The Pankisi Gorge sits below the Greater Caucasus Mountains in the Kakheti region of North-East Georgia. The region is inhabited by around 10,000 ‘Kists’, which are an ethnic group closely linked to the Chechens. Kists are thought to have inhabited the Pankisi Gorge from as early as the 17th century, arriving in the valley in the search for fertile terrain and to escape from tribal disputes over the mountains in Chechnya. Since then, Kist identity has developed to incorporate Georgian traditions and Kist people have peacefully coexisted in Georgian society.
The Pankisi Gorge entered into international headlines during the first Chechen war in 1994, when thousands of Kists living in Chechnya and Chechen refugees crossed the mountains and sought haven in the gorge to escape the war engulfing Chechnya.
These civilians were accompanied by bands of Chechen fighters, who used the Pankisi Gorge to regroup and train before returning to Chechnya to fight Russian forces. The Pankisi Gorge soon became notorious as a leading Eurasian centre of drugs and arms trafficking and kidnappings – a no-go zone for Georgians or foreigners. During the late 1990s, the Pankisi Gorge was thought to be one of the most dangerous places in the world.
In the early 2000s, after pressure from Russia and with considerable aid from the United States, in an incident known as the ‘Pankisi Gorge Crisis’, the Georgian Government intervened in efforts to pacify an escalating situation and the alleged presence of Al Qaeda militants in the Pankisi Gorge. Thereafter, the Pankisi Gorge settled into relative calm and an effort was made to rebuild the links between Georgian and Kist societies.
With the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, the Pankisi Gorge once again made international headlines as dozens of Kist men, lured by tales of money and glory, traveled to Syria to join Jihadist groups. It is estimated that roughly a dozen Kist men were killed fighting for these Jihadist groups. These deaths and the radicalisation of young men who have returned from Syria has placed increased social pressure on the Kist community both internally and externally.