There are currently an estimated 10 million people who have been forced to flee their homes and home nations. These refugees who have escaped war and natural and man-made disasters, live in legal limbo. Not integrated fully in foreign lands but without a way back, they are “stateless.”
“Stateless” is a word to describe people without a place, but what about places without place?
Abkhazia, Northern Cyprus, Transnistria, Nagorno Karabakh, and Somaliland can fairly be described as stateless — all countries that are without formal recognition from other nations and without acknowledged statehood. For his series Lands In Limbo, photographer Narayan Mahon visited all five and observed societies in legal No-Man’s Land.
These are states that are not.
“I never realized there was this middle ground, between seceding and being a normal, fully-fledged nation,” says Mahon. “I was curious about the idea that a country could be functionally independent but not recognized by the international community.”
Mahon witnessed the cultural identities, ethnic make-up, economics, and fights for self-determination. His photographs reveal fragments of daily life, work and and leisure.
If there are any common sights among these five countries facing extreme international isolation, Mahon hoped to capture them.
“The former Soviet breakaway states definitely share a common history and psychological profile. Those states have such a strong culture of paranoia and mistrust. They share an experience in how they were grouped with other countries in ways that created conflict,” says Mahon. “Those conflicts are still coming up throughout the former Soviet Union.”
Lands In Limbo defies genre. It is partly documentation, but not complete documentary. Some of the images look like news photos but Mahon has a stated artistic intent. Here is an inquiry about huge geopolitical forces in a globalized 21st century … but it is based upon momentary street photos and portraits.
“I wanted to see what these countries’ national identities looked like, [learn] what’s it’s like to live in such an isolated place.”
“When I started the project not one of countries was recognized by a single country,” says Mahon.
Fortunes haven’t changed much. Abkhazia now has recognition from four countries — Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru. (It did have six, but Vanuatu and Tuvalu recently rescinded their recognition.)
Mostly though, Northern Cyprus, Transnistria, Nagorno Karabakh, and Somaliland are on their own. Outsider-status forges rock solid internal bonds.
“All of the countries share a certain sense of righteousness,” explains Mahon. “Self-determination, independence and sovereignty is their human right.”
Once breakaway is achieved peaceable reunification is usually left behind. Only in Northern Cyprus are there political talks about the reunification of Cyprus. Referendums and the people may decide ultimately.
“None of the other breakaway states talk about reunification, that would be political suicide … or homicide,” says Mahon.
During the four years of shooting the project Mahon became fascinated by the relationship between self-determination and multi-culturalism. He values them both greatly, and so it was sad to find them often at odds in countries facing huge external pressures.
“Those ideas don’t always go hand-in-hand,” he says. “Multi-culturalism only works if all groups are afforded the same privileges and rights.”
The lack of rights in some cases is what leads to tensions and efforts to go it alone. But self-determination will not necessarily provide equality. In most cases, Mahon observed, it was better for aspiring groups to attempt establishing their own countries than to remain subject to status quo.
“That explains why some countries go through civil war, secession and then endure the decades of existing in this state of limbo,” Mahon reflects. “But, if self-determination — the idea that a group of people has the right to govern themselves — is pursued what happens to multi-culturalism?
There are no guarantees that a newer nation is better at upholding equality for all. In some ways, it is remarkable Mahon was able to make any images of this massive, speculative, and borderless issue.
It’s worth noting that Mahon choose not to include Western Sahara (Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic), a breakaway region of Morocco, in Lands In Limbo.
“It is recognized by over 40 UN member countries, but that is down from 85 in the past, so I decided not to include it in my project.”
As for the future, Mahon holds out no hope for recognition in Nagorno Karabakh. Northern Cyprus could go either way — recognition or reunification.
The fortunes of Abkhazia and Transnistria rely on the Kremlin’s intentions and the development of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
“Given the direction Russia is heading, annexation of Abkhazia and Transnistria are maybe even more likely than recognition,” says Mahon. Russia has recently issued a lot of visas to Abkhazian citizens forging official legal ties.
“I don’t think it’s a big leap to assume that Russia has given themselves justification to annex Abkhazia in order to protect their ‘citizens’ if there were to be another war between Georgia and Russia, as there was in 2008. The same could happen in Transnistria if Russia wanted to hem-in Ukraine.”
Somaliland is the only country in Lands In Limbo “that is clearly better off than the country from which they broke away” says Mahon.
Somalia, from which Somaliland broke away, has long been quoted as the textbook example of a failed state. It is also a long-ago memory of people in Somaliland, but geopolitical factors have prevented Somaliland’s forward trajectory.
“Most of these countries don’t get recognized because, for most foreign nations, maintaining a relationship with the main country is more important than having a relationship with the breakaway state,” asserts Mahon. “But, I think there is a chance that Western countries will see that having a relationship with Somaliland — a democratic, pro-western Islamic country that works against piracy in the Horn of Africa — would be mutually beneficial.”
Having seen incredibly high rates of joblessness and visited ailing social institutions, Mahon knows there needs to be swift improvements in Abkhazia, Northern Cyprus, Transnistria, Nagorno Karabakh, and Somaliland.
“The longer term ramifications of unemployment and hampered education and schools make all these countries very vulnerable.”
If you enjoyed reading this, please click “Recommend” below.
This will help to share the story with others.