Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 3 Issue: 26

In a report entitled “Pankisi: How It Is Done,” three special correspondents for the pro-democracy daily Novye Izvestia, Sergei Agafonov, Besik Urigashvili and Valery Yakov, wrote in the September 11 issue of that newspaper concerning what they had seen and heard during a recent visit to the now-renowned Pankisi Gorge located in northern Georgia. “Who only,” they asked at the beginning of their account, “has not recently visited this God-forsaken gorge? Journalists and diplomats, human rights defenders and drug traffickers. ‘Doctors Without Borders,’ the OSCE, PACE. Here there is even a small colony of Chinese [supervising the construction of a large dam] who have for a long time been freely moving about the gorge.”

“Today in the Gorge,” the journalists noted, “there are some 7,000 Kist [a small people who, like the Ingush, are closely related to the Chechens]. From the beginning of the Chechen war, some 5,000 Chechen refugees have joined their ranks, basically women, children and old men, though there are, naturally, men fully capable of bearing arms among them.”

“When these people [the Chechen refugees] came to us,” head of the local Kist administration and chair of the local Council of Elders Dzharan Khangoshvili recalled, “we, naturally, did not ask whether they were rebels. We simply offered them shelter and shared with them our last possessions. You should have seen the condition they were in. They made their way here through the Argun Gorge–the sole more-or-less decent road connecting Chechnya with Georgia. They moved mainly at night. During the day, it was too dangerous. Russian helicopters were strafing the refugee columns…. It was cold. Many did not survive and froze to death. How we and the refugees survived that first winter in Pankisi I still cannot understand.” Now, thanks to humanitarian aid, the refugees are able to survive.

Asked about the special operation currently being conducted by Georgian internal forces in the gorge, Khangoshvili commented: “You yourselves can see what the Pankisi Gorge is. It fits on the palm of your hand: It’s tiny. Those who had to [that is, the Chechen fighters] left it a long time ago for the high mountains. It would not only be difficult for Georgian soldiers to find them there but even for the Russians and Americans taken together.” But what would happen if Russian Special Forces were to appear? “Then they will remain here,” Khangoshvili pronounced, “Forever. The refugees remember what cleansing operations are.”

In the Pankisi town of Duisi, the three correspondents met a 13-year-old Chechen boy named Dato who reported that he was attending school. “Is it a Georgian, Chechen or Arab school?” he was asked. “A normal one,” he replied, “a Russian one.” Thus they discovered that “a normal Russian school is functioning in Duisi.” The town is also home to a new mosque built by Wahhabis from Saudi Arabia. Five of them lived in the town. The Kist generally shun the new mosque but some refugees are attracted to it. The reporters also met a representative of the American special forces, who is engaged in training the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs troops operating in the gorge; not surprisingly, he declined to identify himself.

“Were there rebels in Duisi?” the journalists asked the locals. “There were, of course,” they were told. “Over the past year, there were about 150 of them. But they left a long time ago. More than three months ago.”

After departing from Duisi the correspondents proceeded further along the gorge. “After about twenty minutes we reached the highest point of the gorge; after that, there is no road. The mountains begin here.” “And where is the border with Chechnya?” “Far away,” they were told. “And that,” the journalists underscored, “is one of the chief discoveries of those who come to the Pankisi Gorge. Their minds addled by mass Kremlin propaganda, they expect to see an enormous black hole here–an inaccessible and dread abyss similar to the American Grand Canyon, where Chechen rebels, Arab mercenaries and Wahhabis of various stripes from all over the world move about freely with weapons. None of that, of course, is visible here.”

“From here,” they continued their account, “from the highest point of the Pankisi Gorge, the border with Chechnya is more than 60 kilometers away. The gorge is separated from the border by several high mountain ranges…. There exist a few shepherds’ paths along which one can reach the glaciers, but the paths are closed already in October and become passable again only at the beginning of May.”

“If Pankisi did not exist,” the correspondents concluded, “probably it would be necessary to invent it. Otherwise how is one to explain to a [Russian] populace more or less dissatisfied with a drawn-out war the failures at the front and the mystical vitality of the rebels and their field commanders?… Obviously an external enemy could only be situated on the territory of Georgia, which has a common 80-kilometer-long border with Chechnya, and on whose territory the Chechen-Kist live compactly.” Since late 1999, a host of Russian government and military spokesmen have been energetically demonizing the gorge–Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Nikolai Patrushev, Akhmad Kadyrov and numerous others. However, their claims that large numbers of separatist fighters are moving across the border has been an embarrassment to the Russian Border Guard Service who were boasting that “they had the border with Georgia tightly locked up.”

The three reporters interviewed the Georgian minister for state security, Valery Khaburdzania. Responding to recent charges by President Putin that Georgia was engaged in “peacefully squeezing out” Chechen separatist fighters from its territory, Khaburdzania replied: “These people did not come down to us from the moon. They had previously been squeezed out to us here by Russia, where in the Itum-Kale sector of the border there are some 3,000 border guards stationed. Our [Russian] colleagues assure us that the border is tightly closed. We’ll let them destroy [the separatists] on the border, and we will help as much as we are able.”

The journalists also interviewed Koba Narchemashvili, Georgia’s minister of internal affairs, concerning “the meaning of the announced introduction of [Georgian] internal troops into the Pankisi Gorge.” “We did not intend,” Narchemashvili explained, “to conduct here a secret, lighting-fast punitive operation. Our citizens live here, and we did not intend to ‘cleanse’ them in the Russian manner. There were about 100 rebels here. But they have left. And as long as the troops remain here–and they will stay as long as is necessary–the rebels will not return.”

Lieutenant General Valery Chekhedze, head of the Georgian Border Service, noted to the three journalists that he has 120 troops guarding the 80-kilometer border with Chechnya. “On the Russian side, in the Itum-Kale sector,” he continued, “some 3,000 border guards and up to 15,000 federal troops are positioned. But the rebels are nonetheless able to cross the border and reach our territory. A logical question arises: With such forces available to you, why can’t you close the border?” Chekhedze mocked the view that Chechen separatists battling the federal forces in Chechnya were getting their weapons in caravans coming over the mountains from Georgia. “You would have, once a week, all year long, to send a caravan of seventy pack animals loaded down with weapons and ammunition” over the mountains, he noted, to achieve that. The Chechen separatists, he intimated, were in fact purchasing most of their weapons from the Russian military. The truly unguarded sections of the border, he added, are the secessionist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. “All the responsibility for these holes [in the border] lies first of all on the conscience of Russia.”

And Chekhedze concluded his remarks: “The misfortune, in my view, consists in the fact that, together with Putin, there came to power in Russia a team marked by imperial thinking, a team that dreams of restoring the Soviet Union. And that team acts in the imperial style, rattling sabers over our heads…. This has forced us into an inevitable strengthening of contacts with the United States.”