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Chechen Refugees Want Out of Georgia

After five years living in Georgia, worried Chechen refugees look to the West for salvation.
By Sebastian Smith

When she fled Chechnya through snow and rocket fire almost five years ago, Kaifa Astayeva thought of Georgia as a life-saving sanctuary. Today, she is desperate to leave.


Squeezed with her five children into a single room in Duisi, in the Pankisi gorge north-east of Tbilisi, Astayeva, 39, wept as she recounted her escape while under attack from aircraft, over the Caucasus mountains in late 1999.


But, like many other of the 3,856 Chechen refugees registered in Georgia, Astayeva now wants to flee again – this time to the West. “We need to get out of here – beyond the ex-Soviet Union,” she said.


Refugees recite the misery of life in the Pankisi, but increasingly they also voice fears about Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili’s drive to cooperate with Russia, including sealing off Chechnya.


“We want to leave,” said refugee Mausar Gaskayev, 44, standing in a muddy street on the edge of Duisi. “Being on the border is dangerous.”


Although their numbers are small, the Chechens in Pankisi are a still major political issue in Georgian-Russian relations.


Until 2002, significant numbers of guerrillas were believed to use the steep, wooded valley and its string of villages about 50 kilometres from Chechnya as a rear base for their operations. Crime, including kidnapping, was also beyond the control of the Georgian authorities.


That has changed since a series of police sweeps that began in early 2002, and with the improved security, Georgian troops have reduced their presence in the area from nine to five checkpoints.


Yet Chechens, worried that Saakashvili has struck a deal with the Kremlin to hand some of them back to Russia, feel less safe than ever.


In February this year, two Chechen men vanished shortly after being freed from Georgian custody in Tbilisi, only to reappear in the hands of Russian police.


The Georgian government denied accusations that it spirited the two Chechens to Russia in February. “We don’t need secret extraditions,” said Saakashvili. Refugees say they were reminded of the extra-judicial arrests plaguing Chechnya.


Under former president Eduard Shevardnadze, five Chechens were extradited, despite widespread concern from human rights groups over the treatment they might receive in Russia.


Saakashvili has repeatedly stated his willingness to help refugees. But he has also attacked what he calls the threat from Wahhabism, a Saudi form of Islam that has taken root among more radical guerrillas, while being rejected by the overwhelming majority of Chechen Muslims.


“We will carry out the most severe measures against them.… We have not donated Pankisi to the Wahhabis,” Saakashvili was quoted as saying recently. Refugees took this as a general threat.


Naveed Hussain, the representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, in Georgia, called for sensitivity. “There are certain political statements made, and the refugees are directly affected by these statements,” he told IWPR. “They feel it very strongly … and that’s why they want to be resettled.”


According to Bhakta Gurung, head of the UNHCR field office in Akhmeta, near the Pankisi valley, “hardly two or three per cent would say no” to resettlement in a western country.


The process, though, is painfully slow. Since 2003, just 38 Chechens have left Pankisi for new countries, including Canada, Sweden and Finland, according to the UNHCR. Another 17 “cases,” meaning either individuals or families, have been accepted by host countries, but not yet allowed to leave.


This year, UNHCR hopes to speed up the process and win approval for 100 cases. Canadian representatives met refugees less than a month ago. Yet even at this rate, it is clear that only a small portion will be able to go.


Because each country decides cases individually, refugees will not be able to resettle in large groups – something important to this cohesive ethnic minority. “Impossible,” said Gurung.


Other than resettlement, or return to Chechnya – which the UN warns against – two options remain. One is naturalisation in Georgia, but this too is slow and likely only to apply to refugees with family ties, for example to the Kists, an ethnic group related to the Chechens who have a long presence in the area.


The other is to stay – maybe indefinitely – in the twilight existence of the Pankisi, where refugees have no work, little communication with the outside world, and now no state, since the old Soviet passports that most Chechens carry expired this year.


For the young the future is especially bleak.


Ziaudin, now 20, was 15 when he arrived. “We thought it would end and we’d soon go home. Now this is all I’ve seen.” He has never been to Tbilisi, less than three hours’ drive away.


Schooling is funded by the Norwegian Refugee Council and the UNHCR, but only up to the age of 16, meaning that young people of Ziaudin’s generation, who have known only war, chaos and life as refugees, have had virtually no education.


In the cramped room that is home for her family of four children, Kameta Temirbulatova thanked Georgia and the UNHCR for saving them.


“But now my goal is to leave,” she said. “Not for ever – just to give the children a chance.”


Sebastian Smith is IWPR’s editor/trainer in the Caucasus.


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