Light and Dark in the Pankisi Gorge

Transitions Online, Czech Republic
Aug 5 2004

Light and Dark in the Pankisi Gorge

by Elvira Goryukhina

The classroom is the only psychological haven where one person helps
another to leave war behind, a Russian psychologist finds on a visit
to Chechen schools in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge.

Editor’s note: This article is a short extract from an account by a
Russian educational psychologist of a visit to the Pankisi Gorge in
Georgia, home to several thousand Chechen refugees. Since its
publication in mid-2003 in the human rights publication
Pravozashchitnik, some things have changed. President Eduard
Shevardnadze of Georgia has been removed and his successor, Mikheil
Saakashvili, has been exerting greater pressure on the Chechen
community. Russia is seeking the return of all refugees to Chechnya,
arguing that the republic is now safe to return to. Many refugees
have left the Pankisi Gorge, heading elsewhere but not north, into
Chechnya. The experiences captured by Elvira Goryukhina, a professor
of psychology at Novosibirsk Pedagogical University, will not have

For the past three years, schools in three villages in the Pankisi
Gorge-Duisi, Omalo and Jokolo-have, as Georgian law requires,
provided schooling in Russian as well as Georgian. For three years
these schools in what is known as the Russian sector have been
issuing school-leaving certificates enabling refugees to enter
universities. In those three years, the teachers have not received a
single kopeck.

Who works in the Russian sector? Chechen refugees. Teachers who share
a life of exile with their pupils.

I have visited many schools in places of rubble and ash: Samashki,
Grozny, Achkho-Martan, Orekhovo, [all of which are in Chechnya]
Shusha, Mardakert, Stepanakert, Karintag [in Nagorno-Karabakh]… And
there is one thing I know for sure: the classroom is the one area in
our world where no one would let a child be broken. It is the only
psychological haven where the world continues to function according
to natural laws, where one person helps another to leave war behind.
To return to life.

I once asked Suren Nalbandyan from a school in Shusha, in
Nagorno-Karabakh, how he could teach tangents and cotangents when he
knew the burden of experience on the children’s shoulders.

`I beguile them,’ Suren answered without a second’s thought. `A
teacher has no other option.’

I entered the secondary school in Duisi relying on my experiences of
establishing contact with teachers in other conflict areas. I thought
I could trust those experiences. Reality proved otherwise.

Very slowly, one by one, they filed into the teachers room, glancing
mistrustfully toward us, fresh arrivals from Moscow. Beside me stood
the deputy director of the Russian sector, Tuta Jabrailovna. A
physicist. A blue-eyed beauty. It seemed as if tears were waiting to
roll. No, she was not crying; it just seemed the tears would not go
away. A sense of unspilled tears: that, it seemed, united all these
teachers. It was the first time I had seen such a thing in my life.
They had not been killed, but their wings had been clipped. They were
caged-bird teachers. How can one enter a classroom in such a state?

What made them different from other teachers, from teachers such as
those in ransacked Samashki [in Chechnya]? The answer did not occur
to me immediately: those teachers were at home, in their own country,
near their ruined homes. One’s native environment offers protection
simply by being there.

These teachers were exiles, in a strange land, away from home.

There is something ambiguous in the very name, `the Russian sector.’
The parents had not, I heard, initially wanted to send their children
here. They preferred them to be taught in Georgian. But then they
changed their minds. Every subject here is now in Russian.

Madina Aldamova from Starye Atagy, a mother of three, teaches a
third-form class with 22 refugees. Of the 17 boys, five are named

Madina is a mover, a shaker. She deals with the distribution of
humanitarian aid. A relative of Khizri Aldamov, who represents Aslan
Maskhadov’s government in Georgia, Madina speaks for many when she
exclaims: `Going back to Chechnya is impossible! We don’t need
anything from Russia! We’re not going anywhere! Where should we go
back to? To filtration camps? To be mopped up [a reference to Russian
troops’ `mopping-up operations’ within Chechnya]? There are people
who went back and were dispatched to the next world. And we know
their names.’

We mumble something about guarantees. But our words, said with
conviction, lose their strength, become emptied of meaning, become
nothing. Our partners in conversation have different criteria. The
experience of false words in war zones makes it a torture for anyone
who attempts to use words to bring change. They can puncture your
phrases with the only weapon that cannot be disarmed-their
experience, their burden of suffering. They peel away from words all
approximations, all looseness of phrasing.

