Somewhere Between War and Peace

One photographer's search for beauty and calm amid conflict

Outside Hazrat Ali Mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, in November 2001 (James Hill)

Like any photographer attempting to piece together the kaleidoscope of the past, one image at a time, I still feel disturbed by the ambiguities of my journey. When I started my career as a freelance photojournalist in 1991, I plunged immediately into the strife of the war-torn republics of the former Soviet Union. I had set out on the photographic life as eager to embrace joy as I was to find sorrow, but then, with time, I struggled to bridge the distance between those extremes. I joined The New York Times in 1995, based first in Moscow and then in Rome, departing to cover the war on terror in Afghanistan and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. And over time, a darkness began to encroach on me, with the moments of violence I saw hardening me without me realizing.

It takes a far finer balance than I ever imagined to live with these images, the result of decades of trespassing in the emotional no-man’s land somewhere between war and peace, where the number of deaths seems somehow to lessen the value of life.

If I searched for forms of beauty in war and for closure in peace, I found them only in fleeting moments.

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James Hill

The Grandmother, Staraya Sunzha, Chechnya, January 15, 2000

During the First Chechen War, in 1994-1996, most journalists could cross the front lines at will, largely respected by both sides. But by the time Russian forces reinvaded Chechnya, in 1999, unhindered movement for the press had become virtually impossible. The Chechen forces had splintered into wildly disparate groups with shifting allegiances and a general hostility to outsiders, including journalists. The Russians, for their part, made no secret of their mistrust of the foreign press, believing that many reporters romanticized the Chechen cause, and that their access to the front should be minimal. Only when the Russian advance towards Grozny, the Chechen capital, gathered momentum and victory over the rebels was in sight did the Russians allow us near the fighting, and even then we were under tight supervision.

Our rendezvous was at a miserable garrison town, Mozdok, in the republic of North Ossetia, neighboring Chechnya. Since Ossetia was Christian, the Russians felt safe there. But the moment we crossed the border into Chechnya itself the troops guarding us became nervous, pulling masks over their faces and wedging our smoky old bus between two armored personnel carriers for protection. On a later tour, I made the mistake of having four cups of tea for breakfast; during a brief stop, deep inside Chechnya, I was still urinating when the soldiers reboarded, and they threatened to shoot me for endangering the convoy.

The war was also different because of the new Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin. After the disgrace of losing the first war, he wanted to eradicate the Chechen rebels—even if, as he famously stated, it meant blowing them up in their outhouses. The scale of the destruction was overwhelming, and as we passed one flattened house after another our minders from the Foreign Ministry grew increasingly silent.

Nearly four hours after our journey began, we reached the front at Staraya Sunzha, a suburb of Grozny; the battle for the Chechen capital raged barely half a kilometer down the road. We disembarked at a staging post where troops from Russian Interior Forces were gathering, checking their machine guns, and adjusting their bandanas à la Rambo. They scowled, raising their guns to indicate, presumably jokingly, that they would open fire if I took their picture.

More ordnance landed on Grozny during that campaign than on any other city in Russia since World War II. Our guides from the Ministry, already deeply ill at ease with the booming explosions in the distance, were refusing to let me move farther down the road when a trickle of refugees—mostly poor, ethnic Russians—came trudging toward us.

I rushed to them, at first not noticing the old woman lying in a wheelbarrow. Her son, who had been struggling to push her, told me that she had been wounded by falling masonry on New Year’s Day but that the bombardment of the city had been so unrelenting that they had been stranded in their shattered home. For 10 days, he had tended to her wounds before seizing on a lull in the fighting to evacuate her in the only available transport, his wheelbarrow. Even then it had taken him five days to push her the 15 kilometers to the outskirts of the city where we stood that afternoon.

Turning to the woman, I crouched next to her, taking pictures as she stared at me, her eyes unblinking. After a minute, her silence stopped me and I felt forced to speak to her, uttering words of comfort in Russian that I did not believe—and probably neither did she—yet which nonetheless seemed important to say. She did not reply. I was still talking to her when the minders from the Foreign Ministry, declaring the departure of the bus to be imminent, pulled me away.

