Syria as the way out
“Tarkhan is our hero
A dozen of young people have gathered at Jokolo village meeting venue. Two Pankisi-native warriors, who have been reported killed in Syria, are the main topic of their discussion.
“They heroically died in action,
“They fought for Allah,
“They are Shahids (edit. Quranic Arabic word used to denote a ‘martyr’) now, they say.
Among the killed warriors is Abu Omar al-Shishani, aka Tarkhan Batirashvili, a ‘ginger’ Pankisi-born guy, who joined the ISIS ranks in 2012 and who, within less than three years, turned from a combat performer into one of the key field commanders and the Islamic State’s war minister. Whereas in 2014, the USA put Batirashvili on the terrorists’ black list. US$ 5million award was offered for the information on his whereabouts.
A rather worthy career for a guy from Birkiani village. People in Pankisi are proud of him.
Earlier, there were 9 false media reports on Omar al-Shishani’s death.
Only the 10th report that came on June 13 turned out to be the true one. As reported, one of the ISIS leaders personally reported al-Shishani’s death to his family.
“He was a calm and modest guy, says a neighbor, who is going to Batirashvili family to express her condolences.
Al-Shishani, who was regarded as a brave field commander, was already ‘on everyone’s lips’ in Pankisi. Whereas these days, he is particularly much talked about and people speaking of him with raptures.
Tarkhan is a hero for the majority of youth residing in Pankisi Gorge.
“This guy was brought up here, then he left and shook the world, says one of them.
The population in Pankisi Gorge do not trust the media reports on al-Shishani. Apart from some other crimes, the mass murders have been also attributed to him.
“Tarkhan was summoned to Sharia court in Syria for saving 10 Christians, though he managed to justify himself, say those, who have gathered at Jokolo meeting venue. There are numerous legends about Batirashvili’s heroism in the gorge.
Pankisi-a parallel world
Pankisi is located at 150km distance from Tbilisi, though it is at once apparent that there is a greater distance between the gorge and the capital.
The population of Pankisi Gorge makes 15,000 people. Duisi, Jokola and Birkiani, the biggest villages in the Gorge, are situated along the Alazani river banks. The snowy peaks of the Caucasus Mountains are overlooking the villages all the year round. Chechnya is at some 30km distance, beyond these mountains. The predecessors of the present-day hosts of Pankisi Gorge came here from Chechnya in the 19th century. They are referred to as the Kists in Georgia.
According to the 2016 census data, there are 5,700 Kists in Pankisi Gorge at present.
Pankisi Kists are one of the well-integrated ethic minority groups in Georgia. Nearly all of them fluently know Georgian along with their native Chechen language.
They were greater in number in the beginning of the century, when thousands of refugees escaped the Chechen war and found shelter in Pankisi Gorge. The Caucasus Mountains served then as a shelter for the Chechen militants. It was then that Pankisi Gorge turned into a ‘dangerous zone’ and could not get rid of such a reputation for years.
None of Georgia’s regions are as often in the focus of the international media’s attention as Pankisi Gorge.
First it was in the late 90s and early 2000s, that an uncontrolled gorge became an epicenter of abduction, crime and drug trafficking. On top of that, there were constant accusations on part of the Russian side, claiming that Pankisi Gorge served as a training base for the terrorists.
The situation calmed down in 2005, but just for a while. Along with the beginning of a conflict in Syrian and revival of the Islamic State, Pankisi has turned into a new-scale threat.
Sometimes people are seeking answers for the terrorist attacks, committed in different spots around the globe, in this small gorge. For example, Ahmad Chataev was named as an organizer of June 29 bomb attack in Istanbul. Chataev is Russia’s most wanted Chechen militant, who found refuge in Pankisi and who was arrested in course of the Georgian authorities’ special operation in Lopota gorge, in 2012.
However, later, Chataev was amnestied and released from Georgian prison. “Pankisi Gorge, terrorism, the Islamic state,-these words flashed through the international press again.
Far more expressive are the figures. According to various data, about 40-50 young people from Pankisi are fighting in the Islamic State’s ranks nowadays. 4 out of that number are the field commanders.
The 11th grade Islamist
Ramzan Baghakashvili, 11th grade student and his co-villager, Muslim Kushtanashvili, 10th grade student, went to school early on April 2, 2015, and didn’t return back home.
Their photos were released on social media a few days later. 18 and 16-year-old Pankisi-native youngsters were posing before the cameras against the background of the ISIS black flag, wearing the military uniforms and holding the machine guns in their hands.
We recorded an interview with Tina Alkhanashvili, Ramzan’s mother, a few months ago.
Upon entering Ramzan’s house you will easily guess that his family is socially vulnerable.
