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Living dangerously in the North Caucasus

Editor's note: Writer Arnold van Bruggen and photographer Rob Hornstra started The Sochi Project in 2009. Their latest book, “The Sochi Project: An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus,” is a summation of the project and published by Aperture. This story published in February 2013.

On the other side of the mountains from the Russian town of Sochi, where the Olympic flame will be lighted, a war is being waged.

From the Caucasus' impenetrable forests and mountains, Islamist rebels are engaged in a struggle for independence from Russia, with the goal of forming the “Caucasus Emirate.”

The conflict is not confined to the North Caucasus, however. In recent years, attacks on an airport, a theater and the metro in Moscow have resulted in dozens of civilian casualties.

After protests against the Vladimir Putin-Dmitri Medvedev leadership in Moscow in late 2011, the rebel leader Dokku Umarov announced that ordinary Russians would no longer be targeted. And since then, there have been no major terrorist attacks outside the North Caucasus.

In the Caucasus itself, however, the violence continues unabated.

According to the independent blog Caucasian Knot, in 2012 alone, about 600 people were killed in militant attacks and counterterrorism operations, and 500 were wounded. Russian President Vladimir Putin said in October that more than 300 were killed in the three previous months.

Human rights groups say the Russian government's response to the insurgency has often been brutal. In recent years, hundreds of primarily young men have been taken from their homes in the Caucasus region by security forces, according to the annual reports of Human Rights Watch on Russia.

Many are imprisoned after halfhearted trials; others simply disappear, according to Amnesty International’s briefing to the U.N. Committee against Torture.

During extensive counterterrorism operations, villages are sealed off, and men are arrested and taken away in unmarked vehicles. Local lawyers in cities like Nalchik and Khazvyurt showed us their filing cabinets and computers, filled with testimonials and evidence of beatings and torture in photos taken by the lawyers.

"On paper, human rights are well defined here," said a lawyer in Chechnya who represents many families of terrorism defendants. He would speak only on condition of anonymity because, he said, many of his colleagues have been murdered.

"But the moment you are up against a uniform and a gun, you can forget it."

Human rights organizations such as Memorial in Russia try to defend young men wrongly accused of having terrorist links. The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, is swamped with cases brought against the Russian government by families who say sons or fathers have been kidnapped by security forces.

Russia colonized the North Caucasus during the First Caucasian War between 1817 and 1864. One could argue that conflict was never fully resolved. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, no decade passed peacefully. And the situation has not improved in the 20 years since; if anything, it has worsened.

Russia is now fighting a renewed battle against a bloody insurgency to which it has yet to find an answer.

- Arnold van Bruggen, Special to CNN