For Refugees, Georgia Conflict Stirs Up Old Fears

Taos Yerznukaiva, a Chechen living in Georgia, fled with her family to the Turkish border when war erupted in August.
Taos Yerznukaiva, a Chechen living in Georgia, fled with her family to the Turkish border when war erupted in August. (By Tara Bahrampour -- The Washington Post)
Buy Photo
By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 28, 2008

DUISI, Georgia -- When war broke out last month and helicopters appeared over the valley in which this town lies, Taos Yerznukaiva did not wait to see what would happen. She packed up her family members, including a 2-month-old baby and a pregnant woman, and fled south to the border with Turkey.

She had learned in Chechnya, she said, how to escape from the Russians.

The second Chechen war, which started in 1999, sent thousands of refugees like her over the Russian border from Chechnya into Georgia's Pankisi Gorge. There they settled in a smattering of villages at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains, which are home to Kists, or Georgian Chechens, who speak the same language as their neighbors in Chechnya and practice the same religion, Islam.

About 1,100 Chechen refugees remain in the valley today, according to the United Nations, living in dilapidated Soviet-era schools and administrative buildings, stranded between an old home they are afraid to return to and a new one that has not granted all of them citizenship.

Yerznukaiva, 52, who arrived with her family nine years ago, said she feared that the Russians -- who attacked Georgia in August -- would turn this town into another Grozny, the Chechen capital, which was largely destroyed in the earlier war. "We were sure," she said. "The locals were also very afraid. The locals also were going, so we went."

This area of fruit orchards and towering mountains has not been stable for long. During the Chechen war, it became a base for fighters making excursions into Chechnya and attracted a stream of money and fighters from Muslim nations. For years, it was a lawless pocket where men strode through villages with automatic weapons strapped to their bodies and where street shootings were common. At one point, Russia dropped bombs here to wipe out the fighters.

Then, after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States began a $64 million program to train and equip Georgian forces to help root out suspected al-Qaeda agents -- a program that eventually expanded into a general training program for the Georgian army. The valley is now under the Georgian police's control, and locals say the "Arabians" who had settled here have melted away.

The war last month did not reach the valley, and Georgian officials say the helicopters spotted by the locals were most likely Georgian, conducting routine border patrols. But for Chechens living here, seeing Russian tanks cross into Georgia reawakened old fears. It also brought surprise. Some recalled watching TV reports of Russian tanks near the capital and finding it strange to see no resistance from the Georgians, not even a rock thrown.

Chechens would never have let that happen, said Lia Margoshvili, a Georgian Chechen who works with refugees here. "Chechen kids, when they're in fifth or sixth grade, they learn that they have to kill Russians -- but the Georgian kids, they learn, I don't know, books or something."

Even among the battle-hardened people of the Caucasus, Chechens have a reputation for fierceness. During the war, rumors were afloat that Chechens were among the irregular militia accompanying the Russian army, looting homes and terrorizing residents; the rumored Chechen role injected an extra degree of menace into the accounts.

Georgian officials could not corroborate reports of Chechen irregulars but confirmed that two battalions of Chechen fighters came as part of the Russian army.

Alexander Lomaia, secretary of Georgia's National Security Council, said he met one of them at a checkpoint when Russians had occupied the city of Gori and its surroundings.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company