Transcending Terror in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge on World Refugee Day
On July 11th, Georgia’s Pankisi region celebrated World Refugee Day (the official holiday is on June 20th). The UN office in Georgia organized a day of festivities in the town of Duisi to recognize the hundreds of refugees who fled from the conflict between the North Caucasian insurgency and Russia in the 2000s. I was invited to celebrate this underappreciated holiday with ASB, a German development fund that has invested in projects for women and disabled children in the region. What I got in return was one of the most memorable day trips of my life.
Pankisi is a region that garners a lot of international attention for its overrepresentation in radical Islamic militant groups around the world and a history of being a safe haven for the North Caucasian insurgency. This will be an account of a day, however, in which all of these complications were stripped away, and for the briefest moment, a curious American expat was able to take some pictures and observe a fascinating display of pride and culture. This day changed the way I saw the region, and provided perspective on the power that proper reporting and investment can have in countering Islamic extremism in other parts of the world.
Duisi is a town that gains proportionally more media attention than most isolated poor mountain villages in the Caucasus. The influx of refugees from the North, sometimes radicalized, has created some complicated ethno-religious realities for an otherwise quiet mountain region. While the first Chechen War in the 1990s was predicated on independence, autonomy, and recognition of Chechen nationalism, the second conflict took on a more religious tone, with several radical Sunni Islamic groups like the Caucasus Emirate at the forefront of paradigm-shaking attacks, like the takeover of a Moscow theater in 2002, and most prominently, the Beslan School massacre in 2004. The North Caucasian insurgency found a safe haven in the Pankisi Gorge in their fight against Russia. At the time Georgia and Russia still had a cordial, albeit tense relationship, but the Georgian Army’s inability to control the portion of the border with Chechnya and malaise towards militants resting and rearming in Pankisi was one of the major catalysts for Russo-Georgian relations souring in the 2000s. Some of the most extreme and apocryphal speculation even suggested that Osama Bin Laden had made his way to Pankisi from Afghanistan, and was conducting the war against NATO forces from the region.
Because of this history, it is difficult for the media to shake the notion that Pankisi is a breeding ground for militants. I do not mean to suggest that this is no longer a problem. Upwards of 100 residents are believed to have joined the ranks of the so-called Islamic State in Syria. IS’s top battlefield commander, Tarkhan Batirashvili (Omar Al-Shishani), the architect of the 2014 invasion of Iraq, was born and raised in Duisi. However, Duisi has a more important story to tell.
What I saw in my short six hours in the town is a complicatedly passive co-existence of Orthodox Christianity and Wahhabi Islam. I saw young Kist (an ethnic subset of Chechens) girls in black hijabs walking arm in arm with Georgian classmates in t-shirts, shorts, and flip-flops. I even spoke with some Wahabbists, who were more focused on explaining the ongoing wrestling tournament to me than questioning why this Georgian/Russian-speaking American was taking so many pictures.
The scenes of people of different ethnicities and wardrobe choices all intermingling seemingly would make most Wahabbists quite angry, but that was not the case on this day. Pankisi’s relative pacifism could be for several reasons. The Wahabbist elders probably have a vested interest in keeping the region calm, lest the now well-trained and US-equipped Georgian army roll up the road to the Duisi and use the same tactics seen in 2000s Russia. Alternatively, this area could just have a general disinterest in conflict. The harsh socio-economic conditions of the region are endured by all, no matter what church they attend. In Pankisi, poverty and lack of educational opportunities is omnipresent. The only newly constructed buildings are the Georgian-staffed police station (likely to be exceptionally well-armed) and the Wahabbist mosque, which received generous funding from Saudi Arabia. Projects like the mosque result in a lot of fear in Western media, even though more nuanced reporting suggests there is a demand for more mainstream Islamic teachings in Duisi.
The real cause for Duisi’s status quo is not religion or ethnicity so much as it is socio-economics. Unemployment has been estimated at upwards of 90%. Pankisi is a living paradox because of this. For a region that receives so much international attention, little of it is translated to social and economic development. It is a town that can produce a man like Tarkhan Batirashvili, yet hold multi-ethnic festivals complete with face-painting and a child-rousing performance by a clown, Mickey Mouse, and Princess Belle. There is even an adorable online newspaper, run by Kist teenagers in Duisi (mostly girls). This town is a strong lesson in the folly of hyperbole and generalizations. One cannot ignore that the region still has problems with its relatively high levels of militancy, but it is still a living town with its own multicultural balance and everyday life.
At the establishment of World Refugee Day, UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon said refugees are those whose “biggest dream is to live normally again.” That’s what this Saturday was for the people of Duisi. One day of festivities was enough for the Christian and Wahabbist alike to forget the otherwise ignored plight of the region, and enjoy a small slice of “normal” again. What this region warrants is more passive development projects and for the international media to give it the “normal” treatment it deserves. An article with the words “Islamic State” or “ISIS” in the title feeds the crisis-thirsty dynamic of today’s readers, but if world media continues to call Pankisi a breeding ground for militants, the region’s youth will continue to believe that war is the only way out of their economic situation. Tarkhan Batirashvili’s father was quoted in an AFP report saying, “There might be some Kist kids who are proud of their world-famous Tarkhan, but if he were a football star, they would all dream of becoming footballers.” He continued, “If only my son had a glimmer of hope for a better life here in Georgia, he never would have left Pankisi.” How the media reports about Pankisi and how the outside world interacts with it matters in shaping the region’s future into a more sustainable outcome. It is time for a more nuanced look at a region of stunning natural beauty and incredible local culture.
World Refugee Day in Pankisi, Georgia. All photos by Charles Johnson.