It’s been two years since Georgian special forces ambushed a group of Chechen fighters it claimed were terrorists from the Russian Federation. Yet even with a new government, nobody is following up on an investigation into the incident, even though evidence has emerged that the militants had actually been recruited by the Georgian Interior Ministry and deployed from Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge. Was it a heinous political publicity stunt or something more sinister?
The rain has let up and a couple hundred people are milled about an old petrol station, waiting for Beka Baidauri, a local politician to arrive. The women are all covered in headscarves and a couple dozen men sport ample beards and skull caps. I’m in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, an impoverished region trying to shake its reputation for crime, militancy and Islamic extremism, and in six days the people here are going to democratically choose the head of their local administration for the very first time in history.
The rally kicks off with seven muddy, young, bareback horsemen racing past the station, the “rider on the horse from Jokolo,” the winner. The race is a tribute to Aslan Margoshvili, who along with Bahaudin Kavtarashvili and Bagaudi Bagakashvili were killed in a military operation three years ago. After his aunt, Natela Margoshvili, gives an impassioned speech about the government’s failure to investigate the deaths, a pair of parliamentarians endorse Baidauri before he makes his way around the rain puddles to the mic. Although not a Muslim, the people know and respect him. He makes a short speech, reiterating his promise to find out why their men were killed and who is responsible for covering up the deadliest clash since the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008.
On August 29, 2012, near the village of Lapankuri, Georgian special forces killed at least seven of some 16 suspected Islamic militants it claimed were Russian citizens from Chechnya and Ingushetia who crossed over from neighboring Dagestan and kidnapped some locals. Three Georgian troops also died in the fight. President Mikheil Saakashvili tried to cork and package a scenario where “terrorists” decided to “test Georgia’s combat readiness” and “destabilize” the country.
This was two months before the most heated parliamentary elections in Georgia’s history, which may have been why nobody initially believed the official version. Saakashvili’s ruling party was facing off against a coalition lead by multi-billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who was impervious to all of Saakasvili’s unscrupulous attempts to incapacitate him. News of an Islamic militant incursion seemed far too fantastic considering they are known as good guys for fighting Russia, a common enemy. Saakashvili’s spin soon began to unravel.
Three of the foreigners turned out to actually be Georgians from Pankisi, some 20 kilometers from Lapankuri. Relatives of the men claim their bodies were returned under the cover of night and that they were forced to bury them quietly. Locals reported they were warned not to talk about the incident with anybody. Residents in Lapankuri were also ordered to remain silent, but it was soon revealed that there had been no hostages. When Georgian Ombudsman, Ucha Nanuashvili, opened an investigation, he found that the Interior Ministry was actually recruiting and training Chechens and other North Caucasians from abroad with the promise of giving them a free corridor to Russia. If true, it wouldn’t be the first time the government colluded with Chechen militants, however, it would be the first time they killed them.
Pankisi is a 10 kilometer river valley at the foot of the imposing Caucasus range, which separates Georgia from the Russian Federation. It is populated mostly by Kists, ethnic cousins to Chechens, who first arrived to the valley in the 19th century. During the Chechnya-Russia wars of the 1990s, Pankisi became a sanctuary for thousands of Chechen refugees, who soon doubled the population of the region. Chechen and Arab militants also used the area as a haven from which to launch operations into Russia. By the millennium, Pankisi was deemed one of the most dangerous places in the world, as organized criminals and government officials colluded with the militants to traffic arms, drugs and people through the valley.
In 2001, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze persuaded Chechen commander Ruslan Gelayev to lead a reported 500 fighters into Georgia’s breakaway republic of Abkhazia, which was aborted at the last moment. When it was reported in 2002 that al-Qaeda militants were in Pankisi, the US began a $64 million program to arm and train Georgian troops to rid Pankisi of its “terrorists.” By 2004, the government’s new special forces had mopped up the criminal networks and regained control of Pankisi. Although most of the militants had gone, they left behind an conservative brand of Islam, at odds with the traditional Kist mix of Sufism and old-mountain paganism. Locals began calling them Wahhabists and fretted as their kids converted to the imported faith.
