On the border of Georgia and a pro-Russia separatist region, a village feels abandoned

The border fence in Ditsi, Georgia. (Maryam Saleh/Medill/GroundTruth)


DITSI, Georgia —A chain-link fence cuts through a grassy farm field in this small village in north-central Georgia. Beyond the fence line is South Ossetia, a Russian-supported breakaway region about the size of Rhode Island. From a distance, the green Caucasus Mountains are visible at every turn, but the picturesque view does nothing to ease concerns of the farmers living here.

Ever since the Russians began to install the fence a few years ago, the farmers are forced to guess how far beyond the de facto border they and their grazing cattle are allowed to roam before being detained by Russian guards.

The farmers of Ditsi have lived this way since 2008, when fighting between Georgians and Ossetian separatists led to a Russian intervention and a five-day war. Nine years later, Russia is still building fences—sometimes chain-link, sometimes barbed wire—across the administrative boundary line.

And with no response from their government in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital about 70 miles to the southeast, the people of Ditsi feel abandoned by their government.

Russia ‘Doing It Because They Can’

“[The Russians] are doing it because they can,” said Joni Barishvili, 23, who has lived in Ditsi his entire life. “They are a super power, and they’re doing what suits them geopolitically.” Pragmatically, however, Georgian officials ask: faced with Russian aggression, what can a small country do?

Joni Barishvili is a lifelong resident of Ditsi who describes living near the Russian-occupied South Ossetia as being “closer to the place that hurts our heart.” (Maryam Saleh/Medill/GroundTruth)
Joni Barishvili is a lifelong resident of Ditsi who describes living near the Russian-occupied South Ossetia as being “closer to the place that hurts our heart.” (Maryam Saleh/Medill/GroundTruth)

The uncertainty at the frontline in Ditsi is one manifestation of Georgia’s frozen conflict with Russia and its hindrance of the former Soviet state’s westward aspirations. That conflict, and its results, were in some respects a precursor for the better-known case of the Ukraine, where Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea in 2014 and continues to stir unrest.

When Russia sent tanks into South Ossetia, Georgia was governed by the United National Movement under Mikhail Saakashvili, whose explicit pro-Western orientation following the 2003 Rose Revolution and efforts to reclaim South Ossetia antagonized Russia and prompted its invasion.

A More Realistic Approach

Since 2012, under the leadership of the less-confrontational Georgian Dream party, Georgia’s Tbilisi-based government has taken what it considers to be a more realistic approach to relations with Moscow, though many citizens still question whether playing nice will do anything to mitigate the implicit Russian threat.

So the debate goes on in this country of 3.7 million, as officials seek to balance popular aspirations to join the European community and NATO with the increasing global dominance of its northern neighbor.

“Our pragmatic politics has much more results internationally and locally than this aggressive politics from the United National Movement,” said Guguli Magradze, a member of the governing party in parliament.

Guguli Magradze of the Georgian Dream party speaks at a news conference on May 8, 2017. (Maryam Saleh/Medill/GroundTruth)
Guguli Magradze of the Georgian Dream party speaks at a news conference on May 8, 2017. (Maryam Saleh/Medill/GroundTruth)

“You need to take your emotion and think by the brain, not by emotion,” Magradze said. “[Georgia will] accordingly react, not react with more intensity than is necessary for results.”

A Creeping Border with Russia

Despite Tbilisi’s insistence that it can stay the course on Euro-Atlantic integration while softening its rhetoric about Russia, people in Ditsi doubt that the government’s plan will change the Kremlin’s behavior or end Russia’s support for the breakaway regions.

“I can’t imagine even if there’s a big power change in Moscow that Russia will change attitudes toward the South Caucuses,” said journalist Marta Ardashelia. She runs a Russian-language Georgian news website, meant not to counter Russian propaganda, but to provide an alternative to minority groups that don’t speak Georgian.

Marta Ardashelia is a journalist at Imedi TV, one of Georgia’s major television networks. She is also the founder of Sova News, a website that shares news about Georgia in the Russian language. (Maryam Saleh/Medill/GroundTruth)
Marta Ardashelia is a journalist at Imedi TV, one of Georgia’s major television networks. She is also the founder of Sova News, a website that shares news about Georgia in the Russian language. (Maryam Saleh/Medill/GroundTruth)

In the villages near the de facto border with South Ossetia, residents say they don’t feel Tbilisi shines a big enough spotlight on Russia’s creeping border.

