Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, is home to about 800,000 residents

THE REPUBLIC OF SOMALILAND, in the Horn of Africa, has many of the trappings of a modern democracy, including a constitution, a judiciary and an elected government. However, it has not been recognised as a state by the United Nations or any other intergovernmental organisation. Still widely considered a part of war-torn Somalia, the region is, according to the Dutch photographer Chantal Heijnen, a “democratic enigma within what is essentially a failed state.”

The area that comprises Somaliland today was a protectorate of Great Britain starting in the late 1880s, through 1960, when the region declared independence from colonial rule as the State of Somaliland. But, only five days after that, the state merged with the neighbouring territory of Italian Somaliland to form the Republic of Somalia. The newly united country was soon gripped by authoritarianism, with President Siad Barre’s government killing hundreds of thousands of people over its two-decade rule. One of the dictator’s most violent acts was the 1988 bombardment of Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital. Barre’s brutality is seen as one of the causes of the ongoing Somali civil war, which began with the collapse of his government, in 1991. On 18 May of that year, the Republic of Somaliland declared its independence from Somalia.

In 1999, Heijnen was a college student directing a play that featured refugees—one of whom was the Somaliland-born Fatma Ali. The two became close friends, Heijnen said, and often talked about Somaliland, especially “about the fact that the public is so unaware of its story.” A decade later, the pair travelled there, with Ali as Heijnen’s guide. Over two month-long trips, one in 2009 and the other in 2011, Heijnen completed her debut photography book, Ghost Republic. Some of its most striking images are portraits of people in their homes, in settings ranging from rural Somaliland, where “the remnants of the civil war are still visible and raw,” to Hargeisa, which is “under construction—working to erase the scars.” Heijnen “was intrigued by the people who are building this nation that officially doesn’t exist,” she said. “I thought it was a beautiful juxtaposition to show ‘real’ people who were building a ‘ghost’ republic.

Ghost Republic was published on 18 May 2011—20 years after Somaliland asserted its independence. Prior to the release, Jamhuuriya, a Hargeisa-based newspaper, printed most of the book’s photographs, over 20 instalments. Those publications were significant to Heijnen because they were “physical testimonies to the existence of a nation that has no internationally recognised form,” she said. “They add to the few things that make this ghost republic visible, connecting its people to the outside world.”

Chantal Heijnen is a Dutch portrait and documentary photographer currently based in New York.