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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Story from Pankisi Gorge

One of the things you have to get used to is editors shaving your story to make it fit. It's part of the gig though and you really shouldn't whine unless you're paid by the word.

The nice things about blogs is there is no need to shave.

Here's a story about Pankisi from the CSM
Below is the original:

When Russian tanks rolled towards Tbilisi in August, shops closed and streets emptied as the benumbed population was home, glued to their televisions and radios. A hundred miles northeast from Tbilisi, in the mountainous enclave of Pankisi Gorge, Chechen refugees and their local ethnic kin, “Kisti” also watched the invasion on TV, but with less stupefaction and more cynicism.

“They (Russians) say they fought to protect their citizens but look what they did to us. We were their citizens too,” avows Musa Dadayev, a Pankisi refugee for 9 years.

Chechnya spent the better half of the 1990s at war with Russia. Like Georgia's separatist territories Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it too won a de facto independence at the end of a gun, but when Russia launched a second front in 1999 to regain control, it leveled Grozny and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Amnesty International estimates 25,000 civilians were killed in this war alone.

4-5 thousand refugees spilled over the mountain border into Pankisi Gorge and found sanctuary with fellow Muslim Kisti, ethnic Chechens who arrived in the Georgian region some 150 years ago. Most refugees were women and children, however, many fighters also arrived and used the area as a safe haven to launch military operations into Russia from.

Pankisi soon became notorious for its lawlessness as Tbilisi officials not only turned a blind eye to the kidnapping, arms and drug smuggling the valley was rife in, but was often complicit in it. Meanwhile, the Chechen guerrilla movement was attracting foreign “jihadists” who were also importing a wahabbist ideology into the traditionally Sunni/Sufi religion practiced in the region.

Tensions between Russia and Georgia increased over Tbilisi's inability or unwillingness to control the Pankisi Gorge and in 2001 Moscow had threatened to invade Georgian territory to eliminate the Chechen “terrorists.”

Washington responded by introducing the Georgia Train and Equip Program (GTEP) in May 2002, the United State's first direct military assistance program in Georgia. The 18-month, $64-million plan was designed to train and equip four six-hundred man battalions with light weapons, vehicles and communications in order to successfully confront the situation in the Pankisi Gorge. Putin supported the GTEP program despite internal criticism that the United States was encroaching on Russia's sphere of influence.

Today, heavily armed paramilitaries no longer swagger down village streets in Pankisi and a small police station has replaced the former Georgian Ministry of Interior checkpoint. But when
Russian helicopters entered Pankisi airspace in August, many locals had flashbacks of the war and some refugees, like Taus Yerznukayeva, took her family and fled to the Turkish border in a vain attempt to seek asylum.

“We were all certain there would be war again,” asserts the 52 year-old mother of nine.

Like nearly all of the 1,102 registered refugees in Pankisi, Ms. Yerznukayeva has no home in Chechnya to return to. Moreover, she does not want her sons to have to live in Chechnya's new reality under former rebel fighter turned Putin-backed Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov, and be conscripted into the Russian army.

Two Chechen companies from the Zapad and Vostok Battalions were engaged in the war with Georgia while Georgian villagers in the conflict zone have recounted numerous stories of how Chechen and North Ossetian marauders ransacked and burned their homes. This is not good news for the people of Pankisi.

Musa Dadayev is not surprised Chechens fought, but refuses to believe they would loot and burn homes, claiming it is a Russian tactic, while Shorena Khaugoshvili a 33 year-old journalist, is less skeptical.“We Kisti don't like to hear this,” she says. “I don't know if it's true. I want to believe it's not true.”

Adam Makhalov, a 34 year-old Chechen pedagogue of Russian literature is not surprised at the allegations.“We heard a father and his two sons were killed by Kadyrov for refusing to fight Georgians. Those who fought aren't Chechen. They're assimilated Russians,” he affirms.

It was not without bitterness the Chechens and Kisti of Pankisi Gorge noted the West's active role in negotiating the peace process in Georgia. Other than human rights groups, the West had no presence in Chechnya, nor made any firm stance to stop what it considered Russia's internal problem. Lia Margoshvili, a 44 year-old Kisti widow believes western intervention would have stabilized the entire Caucasus by keeping Russia in check.

“If the world had supported Chechnya the way it supported Georgia, there wouldn't have been a war now,” declares Ms. Margoshvili.