“A lot of people who live here, they don’t feel support from the government at all,” Barishvili said. “They can do much more to express the wishes of the people here, to show our side of the story. Every time something happens, we can be [louder] with other NGOs and international organizations to tell them what’s happening here.”

‘Closer to the Place that Hurts’

In Tbilisi, though, government officials say they are doing everything they can.

“I don’t think that in any country people are content with their government. In every country, even in the EU, they have nice government, very good condition for life, people always are asking more than sometimes government can do,” said Magradze in response to the criticism. “In this border line, our government made significant steps — they have water, they have roads, they have financial assistance.”

Ever since Russia established military bases in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another breakaway region on the Black Sea that is 270 miles northwest of Tbilisi, residents have cited territorial integrity as a key issue of concern, according to surveys conducted by the National Democratic Institute, a U.S.-sponsored organization that seeks to promote democracy and free elections internationally.

Nowhere in Georgia are these concerns more evident than in Ditsi and other border villages surrounding Gori, a regional capital.

“There aren’t many differences between this village and other villages in Georgia,” said Barishvili. “The main difference is that we’re closer to the place that hurts out heart.”

Sandbags, Stacked Tires, Coiled Wire

Lia Chlachidze’s life in the village of Ergneti has not been the same since the 2008 war. On a clothesline in her garden hang a mug and two small pieces of pottery, the only remaining things she found in her burned-down home at the end of the five-day war.

Pottery hangs in Lia Chlachidze’s garden, the only remnants of her life she found in her burned down home at the end of the five day war that created the breakaway, pro-Russia region of South Ossetia. (Maryam Saleh/Medill/GroundTruth)
Pottery hangs in Lia Chlachidze’s garden, the only remnants of her life she found in her burned down home at the end of the five day war that created the breakaway, pro-Russia region of South Ossetia. (Maryam Saleh/Medill/GroundTruth)

And just down the road is a Georgian police checkpoint, where sandbags, stacked tires, and coiled wire separate her village from South Ossetia — and the Russian Army.

A little over a decade ago, the checkpoint was not so close to Chlachidze’s home — in fact, for years there was a vibrant market a mile down the road where Georgians and Ossetians entered freely and exchanged goods.

Now, the European Union Monitoring Mission in Georgia and the OSCE host meetings with Georgian, Ossetian and Russian representatives in neutral territory just beyond the checkpoint. They meet in a white tent every month to discuss life on either side of the de facto border. Georgia’s white-and-red flag stands tall just past the police line, and the Ossetian and Russian flags flutter in the wind at a distance.

“This is not a conflict that started yesterday and will end tomorrow,” said Chlachidze, 64, adding that Russia’s military presence in the breakaway regions is “overshadowed” by its military operations in Ukraine and Syria.

Another Way for Russia to Flex its Muscles

Russia’s occupation has a tangible impact on the lives of villagers, who complain of kidnappings by Russian forces of Georgians who inadvertently cross the administrative boundary line in areas where it is not clearly demarcated, often because they are chasing their cattle.

The European Union Monitoring Mission, the only civilian force that patrols the border regions, works with the OSCE and the Georgian, Ossetian, and Russian governments to operate a hotline for use by people on either side of the border.

The hotline is most often activated to report Russian border guards’ detention of Georgian citizens who cross the boundary without using a checkpoint, according to an EUMM representative.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry says its border guards are demarcating the border at the direction of South Ossetian authorities. Critics say establishing the border is another way for Russia to flex its muscles without using outright force.

“The goal of borderization is to undermine Georgia as a stable state,” said Georgi Badridze, a former diplomat who now works at the Tbilisi-based Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies.

Georgia’s Pro-Western Policy

Speaking on the condition that he not be quoted directly or further identified, a U.S. Embassy official said that Russia is not trying to annex additional Georgian territory, as the situation is often represented, but is instead taking steps to further isolate the breakaway regions to make it impossible for Georgia to reclaim them.

Most Georgians support their government’s aspirations to join the EU and NATO, according to public opinion polls conducted by NDI, which derives its funding from Western institutions.

