Tuesday, July 13, 2010

PHOTOESSAY: “File 126 (Disappearing in the Caucasus)” By Mari Bastashevski (lens.blogs.nytimes.com)

Empty Chairs, Empty Tables, Empty Beds

MOSCOW — The rooms depicted in Mari Bastashevski’s project, “File 126 (Disappearing in the Caucasus),” are neat as a pin, suffused with light, as carefully arranged as a brand new doll house.
You have to examine them closely to find what she calls “the dent on the pillow”: a sign that, until a minute ago, someone occupied this space; that someone stepped out expecting to return.
What is not apparent in the images, made in the southern Russian provinces of Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia, is the violence of the disappearances. The narratives have a numbing sameness — 20 or 30 masked men bursting into a house at 4 a.m.; extended families ordered to lie face-down on the ground; young men in their bathrobes, forced into armored vehicles without license plates.
Ms. Bastashevski, 30, a Russian-born artist who now lives in the West, had read the case files before she began visiting families. Human rights organizations in the Russian North Caucasus have spent years documenting the abductions of young people, which they attribute to the state security forces conducting a brutal counter-insurgency campaign.
When she entered the houses, stories poured out, over cups of tea, in two- and three-hour torrents. Some verged on madness, like the genteel lady who was certain, after five years, that her sons were still alive in a secret prison in the forest, if only she could reach them.
All were infused with the desperate hope that a visitor from the West — often the first they had ever had in their homes — could somehow save their children.
Sometimes, parents who had lost a son to abduction would ask Ms. Bastashevski if she would marry another son. “We’re not talking about, ‘You’re a pretty lady, let’s make a good deal,’” she said. “It is like, ‘Could you marry my son so he could leave?’ Well, what do you say? There is nothing to say.”
What came to her was the quietest of all solutions: She would photograph the homely spaces the missing men had inhabited, many of them preserved in anticipation of their return. Five families turned into dozens and then hundreds. She edited her photos into a portfolio named after Article 126, the category for abduction in the Russian criminal code, which is being exhibited in New York and Washington by the Open Society Foundation.

It helped that she had her own nest to return to. Like most Westerners who do work in the North Caucasus, Ms. Bastashevski had planned a short trip. A month, she thought, would be enough to get what she needed. But her plans were upended when she met Natalia Estemirova, 50, a former schoolteacher who had become a one-woman human rights clearing-house in Chechnya.
A boisterously funny mother hen who shared Ms. Bastashevski’s affection for Harry Potter, Ms. Estemirova lived in a two-room apartment in central Grozny, beset by water and power outages and a half-demented cat. Ms. Estemirova knew how dangerous her work was. She had sent her 15-year-old daughter to live with relatives in central Russia. So she had room.
“Natalia turned my head around completely, so I just moved in,” Ms. Bastashevski said. They developed a routine. If Ms. Bastashevski got carried away with a photo shoot and stayed out after dark, Ms. Estemirova would chase her down to make sure she was all right, and then she would come home to the safety of the apartment, and they would sit across the kitchen table and talk about their days.
“She was taking care of me,” Ms. Bastashevski said. “It kind of always was serious, but it felt safer — she could do her job, and be O.K., and she’s looking after me, and I’m going to be careful.”
Add this to the list of empty spaces: One year ago this week, Ms. Estemirova was snatched by four men outside her apartment building and forced into a car as she left for work. Her lifeless body was found a few hours later by the side of a highway, with gunshot wounds to the head and chest.
Since then, Ms. Bastashevski has made three trips to the North Caucasus, where the unfinished work only seems to proliferate. There is nothing lighthearted about it now; she still has to stop herself from dialing Ms. Estemirova’s number when she has a question. She realizes she must return to photograph her friend’s apartment as part of her project — to capture “the gap,” as she puts it, “between life before and after.” She went as far as retrieving the keys to the apartment from a neighboring village. But she passed by several times and was unable to turn down the street.
“I couldn’t find it in myself to go there,” she said. “I kind of had to put it off.

Blog by Mari Bastashevski >>>

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