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Young Pankisians captured by religion

June 10, 2015
(What problems are outlined by Pankisians)

Natia Gogolashvili

On June 3, a tour for journalists was held in the village Duisi of the Pankisi Gorge by the initiative of Institute for War and Peace Reporting. They had meetings with the locals Governors and locals of Duisi also attended the meeting. The discussion was about the problems that exist in the region. Special attention was paid to the issues of Chechen refugees and young Pankisians who go to Syria to fight. We abstain from using the names of the respondents. 

Chechen Refugees in Pankisi Gorge

Since the second war between Russia and Chechnya started, in 1999, more than 10 thousand Chechen refugees arrived. According to the locals, nowadays 230 Chechens have refugee status. However, many Chechens in the Gorge have no refugee status. They do not want to apply, because some of them are fighters and some of them are wanted. 

“It is hard to say how many Chechens are without refugee statuses, because there is no exact statistics. There are people who came from Turkey and seek for the status, but the Ministry does not grant the refugee status to those who come from Turkey. However, they are registered and might get the status,”-said one of the locals.

Over the years, several factors have led to a reduction of Chechen refugees. The locals name 2008 Russo-Georgian War as one of the reasons. 

There were 2000 Chechen refugees in Pankisi Gorge before 2008. The war of 2008 had a bad impact on refugees; there was a fear factor. They were afraid that Russia would come and they would end up in a bad situation. During the 5-day war, a lot of Chechens left Georgia by different ways, they moved to Baku and Turkey.”

Naturalization process of Chechens started in 2008. This is when Georgian citizenship is granted to them. 

“Enough time has passed to ensure the integration of the refugees. They had ability to get Georgian citizenship. However, some of them thought that after getting citizenship they would no longer receive refugee allowance. It was their livelihood and because of that, they refrained from applying for citizenship. But there were people who were granted citizenship at the outset. At first nineteen people expressed a desire to get it. It is worth mentioning that, until 2012, granting citizenship to Chechen refugees was going well. After the Government changed, the process became difficult,”_ we were told in Pankisi.

Russian sectors were functioning in the schools of Pankisi Gorge since 2000, so the Chechen children were able to learn. They no longer announce places for first graders on Russian sector. According to some locals, it is important for integration of Chechen children to study Georgian and go to Georgian Schools. 

“After the Norwegian Refugee Council left the Pankisi Gorge in 2009, they handed over kindergartens and schools to the state. The Government has decided that it will no longer fund the Russian sectors. This decision was followed by a protest, even the parents went on strike last year. They said that they would not take their children to Georgian sector, but the Government still took the decision to cancel the Russian sector,”- said one of the locals. 

Religion and Young Pankisians gone to fight in Syria

Main topic of the meeting on June 3 in Duisi was the problems of Pankisi Gorge. Highlighted issue was the interest of young Pankisians in military operations of Syria. This interest has not been arisen today; it has been for last few years that young Pankisians systematically go to Syria to fight, but this topic has become more current for last months. A lot of things have been written on this case, but according to locals, many of them are not true. We have used their opinions and comments in the article; also, we have talked to young Pankisians whose names we are not going to mention.  

“We have no exact statistics on how many young Pankisians went to Syria. They say that it might be 200. They claim that they are going for work in Turkey and after that, they sneak out to Syria. Some parents do not even know that their children are in Syria. Some of them learn that their child was in Syria after their death. In the case of death, they do not have right not to inform the parents. This is a rule that they must tell the parents that their child has passed away. At this moment, 14 young Pankisians are dead from our gorge. They cannot manage to transfer the dead,”- say the locals. 

The locals also blame the Government that young people go to Syrian war. According to them, they should have stricter control, so young people will not be able to leave Georgia so easily. 

If think logically, the national security has to be aware that children are leaving. The children did not even have to go and take identity cards; someone else did it for them. When they did not let them through Turkey customs, they came to Tbilisi and took a plane. How can 14-15 year old teenagers fly without agreement of their parents? We require more control from the Government. They might make us wait for 3 hours and do not even let us go, why  there is no such strict control when young people leave? They always gave us, Kists, hard time in airports, we have Georgian second name, we are citizens of Georgia, but when they would find out that we were Kists, they would check everything for hours. This was always an issue; it is surprising why they do not check children so strictly. Since the beginning, there has not been discrimination in Georgia according to nationality. We have been living together since the beginning and we will live together, but there are those who do not wish us to be so good and united”. Some locals think that additional control is redundant. 

Locals exclude the financial issues as a reason why young people go to Syria.  According to them, the reason is their religious ideology. However, they also point out that it is important to employ young people. 