Regardless of who has been in charge, Georgia’s government has maintained a pro-Western foreign policy since 2004. But Moscow’s looming presence has deterred the EU from ushering Georgia in.

“The West supports Georgian independence,” said Badridze, the former diplomat. “Russia does everything it can to undermine it.”

Natia Gamkrelidze studied international relations in Sweden before returning to Tbilisi and founding a pro-EU civic group. (Maryam Saleh/Medill/GroundTruth)
Natia Gamkrelidze studied international relations in Sweden before returning to Tbilisi and founding a pro-EU civic group. (Maryam Saleh/Medill/GroundTruth)

‘Common Cultural Values’ with EU

An April 2017 survey found that 80 percent of the population supports the government’s stated goal of joining the EU, but Georgia has no official status as a candidate for EU membership. Still, the EU’s blue-and-gold-starred flag stands alongside the national flag outside government buildings, and it hangs from sign posts along streets and bridges.

An EU-Georgia Association Agreement, which includes the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, went into place last July, promoting cooperation on day-to-day issues.

“We have really common cultural values, and when we will be a member of the European Union, we will have more benefit in the economic and political and cultural regards,” said Natia Gamkrelidze, who leads the European Alumni Association of Georgia, a pro-EU civic organization that produces a weekly podcast about the benefits of EU membership.

‘Get to Know European Values’

The European Parliament in February granted visa-free travel to Georgians, which Magradze described as a “great success” of her party.

“People can realize what is really European culture, European style of life. We have some myth that Europe is against family ties…people can realize in practice that it is a myth,” she said.

For locals, visa liberalization is equally important for Georgians as it is for Abkhazians and Ossetians, who are entitled to Georgian citizenship.

“They can get to know European values and get out of the bubble Russia has created for them,” Chlachidze said.

As for NATO, Georgia has been trying to join the military alliance since 2005, but its members know how Putin feels about NATO taking former Soviet states under its wing. Citing these concerns, the alliance in 2008 decided not to offer Georgia a Membership Action Plan.

Quashing Georgia’s NATO Aspirations

Support for Georgia also joining NATO is at 68 percent, according to the April 2017 NDI poll, largely because Georgians believe belonging to the alliance will keep them safe.

“What is a very important motivation is the motivation of security, because integration with the West is the only way to protect the country from Russian aggression,” said Giga Zedania, the head of Ilia State University in Tbilisi.

But Georgia’s small size and geographic proximity to Russia make NATO membership a remote possibility.

By occupying 20 percent of Georgia, Russia believes it has effectively accomplished its goal of quashing Georgia’s NATO aspirations, said a senior Western diplomat, speaking on the condition that he not be further identified.

But that does not mean the United States and its allies will not look for alternative means to provide defense support to Georgians, he said, citing a forthcoming U.S.-led train-and-equip program.

Big Contributor to NATO in Afghanistan

Georgia, the largest per capita contributor to NATO’s operation in Afghanistan, has considered the United States a key ally since the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union. The United States’ past political influence remains evident: a main highway is named after President George W. Bush. A statue of President Ronald Reagan sits in a public park.

Georgians were less enamored with President Barack Obama, whose name is conspicuously missing from Tbilisi’s geography.

Georgians paid attention to President Donald Trump’s campaign, and they were concerned about his expressed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his hostility to press freedom — one of the hallmarks of a democratic society. But their worries have lessened since January; officials say they are pleased by the continuity of relations between the countries.

Trump and Brexit

When Trump signed a federal spending bill on May 5, Georgians celebrated the legislation’s ban on funding to countries that recognize the autonomy of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

“An unprecedented example of support of #Georgia’s territorial integrity and #US-#Geo strategic partnership,” tweeted the country’s Foreign Ministry, sharing a photo of the excerpt of the bill that refers to Georgia.

Despite Trump, Brexit, and the growth of far-right movements across Europe, Georgians say they remain committed to their westward ambitions.

“We don’t have another option,” said Sergi Kapanadze, a member of parliament from European Georgia, a minority party that was formed after an internal split in UNM. “We can’t deliberate going east or west, because any other option means we’ll be swallowed by Russia.”