James Hill

The Wedding Shop, Saddam City, Baghdad, March 14, 2001

It was a cold and overcast night, and the lights of Amman faded into the desert as my traveling companion and I navigated our way to the Iraqi border and then through a myriad of officials with bushy mustaches. Within half an hour, we were tearing down a vast and ghostly motorway toward Baghdad.

When we arrived in the Iraqi capital, at dawn, each street revealed a different guise of the country’s leader: Saddam the general, Saddam the sheikh, Saddam the world leader in a Western suit, Saddam in a cardigan and a Tyrolean hat—the symbolism of which entirely escaped me. He was everywhere and nowhere, omnipresent yet invisible.

It was still a surprise to arrive at the Rashid hotel in central Baghdad and see, on the floor in front of the entrance, the mosaic caricature of former President George Bush, along with the words “Bush Is Criminal.” The doormen watched closely to make sure that I didn’t sidestep his face; I trod on his hair rather than his mouth, just to irritate them. The hotel’s rooms were doubtlessly bugged. Even so, every time I opened my door onto the shag-carpeted corridor, I found a man in a brown suit and slippers shuffling past.

While working in Iraq I was essentially in the custody of the Ministry of Information at all times. I could go out for a meal, but I was unable to visit anyone without my minder. No spontaneous response to anything was possible, because I could not take a single photograph without direct permission. Like most foreign journalists, I was led around a well-trodden circuit, starting with a visit to a hospital with undernourished babies. While I didn’t doubt that some of the children I saw were suffering indirectly because of international sanctions, this explanation was so overplayed that it was difficult to make sense of what I was being shown.

During the next week, I was taken to visit markets and schools in Baghdad, the date fields of Basra, the Arabs of the marshlands along the Shatt al-Arab River, and the gaudy recreation of ancient Babylon, a disjointed vision of the country specifically designed to camouflage any glimpses of reality.

On the last day, we stopped in Saddam City, the Shiite ghetto of Baghdad. The Ministry of Information wished to squash any rumors about Saddam Hussein’s repression of the Shiite community. We weaved through the bustling district until my guide, puffing furiously on his cigarette, got out of the car and led me into a wedding parlor.

The moment we stepped in, all the women—several of whom were obviously preparing for weddings later that day—disappeared into the back, and I was left staring at a display of frocked mannequins. I stood, waiting, wondering what would happen next, when suddenly a bride rushed toward the door to the street, a towel clasped over her face. As I took her picture, I could not help but reflect on the paradox of this land of mirrors where, when I was permitted take a photograph, the subject’s identity remained completely hidden.

James Hill

The Couple, Badakhshan Province, Afghanistan, October 19, 2001

When I first saw the lone couple silhouetted against the barren mountains, I hesitated. They seemed like a mirage that would disappear as soon I approached—a fear that was reinforced by my overwhelming desire to take their picture.

I was still recovering from a bewildering day spent with one of the local Northern Alliance commanders, who had greeted me early that morning on the top of a magnificent range of mountains. With a nonchalant air, he pointed to a distant peak where he said the Taliban were dug in. Then he ordered his two tanks to start shelling their positions. By some peculiar agreement, each side took turns shelling the other, and today was the Northern Alliance’s go.

After two hours, the shelling abruptly stopped, as if the Alliance’s allotted time for firing had expired, and the soldiers retired to a mud hut. I followed them—there was nothing else to do—and found them smoking a joint and carrying a cumbersome antenna around the room, attempting to pick up channels on their ancient television. After a few minutes of trial and error, they stumbled upon a women’s tennis tournament; the display of bare thighs and arms reduced them to silence and then, when one of the players grunted, sent them into fits of hysterics. Feeling superfluous to the scene, I returned to the jeep and began the slow descent to the valley.

Just after we reached the main road, I saw the couple ahead of us. Their tender proximity appeared so delicate that our very presence seemed to threaten it. I took a few frames as they bisected the view and then put down my cameras and listened instead to the clickety-clack of the donkey’s hooves piercing the stillness of the dusk.

