Page last updated at 06:43 GMT, Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Russia's reach unnerves Chechens

By Neil Arun
BBC News, Pankisi Gorge, Georgia

Ziauddin dreams often of a dark forest in Chechnya, shaded by sharp mountains, where he went hunting for bears.

The Pankisi Gorge was once a no-go area for Georgian troops

"Before the war, we shot them with rifles. After the war, we had machine guns," he laughs. "I found the Kalashnikov-762 especially effective."

Seven years after he fled Chechnya, Ziauddin lives 60km (37 miles) from its frontier with Georgia, at the mouth of the Pankisi Gorge.

A university graduate who filmed the Chechen rebels and fought alongside them, he says he misses his homeland but will only return if Russian troops leave it.

Today, between him and his former hunting ground lies a militarised border, minefields, and the high Caucasus.

But Chechnya was once much closer to Pankisi. Rebels would cross the border freely to flee from the Russians, regroup and re-arm.

Unusually, their presence united Washington and Moscow in alarm. In 2002, the US warned that the remote valley had become a base for Arab fighters allied to al-Qaeda.

In August that year, President Vladimir Putin sent Russian aircraft to bomb alleged rebel bases in the gorge, after accusing the Georgian government of inaction.

Foreign visitors were discouraged from entering the region by a series of high-profile kidnappings. Georgian troops too kept their distance, as rumours swirled that the area was a base for heavily-armed heroin smugglers.

For a brief period early in this decade, the Pankisi Gorge became a byword for international terrorism.

Flight from war

The Caucasus mountains loom silent and beautiful over Duisi - the main village in the gorge.

The Pankisi Gorge is largely peaceful now

The echoes of Russia's war in Chechnya appear to have died down. According to the Georgian government, no rebels remain in Pankisi - only refugees.

Their memories deter them from return. Kometa Timirbulatova shudders as she describes fighting in the Chechen capital, Grozny.

"I was stuck in a basement with no water and a one-month-old child. There was running water two blocks away but fetching it meant certain death, because Russian snipers on the rooftops were shooting anything that moved."

"I prayed for a missile to fall on our basement and finish us all off," she says, drawing an arm protectively across her young daughter.

The refugees in Pankisi arrived after the start of the second war in Chechnya, triggered in 1999 by Russia's drive to recapture Grozny from the rebels.

Some 200 Chechens who fled the conflict are still estimated to live here. The number used to be higher but most have now moved on - some to other Russian republics, many to Turkey and Azerbaijan.

'Not safe'

Pankisi's refugees are unique among displaced Chechens - they live as close as possible to the conflict zone without actually being inside Russia.

Part of Ziauddin's office was recently damaged in a mysterious fire

Barely a day's trek from the border, mobile phone calls keep them informed of the situation back home.

But they remain reluctant to speak about it, despite being residents of Georgia, whose government routinely confronts Moscow over a range of issues.

President Putin's air strikes on the gorge six years ago still resonate here - a reminder to the refugees that they are not beyond Russia's reach.

"We've been told not to speak ill of Russia," says Musa, a middle-aged man from Grozny. When asked by whom, he shrugged and looked away.

Ziauddin is also on his guard. Last month, a fire destroyed the ground floor of the refugee centre he manages in the town of Akhmeta.

He suspects arson but has no idea who did it.

"Even here we're not safe," he mutters, studying the blackened walls of his building.

Though grateful to Georgia for accommodating them, the refugees say they would rather find work in the flourishing economies of Western Europe.

Musa says he has no intention of returning to Chechnya

Returning to Chechnya while it remains under Russian control is, for them, inconceivable.

"Russian emergency ministry officials visit us and offer all sorts of incentives to go back - free transport, housing, jobs," says Musa.

"Those who wished to have returned. I'm staying put."

He fears he will be forever stigmatised for having lived in Pankisi, a place long seen by Russia as a hotbed of terrorism.

"As a Chechen who comes back from Georgia, you are treated as a criminal twice over," he says.

Russian resurgence

The conflict in Chechnya has eased in recent years and Grozny is being rebuilt.

Russia's government says this proves the success of its strategy - namely, to strengthen its local ally, militia leader Ramzan Kadyrov, himself a former rebel.

People called us bandits and fanatics... We have shown our true colours by living here in peace
Ali Khatushkaev
Chechen refugee

Human rights groups say Mr Kadyrov's men, Russian troops, and the rebels are all guilty of atrocities against civilians.

Ziauddin is scathing about the Russian government's claim that Chechnya is no longer at war.

"Russia is trying to remove itself from the battlefield and portray the conflict as a fight between Chechens," he says.

"That way, it can say that any human rights violations are the work of Chechens, not Russians."

But, he admits, Russia is in a stronger position now than it was seven years ago, thanks to the US-led "war on terror".

"Moscow's economy was a mess when they started the second war in Chechnya. But America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have driven up the price of Russian oil. Now, no-one dares criticise it."


Since the refugees' arrival, a popular uprising in Georgia has installed a new government keen to draw the country away from Moscow and closer to the US and Nato.

Men in Duisi
Chechen refugees live beside 'Kist' Georgians of Chechen descent

This course was established, in part, by events in the Pankisi Gorge in 2002. After Russia's air strikes, Georgia sent troops trained by the US military to take on the Chechen rebels.

The government in Tbilisi says its military cleared out the militants and restored the rule of law.

But a refugee who fled to Pankisi in 2002 says it is the will of the Chechens themselves that has ensured peace.

"At first, people called us bandits and fanatics," says Ali Khatushkaev, a young man with a neat beard and gold-capped teeth.

"But we have shown our true colours by living here in peace for all these years," he says.

Chechen refugees entering Georgia in 1999
Most of the refugees came to Georgia at the height of the conflict

Amid the yearnings for independence, there is also evidence of the Chechens' history of co-existence with their neighbours in the Caucasus.

Muslim prayer beads hang on the wall of Musa's home in Duisi. Next to them stands a Christmas tree - popular with the children, Musa's wife says.

And as Ziauddin reminisces about his hunting days in Chechnya, he recalls shooting wild boar as well as bears.

Eating boar, however, was forbidden by the Chechens' Muslim faith. The animals shot by Ziauddin and his friends were sold as meat to the Russians.

Map of Pankisi Gorge

All quiet on the Pankisi front
01 Nov 02 |  Europe
The problem with the Pankisi
05 Aug 02 |  Europe
Timeline: Chechnya
18 Dec 07 |  Country profiles

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