Dissenting Political Voices

Still, there are dissenting political voices who say Tbilisi should try harder to cooperate with Russia.

Nino Burjanadze, former speaker of the Georgian parliament and former associate of Saakashvili, has been vocal in recent years about Georgia’s need to work with Russia directly, instead of through the international community. Her stance has earned her a pro-Russian label.

“If we want to be real Europeans, we shouldn’t declare people who have different vision on some case as enemies of the countries or as agents of foreign countries,” she said, describing herself as “pro-Georgian.”

Burjanadze, who chairs the Democratic Movement — United Georgia party, unsuccessfully ran for president in 2013, and her party is not represented in parliament. But the Alliance of Patriots of Georgia, a party self-identifying as pro-Russian, won six of 150 seats in parliament in the October 2016 election.

And Russia has had some soft power success in the country, Badridze said. “Quite a few Georgians can’t imagine Russia as an existential threat,” he explained.

That does not translate to long-term success for the Kremlin, though.

Russia could have been an attractive partner following the fall of the Soviet Union because of historic ties and the popularity of the Russian language, Zedania, the head of Ilia State University said, but the time for the potential partnership has passed.

“Russia doesn’t have anything to offer. It’s not even a model of development,” he said. “Russia can only be an interesting partner for an authoritarian ruling elite.”

Lia Chlachidze lives on the border of Georgia and the breakaway state of South Ossetia. "This is not a conflict that started yesterday and will end tomorrow," she says. (Maryam Saleh/Medill/GroundTruth)
Lia Chlachidze lives on the border of Georgia and the breakaway state of South Ossetia. “This is not a conflict that started yesterday and will end tomorrow,” she says. (Maryam Saleh/Medill/GroundTruth)

‘Never Give Up Anything to Russia’

As long as Russia maintains a military presence in the breakaway regions, it won’t be able to win over Georgian hearts and minds, a U.S. Embassy official said.

The fact that Russia occupies 20 percent of Georgian territory makes the rest of the country almost impervious to Russian influence, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak candidly.

Back in Ergneti, Russia has no chance of swaying Chlachidze, a native of Tskhinvali, now the capital of South Ossetia.

“We should never give up anything to Russia, because they are an occupier,” she said defiantly.


A burgeoning 'urban activism' movement

Tblisi, Georgia, where youth activists are beginning to agitate for freedom of speech and municipal improvements, like green spaces. (Maryam Saleh/Medill/GroundTruth)

TBILISI—Erekle Urushadze lives at the intersection of two overlapping but different worlds. By day, he works at an international anti-corruption nonprofit in this capital of the former Soviet state of Georgia. Away from work, he wears the label “volunteer activist,” a term Georgians use to describe a small but growing group of people invested in social justice issues without the benefit of a paycheck.

His focus is urban activism, a rallying cry for residents who want to protect their city’s green spaces. He is vocal on Facebook in his effort to oppose construction in public parks. He first began to locate and interact with like-minded individuals online and entered the world of activism, and he attends occasional rallies outside city hall.

Urban activism and maintaining green spaces seem benign and uncontroversial; theoretically, though, such pursuits encourage people in a nation of 3.7 million to reflect upon how they can deepen their democratic institutions and move, albeit slowly, toward policies that reflect the will of the people.

Nestled in the Caucuses Mountains between Russia and the Black Sea, Georgia has made important strides in the 25 years since the fall of the Soviet Union. Widespread protests over disputed parliamentary elections in 2003 brought about the Rose Revolution, which marked the end of Soviet-era leadership in the country and a shift toward a foreign policy that prioritizes European and Euro-Atlantic integration. It is now largely considered one of the most successful democratic projects of Eastern Europe.

Former President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government stamped out petty bribery in the mid-2000s, but critics argue that Saakashvili’s United National Movement party and Georgian Dream, which has ruled the country since 2012, have benefited from corruption. Anti-corruption monitor Transparency International warns that corruption manifests itself in the areas of public procurement, political party financing, and the involvement of public officials in the private sector. Georgia is ranked the 44th best out of 176 countries on the watchdog’s global corruption scale, which it measures using data from multiple sources—including the World Bank and organizations that monitor financial security and democracy—about perceptions of public-sector corruption.

