminal. A huge portrait of Chechnya’s strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov was just across the street, and another, smaller portrait of Russian president Vladimir Putin close by. The streets were spotless, a rarity in Russia where many cities are full of potholes and crumbling buildings. I got into a taxi and plunged into Grozny.

Grozny was once described as the world’s most destroyed city. I remember photographs from the 1990s depicting unthinkable destruction and suffering.


(Photo by Yannis Behrakis)

It has changed in a way I found astounding. The quiet streets are now lined with trees and marble facades, the skyscrapers of Grozny city, the center point of Kadyrov’s reconstruction efforts, soar into the sky. Locals lower their voices when describing their hard-line leader. He controls every construction site in the city. Locals say that if he doesn’t like how a project is going he often orders it to be knocked down and built anew. When his motorcade glides through the city, complete with sirens and columns of security vehicles, people freeze and stare with awe. His relatives hold key positions in government. His father, a former president, was killed in a bomb blast in 2004. Both men’s portraits glare from giant billboards. “Ramzan, thank you for Grozny!’ says a red neon light sign opposite the city’s giant central mosque.

“Are you al-Shabaab or soldiers?”

WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT

Mogadishu, Somalia

By Feisal Omar

At 11:30 on Sunday morning I was sipping a cup of coffee at the Village restaurant near the palace when I heard a blast followed by gunshots.

I walked out onto the street and could see pickup trucks with anti-aircraft guns mounted on them, rushing toward the Mogadishu court. I started my vehicle and drove speedily in the direction of the court. I arrived moments later at the court building where there was an intense exchange of gunfire.

I could not believe armed fighters had broken into the court, killed the soldiers that guarded it, the lawyers and others. “How did al-Shabaab take over such a well-guarded building in the heart of the town!’ I whispered to myself as I got closer to the building.

Anxious for peace

Cizre in Turkey’s Sirnak province, near the border with Syria

By Umit Bektas

Turkey’s fledgling peace process with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militant group is all over the headlines. After three decades of war, 40,000 deaths and a devastating impact on the local economy, everybody seems ready for peace. TV news channels and newspapers are saturated with opinions and commentary from politicians, officials, academics and journalists on what appears to be the best hope yet of building a lasting peace agreement with Kurdish militants.

But what about ordinary people in Turkey’s southeast, those most directly affected? How do they view the peace process and how might their lives change?

Eager to find out, I traveled to southeastern Turkey to cover Newroz, the Kurdish New Year celebrations, on March 21. In the town of Cizre, near the border with Syria, with the help of a local journalist, I found the Savun family and spent the weekend with them. Theirs is not an extraordinary story, but sometimes the least extraordinary stories reveal the most.

Mali’s war: Far from over

Across Mali

By Joe Penney

Since French troops first arrived in Mali on January 11, 2013, I have spent all but one week of 2013 covering the conflict there. The first three weeks were probably the most intense I have ever worked in my life, and at times, the most frustrating. French troops hit the ground at a pace which far outstripped most journalists’ ability to cover events, and media restrictions forced journalists to focus on something other than fighting.

GALLERY: IMAGING MALI

Many other journalists have lamented the stringent media restrictions, which at a certain point meant that when the French and Malian took control of Gao, most of the journalists were blocked at a Malian army checkpoint in Sevare, more than 600km (370 miles) southwest. But after the initial push resulting in the seizure of nearly all of Mali’s territory, the jihadist groups opted for a more insurgent-like approach, targeting the Malian army with suicide bombs and surprise attacks in Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal.

It is clear that this war is not like many others. After a month of complaining that we were not given access to the frontline, on one of the first few days I arrived in Gao, the frontline came to us. We had heard lots of gunfire throughout the night and then in the morning, Malian and French forces engaged in a day-long street battle with jihadists who had taken control of several key administrative buildings downtown. The attack on Gao and other attacks, like Thursday’s in Timbuktu, show that the danger in this war is that it can erupt at any time, in any place.

The day Saddam fell

By Goran Tomasevic

Why did I go to Iraq? Because it was a big story.

I was there in 2002 for the presidential referendum where Saddam was the only candidate.

I knew there would be a war. I’d begun my post in Jerusalem but I didn’t go there – instead I went to Iraq. As a Serbian national I didn’t need a visa to enter Iraq. I also had experience covering Kosovo and the Balkan war. I arrived at the end of January 2003, and spent three months there.

This was my first big conflict after covering the former Yugoslavia. For me, it was very important to prove myself on the international stage.

