Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Chechens Yearn to Return to Mountains

Deserted villages are mute testimony to a history of deportation and war.
By Amina Visayeva
As the mountain road winds its way past the Chechen mountain village of Shatoi higher to the small settlement of Tuskharoi, the signs of habitation get fewer. At one point, you glimpse the breathtaking sight of two whitewashed houses deep in the heart of a virgin forest.

Tuskharoi lies at the very top of the mountain. Fifteen years ago, a 90-year-old old man named Alauddin lived here next to a family of Chechen herders, who had left behind good jobs in the Baltic port of Kaliningrad to resettle in their ancestral village.

When Stalin deported the entire Chechen population from their homeland in 1944, these mountain villages - the oldest Chechen settlements - fell into disrepair. When the Chechens were allowed to return from exile by Nikita Khrushchev in 1957, they were forbidden to resettle in the highlands. Those who defied the ban and tried to live in their ancestral villages were forcibly moved down to the plains.

Only in the early Nineties, when Chechnya declared unilateral independence from Moscow, did people begin to repopulate these old villages.

In recent years, as war has raged in Chechnya, history has repeated itself and the highland areas have again become a no-go area, accessible only to the Russian military. Now a struggle is under way between locals, the military and the Chechen government to determine who has the right of access to these ancient beautiful areas.

Chechen experts say the restricted border zone along the frontier with Georgia should extend only five kilometres into the interior, and must skirt inhabited areas. So a village like Tuskharoi, 40 kilometres from the border, should be openly accessible. However, this village of 35-40 households is still deserted and the owners have yet to return because of a long-running dispute with the military.

Magadin Albastov, who comes from the village but now lives in lowland Chechnya, told IWPR, “My father and brothers were among those who rebuilt Tuskharoi in the early Nineties. I lived in my home village too, earning a living for my family from farming. I am ready to return to the land of my ancestors at any moment – but the military gives us no chance to do so.

“We cannot live in an area where the military are located, nor do we want to. This is a small area high in the mountains where you can’t build a house at a distance from other people. And the reality of Chechnya is that it isn’t safe to stay next door to men who are armed to the teeth.”

Ismail Munayev, who heads the Chechen branch of the Russian service for protecting cultural heritage, said a military barracks had been built in Tuskharoi without consultation with the local authorities, and without his consent.

The highland areas are home to Chechnya’s most valuable architectural heritage. For centuries, inaccessible steep-sided gorges, ravines and high cliffs have protected hundreds of ancient mountain towers, vaults and shrines from marauders.

However, these buildings have suffered badly from the years of conflict, and have also been damaged by the Russian soldiers deployed in the mountains.

The old buildings are supposed to be cared for by the Argun Museum Reserve, which covers a large area of the southern and south-eastern Chechen mountains. But the whole area has been controlled by the Russian military and border guards for the past several years, after airborne troops captured it in 2000.

Said Saratov, director of the Argun reserve, said military leaders had told him that they would now agree to the return of the highland villagers, but he said the trouble was that the villagers feared living in proximity to Russian soldiers.

“The mountain villagers themselves don’t want to live in villages and hamlets side by side with the military; they want the units to be withdrawn. That’s the disagreement, one that cannot be resolved for the time being,” he said.

It is only within the last year, as fighting has ebbed in Chechnya, that heritage officials Ismail Munayev and Said Saratov have been allowed back into the area.

Since then there has been confusion about who owns these lands. In December, the Chechen government decided to lease more than 3,000 hectares of the Argun reserve’s territory to the military and border guards. Then in February, the government overturned its own decision.

“Besides, the Argun Museum Reserve has [Russian] federal status,” said Munayev. “And it’s up to the federal authorities to take decisions regarding reserve lands.”

In an attempt to ease tensions, the military has offered compensation to the residents of Tuskharoi, but some villagers have refused to accept it, saying they want to be allowed to return home unconditionally.

“Some mountain villagers did receive compensation for lost property,” said Shamil Tangiev, head of the Grozny office of the human rights organisation Memorial. “But since they’d given up hope of returning to home, they spent the money on day-to-day things.”

Some 20 villages in the remote Vedeno and Shatoi regions are still off-limits to Chechen officials and villagers alike.

“This [off-limits] territory includes the medieval settlements of Khoi and Makazhoi, where a large number of monuments are concentrated,” said museum director Saratov. “Even as director of the reserve, I have been unable to influence the situation, as access to the area has been blocked, and my ID card means nothing at checkpoints located any further up than than Kharachoi.”

Saratov said he had asked a Russian military commander for a written permit to pass through checkpoints but had been refused.

Even when the highland villagers do get back home, says non-governmental activist Yelena Burtina, there is almost nothing for them there. Most of the houses have been destroyed and there is no infrastructure in the mountain villages. The villagers have no money to start farming, and their livestock is under threat from wild predators, which have proliferated in the absence of human settlement.

The Chechen authorities are beginning to edge closer towards saving their ancient medieval settlements from destruction, but it will be many years before they can actually be inhabited.

Amina Visayeva is a correspondent with the Groznensky Rabochy newspaper.