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From Armenia to Chechnya — Journey through the Caucasus

Eight years after his first reportage from the Caucasus, photographer Boris Heger returned to the region. Here he shares some of his personal impressions and snapshots of chance encounters taken as the harsh Caucasian winter was drawing to an end.

NOT much has changed in the Caucasus since my last visit. The region remains rugged yet hospitable, reflecting the character of its inhabitants. The infrastructure is still just as dilapidated, if not worse, many people who were displaced then remain so, a number of regional conflicts have yet to be resolved and the economy continues to stagnate.

Although signs of modernity crop up here and there, in Armenia time appears to have stood still: the frontiers with Turkey and Azerbaijan are still closed, and the country remains cut off. Even so, you can admire lofty Mount Ararat just over the border in Turkey. Never having seen it unveiled by clouds — a rare occurrence, it seems — I savour the moment, the only time in a month spent in the region that the sun is shining, heralding the end of winter.

We head next for Nagorny Karabakh, a source of conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, where bears roam. More than ten years after hostilities ended, mines continue to litter the old front lines, and accidents regularly kill or injure civilians, in many cases children. One of the few international organizations present in the region, the ICRC has built safe play areas in schools near mined zones in order to prevent further tragedy and alert the population to the dangers.

In Georgia, I found the same residents of the “temporary” centres for displaced people who were there the first time I visited: elderly folk living alone and in poverty (on 24 Euros a month), whom the ICRC assists. Their gaze still bears that same haunted look: the hope of one day returning home.

In a prison in Azerbaijan, I am allowed to take my cameras into an area where detainees with tuberculosis are undergoing treatment. It is a powerful moment. I have the impression of being transported back in time in this place steeped in the atmosphere of the former Soviet era.

Many areas of the southern Caucasus are suffering the lingering effects of unresolved conflicts. By contrast, the northern Caucasus and Chechnya are plunged in turmoil, a plethora of vivid scenes and untold human experiences — images that are virtually impossible to capture because of the insecurity. I was nonetheless able to photograph furtively a group of women doing “normal” work in a typically Groznian block of flats. With the ICRC’s help, they have set up their own sewing workshop and are proud to have thus reclaimed a little dignity. “Some of the women who come to the workshop are dedicated followers of fashion… It is just that it’s a little complicated to keep up with the latest fashions in Grozny,” remarks one of the women before resuming her task.

Boris Heger
Boris Heger is a freelance photographer based in Addis-Ababa.

Zugdidi, Georgia, the last village before you enter Abkhazia, where many Georgians who lived in the separatist region before the conflict have now sought refuge. A mother plays with her child in the hall of a “temporary” centre for displaced people. I like this picture because it shows hope, in sharp contrast to some of the other scenes I witnessed in this context.

In the village of Azokh, in Nagorny Karabakh, an ICRC delegate talks to a pensioner. The organization, present since the beginning of the hostilities, endeavours to come to the aid of the most vulnerable, in particular the elderly.

Against the backdrop of the mountainous Armenian landscape, at the foot of the 5,137m Mount Ararat, I met a shepherd, whose huge dog almost ate me! According to the Old Testament, Noah’s Ark ran aground on this majestic mountain situated on the Turkish side of the Armenian border.

Kramorth, another village in Nagorny Karabakh. Deminers from the non-governmental organization Halo Trust are at work along the old front line, 500 metres from the local school. Entire fields are still off-limits to farmers, and mine accidents have become a regular occurrence since the ceasefire in 1994.

Baku, Azerbaijan. In this institution for the care of detainees with tuberculosis, an ICRC field officer explains to the inmates how to prevent and cure tuberculosis.


Grozny, Chechnya. A group of women who have set up a sewing workshop with the ICRC’s help in a partially destroyed block of flats wave at us from the windows as we leave. The temperature frequently drops below minus 20°C in winter.

Grozny, Chechnya. In the sewing workshop set up by the women in the photograph above, one of them said to me: “Believe me, it is not easy to keep these clothes clean in a town so full of dust and mud.”


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