Pankisi Gorge – less about ISIS, more about people

“You cannot cross the border between life and death, live on and do not pay the price for it.”

We are welcomed by the whole family of nineteen-year-old Temirlan, in front of his home in Duisi, the largest town in the Pankisi Gorge. I came here with journalists from an organisation I work with. We take the shoes off before the doorway, just behind it everyone will get a pair of slippers. It is not allowed to walk without it, because the floor is cold. I feel like in grandma’s house. We unpack the equipment and check the light. I take a few pictures, but from the very beginning I feel it is not appropriate. Combining the pursuit of a “moment” and respect for someone’s privacy is still an issue for me.

There is a constant movement at home. Women sit in the main room and kitchen, men gather outside, in a big tent that is a mourning place. Additionally, journalists from all over Georgia come here today. Everyone is waiting for the Ombudsman. She will come to talk to the family of a boy who died a week ago after being shot in the head by the special forces.

 

 

“The tribes condemned for one hundred years of loneliness have no second chance on earth.”

Pankisi is located in the north-east part of Georgia, between Chewsureti and Tusheti regions. Commonly known as the “Gorge”, it is in fact 5 kilometres wide and 10 long valley, the begining of the Alazani River. Pankisi has always been a somewhat forgotten patch of Georgia, despite the fertile soil and breathtaking views. In the 19th century, Kists, a people originating from Chechnya, came to the valley through a high mountain passes in the north. They differed from the locals in terms of tradition, culture and, above all, faith. Kists are, like the majority of Chechens, Muslims.  Despite their dissimilarity, they quickly settled down in the valley, assimilating with the few Georgians who lived there. Over the centuries, they have created a unique blend of Georgian and Chechen culture and traditions. They adopted Georgian language, passports and culture. They have preserved many of traditions and religion. The fragile balance in the valley, developed over the years, was maintained until the Russian – Chechen wars on the other side of the mountains in mid-nineties.

 

 

“…. because if someone abandons a place on earth that has been assigned to him and goes into the world searching for a better life, does he himself not cast a curse, which will make him never stop wandering and endlessly seeking something that he will never find?”

The first Chechen-Russian war broke out in 1994. It became dangerous in Grozny and its surroundings so Chechens reminded themselves of the Pankisi brothers from the tranquil valley on the other side of the high mountains. Georgian border guards did not enter these areas and crossing the border was a formality. This encouraged not only refugees looking for a safe place away from the horrors of the war. Also Chechen guerrillas, mercenaries, wahhabis, mujahedinees appered in the valley and soon began establishing their orders. They criticized the inconsistencies of locals in obeying the Koran law, and were puzzled by tolerant approach to other religions and traditions. They spoke against the Council of the Elders, an informal local authority body traditionally upholding the law and order. As a result of this conflict guerrillas were forbidden to enter the mosque, so they built their own one to pray there “according to the will of Allah”. Young boys from the surrounding villages, bored with the monotonous life in the valley and the lack of perspectives or alternatives, eagerly joined it, absorbing the words of the guerrillas and Shiite mullahs. And so, slowly, one by one, young boys started to vanish from Pankisi. Officially speaking, they were going to Europe for work. Unofficially everyone knew that they were joining Islamic State fighters in the holy war in Syria.

At that time, extremism appeared in Pankisi, which neither the Georgian authorities nor the Elder Council were able to control. The valley has gained a bad reputation of the Caucasus cradle of Islamic State fighters, which it has not got rid of to this day. Officials and police officers left the valley and it became a safe haven for all those who, for some reason wanted to hide from the world. Smuggling, contraband and corruption flourished. The Georgians began to treat the Kists with hostility, blaming them for this situation, while not offering any help in controlling it.

The real threat of intervention by Georgia’s biggest ally, and at the same time the most ardent opponent of Muslim extremism, the United States, hung over the valley. The danger that such a solution would pose to ordinary inhabitants of Pankisi forced the Council of Elders and fighters to find a compromise. This coincided with the unsuccessful intervention of the combatants’ troops in Abkhazia. The broken, thinned troops started to slowly leave the valley, going back to their homeland or to the next holy wars.

The peace came back to the Pankisi Valley.

Until last December.

 

 

“But the young people do not like it, they don’t count the time, it seems to them that they have even too much of it. The world must not be closed for them. They need great dreams, space, air. We must not take this away from them, they do not have to know immediately that nothing great or important has to happen in their lives.”

We are standing on the terrace on the first floor of the house, in front of the door to the Temirlan room. On 26th December 2017 Georgian special forces came here under the cover of the night, with the intention of arresting him on a charge of cooperating with Islamic State fighters. Why did the arrest attempt end with a nineteen-year-old shot in the head while lying in his bed? According to the official version, the policeman shoot in self-defence, because of a grenade thrown by the boy. Neither a grenade nor any other weapon was found on the place.

Marina lives in the neighborhood, she is with the family in these difficult days, wandering around like a good spirit of the house. She quietly moves here and there between the cameras, the weeping women, debating men. Our eyes meet, she immediately notices that I am a little lost.

– Do you speak Russian? You see, there (showing on the other side of the street) a woman died yesterday. She could not bear what happened. Today will be funeral. She knew Temirlan from childhood, she was like grandmother for him. He had always had problems with his eyes, was ashamed to go out and spent the whole days at home. Last year as 18th birthday gift, we raised money and organised an operation in Germany. After that he changed immediately. He gained confidence, started to go out to meet people, have fun. Well, but how would he manage to do all of this in one year?
Recording from shop camera in Tbilisi is a proof against Temirlan. He is visible there in a company of Akhmed Chatayev. Chatayev was one of the most important figures among Islamic extremists in the Caucasus, most likely responsible for the terrorist attack at the turkish airport in 2015. Was, because he had been killed as a result of the special forces operation in Tbilisi in November, shortly after recorded visit in the shop.

– Of course – the Duisi residents admit openly – they knew each other. We all knew him. He came from Chechnya, legally, and did business in Tbilisi. Nobody thought that he was hiding here. He did not speak georgian so we helped him as we could. The same how we would help any other Chechen. This is how our community works.

 

Recent events in Pankisi overshadowed fragile turst of local community to the georgian goverment. Protests are organized in villages, the community demands a fair and transparent investigation. Paradoxically, radical moods are intensifying. Religion, in its radical form, can become help and answer in the time of helplessness, unjust accusations and impunity.  Locals are also afraid of the practical consequences – big fuss over the case and its connection with ISIS may destroy the efforts made to restore the damaged reputation of the valley and discourage tourists from coming. The tragedy that happened to the Machalikashvili family turns out to have many dimensions and be a lens of moods and problems in the valley, as well as in many other parts of the world. Where and why is radicalism born? Who is responsible for this process? Until when the “public interest” is an explanation? Is fear a sufficient justification?  And most important to me – what happens if instead of generalization we see a touching story of an individual human being?

The quotes come from the book “All Lara’s wars” by Wojciech Jagielski.

The reportage on which we have worked can be found here (in English or Russian)

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