I felt mysteriously recalibrated by the couple’s slow, sure progress. After we drove past, I continued to follow them in the side mirror until they vanished.

James Hill

The Island of Peace, Hazrat Ali Mosque, Mazar-i-Sharif, November 30, 2001

Each morning in Afghanistan, I would wake up thinking about my imminent journey down dusty dirt roads to the front line—a mountainous landscape invariably punctuated by men with Kalashnikovs whose stares told me nothing of their intentions.

My behavior became instinctive, like that of an animal trying to smell its way to safety, and when I arrived at the doors of the Red Cross residence in Mazar-i-Sharif after two months in the country I had become part savage. Sitting at dinner that first night, clad in a hastily cleaned shirt and trousers, I gazed at the place settings and candles with a sense of profound estrangement, recognizing all the trappings of my culture but feeling entirely alien to it.

It was, perhaps, not a coincidence that Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of northern Afghanistan, was offering a temporary return to my other world, since the city itself was a paradoxical place, beautified by turquoise minarets and yet haunted by a violent and vengeful history.

In 1997, at the height of the civil war, hundreds of Taliban were executed in the desert just outside the city’s gates. When the Taliban returned in force the next year, they left a sign to mark their exploits. “By God’s grace,” the text by the eastern gate stated, “the Taliban captured the northern region of Afghanistan in 1998 and massacred the pagans.”

Mazar-i-Sharif seemed a city without room for mercy. Just as I arrived, Uzbek forces of the Northern Alliance, led by General Abdul Rashid Dostum and aided by American Special Forces, were suppressing an uprising of Taliban prisoners in the Qala-i-Jangi fortress, leaving a carpet of bodies on the prison’s grounds.

So brutal was the battle’s conclusion that a dramatic and awkward peace descended on the city; having visited the fortress to photograph the aftermath, I wandered aimlessly, in a state of confusion, as if searching for the answer to a question that I wasn’t able to define. My path invariably took me through the central square and past the Hazrat Ali mosque, Afghanistan’s most sacred site.

The mosque is named after Ali, the son of the Prophet Mohammed and one of the pivotal figures of the Shiite branch of Islam. Although Ali is buried in Najaf, in modern-day Iraq, according to local legend his spirit resides in Mazar-i-Sharif. Here a sentinel of hundreds of doves—supposedly descendants of a pair brought in the 17th century by an Afghan prince coming back from Najaf—stand watch over him.

Local residents said that a few days before, doves had suddenly begun returning to the mosque, offering them a sense of hope. And I, too, felt cheered in their presence. Visitors arrived to feed them—not only as a sign of religious devotion but also as thanks for the symbol of peace they represented in the sea of violence that had engulfed Afghanistan.

Many legends have sprung up around the birds, each one more astonishing than the next, and almost everyone I talked to offered a different story. One man attributed a spirit to every seventh dove; another claimed that if a gray pigeon landed amid the crowd it would turn white within 40 days to assimilate itself with its hallowed brethren. Because the doves decided to position themselves perfectly when I took this photograph, I was happy to believe every tale.

James Hill

The Party of God, Fatima Gate, Lebanon-Israel Border, April 14, 2002

South of Beirut, the road turns away from the Mediterranean and winds through valleys dotted with olive trees until it arrives at a checkpoint on the banks of the Litani River. This is where government-controlled territory ends and the land of Hezbollah, the Party of God, begins. There is, of course, no official internal border in Lebanon. Nevertheless, Hezbollah has run this frontier zone from the day Israeli forces left Lebanon in 2000.

It is land that men have fought over for as long as anyone can remember. The enormous Crusader castle of Beaufort, s­tanding high above the town of Nabatieh, has borne witness to the centuries of battles waged here. Even as late as the 1970s, the castle was a base—first for the Palestine Liberation Organization, and then for the Israelis, who dynamited large parts of the fortifications as they withdrew their troops.

