A World Away from Europe: Pankisi gorge shows another face of Georgia
When still in Yerevan, we got a warning from Tbilisi that women must wear headscarves and long dresses in the Pankisi gorge. It was strange to learn that in Georgia, which is seeking membership of the European Union, there is a region where women are subjected to strict religious and patriarchic laws.
A group of journalists from Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Karabakh left for the Pankisi gorge – a haven of international terrorism and bandit gangs until recently – within the framework of the IWPR Cross Caucasus Journalism Network project.
The Kistins, the population of the gorge, are part of the Vaynakh peoples (the Chechens and the Ingush), who differ from Chechens only in some nuances of dialect and make up part of the Chechen teips (Chechen tribal organizations).
Georgian journalist Eka Danashia said that she learnt Kistins were not Georgians only in the late 1990s. The 8,000 people with the Georgian ending of ‘shvili’ in their last names ‘revealed’ their affiliation with the Vaynakhs particularly during the second Chechen War, when they openly welcomed Chechen refugees and warriors into their villages.
One realizes that he is entering Kistin villages on seeing women in headscarves in the Akhmeti region some 200 kilometers to the north of Tbilisi. We did not manage to have a dinner in the yard of the only Christian church in the region located in Jokolo village, because of heavy rain during the several-hour visit, and were hosted by a family in Duisi village.
A former deputy head of the Kakheti region, Zaur Gumashvili, presented the history of the Kistins who resettled in the Pankisi in the mid 19th Century after coming down from the mountains. Their major occupation was robbery by regular attacks on valley settlers, taking away their property and kidnapping their women and children.
Gumashvili points to the mountain ahead of us, where Georgian prince Ivanetsi and Kistin leader Jokola made a rite of fraternization and swore an oath to be loyal to each other; as a result the Pankisi gorge, depopulated by the attacks, was given to the Kistins in the 1830s to cultivate soil in return for ending robbery. (This story was reflected in the works of the 19th Century Georgian poet Vaja-Pshavela, later screened in prominent Georgian film director Tengiz Abuladze’s ‘The Entreaty’)
However, the Kistins appeared in Georgia much earlier; Gumashvili says he is descended from Kistins who came in 1760 and received land from the Georgian king for bravery in defending Georgia during a war in those times.
Formally obedient to the state structure, the Kistins have preserved their traditional system of governance well – the Elders Council decides all community matters and makes verdicts independent of decisions of state courts.
Gumashvili says they don’t hinder the work of the police and a Kistin sentenced to 10 years imprisonment needs to appear also before the Kistin traditional court after serving those 10 years. There are cases when the Kistin court plays a conciliation role between conflicting sides that precedes a state decision. The most severe punishment is expulsion from the community. The Elders Council has recently been registered as a non-governmental organization.
The Pankisi gorge became disobedient to the central authorities in the first years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Georgian nationalists tried to deport non-Georgians under the slogan of “Georgia for Georgians” with the help of the Mkhedrioni armed forces. Ossetians left, but attempts to oust the Kistins failed.
During the second Chechen War, Chechen and Arab soldiers and bandits came to the gorge along with refugees. The gorge turned into a hiding place for kidnappers, drug traders and terrorists and the name of Pankisi gorge appeared in news headlines.
Georgian authorities, helped by American instructors, began military operations in Pankisi in 2002; the wiping out of the gangs was finished by current President Mikheil Saakashvili.
However, not all Kistins complain about a lack of state authority. Shirvan, a resident of Duisi village and Imam Amur Khanjushvili said the situation did not cause them distress.
The threat was greater for foreigners. Norik, the driver who brought the journalists group, was in Duisi for the second time. His first visit was in 1999 when he fell into the hands of bandits after delivering his passengers.
“A car followed me on my way back. He gave me a sign to stop, but I did not, so somebody put a submachine gun muzzle out of the car and I stopped. Three men, one with a submachine gun and two others with pistols, got out of the car. They told me to give the money, I gave all I had,” he recalls.
“They began to beat me with the handle of the machine gun, they wanted money saying that if I was here for drugs (they thought I came to buy drugs) then I should have money. They broke the hand of the child who was with me. I told them that they had taken all the money I had, but they said they would kill me if I didn’t give more and put the nozzle of the machine gun into my mouth to shoot.”
The driver said that his life was saved by the passenger he had taken to the village, but he developed diabetes after the incident.
Wahhabists also came from Chechnya and introduced a third law to Pankisi – Sharia, or Islamic law — but it lost out in a conflict with the Elders Council. Nevertheless a Wahhabi mosque operates in Duisi.
This militant Islamic movement is being eradicated in Russia and Azerbaijan. The police killed a number of Wahhabis during my visit to Makhachkala last year. The bearded young men gathering by the mosque in Duisi (a beard is one of the features of the Wahhabis) feel more comfortable in Georgia.
A young believer by the mosque was preaching loudly, and there were just two words I could understand — ‘tschmarit’ [‘true’ in Armenian] (this word in Georgian has the same transcription and has the same meaning) and ‘Allah’.
Others were making sure that women’s headscarves totally covered their head (only the face can be shown) before entering the mosque. Imam Amur, 25, says that the number of believers grows particularly among the young and that about 300 pray in the mosque at Friday prayers.