Four Floors In Bielany

57 more in collection Produced , 7 more in collection Editor's Picks 22 May 2013 , 5 more in collection Editor's Picks 6 June 2013

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Chechen Refugees in Warsaw

Kirk Ellingham

Every day dozens of Chechens try to escape the Putin-proclaimed happy paradise in Chechnya by entering the European Union illegally via the border with Ukraine or Belarus. Despite the news of general peace and prosperity widely circulated by the news media in the Chechen Republic, more and more people dream of leaving the allegedly problem-free Chechnya.

Each time I returned to the rundown refugee centre on the edge of Warsaw that house nearly 300 mainly Chechen refugees to Poland, I found it harder and harder to get a grip both ethically and photographically on their situation.
Some of the residents had moved out into Warsaw apartments, some had been repatriated home; others had just disappeared into the E.U, especially if their asylum claims had been rejected. Some may have even returned to Chechnya voluntary, even perhaps to fight in the insurgence. Often if they had been refused status to stay in Poland or elsewhere the militant young felt they were left with little choice, but to return back to Chechnya to face violent reprisals or join the Islamic insurgence in the Caucasus Mountains.
It became a confusing place but with so many kind and courageous people letting me into their lives to photograph them I felt I needed to continue document the transient and desperate nature of their existence on the four floors of Bielany, the reasons they fled their homeland, in an original way at least.
So how could I transpose these notes and photographs into a viable project? The stories they told me ranged from horrific tales of torture to ones of simply trying to rejoin family members who had left Chechnya years before, during the two wars.
So I began to present the images with my written notes, thoughts and also the pictures the children made for me whilst wandering the cold corridors waiting to interview and photograph their parents.
I often felt like a useless recorder of tragedy and after one visit I felt despair at being only able being able to record these courageous peoples images and voices with a view to just using the work for my MA and not to implement any real change for their situation in Poland. I destroyed my first notebook in a Warsaw youth hostel in anger one night but later I fished its torn remains back from the kitchen bin.
A Bielany resident who I had spoken to about my frustrations had told me the next day even though it may sound clichéd that “It didn’t matter, at least you are listening to us, at least you are here trying to understand us, to document us” this helped waive my doubts about continuing the project, but I still feel that a photojournalist without empathy or ethics is only taking, often not helping; I hope I can give something back even if its only a testament to the fact that the Chechen people were here, in a small part of Warsaw waiting in a bureaucratic limbo as to whether they could continue there journey or travel back to a bleeding homeland.

I plan to make this project into a multimedia piece including all the notebooks, text and audio as well as a finished book and exhibition

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