During his first year in office in 2004, President Mikheil Saakashvili pursued a conciliatory stance towards Russia and warned of “the Wahhabist threat in Pankisi.” For the approximate 3,700 Chechen refugees there, Saakashvili’s friendly tone towards Moscow was alarming. Two Chechens, Bekkhan Mulkoev and Husein Alkhanov were acquitted in February 2004 for illegally crossing the border in 2002, but while waiting in Tbilisi to talk with European Commission Human Rights investigators, they were abducted and handed over to the Russians, who imprisoned them.
Delivering Chechens to Russia, however, wasn’t enough to stay in Russia’s good graces, particularly since Georgia was pursuing a passionate relationship with NATO at the same time. By 2006, the party was over. Saakashvili and Putin were bitter foes and Pankisi was in the middle.
A Duisi villager says the Wahhabists used to control Pankisi but they aren’t as dominate in the valley now that Saakashvili is gone. “Misha’s regime was really bad for Pankisi. He put a lot of our people in prison.”
Some 7,000 people inhabit about a dozen villages along the river valley. Everybody knows one another. Because recent history has been so volatile, people live in an atmosphere of intrigue. Personal matters are rarely mentioned on the phone and outsiders – especially journalists – are highly suspect. The previous government depended on informers to keep them abreast of happenings in the valley and because nobody was going to volunteer information, authorities coerced them into ratting.
In September 2011, 25 masked officers arrested English teacher Shorena Khangorshvili as she was walking out of a pharmacy in nearby Akhmeta. In a well-practiced method of entrapment that harks back to Georgia’s worst days of lawlessness, they slipped three packets of heroin into her pocket and a mobile phone into her bag. The Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) claimed Shorena was part of a drug network with her brother, a fugitive assumed to be in Russia. Authorities also said “large quantities of heroin were found at her house,” but there was no evidence the police had been to her home in Duisi, as it would have been impossible to perform a house search without neighbors seeing it. Shorena believed she was being punished for refusing to cooperate with the Interior Ministry.
Meanwhile, recorded conversations had popped up on Youtube. One was purportedly between Interior Minister, Vano Merabishvili, and Georgia’s US ambassador, Batu Kutelia, about the minister’s discussions with North Caucasus fighters. Another was claimed to have been between Deputy Interior Minister, Giorgi Lordkipanidze and the Chairman of the Association for Chechens in Georgia, Xazri Aldamov.
According to Nanuashvili’s investigation, in February 2012, “senior MIA officials” negotiated with Chechen war veterans and representatives of the resistance committee of Chechens living in Europe to come to Georgia for training, equipping and passage to Chechnya. About 120 arrived and were given housing, driving licenses and arms. Locals told investigators that in the summer of 2012, they has seen about 100 Chechens from Europe in Pankisi, which they found odd since most Chechens had left Pankisi for Europe several years earlier.
As the months wore on, fighters began to complain about waiting so long for their promised corridor north. On August 26, MIA officials arranged passage for a group of militants to the Lopota Gorger near Lapankuri. The well-armed group of about 16 were instructed to wait for authorization to cross into the Dagestan border. They didn’t know that Georgian special forces had also been deployed to the north, presumably to block their entry into Dagestan. Instead of being granted the promised passage, the MIA surrounded the Chechens and after some negotiations, demanded they surrender their arms and return to Pankisi. The Chechens, naturally, refused and the shooting began.
The few survivors, like Pazul Margoshvili, were escorted to the Turkish border on the condition they never mention the incident to anybody. He went on to fight in Syria, and according to Shota Utiashvili, the former head of the MIA’s analytical department, about 100 others from Pankisi joined him.
As the sun breaks through the clouds and lights up the green meadows along the river, I recall earlier days in Pankisi, when most local men strolled down the potholed roads with Kalashnikovs over their shoulders. The vibe was a menacing tenseness. Now, the guns are gone and people are earnestly talking of democracy. But until they can move on, they need closure. Were Aslan Margoshvili, Bahaudin Kavtarashvili, Bagaudi Bagakashvili and their comrades victims of a political publicity stunt, or something more sinister? Pankisi believes it knows the answer and is just waiting for confirmation.
“The people here say they (the fighters) were asked to kill Ivanishvili, but they said “your politics are not ours,”” a relative of Pazul Margoshvili said. “And they call us terrorists.”