The first thing that comes to front when entering the yard is the inscription ‘R+’ made in several places, with the next letter thoroughly blotted out. Mrs. Tina says, her son had made this inscription himself and then he erased the first letter of his girlfriend’s name, so that nobody could guess who she was.
As for Mrs. Tina, she will not erase anything until her son gets back.
The only changed in their house after Ramzan’s departure is a TV-set that the relatives have lent the family.
Tina Alkhanashvili’s interview is often interrupted. Tears well in her eyes and she finds it difficult to speak, especially when she recalls Ramzan’s childhood.
“He has been always warm and loving. I saw him off to school that day and in the evening his friend brought his schoolbag to me. When I asked him, where he was, he said, he didn’t know.
Although it’s true that the young people have been long crossing the border into Syria, but Ramzan and Muslim’s case has turned out to be special.
The fact that the youngsters travelled by plane has proved that this process was under the patronage of some influential and financially strong persons, and also that Georgian borders are absolutely unprotected.
Mrs. Tina says, Ramzan has never been too religious. She believes, her son has been ‘barinwashed’.
“People say, he attended the mosque in Jokolo lately. I don’t want to name anyone, but people are pointing at him, she says.
The key enticer
A person, whom Tina Alkhanashvili is unwilling to name, but who she has in mind, is Ayuf Borchashvili.
A former imam of Jokolo mosque, he has been charged with having links with the terrorist organization. The first instance court found him guilty of facilitating the terrorist activity and sentenced him to 14 years in prison. His case is now under consideration in the Appellate Court
According to the Prosecutor’s Office, he has been the ISIS envoy to Pankisi Gorge and is a key enticer in the region. It was he, who helped the school students leave for Syria.
In private conversations, the locals make no secret of the fact that they follow the radical Islam, which is different from a traditional one. This mosque is also referred to as ‘the Wahhabi mosque’.
There are two different mosques operating in Jokolo and Duisi. The followers of Sufi and Salafi teaching in both villages attend different mosques. Omar Aldamov, a gold-bearded elderly man, has been the imam of Duisi mosque for 5 years already. He says, he continuously calls on the youth not to take the bait and not to travel to Syria. In his opinion, the only way out is to teach and learn Islam in the right way:
“Islam doesn’t teach us to kill. There is no mentioning of such thing as ‘go and kill’, and moreover, where? Somewhere in Syria… If your motherland needs it, then it’s your obligation to defend it, but why on earth would you go to Syria?
Looking forward to a new gym
Judging by the figures, the Islamic State enticers have built meteoric careers in Pankisi. Though, it’s not only due to their ‘dexterity’ that they have managed it.
The Islamic recruiters have some reliable allies in the gorge, that is, the poverty, unemployment and hopelessness, which could be found at every turn here.
Pankisi elders beat the alarm, calling on the authorities to take particular measures:
We, the representatives of the elders’ union meet the youth and explain them, that this is not our war, but that’s hardly enough. They need to see the prospects. Provide jobs to our youth, so that they could get Syria out of their heads, says Zaur Gumashvili, a representative of Pankisi elders’ union. The elderly people are obviously seek and tired of such a ‘popularity’ and notorious reputation of the gorge.
There are neither the jobs, nor the entertainment in Pankisi.
The cows are pasturing at the ruined building, bearing the inscription “Café.
The gym is the only facility functioning in the gorge. There used to be a market at this place, whereas now the wrestling is taught here.
The youth say, a new gym is what the gorge needs most.
“We were raising the gym issue at every meeting with the government officials. Years have passed, but we still don’t have it, says Ruben Borchashvili, a native Jokolo village.
Internet, that the local youth use for communication with the rest of the world, is the only entertainment here.
Whatsapp enjoys particular popularity in Pankisi. Along with some other information, the youth also share the videos released on the Islamic websites, featuring the ISIS field commanders’ appeals and showing them in action.
I’ve asked a couple of young people, where and how they see their future some 5-10 years later. Most of them have no answer to this question. Many say, they will go to Chechnya to find some job, some are dreaming about going to Europe for work.
“When you are a school student, you don’t care much about things. But what are you going to do after your graduate it? You should either leave for some other country or tend the sheep. Going to Syria is the easy way out. People just queue up to leave this place, says A. Borchashvili.
Tina Alkhanashvili has no idea, what her 11th grade son was seeking in Syria and why he preferred leaving to a strange country instead of staying here with her. He is far from here now and his mother is trying to get used to living without him:
“I have rare contact with him. He says, he is busy. He communicates with me via Whatsapp from time to time. Last time he wrote, he was fine. He told me not to worry about him, that he was not on the site of hostilities and he was working…it seems, he is trying to calm me down.