While focused on preserving the environment, Urushadze, 37, who has studied international relations, remembers the end of the Soviet Union and is cognizant of the transformation that Georgia, like many neighboring states, has gone through since then. He has seen improvement, but sees the need for more. He and other activists are driven by the goal of establishing a more democratic and corruption-free state. Urushadze works at Transparency International’s Georgia office, where he has carried over his activism into researching issues such as the obscure government transfer of management rights of a public park to a private company.

But his ability to merge his passion projects with the job he is paid to do is the exception. Most members of Tbilisi’s civil society belong exclusively to one of two domains: a burgeoning volunteer activism scene or a traditional civil society space long occupied by internationally funded NGOs. The tension between the two, civil society actors admit, is palpable.

While NGOs “play a very important role,” Urushadze said, “a genuine civil society, of course, needs to be bigger and more diverse and include a lot of volunteer activism and volunteer associations.”

Civil society has vocally defended democratic values not organic in post-socialist societies, said Giga Zedania, a philosophy professor and the head of Ilia State University. Still, NGOs are often viewed as “messengers of new values” reliant upon outside funding, he said.

The influence of foreign donors is apparent in most NGO offices, where the logos of international aid organizations and the flags of the United States and the European Union and its member states clutter the walls.

If you’re hungry, you really don’t care if you have free speech or not.

Ana Natsvlishvili

Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association

Foreign funding is one of the biggest vulnerabilities and limitations of civil society, said Ana Natsvlishvili, the chairperson of the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, partially because the democratization work foreigners invest in is not a priority for the average Georgian.

“If you have [a] society which is struggling with poverty, with very low income, that is socially insecure, then your work in terms of protecting and promoting free speech, freedom of assembly, fair trial is sort of undermined, because for these people, this becomes more and more distant topic,” she said. “If you’re hungry, you really don’t care if you have free speech or not.”

Behind her desk hangs a certificate for the 2013 Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize, an annual honor awarded by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. On the wall outside GYLA’s office entrance are the emblems of the U.S. Agency for International Development and IREX International, two of the group’s donors.

While the 32-year-old lawyer said she believes grassroots movements will continue to grow, she does not think NGOs would survive if foreign governments pulled the plug.

Volunteer activists have tried to fill the void left by nonprofits, rallying around issues that more directly touch the lives of Tbilisi’s residents. Their presence is small but notable—while thousands of people take to social media to speak out on environmental justice and other issues, protests are typically capped at 500 participants, according to activists—but they represent the nascent democracy’s shift toward people-driven agenda setting. The state occasionally arrests demonstrators on charges of disturbing the peace, but activists say they are generally pleased with their ability to bring the issues they rally around to the center of national conversation, even if progress toward policy change is slow.

Last spring, students at Tbilisi State University launched Auditorium 115 in response to corruption in student government. Guerilla Gardening Tbilisi, which Urushadze is involved with, is a protest movement best known for its resistance against the construction of a hotel in Vake Park, one of the greenest parks in Tbilisi. Green Fist is another ecology-minded youth movement that was born in protest to the construction of a dam four years ago. Members of these groups also fight for labor rights, pushing back against laws that penalize street trade, according to activist Mariam Devidze.

Social media has been instrumental in their growth.“I think, say 10 years ago, there were a lot of people who were unhappy about what was going on around them, but they were somehow isolated from each other, and there was less mobilization,” Urushadze said. In recent years, Facebook has played a critical role in helping people assemble, he added.

Devidze, a 22-year-old graduate student at Tbilisi State University, first got involved in activism with the birth of Auditorium 115, and she later joined Green Fist. The sociologist says her participation in these groups gives her a platform to speak about labor and minority rights, and she thinks it is critical others her age engage with such issues.

“We have laws, but for human rights, the laws won’t protect you,” which is why it’s important citizens demand their rights, she said. She acknowledges the challenges young activists face in effecting tangible change, starting with the indifference of the broader society toward topics that don’t touch them directly. “Many young people are non-ideological,” Devidze said. “They don’t think about the problems.”

Even those skeptical of the efficacy of Georgian civil society are optimistic about student-led movements. Shota Papava, a Georgian doctoral candidate at the University of California Berkeley who is working on his dissertation in Tbilisi, said he grew disillusioned after working for a year in the country’s civil sector, where goals are determined by outside donors who are “detached from reality.”

