About Pankisi by Ellie Kramers

About Pankisi

Majestic beauty

Welcome to the home of the Roddy Scott Foundation- the Pankisi Valley. The Pankisi is arguably one of the most beautiful places in Georgia, with the Alazani river bed being framed by the sharp incline of the North Caucasus mountains, the top of the valley leading through the mountains to, eventually, Russia.

The gorge to the North Caucasus- Chechnya!
The gorge to the North Caucasus- Chechnya!

The Pankisi is located in North East Georgia, in the Kakheti region of Georgia, known for its fine food and green landscapes. 40 minutes away from Telavi, a key wine growing region of Georgia and the capital of Kakheti, Pankisi occupies the end of the road into the mountains from Akmeta town. The Pankisi is made up of a variety of small villages, running roughly in a ribbon on two sides of the Alazani river. The largest of these are Duisi, Jokolo, Birkiani, Tsinubani and Omalo. The main administration buildings of the region are located in Duisi.
Employment opportunities in the remote valley are scarce, and subsistence farming plays a key part in the survival of the population. At the top end of the valley is a small honey farm

Bees taking a break
Bees taking a break

, an adventure park and a Chinese Funded electro power station (manned internally), that makes the most of the waterfalls in the region. However, the Pankisi does have a vibrant internal arts and music scene, with the Kist people paying special attention to keeping their traditions alive despite their separation from Chechnya.

The Pankisi Gorge is home to approximately 13,000 people, the majority of whom are Kists. Often confused with the Chechens, the Kists are one of three ethnicities within the Vaynakh ethnicity, (Kists, Chechens and Ingush). Originally both Christian and Muslim, the Kists several hundred years ago took up this land in Georgia. They migrated from Chechnya, over the steep North Caucasus, to escape blood feuds, and to find more fertile land on other side of the mountains. Over the years, others have joined the community in the Pankisi for similar reasons, and the slight difference in the evolved Chechen language and traditions (that have arguably been kept more strictly in the Pankisi as argued by learned members of the Kist community) has led to their distinction from the Chechens of Chechnya who have been influenced by the Soviet period.

Kists have often played large parts in Georgian society, and the majority of the Pankisi Valley speak Kist (Chechen), Georgian and Russian with equal fluency. Although there have been moments of conflict between the Kists and the Georgians, history has more examples of the two ethnicities peacefully coexisting, and modern Kists can be found within the government of Georgia, the civil service and within the Georgian education system. However, most Kists still have very strong links to their homeland, Chechnya. The majority of Kists have connections and/or family there, so many Kists spend significant amounts of time in and out of both Grozny and Moscow in their lives, and are in constant contact with their Chechen cousins. You will not spend long in the Pankisi to see a child with ЧЕЧНЯ (Chechnya) written on the back of a fake Adidas tracksuit!


Chechen adidas

There remains a strong family and clan-based culture both in the Pankisi and in Chechnya, that brings with it a strong code of conduct and honour. These codes are adhered to broadly throughout the valley and not only address matters of crime and how to deal with it, but to hospitality and marriage rituals. There exists a council of Elders that oversees the valley’s clan based conduct, and often these laws have to be negotiated both with state and newer and stronger religious laws and demands.
Kists are Islamic, and traditionally are Sufis, a mystical form of Islam often assimilating tribal and cultural traditions.

Over previous years in the Pankisi, more radical and strong strains of Islam have started to take the place Sufi Islam, with new Mosques opening and Arabic being taught widely throughout the valley. However, regardless of the strain of Islam, the majority of Kists still adhere strongly to the rules of their religion; Ramadan is widely followed, Eid is well celebrated and the mosques are well attended. Of architectural note was the Saudi funded Mosque built in 2002 and costing almost $2 million.

Many Kists, though the generous refugee status provided by some European countries, have had the opportunity to spend time abroad, and a lot of the local wealth is based on remittances, from Austria, Denmark or Germany particularly. However, due to the homing instinct of the Pankisi population, many go for a short while and then return to their family and friends in the valley.

Pankisi Traditions
The Pankisi Gorge has a variety of different traditions and celebrations every year.
While the majority of the residents adhere to Ramadan and thus celebrate Eid with great enjoyment, the summer also brings with it a horserace known as the ‘Duisi Derby’. It has been known that the winning riders and horses of the Duisi Derby have been taken on by scouts who attend the event, both in Chechnya, elsewhere in Georgia and abroad. image

Watch this Video to see the Horserace in Action

Other events include Pankisi day, where the community, funded by the Chechen refugee Council, showcase their achievements and culture, through dancing and wresting competitions.

There is also a small but active music and arts scene in the valley. Chechen dance classes are available and music groups from Pankisi have been emotionally welcomed onto the stage at some of Georgia’s largest events, including a very teary reception on ‘Georgia’s Got Talent’.

Pankisi Recent History
The last 15 years have thrown the Pankisi Gorge into the spotlight for not overwhelmingly positive reasons. Throughout the two Chechen wars, 1994-1996 and 1999-2000 respectively, and the turbulent times after, many Chechens fleeing the often indiscriminate violence made their way, often on foot, over the mountains to the Pankisi Gorge, seeking refuge from relatives and friends in Georgia. In 2000 it was thought that the population of the Pankisi Gorge had doubled due to the refugee influx.
However, with the refugees came a stronger link to the war effort, I which the Pankisi Gorge was already a part. Guerrilla battalions of Kist and Chechen fighters were using the relative safety of the Gorge to recover, train and prepare for their future battles led by the widely respected Hamzat Gelaev.

Hamzat Gelev
Hamzat Gelev

Among them, covering the Chechen struggle from the Pankisi Gorge, was the late Roddy Scott whose death whilst covering the activities of the Kist fighters inspired the opening of the Roddy Scott Foundation.

Roddy Scott: (23 February 1971 – 26 September 2002)
Roddy Scott: (23 February 1971 – 26 September 2002)

With the Georgian government unable or unwilling to do anything about the Pankisi’s involvement in the valley, the situation their rapidly deteriorated, becoming a haven for arms and human trafficking and kidnapping. It took the world’s attention in 2002, and the involvement of Russian pressure and American training, to pacify the extreme situation, in which the residents were scared to go to their own doorways. Many of the Chechen fighters and refugees still remain in the valley, although many are also gaining refugee status in Finland or Austria.
However, the Pankisi is still treated with distrust in Georgia and the residents sometimes find themselves the subject of discrimination throughout the country. Recently the Pankisi has found itself in the headlines again, due to the notable number of young men who have joined radical movements on the Syrian battlefields, often in very high and profitable positions. Although traditionally Islamic, in some parts of the Pankisi Gorge the newer, more radical, Salafist form of Islam has started to become popular, and children are now learning Arabic alongside their English, Russian, Georgian and Kist.
Despite this, Kists from the Pankisi, with their English in hand, are entering the best national universities, studying a variety of subjects, from languages to international relations, to becoming airline pilots. Kists still play a large, positive, role in Georgian civic society and will continue to do so in the future.

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