Winner of the 2009 Canon Female Photojournalist Award

The Caucasus entered my life unexpectedly, in the mid-1990s, when two Georgian musicians ended up staying at my house in Poland. They made toasts, sang songs and told many stories of their lives and country, stories that revealed both an intense pride in their Georgian identity and the utmost bitterness about what their country had become. This dualism was reflected in the way they easily made new friends and just as easily got into vicious arguments with old friends. I enjoyed their acerbic, cynical sense of humor: anything could be turned into a joke, or rather, humor became a way to neutralize fear or hardship. I had planned to explore the East for some time and Georgia became my destination in 2001. I returned to Tbilisi the following year to continue working on my story and ended up moving there permanently.


“Shared Sorrows, Divided Lines” is an unconcluded discovery of an extraordinary place - the South Caucasus, where, no matter how the situation is studied, the end result inevitably produces more questions than answers.

History plays such a significant role in the Caucasus that it often seems more important than the future. It is a tumultuous history with long periods of violence, tragedy and domination, as well as peace and glory. Scores of distinct local ethnic groups have strong bonds with their respective histories, lands, languages and religions. Identity is defined by these characteristics with each community having a vibrant culture deeply rooted in established traditions and values such as gallantry, patriotism, honor and the commemoration of the dead; and they all display passionate self-awareness and single-mindedness pursuing their opinions, inevitably leading to clashes, particularly when politically manipulated. In regional conflicts today, each sides use history, both ancient and modern, to justify their claims to the territory. Chechens, Armenians, Georgians and Abkhaz have all told me the same legend so famous in the region: God granted them exclusive rights the land he had originally set aside for Himself.

After years of living and working in the region, I have come to the conclusion that the greatest treasure of the Caucasus – ethnic diversity – is also its greatest curse. It is the underlying element which can unite or divide the people in any given region. The ethnic conflicts of the 1990s were a direct result of the Soviet Union’s “divide and rule” policy. When the USSR collapsed, the arbitrary borders led to clashes along political not ethnic lines. Ethnic conflict was the result, not the cause of political struggles to establish a nation-state at a chaotic time in history. I have also seen how a long-term lack of contact between communities fostered on both sides a sense of mistrust and an image of the “enemy” for political purposes. At the same time I often encounter conflicting attitudes with nationalism, victory and bitterness together with fond memories of friends and colleagues.

Justyna Mielnikiewicz

Justyna Mielnikiewicz

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