On October 15, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s official representative in Georgia, Aleksandr Yakovenko, complained to reporters that Georgia had not submitted to Russia a list of Chechen refugees who wanted to return to their homes in Chechnya. “Russia is doing its best to assist repatriation of Russian citizens [to] Chechnya,” Yakovenko underlined (Civil Georgia, October 16).
But what do the 3,000 or more Chechen refugees presently living in the Pankisi Gorge region of Georgia feel about repatriation? In a report entitled “A Political Dead-End Sixteen Kilometers Long,” which appeared in the October 14 issue of Novaya Gazeta, war correspondent Anna Politkovskaya described a visit she had made on October 9 to the “tiny gorge sixteen kilometers in length.”
After having passed through heavily guarded Georgian checkpoints, which were much more serious than the Russian checkpoints in Chechnya (“You pay ten rubles there and you’re on your way”), Politkovskaya arrived at the gorge. “The checkpoints are finally behind us. Before our eyes is Duisi, the main village of the gorge, the beginning of the ‘zone of Pankisi.’ The dead-end of present-day politics.” For contemporary Russians, she noted, the issue of the gorge is colored by an image of “the very bad Georgian, Shevardnadze, a mixture of a Caucasian bin Laden and of Saddam Hussein, a man who flagrantly disrespects Russia, who sells himself, out of spite, now to the Americans, now to the Turks, and now to the Chechen rebels.”
In Duisi, Politkovskaya was witness to a hunger strike organized by Chechen refugees: “This is a hunger strike by Chechen refugees, who, even before the strike, had been going hungry. It is a sign of protest against the extradition without trial of five Chechens who had surrendered in August to Georgian border guards at the gates of Girevi, which is located very far from Pankisi.” The hunger strike, which began on October 6 (“the day of the Kishinev meeting of Putin and Shevardnadze, in advance of which the Georgian authorities ‘made a gift to Russia of living people'”), is taking place in a blue tent that has been erected on the site of a former hospital in Duisi. “In it fourteen men and women are on a hunger strike against extradition. None of the hunger strikers is a relative or even an acquaintance of the ‘rebels who were seized at the border’…. Therefore it quickly becomes clear that they are hunger-striking for those people but also more for themselves and thus that the question of questions for the Pankisi refugees is: ‘Will they give up the eight [remaining separatist fighters in Georgian custody] to Russia?” which should also be read as meaning: “Will they give us up to Russia?”
That the Chechen refugees living in the Pankisi Gorge emphatically do not want to return to Chechnya under present conditions became crystal clear to Politkovskaya. “I have been medically diagnosed as suffering from extreme exhaustion (istoshchenie),” confided one 34-year-old Chechen woman, Luiza Dakaeva. “I can barely move,” she told Politkovskaya. “My daughter Anita is 11 years old, and she constantly asks: ‘Mama, give me something to eat.’ But I have nothing to give her.” “Perhaps,” the journalist suggested, “you should go home, to Chechnya?” “Never!” Dakaeva exclaimed. “Not so long as the Russians are there!” “I don’t know if we will survive this winter,” Dakaeva added. “Soon it will be a year since we have seen any sugar.” Dakaeva, however, stressed that she would rather go hungry in Duisi than perish in a Russian “cleansing operation.”
An older Chechen man, Abu-Supyan Musaev, from Itum-Kale, ventured a similar opinion. He noted that a Georgian law enforcement official had recently said to him contemptuously: “You look like a mafioso.” “Why don’t you return then to Chechnya?” Politkovskaya asked him. “Why return?” he responded. “Here I am a mafioso, there I am a bandit…. I won’t return because of my sons. I want them to survive. I won’t return as long as your people [the Russians] are in Chechnya.”
There is a myth in Russia, Politkovskaya noted, that Shevardnadze has coddled the refugees and that they live under comfortable conditions. That, she emphasized, is in fact completely untrue. “In Pankisi there is the same thing as in Ingushetia: The fate of the refugees in Georgia is the same as in Russia, except it is still worse, because the country around them is still poorer. There is no money, no employment, no hope, no rights, and many have no documents.”
As for humanitarian aid, Politkovskaya underlined that the refugees have suffered greatly from the political after-effects of September 11, 2001: “Before the explosions in New York, the Pankisi refugees received aid from the Arab countries, but now everything has been frozen…. And only the UN twice a month hands out for each soul 27 kilograms of flour, three kilograms of kidney beans, and 1.5 liter of sunflower-seed oil, plus Georgian tea.” Much of the humanitarian aid, moreover, is stolen and does not reach the refugees, while the kidney beans distributed are sometimes “full of worms.” The head of the UN mission to aid the refugees in Pankisi is a Norwegian, Tore Borrenson. “He communicates with the refugees rarely and treats them with a lack of respect…In accord with the American ‘war against terrorism,’ the UN has clearly grown cold to the problem of Pankisi.”