PANKISI GORGE, Georgia — The day before brothers and Chechen emigres Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev allegedly detonated two bombs at the Boston Marathon, I sat across from another Chechen displaced by his homeland’s devastating wars with the Russian military. Having survived a childhood of violence, he had just returned to this village in the Georgian mountains from a different battlefield — Syria.
Since the second Chechen war began in 1999, more than 190,000 Chechens (nearly 20 per cent of Chechnya’s population) have applied for asylum in the West, and thousands more have been displaced throughout the former Soviet Union.
With family in both Russia and Georgia, Abu Hamza, as he asked to be called, has been crossing back and forth across the border between the two countries for most of his 29 years. Late last year, in an unraveling marriage and only able to find sporadic work, he followed his brother-in-law to Syria. There, he joined a group of 60 or so militants opposed to Syrian President Bashar Assad — one of the thousands of independent brigades that make up the so-called Free Syrian Army.
"I went there because I saw videos on the Internet of innocent women and children being killed by the regime. I wanted to fight the [Syrian] government and help the opposition; I wanted to kill Bashar," he said.
Wearing a faded Adidas windbreaker over a camouflage T-shirt, Abu Hamza spoke of his 10 weeks skirmishing with the Syrian military as if it were a summer-camp adventure at which he met like-minded men of diverse backgrounds. He declined to tell me the name of his group for fear of compromising his comrades’ safety, but he said they included 10 other Chechens, several Azeris, Indians, and Arabs, and even one American, whom he described as a "cool guy" even though the American struggled with languages other than English.
It was Abu Hamza’s first war, and he said the group’s members ranged from grizzled veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya to 16-year-old boys who had never held a rifle. Although he spoke no Arabic before arriving, he said many of the other Chechens had picked it up through studies in Egypt or past campaigns fighting in the Middle East.
Still, most Chechens he encountered in Syria were from neither the Caucasus nor the Middle East, but from the thousands of refugee families scattered across Europe.
"They came from everywhere you can find a Chechen in Europe," he said.
Chechens are renowned for their strong martial culture and long resistance to Russian rule dating back to the 19th century, when Chechen religious and military leader Imam Shamil fought a spirited insurrection against the Russian Empire that made him an icon and celebrity among Russians even after his surrender in 1859. Chechens have carried this tradition into exile as well, where in Jordan, for instance, a relatively small community of 5,000 to 10,000 Chechens and Circassians are disproportionately represented in the country’s armed forces, according to journalist and historian Oliver Bullough, who tracked the communities of scattered North Caucasus peoples in his book Let Our Fame Be Great.
Today, whether from inside or outside Chechnya, Chechens who fought in or escaped the Chechen wars are left with scant opportunities. Bullough writes, "For the 190,000 Chechens or so who have sought asylum in the West, there is the pain of homesickness, and the bureaucratic complications of life in a foreign country. For the Chechens who have chosen to remain at home there is a lack of education, a homeland strewn with mines, a destroyed economy and, still, the risk of arbitrary arrest and death."
One of the few employment opportunities within Chechnya is working for the vast private army of the federal republic’s pro-Kremlin leader, former insurgent commander Ramzan Kadyrov. Russia also formed Chechen units for itself, with the nearly exclusively Chechen "Vostok" and "Zapad" battalions. They served as special forces units in 2003, and Russia used "Vostok" extensively in its 2008 war against Georgia.
Georgia, meanwhile, has also looked to the disaffected Chechen diaspora for its proxies.
Last August, just weeks before Georgia’s parliamentary elections, the government announced it had surrounded a "squad of saboteurs" that had taken hostages in the Lopota Gorge in eastern Georgia. After negotiations failed, a shootout ensued, killing at least seven militants and three Georgian special forces soldiers. At the time, the government implied the armed group had passed into the country from the North Caucasus and was part of a Russian plan to destabilize Georgia and install a pro-Russian government.
But residents of villages in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge area told a different story. The Pankisi Gorge is populated by Kists, a group ethnically and linguistically linked to Chechens. During the two Chechen wars, insurgents often used the gorge, which pokes into the Caucasus mountain range south of Chechnya, as a staging ground for operations, and by the early 2000s, it was flush with refugees and both Chechen and foreign fighters alike.
After Russia bombed sites in the gorge and threatened to invade in 2002, U.S.-trained Georgian special forces reasserted control there the following year, though the situation remained tense. Many former insurgents remained in the gorge, intermarrying with locals and living in exile, afraid to return to Chechnya for fear of torture or execution by the brutal pro-Russian regime.
