Researching in Conflict Zones: An Abkhaz Example
by Scott Dareff
Contrary to popular belief, schools do not typically close when war breaks out – they stay open, and develop their own unique survival skills to cope with the chaos going on around them. My research addresses the issue of school systems in conflict zones, and specifically examines how the educational bureaucracy and faculty respond when the central government collapses or is incapacitated. This article does not delve into the details of my findings, which deal with potentially sensitive regions and policies. Instead, it discusses some of the particular issues that arise in a research project in a conflict zone. How does research in a conflict zone differ from other kinds of academic research?
Last year I made an independent visit to Abkhazia, a disputed zone on Georgia’s Black Sea coast, to look at education programs local NGOs were running for high school-aged students. The province declared independence from Georgia in 1994 after 13 months of fighting, during which time it ethnically cleansed the region of over 250,000 ethnic Georgians (with, as is widely acknowledged, Russian and mercenary assistance). The conflict remains unresolved and the status quo held until the 2008 Russian-Georgian War, which resulted in Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia as an independent country.
It is important to distinguish what I call “conflict zone” study from other related fields, such as refugee, post-conflict, or reconstruction studies. Those latter fields are about people who leave a conflict zone or return to one once the fighting is over; I study the people who stay while the conflict is unresolved. These groups all have very different concerns and motivations for their behaviors, and the study of one is not interchangeable with another. A common problem in the literature is that authors will frequently refer to their area of study as being that of war and conflict, when they are really writing about one of these other groups. A Chechen refugee camp or neighborhood in Kazakhstan certainly has its own problems worth studying, but it is not a conflict zone, and the people there are no longer in a conflict zone.
The definition of a true conflict zone is rather nebulous. The Russian government, for example, denies it is still in a conflict in Chechnya, but the region would fit almost any reasonable person’s definition of a “conflict zone”; meanwhile the states on the Korean peninsula are still technically at war even though their last major hostilities were 57 years ago. For my purposes, I define a “conflict zone” as any locality where there is a reasonable chance of medium- to large-scale hostilities breaking out at any time.
Doing fieldwork in a conflict zone presents some unique challenges to the researcher, but they are probably not the challenges one would expect. A conflict zone does not match the images from the TV or movies of Saving Private Ryan-type scenes where everyone is constantly under fire. Usually, the true combat (or “hot”) areas are well-known and clearly marked, so they are easily avoided.
Security problems for a researcher are far more likely to be crime-related than war-related. The three biggest problems I planned for during my stay in Abkhazia were: (1) deportation on suspicion of spying; (2) car accidents; and (3) losing or being robbed of my money and documents (Abkhazia has no ATMs or consular services, so replacing these items is extremely difficult). Being shot or shelled was not on my radar screen, nor should it have been.
Physical access is also a tricky issue, especially in unrecognized nations or disputed zones. Abkhazia requires a visa to visit, but it is only recognized as a nation by Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Nauru. The result is a convoluted process: the Abkhaz send a “clearance letter” by e-mail, which allows the recipient to cross into Abkhazia through a specific checkpoint on a specific day. The actual visa is obtained only after entering Abkhazia, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Sukhumi. A double-entry Russian visa is also necessary, for the only way in and out of the region is through Russia. To further complicate matters, the rules change constantly and border officials often create their own on the spot.
Entering a disputed region can also jeopardize one’s access to other areas. The government of Georgia considers a visit to Abkhazia through Russia “illegal entry” into Georgia and grounds for arrest. A researcher must approach work in Abkhazia knowing it can cause serious complications for working in Georgia; likewise, work in Kurdistan can cause serious complications for working in Turkey; work in Nagorno-Karabagh can cause serious complications for working in Azerbaijan. There is a political element to the design choices a conflict-zone researcher must make. Do the benefits gained from one site outweigh the loss of access to another site?