But youth movements may be the start of something new. “[Auditorium] 115 has been the ray of light, to some degree,” he said.


Battling a reputation for extremism

Pankisi Gorge has a reputation for Islamic extremism. (Scott McDonough/Flickr Creative Commons)

DUISI, Georgia—Until a few years ago, The Pankisi Gorge, a collection of villages in northeastern Georgia, was exporting extremists to Syria. Between 50 and 100 Georgian Muslims from this mountainous valley and from Adjara, an autonomous region that borders Turkey, traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight alongside ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates, according to a 2015 U.S. State Department report.

The most notorious of the fighters was Tarkhan Batirashvili, more commonly known as Abu Omar al-Shishani or Omar the Chechen. Like most Muslims from the Pankisi Gorge, Shishani belonged to the Kist minority, an ethnic group with Chechen origins. He joined the fight in Syria in 2012 and enlisted with ISIS in 2013. By the time he was killed by a U.S. airstrike in March 2016, he had risen to the rank minister of war.

Georgian fighters in Syria comprise a tiny minority of the southern Caucasus country’s 400,000 Muslims, but Shishani’s prominence in ISIS propaganda gave the valley a reputation for fostering extremism. He became somewhat of an aspirational figure for youth in the gorge, locals say. Coupled with the lack of opportunity in the remote villages of Pankisi, Shishani’s transformation from an ordinary villager to a militant leader inspired dozens of young men to follow in his footsteps.

Tamar Bekauri (left) is the executive director of the KRDF and is also a member of the 15-person Pankisi Women’s Council. (Maryam Saleh/GroundTruth/Medill)
Tamar Bekauri (left) is the executive director of the KRDF and is also a member of the 15-person Pankisi Women’s Council. (Maryam Saleh/GroundTruth/Medill)

“What makes [Pankisi] particularly vulnerable is that there were personal links between some of the field commanders in ISIS and that particular region,” said Sergi Kapanadze, a member of parliament from Georgia’s European Georgia party who co-authored a 2015 report on ISIS. “Those people, like Tarkhan Batirashvili, al-Shishani, they were actually considered to be heroes on the ground, and not villains.”

The need for offering alternatives to young people is evident. Teenagers hang out on the side of the road snacking on seeds as cows wander the streets almost as frequently as cars pass by, and it is no surprise that young men yearn for something to do. And up until a couple of years ago, they were not finding that at home.

“Once school is out, there’s absolutely nothing for kids to do outside of [Kakheti Regional Development Fund] activities,” said Tamar Bekauri, the executive director of KRDF, a Western-funded organization that has been active since 2008 and now works to engage local youth.

Bekauri also sits on a women’s council that strives to add a female perspective to decision-making in the patriarchal society. Other local efforts to resist extremists’ influence–and to counter the area’s reputation as a breeding ground for radicals–include a youth club and a community radio station.

More than a year after Shishani’s death, the outward flow of extremists from Georgia has almost completely stopped, but villagers in Duisi continue to look for ways to stop the spread of radicalism in their own community.

But community efforts can only go so far, and many say they believe the government should do more to keep young adults busy and to alleviate unemployment, a Georgia-wide problem.

“It is evident that the government does not have a complex strategy for solving the problems in Pankisi Gorge,” Kapanadze wrote in a 2015 report titled “Daesh and Challenges Facing Georgia,” using an Arabic acronym for ISIS. “According to the locals, the government is reluctant to carry out informational campaigns for increasing civic engagement or improving the education system.”

Now, government officials in Tbilisi say they are trying to curb extremism by investing in schools, infrastructure, and sports halls and supporting the work of non-governmental organizations operating in the region.

“Pankisi is a focus of special attention. [It gets] more attention than other parts of Georgia because of the situation [in Syria, even though] the level of life in Pankisi is not worse than in other parts,” said Guguli Magradze, a member of Georgian Dream, the country’s ruling party.

Their efforts continue, despite the fact that travel to Syria has all but halted since 2015.  

“The young people who were participating, they realize that it’s not a pleasant promenade,” Magradze said. “It’s a serious war. Nobody wants to be killed.”

