Pankisi Valley: “The Chechens are the Bravest Men”
Three weeks ago Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia’s federal security service, accused Georgia of harbouring Al Qaeda extremists in Pankisi. No terrorists have been discovered either by the numerous reporters who have travelled to the area or the delegation of journalists and foreign diplomats whose trip was organised by the Christian Democrat opposition party. But all the media attention aside, Pankisi remains an underreported region, home to people who have experienced the devastating power of both war and rhetoric.
“We get really upset with the talk that there are terrorists here. We feel guilty because Russia could bomb this country because of us or this country could be damaged because we are here,” said Kameta Temirbulatova, a Chechen refugee and member of the women’s club organised in Pankisi two years ago. “This is very difficult for us to withstand.”
Chechen refugees, 793 of whom currently reside in Pankisi Valley, have experienced war firsthand. The massive Russian air assaults on Grozny in 1999, which indiscriminately targeted civilians, caused a great Chechen refugee influx into Georgia. Most of them settled in Pankisi.
Pankisi Valley, the last truly populated area before you get to the infamous Pankisi Gorge, consists of four villages on either side of the Alazani River. Duisi, the valley’s administrative centre, is followed by Jokolo, Birkeani and Zibakhevi on the river’s left bank, with Tsenobani, Khaladzani, Dumasturi and Omalo on its right. Khadori, a ninth village, houses a hydroelectric station built by a Chinese investor and is situated up against the gorge. Pankisi Gorge leads to Russia’s Dagestan and Chechnya. While the Pankisi villages might be the last settlements before you reach the border, the actual distance from Pankisi to Russia, according to various local sources, is anywhere between 70 and 150 kilometres in a straight line and up to 200 kilometres by an accessible route. The locals say that a vehicle cannot make it through the mountains, leaving travelling on foot or on horseback the only feasible options. The snow is three metres deep in wintertime, making the route impassible, the locals say. Besides, both the Russian and Georgian authorities have been quoted saying that the border has been effectively sealed.
Pankisi’s population is anywhere between 8,000 and 15,000 people. Various sources, including the locals, Duisi police, and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) officials could not give a specific figure. Almost 100% of the population is Muslim and the area has several mosques. A Wahhabist mosque, considerably more visible than the others, is situated in Duisi and remains closed even for many locals, who warned me against taking the building’s picture.
Pankisi children are well-versed in the local cultural and religious norms. When my local hostess, Lia Margoshvili, and I were visiting Khaladzani we stopped at the house of Vaso Kavtarashvili, a Chechen refugee who had a three-year old daughter born in Georgia. The girl addressed me in Chechen, which remains the main means of communication between the local Kists and Chechen refugees. My hostess translated the girl’s words: “She said she really likes you and thus would like you to stay as a second wife for her dad and her second mother.” Muslim men are allowed to marry up to four women as long as all their wives receive equal treatment and living conditions, said Jarj Khargoshvili, a local Kist who is married to Chechen refugee Shorena Bagakashvili. According to Khargozhvili, such family practices morally surpass the equivalent of having just one wife but engaging in simultaneous affairs.Khargozhvili’ s wife said that “a lover is a temporary occurrence, but another wife is permanent.”
As discussion progressed from personal issues to politics the locals denied the presence of any terrorists in Pankisi. Murad Khargoshvili, a local Kist, said that while no terrorists find shelter in the valley Russia still uses Pankisi as a destabilising tool against Georgia. Khargoshvili also spoke about the difference between terrorists and militants: while terrorists indiscriminately target civilians, militants fight for an ideal and a greater goal, one similar (or equivalent) to the liberation of Chechnya. The international community, including Russian spokespersons, includes both groups in the overarching category of terrorist.
The locals also expressed support for freeing Chechnya from Russian influence. Many local Kists and Chechen refugees still have strong ties to Chechnya. “The majority of them of course have some relatives and some have families [in Chechnya],” said Arjun Shrestha, head of the UNHCR field office in Akhmeta, responsible for the Chechen refugees in Pankisi. “And the majority I think still have some links with back home.”
Lamzira Margoshvili is a Chechen refugee whose father still lives in Grozny. As Margoshvili and I passed by what looked as an abandoned house in Duisi she said that a Chechen family from Grozny had lived there but now moved back to Grozny. “Some people still come and stay here sometimes though,” Margoshvili said. Margoshvili also plans to leave for Grozny once she finishes her studies in law at the Tbilisi State University.
Many of the Chechen refugees harbour a desire to return home once Chechnya is stable and free from Russian influence. “All I want to go back to their motherland,” said Fatima Ozneeva, a 9th grade student and volunteer at the Georgian Centre for the Rehabilitation of Torture Victims (GCRT) day centre for psychological and social therapy. “But so far I am not planning to. I am not going back while the Russians are still there.”
“Go back?” said Cocka Khasaeva, a social worker at the GCRT day centre. “I do not know. Of course if it calms down, if it changes, we would want to go back home, but while there is such a mess there, who would want to return? We are afraid; it is scary. If it was not scary, who does not love their homeland?”