Once inside a territory, getting site access also takes special preparations. A conflict zone is generally marked by poor infrastructure – destroying it is often an objective for at least one of the combatants – so e-mails and phone calls to potential hosts prior to travel often go unanswered. For example, I found a web site for a locally run NGO dealing with education issues in Sukhumi with the name of a contact person. I made extensive efforts to contact that person, but none of my e-mails or phone calls were returned. To a westerner, that might be interpreted as “stonewalling,” but I figured that it was a result of the circumstances, and decided to just show up at the building when I got to Sukhumi. It turned out that nobody there had checked their e-mail or the web site in five years, and the person I was looking for fell ill and stopped working two years ago. The NGO introduced me to her replacement, and I got all the access I wanted.Government permission is also often a pre-requisite; I was not able to visit a public school in Sukhumi without personal permission from the Abkhaz Minister of Education. So I simply walked into the Ministry and asked if I could talk to the minister, and a meeting was set up for the next week, where I was given the permission.
The school I visited was hand-chosen by the Ministry, and I was escorted there by a representative of the Ministry as well. I met with the principal beforehand, she was so nervous that her hands shook throughout most of our session. She told me how the school had just moved back into the building, which had been completely destroyed by shelling years back, and how they had been in a makeshift facility. This is one reason why the fallacy that schools close in wartime has gained traction. It is hard for outsiders to separate the idea of “school” and “school building,” so when an unseasoned researcher, reporter or aid worker sees a destroyed school building, they often assume that the school has “closed,” when in fact it has probably just relocated. As an extreme example, I heard of one case in Iraq where school was held in a chicken coop; more often, though, a school will relocate to somebody’s home or an abandoned building. The principal explained that both the city and her school had seen their populations drop by about two-thirds since hostilities began in the early 90s; finding a replacement building becomes an easier proposition as student numbers and the need for space decrease.
School buildings are also taken over by the military, as happened in nearby Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. Reasons for this vary, but consider this from a military perspective: if you are going to bomb all the government buildings in a city, what will you do for office space when you finally take a town? Schools are great makeshift facilities. They come with office furniture, supplies, storage space, a lot of rooms, and are often on main roads. It can also be important to deprive the opposition of a valuable storage facility as well, where they can easily hide their guns and weapons. The answer to the question “Who would want to bomb a school?” is that school buildings can have high logistical value to one combatant or the other.
Back at this particular school, the class I visited did a lesson comparing Abkhaz and American schools, a remarkable coincidence . . . or perhaps not, as I remembered telling the Minister I wanted to learn how Abkhaz classes functioned as compared to American classes. I believe she told the principal to make sure I got what I came for – which was why she was so nervous – and had the class stage this lesson for my benefit. The staff were so relieved that the lesson went well that they let their students go home early. Even though I essentially received a performance, I was still grateful for it – they were trying to help in their own way.
This reminded me of a visit to another school in different region of Georgia, a few years prior. Most of my first visit was spent at a banquet arranged by the teachers, who had also made sure that the “problem students” had stayed home that day. I find that it often takes several visits to a site to get everyone comfortable enough to yield useful data. In an area as politicized as a conflict zone, locals don’t want to stand out – avoiding the spotlight is how they survive – and so it is difficult to get people to “talk” right away. Once I have been at a site for a while, have been properly “checked out,” and have the appropriate official backing, it gets much easier. I am an ethnographer, so these situations – at least in theory – are supposed to be my time to shine.
Conflict-zone research is not nearly as exciting as it sounds; I am not dodging bullets or riding around in tanks. And nor should I be. If a researcher has a “and there I was, right in the middle of it!” moment, it usually means that he did not plan carefully or made a bad decision. This, however, does not mean that this kind of research is danger-free, as with any travel, there are risks involved. The type of risks, however, do not usually not match what is thought of in popular imagination. However, a conflict zone should not be a field site for anyone who does not already have several years of experience in developing world settings. Things can go very wrong, very fast, if you do not do your homework beforehand. Success working in a region like that takes time, persistence, and patience, and usually, a bit of luck.
Scott Dareff is second-year Ph.D. student in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. His research focuses on education systems in conflict zones. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.