“Unemployment is added to everything else. 90% of them are unemployed. There is nothing to do here. Young Pankisians have a lot of free time, they read the information on the internet, and they talk about events in Syria all day long. There is no one who spreads propaganda to go fight in Syria. None of the mosques does that. The reason is in the young people themselves, in everyday issues. There is nothing to make them interested. They have their idols in Syria, they try to be like those warriors,” –said the locals. 

Syrian warriors are idols not only for boys but for girls as well. At this moment, two girls are married to boys who went to Syria. “Warriors of Syria are like heroes for the girls. Girls tend to say to boys that if you were a man, you would go and fight in Syria. Those girls, who get married in Syria, are idolized by other girls”.

According to Pankisians, the religion is the main reason that pushes young people to go to Syria. Apart from traditional Islam, some of the locals of Pankisi are followers of Wahhabism. Wahhabi mosque was built in Duisi in 2000. Nowadays many young locals pray in this mosque. 

Wahhabism –is a religious movement or branch of Sunni Islam. Wahhabism was established and is named after an eighteen-century preacher and scholar, Muhammad ibn  Abd al-Wahhab. No holy places and saints, simplified rituals and living with traditions of Ummah- these were the main foundations for Abd al-Wahhab’s preach. Followers of him call themselves true Muslims. Wahhabis follow the words of Muhhammad: “Whoever brings something new and unacceptable for us, will be a hermit from us.”

Nowadays there are several directions of Wahhabism. According to its characteristic, we can distinguish the following categories: 1. “Traditional”, or classical, its credo is defined by two main political principles: Islamic solidarity and Arabic unity. 2. “Modernism” –this one is more adapted to the modern world economics and is type of Islam liberal features; 3. “Fundamentalism” – high level of aggression and military oriented. Its credo is principle of “Export of Pure Islam”.

We asked the locals to give us some definitions regarding the religions.
“Majority is Wahhabi. In the past, 50% of teenagers were Wahhabis, now it is majority. Party of Wahhabis is now divided in two parts. One preaches what is not written in the Quran, the other is based on what is written in the Quran, the truth. The second one is called “Davla”. 

“I can see the difference between Wahhabis. It is not true that traditional Islam is right in everything. Radical Islam does not agitate to kill non Muslims, this is wrong opinion. It is also wrong to say that traditional Islam is more true and correct. We have to say how Wahhabis are wrong. It is wrong to say that traditional Muslims are right and Wahhabis are not,”- explained the locals.

According to young Pankisians, their peers go to fight in Syria because of religion. It is unacceptable for them that their Syrian brothers (as they say, all Muslims are their brothers) are suppressed. Teenagers (who we interviewed) are ready to go to Syria and fight. Their only obstacle is the family. They cannot go against their parents’ will. However, they answered the question that they are not going yet. As they said, they get information about Syria from the internet. They have videos recorded in Syria, where the suppression of Muslims is reflected. These videos are spread by those young Pankisians who have already been to Syria and came back to Georgia. They also mentioned that it is unacceptable for them that Georgian soldiers go to Afghanistan. 

It is prohibited for Wahhabis to dance or sing. One of them said that it is not allowed to dance to music, because music comes from devil. He said that he spends his free time in the mosque or at home, prays or works out. He does not like to spend time on streets. He does not listen to music or watch movies (“those” movies), he spends some time on the internet but not for fun. He wants to go to Syria and fight, but his family is against this. 

“If a Wahhabi gives an oath, you have to remove his scalp and put new brain in it to make him change his oath. If Wahhabi gives an oath, he is no longer your son,”- says the local and explains disobedience to parents with this motif. According to Pankisians, the problems starts from the family, because they are not involved enough in the education of their children. They have to bring up their children correctly from the small age, teach them Quran and give them right religious education. However, according to them, there is a lack of staff in traditional Islam, when it is so important to provide young people with right religious issues. 
 “Representatives of Agency for Religions Affairs were here. They proposed to Elder Council to finance the education of the children and send them to religious schools: they would pay for education, give them scholarships, and pay their rent. Imams were responsible to gather the children. They had to find in their community and village those teenagers who would go to Tbilisi for education. However, despite of few months of attempts, they could not find anyone who desired to go and study,”- remembers the local. 

In conclusion, several reasons have been outlined because of which young Pankisians go to Syria. These are religious ideology, low level of education on religion, issue of wrong education by family and inactivity of the Government. The fact is that this problem did not start today. Young people have been going to Syria for years. The number of deaths in Syria increases every day.