The hero of Timbuktu

Timbuktu, Mali

By Benoit Tessier

In order to get to Timbuktu I chose the most arduous route, 800 kms (500 miles) of tracks in the desert, because it was the only way possible. Along the road I saw more French flags than during the Football World Cup in 1998. Two days later François Hollande was arriving in town.

The local VIPs, from the wealthiest families of Timbuktu, waited along with other figures of the city (or at least the last remaining few) for the arrival of the French president in front of the big mosque. Since April and the fall of Timbuktu into the hands of the MLNA rebels and Islamist groups, the town suffered and emptied itself over the past 10 months.

The memories of the “punishments” (lashes) that the Islamists inflicted on couples accused of committing adultery or on smokers had now faded. In front of the Sankoré mosque, thousands of people were here to say thank you to France and its hero of the day: François Hollande who enjoyed a walkabout on the esplanade. The crowd was jubilant and screaming “Mali France! Mali France! Long life daddy Hollande.”

Guinea-Bissau: The weight of history

Gabu, Guinea-Bissau

By Joe Penney

When Guinea-Bissau is in the news, it’s almost always for the wrong reasons: coups d’état, assassinations, drug smuggling and extreme poverty.

Journalists like to cite the fact that since the tiny West African country switched to a multi-party system in 1995, no president has completed a full term. The country is often labeled a “narco-state” because of South American drug cartels using its islands and mainland as a waypoint for trafficking cocaine to Europe, even though its neighbors are dealing with the same problems.

But this reputation is rarely put into its historical context. After the Portuguese created what is modern-day Guinea-Bissau in 1890 when European powers divided the African continent at the Berlin Conference, they fought a 49-year-war of pacification against the local African communities resisting their rule.

“I felt like it was the end of the world”

Beirut, Lebanon

By Maria Semerdjian

Joziane Shedid – that was her name.

After a difficult search, we had managed to identify the blood-soaked young woman in a picture taken by Reuters photographer Hasan Shaaban in the wake of a powerful bomb explosion in Beirut.

We found it difficult to identity the girl because at first we didn’t realize she was the older sister of Jennifer Shedid, another bomb victim Hasan photographed that fateful day, who was even more severely injured and almost lost her life.

We searched from clinic to clinic and finally found out that the young woman we were looking for was at the Lebanese Canadian Hospital. When we arrived, we saw Jennifer’s mother and asked if she knew the girl from the photograph. “That’s my daughter,“ she replied immediately, and pointed over at Joziane.

Mali economy counters political turmoil

By Joe Penney

When I went to Mali to do a story on how its economy is faring, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The landlocked West African country is currently facing the biggest challenges of its 52-year existence: Jihadist rebels, many of them foreign, occupy its northern two-thirds, while politicians associated with the former regime and ex-coup military leaders squabble over power in the south.

If you just read the headlines, you might think the world has turned upside down in Mali. And indeed in the north of the country, it has: nearly 450,000 people have fled the violence there and now eke out a precarious existence in the south as well as in refugee camps in neighboring Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Niger, according to UN figures. Yet despite the political turmoil, to my pleasant surprise I found out that economically speaking Mali’s lower third — where the vast majority of its 15 million people live — is actually doing quite well.

This situation in the north is a real humanitarian emergency and aid organizations are struggling to keep up. But the industries that form the backbone of Mali’s economy — gold and cotton, both of which are located in the southern third and still under government control — have weathered the storm quite well. Gold miners both large and small-scale are producing as much gold as ever, while good rains combined with high global cotton prices mean that the four million small cotton farmers expect to earn more for their crops at harvest this October than last year.

Keeping vampire’s hours

By Tim Wimborne

Photography is capturing light reflecting off things to make pictures. I shoot a lot after sundown over here. That just seems to be the nature of this war. Soldiers I have been embedded with have technology that gives them an upper hand at night and so they tend to be fairly active in the dark.

Shooting at Combat Outpost Pirtle-King takes this to a record level. Soldiers here describe working on this base as “sitting in a fish bowl”. There are steep slopes above on three sides providing enemy gunmen ample concealed fighting positions from which to fire down. There seemed to be one particularly active sniper in the area at present.

To mitigate the risk from up high, soldiers just stay indoors, behind protective earth-filled Hesco walls. Most soldiers not working on guard duty during the day sleep, read or watch movies. They work after the sun sets and carry out their outdoor tasks within the beam of a head-torch.

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