Hezbollah’s message is proclaimed at every turn of the road, on billboards showing grainy images of attacks on Israeli convoys and portraits of martyrs bearing AK-47 assault rifles. And, lest anyone forget the ultimate goal, signposts every few kilometers marked the distance to Jerusalem.

When I was in Beirut during the spring of 2002, the group’s press attaché called, inviting me to a march to protest “Israeli and Western political oppression.” It was to be held at the Fatima Gate, a closed border point between Lebanon and Israel. He assured me that the protest was of extraordinary importance, but when I arrived at the rendezvous, early on a bright, sunny morning, I found the border not only quiet but devoid of people. So I sat in an outdoor café and ordered tea.

It wasn’t long before a convoy of buses stopped in front of me and scores of women in black chadors descended onto the tarmac. Two minivans then screeched to a halt, and Hezbollah officials in suits leapt out, opening the doors of the vans to distribute banners and a series of huge canvases among the women. Each painting depicted a member of the pantheon of contemporary Shiite leaders, led by the former spiritual leader of Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini. The women took the solemn, outsized portraits over to the border fence and waited in a line; they were obviously not discussing the geopolitical situation in the Middle East, however, since all I could hear were giggles and shrieks of laughter.

After 10 minutes, one of the Hezbollah officials ran over to the women and ordered them to begin the march. They dutifully picked up the paintings and started to walk along the border fence shouting, “Death to Israel” and “Death to America.” Their voices grew louder as they approached the border crossing point, where Israeli troops watched them from a fortified metal tower. At the gate itself, the women bearing portraits turned them toward Israel, as if to threaten an invasion of paintings. The other women came forward and started throwing stones at the tower as the group began to keen. When the missiles hit their target, small pinging noises rang out, adding a percussive tone to the wailing.

Then, as suddenly as it had started, the protest came to an end. The women turned and marched abruptly away, handing the portraits to the men in suits. They climbed into the buses and drove off, leaving me sitting once more, a fresh glass of tea in my hands, listening to that rare commodity in the Middle East: silence.

James Hill

The Last Hero, Gorky Park, Moscow, May 9, 2007

Of the hundreds of Russian World War II veterans I have photographed, Yuri Stepanovich Zaguskin remains for me the most charming.

In Russia, veterans of this war occupy a nostalgic and sacred pantheon. And ever since my first visit to Russia, I have watched them battling with age and—like anyone who has been to war—fighting with their memories as well.

Invariably, though, Soviet and Russian photographers posed the veterans in melodramatic guises, as if they were icons rather than individuals, heroes robbed of their identities. They bore little resemblance to the people I saw. Realizing that their numbers were dwindling fast, I set off to find them.

In the course of four years visiting Russia’s Victory Day celebrations of the defeat of Nazi Germany, I photographed more than 500 veterans. Every year on May 9, veterans dressed in their medal-clanking uniforms reunite across the country. In Moscow, the most famous meeting place is Gorky Park, where they gather for a festive lunch of vodka, songs, and dances, which always ends with tears of one sort or another. My meetings with them, in a makeshift studio I set up near the park’s entrance, often became long and poignant, leaving me emotionally overwhelmed as I tried to navigate an endless stream of reminiscences. Sometimes those I had photographed on their way into the park would stop on their way out to give me a tearful farewell embrace, as if unsure of their return the following year.

Members of the public traditionally give flowers to the veterans, in gratitude for their valor and sacrifice, and Zaguskin, resplendent in his naval officer’s uniform, had already collected a sizable bouquet by the time he entered the park. I asked him to stand in front of the white backdrop I had set up, and since I needed a minute to change my film, he asked if there was time for a smoke.

When I had reloaded the camera, he was still puffing away. I took just one frame before he noticed that I was pointing the camera at him, whereupon he stubbed out the cigarette and returned his attention to the shoot. I finished the whole film, but that first image, in which he was looking off, lost in his thoughts, was far richer than the others. It was not a naval officer in front of me but an old matinée idol, caught unawares on the set.

This post has been adapted from James Hill's new book, Somewhere Between War and Peace.