Georgia later revealed that two of the armed men killed in the August operation were ethnic Kist Georgian citizens, while the rest, locals told me, were Chechens living in the gorge. The aunt of one of the slain Georgians, Natela Margoshvili, told me at the time that the government had threatened the family not to talk about her nephew Aslan’s death and forbade the family from holding a public funeral, telling them that he had already been buried in an empty lot in their village and they could only visit the site at night.
Georgia then changed governments in the elections that followed, and this month the new ombudsman released a report detailing its initial probe into the incident. Citing confidential sources in the country’s Interior Ministry, the ombudsman reported that about 120 fighters had been recruited from Chechen refugee communities and Kist students in Georgia and elsewhere in Europe, including Margoshvili, whose family claims he was studying in Finland, then Slovakia, before they received word of his sudden death.
The recruits were allegedly promised weapons, training, and an open corridor to fight in the Russian North Caucasus. They were put up in apartments in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, while being trained by special forces at military bases. All the while, Margoshvili made regular calls back to his family, the family said, making the family believe he was still studying abroad. But then things started going awry.
The report says that the training schedule lasted longer than planned and the recruits were getting anxious. They were then deployed to the Lopota Gorge several days before the shootout took place, but at some point Georgian forces were sent to the area and told them to lay down their weapons and return to Pankisi or a military base. After they refused, a deadly shootout ensued.
The ombudsman claims to possess a gun registration certificate issued for Aslan Margoshvili by the Interior Ministry in July 2012 and has called for an extensive and official investigation into the matter, but this incident was not the first time Chechen mercenaries have been involved in Georgia’s conflicts.
During the 1993-1994 Abkhazian-Georgian conflict, Chechen militants led informally by Shamil Basayev played a critical role in pushing out Georgian forces attempting to suppress Abkhazia’s secessionist ambitions. Basayev would later become infamous for brutal attacks on Russian civilians and his connection to the 2004 Beslan school hostage crisis, which led to the deaths of nearly 400 people, mostly children.
Nonetheless, he and his Chechen cohorts are still revered in Abkhazia for their fearless, bordering-on-suicidal fighting style. One wide-eyed Abkhazian veteran who fought alongside Basayev told me in 2011, "He was crazy. There would be fire coming from everywhere, rooftops, cars, everything, and he would just walk out in the middle of the street firing like mad at them."
Then, as the second Chechen war raged in 2001, Ruslan Gelayev, who fought alongside Basayev in Abkhazia, made his base of operations in the Pankisi Gorge and was reportedly hired by then-Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze for an abortive incursion into Abkhazia. Forty people were killed in the crisis, including nine UN peacekeepers whose helicopter was shot down.
Several Pankisi residents also claim that Georgia hired dozens of fighters from there to use as paramilitaries during the country’s 2008 war with Russia, but they arrived to the battlefield after Russian forces had already forced the Georgian military into a full retreat.
Although residents say that government pressure has been lifted from the gorge and they are no longer subject to threats and extortion by the Georgian Interior Ministry since the October elections, many say they are worried about the increasing influence of a new Salafi mosque built in the gorge, allegedly by Saudi money. None would go on the record for fear of retribution from the fundamentalists.
Vladimir Lozinski, co-founder of the Roddy Scott Foundation, which provides language and computer training to youth in the gorge, said that he has seen a drop-off in attendance by young men in the villages, many of whom he now sees growing beards and spending most of their time at the mosque.
Abu Hamza denied any connection to the Salafi mosque and maintained that he went to Syria on his own volition. Although he returned from the fighting with the thick, wiry, mustache-less beard of a hard-line Muslim, he said he doesn’t consider himself a jihadist.
"People can call it what they want. I went to Syria for the children, the women, the civilians, and for God," he said.
Abu Hamza estimates that about 100 Kists and Chechens from Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge are currently fighting in Syria, and he wants to be with them. Now divorced, he said he yearns to return, but a female relative that he admires pulled him from the fighting the last time, pledging that if he didn’t come back to Georgia, she would go and drag him from the battle herself. He said he now knows that one of his distant relatives who survived the shootout with Georgian special forces in Lopota Gorge is now in Syria and has become an "emir," or local commander.
Abu Hamza said he considers the other members of his group "closer than brothers" and they cried when he left. One, an Azeri from Moscow, has promised to find him a job in the Russian capital if he survives.
When I asked whether he would consider fighting elsewhere, in Iraq or Afghanistan, for instance, or against the Georgian government that had apparently betrayed his kin, he said, "I’ll go anywhere they are murdering innocents."
Nicholas Clayton is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi, Georgia.