The atmosphere in the teachers room is becoming tense. My
professional experience suggests no way out of this deadlock.

I tell them about pupils of mine who are reading Hadji-Murat by Leo

`I’d be interested to know how Russian children look on events here.’
Madina, the teacher with the harshest words about Russia, has taken a
little step toward dialogue.

I tell them about Samashki, Grozny, Bamut, Orekhovo, Davydenko …

`One would think you were born in Chechnya,’ says the same voice. One
more step toward us …

I ask them how the children like Russian books. Again Madina takes
the floor:

`What does the language have to do with it? The language committed no
crime. If I said bad words about Russia, do you really think that I
meant you, personally? I make no claims about you as a person.’

I seized the opportunity and asked to sit in on a lesson.

`Tomorrow at 10 o’clock I will be waiting for you in the teachers
room,’ she said.

And from that point on, I was dealing with a different Madina. Not a
soapbox speaker, not a provocateur (as we had thought of her), but a
master opening the door for us into a sanctuary-her classroom.

Madina is waiting for us in the teachers room. We did not come to the
school with empty hands. We give Madina our gift-a beautiful edition
of a Chechen language textbook. She slowly leafs through the book,
now and again stopping to linger on a particular phrase. Her
appearance, her voice, her movements change completely. Without
taking her eyes from the book, she says in a trembling voice the
words for which we had come to the Gorge, for which we had cleared
every hurdle:

`You have already brought us back to Chechnya. …’

Our former iron conviction that no one would ever go back to Chechnya
begins to melt. They could go back! They want to go back. What is
needed is not a public relations campaign, but a support system for
those who have become refugees.

Just consider: one book, just one book, had suddenly transformed the
teacher’s entire state of mind. The book was passed from hand to
hand. It reached the physicist Tuta Jabrailovna. Her ultramarine eyes
again seem full of unspilled tears.

The lesson. I ask the children something through their teacher.
Madina talks to them in Russian and suddenly senses the absurdity of
the situation: she is translating from Russian into Russian. She
makes a gesture inviting me to the blackboard and steps aside. The
classroom falls silent. I am the first Russian they have seen in
three years.

On the teacher’s desk I spot an open book. Nekrasov’s poems.

In war zones, one can bear a lot. Only not this-to stand face to face
with children who have plumbed the depths of misfortune in war.

I will never forget my baptism as a teacher in 3-a.

When I ask about returning to Chechnya, they answer readily and
swiftly. `We will go back when there are no Russians left.’

`Imagine that I live in Grozny. I’m a Russian. For you to be able to
live in Grozny, would you need to kill me?’ I ask the Mohammed
sitting at the front desk.

The boy falls silent, embarrassed. God, forgive me. Why does a child
need to solve a problem like that, a question thought up by imbecilic
grown-ups? Why?

I cannot remember now how I found a way out. We began to read poems,
poems we know and love. Pushkin took the victor’s laurels.

Another Mohammed takes the floor. He solemnly recites the very long
name of The Fairytale about Tsar Saltan, His Son Gvidon etc.

`The crescent moon is wan at night and, through the mist, pours
silver upon the field. …’ The poem proves hard to pronounce, but a
third Mohammed masters the difficulties.

After that, dainty, doll-like Asya took the floor in front of the
blackboard and recited a poem about old Babarikha [a character in
Pushkin’s fairy tale The Tale of Tsar Saltan]. It was not quite a
poem. The poetic rhythm was interrupted by a prosaic element. It
seemed as if Asya was retelling the fairy tale. There was a magic to
it, though. The rhythm was different, but it was a rhythm. This
rhythm, this intonation, so unexpected to everyone, so intoxicated
Asya that it was impossible to interrupt her.

In the middle of this poetic `recital,’ it became clear that it had
become a form of dialogue. And sitting behind a desk at the back my
friend Tamara Duishvili let the tears roll; she knew what the
children are talking about. …

But we talked directly as well. About the war. It all started with
making wishes. I am pretending to be a golden fish that the children
have netted. `So, what are your three wishes?’ Dead silence. Not a
single hand goes up. They don’t know what it is-to wish for
something. I suggest some kind of food. Some children limply mention
Snickers. Finally the whole class settles on a collective desire-for
a bicycle.

