A man stands among snow covered pig heads in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno Karabakh.

Lands In Limbo

What it means to live in places without any international recognition

Pete Brook
Mar 26, 2015 · 6 min read

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.

Nagorno Karabakh. Karabakhi soldiers stand guard at a war memorial in Kharamort, a village that was once evenly populated by ethnic Azeris and Armenians. The village is now half the size since the Azeris fled and their homes were burned.

“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.

A young Somali boy checks himself out and fixes his hair in the mirrors of a small barbershop in Hargeisa, Somaliland.
Transnistria. A pensioner and widow, depending on a sparse state pension of 30 US Dollars per month, speaks with a neighbor in the countryside.
Friends enjoy an afternoon on the Black Sea coast of Abkhazia. Much of the Abkhaz coastline is littered with rusting ships and scrap metal.

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.”

Northern Cyprus. An officer keeps watch along the green line in Lefkosa/Nicosia, the buffer zone that separates the two sides of Cyprus and the only divided capital.
Nagorno Karabakh. People gather for a New Years celebration.

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.”

A man walks into a small store in the center of Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno Karabakh. Stepanakert lost nearly half it’s population to forced deportation of Azeris during the breakaway war.
A man opens a bottle of homemade wine in his farm home. Transnistria broke away from Moldova following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Unable to trade legally due to its status, Transnistria’s Mafioso government survives on illegal arms dealing and is a reputed leader in human trafficking. Transnistria is the last bastion of Soviet style government, complete with a Supreme Soviet, Lenin statues and Hammer and Sickle emblems on all things government, including its national flag. While not being considered a legitimate nation, Transnistria distributes its own passports (although all citizens also hold either Moldovan or Russian passports) and national currency, both of which are worthless beyond its “borders.”

“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.

Northern Cyprus. A young boy outside his home along the wall that divides Cyprus in the capital Lefkosa. Cyprus has been divided for more that 40 years.
Nagorno Karabakh. During and after the breakaway war with Azerbaijan, Karabakhi-Armenians burned and destroyed not only Azeri villages and town quarters but also desecrated Azeri muslim mosques and cemeteries. This is common practice throughout the Caucasus, used as a deterrence for people wanting to return to their homes.
A barbershop in Lefkosa, the capital of Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

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.

Young men gather on the banks of the Dniestra River in Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria.
Nagorno Karabakh. A church choir sings during a sparsely attended Sunday mass in Shushi. Shushi was primarily an Azeri city of cultural significance. Once home to 30,000 people, only 3,000 people call it home now.

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.”

Men and women walk through the bustling central market in Hargeisa, passing war-damaged buildings.
Somaliland. A young girl waits anxiously with her classmates at a private school graduation. Monthly tuition at a private school cost around $30 a month (roughly what a man will spend chewing khat for one week), yet many cannot afford the cost of tuition.
A woman throws corn stocks to the family’s cattle. Somaliland, a breakaway region of Somalia, is the only completely unrecognized country in Africa. Somaliland separated from Somalia during the 1991 collapse of Siyad Barre’s dictatorship, which has since left Somalia in chaos. On the contrary, Somaliland has since built an independent state that has seen relative peace and prosperity, democratization and a thriving entrepreneurial market.

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.”

Shabxan, a young Somali girl living in rural Somaliland, does chores in the home.

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.”

An Abkhaz man, known as “Maradona,” yells obscenities about Georgian politicians and declares the freedom of Abkhazia.

All photos by Narayan Mahon

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Perspectives on Visual Storytelling

Pete Brook

Written by

Writer, curator and educator focused on photo, prisons and power. Sacramento, California. www.prisonphotography.org



Perspectives on Visual Storytelling

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