I am a freelance photographer and visual artist based in Saint-Petersburg, Russia working with National Geographic Russia, VICE UK/USA, De Volkskrant, Takie Dela, Meduza, Novaya Gazeta, others. My photographic practice primarily focuses on the...
In 2015, young men from Muslim regions of Russia - Chechnya and Dagestan began to leave for territories controlled by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria searching for a better life, which recruiters promised them. In accordance with the Islamic traditions, their families had to follow them. These regions are very patriarchal and in accordance with social notions, girls must sacrifice their freedoms, even if they have an opinion different from that of their husbands. The year 2017 was marked by campaigns to clear the Islamic State territories from illegal gangs. The young men were killed during bombings, whereas their wives with children on their hands received sentences ranging from 15 years to life. Some girls have gone missing and have not been in touch with their mothers for several years. Back at home mothers are ready for anything to return their daughters and grandchildren home. Love, hope and sleepless nights - that is all they have. Mothers cling to whatever bits of information they can find about their daughters. They set up WhatsApp support groups to exchange information and comfort each other. Several years have passed since the disappearance of the daughters, but time does not heal. More than that, the old ladies face everyday discrimination – society consider their children as terrorists and talking about them is stigma. Within the framework of the present story I project photographs of the missing ones onto the figures of their mothers and their surroundings showing that the war has no boundaries - it can affect people living miles away the conflict. I am also willing to display the strongest bond between relatives which cannot be destroyed by distance and time.
Zara: "In September 2014, I received a message from my relatives that one of my daughters Makka got married. I lived in Turkey at that time. I began to worry and called the Turkish number that my relatives gave me. "Mom, where am I?": she cried. She also said that a stranger woman showed her a photograph of her future spouse and promised a wedding in Turkey. The phone went silent. I fell ill and could not get up for six months. Later Makka got in touch. She said that she had married a Chechen from a neighboring village. I don’t want to accuse him maybe their love was strong, who knows? I felt that she was afraid of something. I asked her - “Makka, where are you?” She wrote“ Manbij, Syria ”on a piece of paper and ate it. Later, her husband was killed during the bombings while Makka was pregnant with a girl. During childbirth, Makka almost died. She told me that she was planning to escape from widows' house but had been caught and beaten. I can't imagine what she was going through."
Pazilyat: "My son Eldar lived in Nizhnevartovsk. He married a girl named Albina. At some point, he disappeared along with his wife and two children - Samira and Abdulmin. I cried so hard when I found out that they were in Syria. "Eldar died" - that was the message I got from Albina one day. I was numb and terrified. For me it was a nightmare. My daughter also died in Syria a year before, in Al-Kishma, her family's house was blown up during the bombing, along with two children. So the story of my daughter repeated again. I have never imagined that I would loose two children in such a horrible way."
Maimulat: "My third daughter Iman left for Turkey following her husband. It was impossible to guess her location via video call. Then, in 2015, it turned out that her husband had been killed as a result of a rocket attack in a mosque. I immediately understood where they were. According to the daughter, her husband did not take part in the hostilities. I am inclined to think so, judging by the impression he made on me, he was very trusting. Most likely he was promised a good life by a recruiter. After his death, Iman was assigned to a widows' house. She called from there but could not talk much - someone was staying behind her all the time. Then through the word of mouth we heard that she had been imprisoned. There has been silence since 2017. To be honest, no one expected that fate would turn out this way. Our daughter studied acting and loved to dance. She has always been a very sensitive girl. Now she has been in prison for the 4th year, and we have forgotten what she looks like."
Larisa: "Ava was visiting her brother and she met a man there. She married him without my consent. I did not even know what kind of person her husband was. 6 years ago he said he wanted to study religion in Egypt. Ava was also very interested and left with him. At first, I did not communicate with her at all. I was too angry. Then the mother's heart melted. Of course, they didn’t tell me that they were going to Iraq. I found out about that only at the moment when planes began to bomb them. The son-in-law died under shelling. She often told me - "Mom, please forgive me, if you can." Every mother would forgive her child whatever she did. Then she called me several times, saying that she was in prison. There were 59 women in one cell, mattresses all over the floor. It was a dirty, dark place. She gave birth to her second son in these conditions. The last time we talked was in 2019 from Moscow, when my grandsons were brought back. The consul allowed me to talk to her for a minute."
The picture of a girl Albina captured with her children projected on the chest of her mother Gulnara. Albina left to IS with her husband Martin. Her eldest daughter Madina is 15 years old does not want to go back to Dagestan without her mother saying she does not want to lose anyone else in her life. So many things happened before her eyes. Madina saw cars filled with bodies. Whilst communicating with Gulnara the girl recalls how she walked from school together with her friends. She had a good childhood, and now she helps her mother in the camp in Syria - adulthood quickly came to her and in such a terrible form.