Back in the gorge, Pankisi’s youth club, which has 90 members two years after its launch, is the quintessential example of attempts to civically engage the youth. Through the club, volunteers organize activities for high school students: sporting events, journalism training sessions, and tree-planting exercises are some recent examples.

“A lot of people started to realize that you have to give these kids something to think about, other than just standing on the road, thinking about going to another country to seek glory,” said Islam Gorgishvili, 23, a volunteer. “We’re trying to show them different things that could be done [with their lives].”

Just as important as promoting youth civic engagement is changing the narrative about Pankisi, said Gorgishvili. He is a journalist at Radio Way, a community radio station that broadcasts news and music.

Radio Way is the only community radio station in the Pankisi Gorge. (Maryam Saleh/GroundTruth/Medill)
Radio Way is the only community radio station in the Pankisi Gorge. (Maryam Saleh/GroundTruth/Medill)

Central media would only come here when somebody would go to Syria or die in Syria…That was all the outside world knew about Pankisi, so we decided to change that

Islam Gorgishvili

Radio Way journalist

“The idea came from the fact that nothing good was ever being written about the Pankisi Gorge, because central media would only come here when somebody would go to Syria or die in Syria,” he said. “That was all the outside world knew about Pankisi, so we decided to change that, to have a radio [station] that would cover the complexities of living here.”

Radio Way existed only online at first but it has been broadcast on a local FM channel for the last year. Gorgishvili reports for the daily news show, and he sometimes contributes to other programming, which includes an investigative news program and a program about human rights.

Establishing a local media presence was not easy, Gorgishvili said. “When the radio first started, no one thought that any type of media organization could operate in Pankisi, because the locals are very distrustful of journalists.”

The wariness traces back to the 1990s, when unrest in other parts of Georgia and the Chechen-Russian conflicts led to lawlessness in this geographically isolated part of the country. “Journalists would come and write negative things, and this continued with the situation in Syria, so people don’t like journalists,” Gorgishvili explained.

But they have slowly but surely gained the community’s trust, said Diana Gaurgashvieli, another radio journalist. “It was harder before. Everyone was trying to avoid us,” she said. Now, locals sometimes call in tips about newsworthy events in the region, she added.

Still, questions remain about the efficacy of small-scale efforts to increase civic engagement when there is an ideological divide in the community. When Chechen refugees arrived in the area in 1999, Saudi Arabian preachers established schools to teach Islam and Arabic. The kids who grew up attending those schools are now young adults, and they are preaching the puritanical version of Islam that they were taught and that is foreign to the gorge.

Members of the Pankisi Women’s Council, who advocate for women’s rights, say those young men sometimes get in the way of their work. For example, when the women published a booklet explaining the rights of women according to Islamic law, the traditional court overseen by the Council of Elders, and Georgian law, critics said that only the religious references were relevant, said councilmember Svetlana Borchashvieli, 50.

Still, they want to be inclusive of people of all religious persuasions, she said. “We say to them, ‘We’re all from Pankisi Gorge. We’re all followers of Islam. Let’s sit down and talk together. We’ve lived here for a long time, but a lot of what’s in the holy Qur’an is new to us,’” Borchashvieli explained.

This sort of positive integration is critical, Kapanadze said.

“One of the problems is that even in their worshiping practices, [those vulnerable to extremism] are actually quite isolated from the rest [of the Muslim community],” he said. “It’s a small community of Wahhabis who are particularly susceptible to being radicalized, so it’s important that you open up more opportunities for those people and make them feel that they are part of Georgia, which they are, and not as an outcast group that has no other choice but to indulge in these types of activities.”

The issue is that the at-risk youth often do not want to be included, said Bekauri, one of the women’s council’s 15 members. “We haven’t stopped. If we stop, the youth will be lost,” Bekauri said. “We know we can’t stand in front of the radicals 100 percent of the time, but we can show the youth there is a choice.”



Rebuilding a village after a five day war

Mariam Devidze started a library for her village. (Maryam Saleh/Medill/GroundTruth)

LOWER NIKOZI, Georgia—Lower Nikozi is just south of South Ossetia, a Russian-backed breakaway region, making it one of more than a dozen villages in one of Georgia’s two conflict zones. Its villagers know that Russian soldiers stand guard just a few miles away, but instead of thinking about that, they are focused on doing their part to improve their daily lives and to ensure a brighter future for their youth.

