Across the globe, there are small pockets of land where citizens have chosen to “break away” from their mother countries and forge new communities, often to escape war or turmoil.
While many of these countries begin with noble intentions, they often end up in political limbo, unable to gain recognition as legitimate countries from the global community.
Since 2005, photographer Narayan Mahon has set out to document these unrecognised states, photographing five would-be nations that are attempting to separate themselves from such war-torn countries as Georgia, Azerbaijan, Cyprus, and Somalia.
Mahon tells the New York Times that, while he expected these breakaway nations to be filled with pride, patriotism, and determination, he actually found that many nations were still at the whim of their former homes, begging for recognition while being used as pawns in a larger, geopolitical game.
“It all just comes down to nationalism, and chauvinism, and the uglier parts of humanity,” he says. “That’s kind of sad, actually.”
Mahon’s series, entitled “Lands in Limbo,” show that sadness and disillusion front and center.
One of the first areas Mahon visited was Abkhazia, a separatist region that broke away from Georgia during the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. It has since declared independence, built a national military, and created the usual trappings of a sovereign government.
Mahon quickly found, however, that no country in the world recognises Abkhazia as a sovereign country, instead regarding it as part of Georgia.
In the violence that ensued when Abkhazia attempted to break away, tens of thousands were killed and several hundred thousand Georgian, Armenian, and Megrelian citizens were forced to leave the area. Only a few families still live in these apartment buildings, which are located in what was once a regional industrial center.
Given its limbo status, Abkhazia endures embargoes and a lack of foreign capital, both of which contribute to a high unemployment rate.
Nagorno Karabakh Republic (NKR), another breakaway country in the southwest part of Azerbaijan, began its secession during the dying years of the Soviet Union. Three generations often live in the same home in Nagorno Karabakh, like the Danielyan family seen below.
The breakaway war with Azerbaijan ended in 1994 with an estimated 30,000 dead and nearly 750,000 displaced Azerbaijanis. Below, NKR soldiers stand guard at a war memorial in Kharamort, a village that was once evenly populated by ethnic Azeris (Azerbaijani people) and Armenians, but shrunk to half that size after Azeris fled and their homes were burned.
Here, women gather cardboard to burn in order to stay warm in the capital. While a fragile cease-fire still stands, there has yet to be a peace agreement, leaving the official status of Nagorno Karabakh in constant limbo.
While not recognised by a single nation, NKR maintains all the governmental fixtures of a sovereign state, with an elected president, cabinet, parliament and military.
Mahon also visited the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), which first proclaimed its independence in 1983, nearly 20 years after the Mediterranean island was partitioned into two sides, one for the Greek and one side for the Turkish.
Since its inception in 1983, TRNC has never been recognised as a sovereign nation except by Turkey and has labored through economic embargoes and international isolation, much like the other nations Mahon saw.
However, with the help of Turkey, the small de-facto state has been able to develop infrastructure and state-like institutions like large universities, modern ports, and basic community services, unlike the other unrecognised states Mahon visited.
However, due to its political and economic dependency on Turkey, TRNC is also subject to Turkey's political agenda. This has included the settlement of thousands of Turkish citizens in Cyprus and the long-term placement of roughly 35,000 Turkish soldiers on the island, as well. Turkey's influence has been a serious obstacle in attempted reunification with the Greek side of Cyprus.
Transnistria (Pridniestrovian Moldovan Republic), which is wedged between Ukraine and Moldova (its mother country), declared its independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union, just like many of the other would-be countries Mahon explored.
Transnistria now exists in a limbo status, unrecognised by any other nation in the world but still fighting for its rights. Unable to trade legally due to its status, the Mafioso government survives on illegal arms dealing and human trafficking, for which it is one of the worst areas in the world.
PMR is one of the last bastions of Soviet-style government, complete with a 'Supreme Soviet' legislative body, Lenin statues, and Hammer and Sickle emblems on all governmental things, including its national flag.
While not considered a legitimate nation by the rest of the world, PMR distributes its own national passports (though all citizens hold either Moldovan or Russian passports as well) and currency, both of which are worthless beyond its borders.
Finally, away from the former area of the USSR is Somaliland, a breakaway region of Somalia and the only completely unrecognised country in Africa.
Somaliland separated from Somalia during the 1991 collapse of Siyad Barre's dictatorship, which has since left Somalia in chaos.
Unlike Somalia, however, Somaliland has since built an independent state that has seen relative peace, prosperity, democratization, and a thriving entrepreneurial market, even through its stymied bid for independence.
Regardless of Somaliland's stability, its strategic location on the Horn of Africa and Gulf of Aden, or the chaos in Somalia, no other country recognises its sovereignty. Only time will tell if this status changes.
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