Gulnara: “Starting from 2015, my daughter Albina's husband began to go to the mosque. A year later she together with her children also began to walk with him and learned Arabic. At the same time, she began to dress in black. As a result, some rumors were sent around Martin that he had become too religious. Martin stopped communicating with his parents. They disowned him. Suddenly they decided to move to Turkey. They lived in Turkey for two years, as far as I know. But I’m not sure about that, I didn’t trace the moment when they moved to the Islamic State. The connection was very rare. At the beginning of 2019, my daughter got in touch and told me everything. It was scary. The bombing began. Once a bullet touched her ear, a little to the side, and she would not have been alive. Albina decided to flee but was captured and a sniper shot and killed my granddaughter Jasmine.”
Albina's picture projected on her mother's hands. Gulnara has a very high blood pressure which jumps up every time she remembers her daughter and children. She checks her mobile phone every 5 minutes whilst waiting for a message.
Jannet: "My daughter worked as an English teacher at school. Her husband Ruslan was a person of wide soul. They did not need anything but suddenly disappeared. Then a stranger called me saying: "you are a blessed mother, your Ziyarat has done the hijra (relocation to IS)." After a while, the daughter herself got in touch. She asked for forgiveness. That was the last time I heard her voice. I was ready to commit suicide. I am still waiting for her near the river. Water calms me down."
Madina: "Akhmedkhan was studying in St.Petersburg. From there he informed me he had decided to study at Al-Azhar (one of the most prestigious universities in Cairo, Egypt). Then the connection was lost for 6 months. I found his page on Facebook and a girl Gulnara among his friends, She turned out to be his wife. They got married in Syria. Sobbing, the girl told me that my son died, she resides in the closed camp Al-Khol and is expecting a baby. Gulnara said they ended up there with a desire to observe pure Islam but eventually regretted this decision. Eventually she gave birth to a boy in the camp and named him Osama. He is now 6 years old, I dream to meet him."
Marzhan: "Madina married at the age of 15. Her husband kidnapped her, we have such traditions. He treated her well as I know, was humble and loving. One day he decided to leave abroad. Madina considered it her duty to go with him. At first, they sent us beautiful pictures which were becoming darker day by day - long beards, black clothes. They said that they crossed the Syrian-Turkish border and after that their passports were torn. As time went on they realized that they had made a mistake, but it was too late."
Marzhan's granddaughter Hadizha (7 y.o.) who was born in Syria under the bombs and was raised in Al-Hol camp. She has never seen dolls or chocolate. Hadizha is helping her mother Madina as much as she can, cooks and cleans inside the tiny tent in which they live.
Patimat: "Ashura was smart, she graduated from school with a gold medal. In 2007 she got married to Mohamad. One day they called me and said that they wanted to study Islam in Egypt. We believed. It was only in 2018 that we learned that Ashura was in the Al-Hol camp in Syria, and her husband had died. My daughter tells absolutely wild things about the camp. Food is not available sometimes and prisoners have to eat raw flour. If there is no flour they take feed from cattle belonging to the Kurds."
Zara: "My son's wife, Aishat was very quiet. At some point, grandchildren began to complain that their mother was constantly on the phone. In fact, Aishat met a man on social networks. A recruiter. One day she left with children saying that she was going to visit her relatives in the village. At that time my son was working in Moscow. There was no information for a long time. My son flew to Turkey to look for her and children, showing their photographs everywhere. Only two years later we found her through the support groups. Once I managed to get in touch, Aishat begged for forgiveness, said “I'm sorry, mom”, then silence again. Recently we learned she was in Al-Khol (a closed refugee camp on the border of Syria and Iraq). Her youngest boy Ali was killed by a shrapnel during shelling. The son has a new family and a child. But I really want Aishat to return with my grandchildren, I do not hold a grudge against her, although at first the insult was strong. She is like a daughter to me."
Unfortunately many children who were taken to IS by young Chechen parents died during the battles. 8 years old Ali was not the exception. Grandson of Zara who is waiting for her daughter-in-law to return from Iraq was killed during shelling by a big fraction of a bomb. Some children return home with the help of Commissioner for Children Rights in Russia but they have terrible psychological trauma after staying in prison with their mothers for a long period time. Adaptation to normal life takes at least a year.
The picture of Jannet's daughter Ziyarat and her family projected on their bed in the house where they resided before leaving to IS. Now this house belongs to Ziyarat's far relatives but nobody sleeps on this bed.