By Beslan Makhauri in Duisi (CRS No.164, 30-Jan-03)
The first thing that strikes a modern-day visitor to the Pankisi Gorge is the heavy police presence. Men in camouflage guarding a checkpoint with concrete blocks and bonfires stand at the entrance to the 30-kilometre-long valley.
But if for the outside world the increased Georgian law enforcement presence represents a new push to restore order in a valley that has acquired a notorious reputation for harbouring Islamic extremists, it is making the Chechen refugees who live in the Pankisi feel very unsafe.
Last week, in Duisi, the main village in the gorge, Chechen refugees protested over their poor conditions and security fears.
"Last autumn, five Chechens who had come to the Pankisi illegally from Chechnya were handed over to Moscow, even though they were ready to suffer any punishment in Georgia," said Aslanbek Abdurzakov, a human rights activist who was organised the protest.
He said that the climate in Georgia had worsened for Chechens since a mass round-up in Tbilisi in early December. (See CRS 159, 12 Dec 2002.)
"By holding this rally, the refugees are trying to draw Georgian and western attention to their plight," Abduzarkov said. "The authorities in Georgia are changing their policies under pressure from abroad and Chechens are worried that they could be pawns."
Since 1999, the Pankisi Gorge has housed several thousand Chechen refugees who fled Russia's second military campaign in Chechnya. They chose the valley because it is home to their ethnic kin, the Kists, whose ancestors fled Chechnya for Georgia in the 19th century.
This little-known valley 70 km from Tbilisi shot to prominence last year when it won a reputation for being a centre for kidnapping and a base for Chechen fighters and Islamic militants linked to al-Qaeda. Last summer, the Russian airforce bombed the gorge and the Georgian security forces moved to reassert control over it.
Recently, it has been claimed that two groups of suspected militants from North Africa arrested in Paris and London over the past two months, one possessing the deadly toxin ricin, had trained in the Pankisi.
In the past, the Georgian authorities always downplayed this kind of allegations, but two weeks ago Georgian security minister Valery Khaburdzania admitted for the first time that until last year the Pankisi had indeed been a haven for around 700 Chechen fighters as well as 100 Arabs, led by a commander named Amjet or Abu Hapsi, who may have had links to Osama Bin-Laden.
The ministry said there was a satellite communications centre and extreme Wahhabi schools preaching fundamentalist Islam.
"Today the region is fully under the control of the Georgian security forces," interior minister Koba Narchemashvili said on January 28 after a visit to the Pankisi. "But we do not intend to withdraw our interior forces for the time being, as we can't rule out the possibility of provocations."
On the same day, Georgian border guards chief Valery Chkheidze warned, "Chechen field commander Ruslan Gelayev's group may make an attempt to cross into Georgia, as they did several years ago."
Georgian military analyst Irakly Aladishvili said that the authorities in Tbilisi were afraid of a new influx of guerrillas this spring.
"(Russian president Vladimir) Putin came to power by beginning the Chechen campaign," Aladishvili said. "The best way for him now is to solve the problem any way he can before the next elections in 2004. So there is a real threat that Chechen armed groups will be squeezed onto the territory of Georgia, when the snows melt in the mountains."
Many Georgians are also worried that Moscow will use the cover of a United States-led war in Iraq to carry out military strikes across the Chechnya-Georgia border.
Chechens in the Pankisi do not deny that until recently they had extremists living among them - but complain that the timing of the disclosures is politically motivated.
"Who needs all these new revelations?" asked Baudi Itayev, a Chechen refugee in Duisi. "We are already guessing what comes next. The security forces now say that they knew all about the Chechen and Arab fighters. Why did they lie for such a long time, almost a whole year, and say there were no fighters here - and in that case can we believe them now?"
The refugees are now being made to feel unwelcome, even from Georgians who sympathised with them in the past.
"The Chechen refugees have created enormous problems for Georgia, especially in relations with Russia, but that is not their fault, just the consequence of the authorities losing control," said Georgian member of parliament Vakhtang Shameladze.
However, Shameladze went on to say that "it will be better for everyone, including the Chechens, if they go back home", a process that "should have started two years ago".
Many Chechens have already decided to leave the Pankisi and moved on to Turkey or Azerbaijan. Independent estimates suggest that only two and a half thousand refugees remain. Increasingly, those left behind find it hard to support themselves.
"Chechen refugees can get only legal help from the Georgian authorities," Hussein Saidov, chairman of the local refugee committee, which works with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, told IWPR. "The only help they get of being fed is from international humanitarian organisations.
"It's hard to keep a family when there is absolutely no work, not enough land and when winter lasts seven months a year. Really that is why very many have left. Why does the number with refugee status not go down? Because many people when they leave sell their papers to their neighbours for 20-30 lari (around 10 US dollars). Then these people will get free food for a whole year from the humanitarian organisations until the next census."
Wherever, they go, however, almost no one wants to go back to Chechnya.
Eighty-year-old Sajat Sardalova, the grandmother of a Chechen family of eight living in Duisi, is an exception - but perhaps because she is suffering exile for the second time. Like all Chechens two generations ago, she was deported to Kazakhstan in 1944.
"Above all I am afraid of dying here," Sajat said. "I would go home now, but my children won't allow it."
"The refugees here have developed a strong immunity to the idea of returning home until the Russian forces leave," explains her 42-year-old son Ibragim.
"We already know that those people who go back to Chechnya from Georgia suffer the most brutal filtration process because the Russian leadership believes that those who fled to Georgia were the most aggressive supporters of independence for Chechnya," he said, referring to Russian soldiers' violent detention of suspected militants.
The Sardalov family is now pinning some faint hopes on a third possibility. Recently, the refugees in Duisi wrote a collective letter to Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien asking to be given asylum in Canada. A reply from Canada said their request was being considered.
Beslan Makhauri is a Chechen freelance journalist based in Tbilisi. Margarita Akhvlediania, IWPR Georgia editor, contributed to this report.