“In our village there was not space where youngsters can gather and plan some kind of civil activism, like civil projects,” said Mariam Devidze. She launched a community library in a run-down building at the periphery of the village last year.

The village lies on the banks of the Liakhvi River, and its people farm trout and apples. Despite a recent designation as a “mountain village,” which means increased public benefits, villagers feel that the government in Tbilisi does not invest enough in their well-being.

“In Georgia, the villages in mountainous regions are getting abandoned because there are no opportunities [for] development [for] these people and kids,” said Devidze, 22. “There is one school for 10 villages, for example, in some places, and I really want to help these people somehow.”

Devidze, who is working toward a master’s in sociology from Tbilisi State University in the country’s capital, about 70 miles southeast of Lower Nikozi, established the library after her schoolwork last summer spurred her to research problems in the village, where she grew up.

There were “12 problems I identified, and one of them was about the libraries,” she said, “that in our village, there is not [a] library, and not only youngsters, adults wanted to have it here too.”

She requested permission to use a room in the building from the municipal government in Gori, the regional capital. Within a matter of months, the library was functional. Now, 20 ninth-to-eleventh-grade students are regular visitors.

In fact, they helped Devidze set it up. They worked together to paint the walls green, install bookshelves, and get furniture. The self-described activist taught the students how to write project proposals, and they reached out to publishing houses and secured donations of children’s books, novels, and books on science and a host of other topics.

“Now our plans is that this room is ready…and after school they will come here—all youngsters—and they will read books and they will have computers because at their home they don’t have internet access,” Devidze said. “I hope they will use this internet [and this space] wisely.”

She is not the only one trying to improve the quality of life in the village.

Upstairs, hidden in a dark, musty hallway with blue walls and dusty floors, Nino Mindiashvili, 30, grills meat on a portable stovetop is the office for a local non-governmental organization called Ray of Hope.

The group’s latest project is an initiative to deliver meals to elderly villagers who live in poverty or whose deteriorating health makes it difficult for them to take care of themselves, said Mindiashvili, a former military cook.

Nino Mindiashvili prepares food as part of her mobile food delivery project. (Maryam Saleh/Medill/GroundTruth)
Nino Mindiashvili prepares food as part of her mobile food delivery project. (Maryam Saleh/Medill/GroundTruth)

“We had a meeting in Gori, where we identified one of the needs [in the village] is mobile feeding services for the people who need it most,” she said. She sits in front of a green bulletin board littered with the name of international organizations that have funded her work in the past—CARE International, Austrian Development Cooperation, and the Association of Internally Displaced Women, “Consent.”

The feeding project, launched in April of this year, serves nearly 40 people who live in three villages with an estimated population of 1,500. They deliver meals twice a week—usually some combination of meat and potatoes—and they hope more people will apply for support.

“Before the war, this was an economically independent village, one of the strongest in the region,” Mindiashvili said, speaking through an interpreter. “Our main income was from selling apples…After the war, this stopped. A lot of houses and orchards were bombed, so there weren’t apples for some time.”

In the years following the war, younger people started leaving the village for city life in Gori and Tbilisi. Although Mindiashvili has had a stable income and has never had to consider leaving, but she understands why many people do.

“For a lot of people, living here was no longer viable,” after the five-day war with Russia in 2008, when many people’s houses were bombed, she said.

Devidze is one of the young villagers who left home to study—she has lived in Tbilisi since starting college. But her work as a sociologist and an activist has motivated her to come back—she now comes home almost every weekend to work on the library and to talk to youth about green politics and other social justice issues.

The kids she works with are not much younger than her, and she hopes to inspire them to seek the same sort of opportunities she has sought for herself.

“For the future term, I see that with these kids I really want to see some sort of social factory that will create more impact for the villages around here,” she said.

Maryam Saleh is a Washington-based journalist who covers politics, immigration and national security. She holds a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, and she is an attorney with experience in immigration law. She tweets at @MaryamSaleh_.

This report is one of a series prepared by graduate students at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Media Communications. The project was conducted as part of Medill’s National Security Journalism Initiative.