In 1999 Georgia welcomed about 8,000 Chechen refugees, most of whom have now left. Some went to Europe, but most returned to Chechnya, Shrestha said. Currently, 320 refugee families live in Pankisi. Very few of the refugees are single and most of them are men, he said.
Many Chechen families continue to live in Pankisi. While some of their relatives might be earning an income in Chechnya, limited economic opportunities take a toll on the valley’s population. Chechen women are more economically active than men, many of whom spend their days standing in groups along Duisi’s main road.
Aside from the economic difficulties Pankisi provides a peaceful and stable alternative to the turmoil of war, in which the local Kists and Chechens live comfortably together. As the Chechen women explained to me, while everybody in the valley knows who is local and who is a refugee, this has no impact on people’s attitudes. “The people are really nice here and their attitude toward us is great,” Makalova said.
Duisi has only one police station, strategically positioned at the village’s entrance. Emzar Machalikashvili, the police chief known as the local KGB officer, thoroughly copied out details from my passport. Aside from fulfilling this administrative function, the presence of the Georgian police in Pankisi is minimal. Even when one local girl was injured in a car accident on the evening of Monday November 2, locals preferred to settle the matter among themselves as opposed to reporting the incident to the police. The allegedly intoxicated driver agreed to pay $100 to the girl’s family.
The tranquility of Pankisi Valley dates back to August 2002, when the Georgian forces reportedly conducted a massive offensive ridding Pankisi of the alleged terrorist presence. According to official reports, prior to 2002 Pankisi Gorge was harbouring some Arab extremists. The Georgian operation was preceded by Russian accusations that Pankisi terrorists were collaborating with the Georgia authorities to destabilise the Russian North Caucasus.
Based on such arguments, the Russian side conducted air raids in Georgia in early 2002. Reportedly, the area was under the control of Chechen militants prior to 2002 and Georgia proper ended at Akhmeta. Now the locals live in comparative peace, bothered only by the poor economic conditions and lack of employment.
The post-2002 peace was briefly interrupted in 2003 and 2004 when Georgian forces conducted so-called cleansing operations in the valley. Makalova said that the Georgian authorities took her husband and two more men in the summer of 2003, after the Makalov family arrived there from Chechnya. Makalova said that the men were detained in Tbilisi. “They were under arrest and for almost one month they could not leave there [Tbilisi],” Makalova said. On one occasion the women attempted to protect their husbands from imprisonment only to find themselves beaten by Georgian troops. “It was still morning when a woman came running to our houses,” Temirbulatova said. “She said that we all should come out. We were running. All the women were on the streets when we were told that the men would be taken. It was a special operation conducted by the Georgian authorities. Ten or 15 women gathered on the bridge, near the entrance to Duisi, to stop the trucks that were taking our men away.” Temirbulatova and Makalova said that some women were assaulted by the Georgian troops when they attempted to prevent the military trucks from leaving Duisi.
To help the refugees and locals in Pankisi UNHCR has a regional Office in Akhmeta. The organisation helps refugees to become economically self-reliant, Shrestha said. UNHCR supports the refugees to launch income-generating projects, such as carpentry and beekeeping, by providing small grants. And while economic opportunities in Pankisi remain scarce, some people fare better than others: a new-looking BMW X5 and a Mercedes stood out against the otherwise ordinary landscape. In other respects, Pankisi residents live without running water and gas.
UNHCR also helps refugees resolve accommodation issues. The refugees in Pankisi live either in the community centre or in the private sector, often with Kist host families. UNHCR has started purchasing abandoned houses in the area and granting them to refugee families. The Georgian Government also supports Pankisi refugees with a monthly allowance of 28 Lari (around 11 Euro) per person. The Government has also recently granted citizenship to 13 Chechens. The refugees, with the help of UNHCR and local representatives of the Ministry of Refugees and Accommodation, submitted 31 applications but the government rejected 18, Shrestha said. UNHCR plans to continue supporting refugees who seek citizenship in Georgia.
UNHCR partner organisations help implement various educational and health programmes in the region. The Roddy Scott Foundation was recently opened in Duisi to help local children learn English. Roddy Scott was a British investigative journalist allegedly shot by the Russians in Pankisi Gorge while he was crossing the border with the Chechens, trying to document this often-ignored side of the conflict. Scott’s parents have established a foundation in their son’s name, which now allows 120 schoolchildren from Pankisi Valley to study English for free. As I visited the Foundation’s English language class, I encountered a barrage of questions from the local fifth graders: Where are you from? Do you like your job (the children were well aware of what journalism is because of their cherished knowledge of Scott’s story)? Do you like vegetables? How old are you? Would you marry a Chechen guy?
“When you decide to marry you should come to Pankisi and choose a Chechen boy,” was the farewell response from one of the students. “The Chechens are the bravest men.”
Lizaveta Zhahanina – The Georgian Times