Our tiresome wishing game comes to an end when Ibrahim from the third
desk utters, `I wish there were no war.’ This is where the core of
these children’s emotions is-the war. One word blocks the children’s
wishes and drags behind it a gloomy train of memories.

They recount how they had needed to shelter from the bombers. They
are 8 or 9 years old.

`When they bomb, one should run to a trench,’ says blond-haired
Aminat, the smallest girl in the class. She says it as a soldier
would, in a running rhythm. The rhythm of running to a trench.

My throat is parched. Aminat continues in a businesslike voice:

`Of course, it is better to run to a basement. But we had no
basement. We dug out a trench.’

They recount that they had flown over Shatili by helicopter.

`Did you like that?’ I ask stupidly. The class cries out in one voice

They hate helicopters. They hate planes. Nobody wants to be a pilot.
Or a soldier. Musa says he’d like to have a gun and immediately adds
in a frightened voice:

`A toy gun, you understand? I only want a toy gun.’

And at this, the children break. They remember what it is to have
wishes. The talk is all about toys. Girls talk about dolls. Boys,
about cars.

These are children who have not had enough time to play. Any
psychologist would tell you that is a dangerous portent for

Through a broken window, the mountains of Georgia are visible, but
the children are homesick for their own mountains, back in Chechnya.
They want to go home.

Putin’s name crops up in our class.

`Who’s he?’ I ask.

`The Russian president,’ Musa answers.

`And your president is Shevardnadze now?’

`Our president is Maskhadov [the elected president of Chechnya before
the second Chechen war began in 1999 and now a rebel leader].’

The bell had already rung long ago. Children from other classes kept
bursting into the classroom. 3-a did not want to leave. I aid goodbye
to the children in Chechen. They answered in Russian.

Mohammed from the front desk rose to his feet. He straightened his
back and pronounced distinctly, `Thank you for coming.’

The intonation of the phrase came from a different life. Not from a
life where wars are waged and children hide in trenches. It is from
the world where the ethics of how one person treats another are
taught in childhood.

His words felled me.

I would like to know how the habits and rules that make us human are
preserved (or born) in a human being. There, in class 3-a in the
Pankisi Gorge, I remember Josef Brodsky’s words: `A life without
standards is second-rate and not worth the labor.’

Our lesson had begun with a phrase, `when there are no Russians.’ One
can only guess what mental labor had gone into that `Thank you!’
Mohammed had brought us all up to the standard there ought to be.

`Come back again! Please come back sometime!’ I left the school
accompanied by a chorus of children’s voices.

I would like to go back to 3-a. With a bicycle.


In the evening when a single kerosene lamp burns and a stove crackles
in the middle of the kitchen, the children and I gather together. Our
favorite game is a word game, a language game.

Unlike me, the children speak three languages-Russian, Chechen, and
Georgian. Those who came to the gorge from Chechnya a year ago speak
Georgian fluently and willingly.

I wondered which of three phrases the children would choose:

So kier-I am afraid (in Chechen).

So tsakier-I am not afraid.

Ma kier-Don’t be afraid!

Me meshinia-I am afraid (in Georgian).

Me ar meshinia-I am not afraid.

Nu geshinia-Don’t be afraid!

The children immediately crossed out `I am afraid’ in all languages.
Ten-year-old Ruslan, a refugee from Grozny, makes his choice at once:
`I am not afraid!’

We tried out the word war, for its taste, for its color. In Chechen
and in Kistini [the language of Chechen Georgians] it is tom. In
Georgian it is omi. The children squeal with joy: the Georgian word
is as short as the Chechen.

Malika is 11. She is Ruslan’s sister.

`Our languages are alike. Only the Georgians make their sounds last.
They probably like them. We Chechens have already pronounced a word
and the Georgians will still be dragging it out.’

Somewhere in the middle of the game a most banal thing occurs to me.
My God! This is the Caucasus. Peoples of the Caucasus. Languages of
the Caucasus. This is a family.

Puri, bepig, korzhum mean bread in the three languages. The children
are truly convinced that the words sound the same, and what happiness
there is that the word father sounds in Kistini like mother in

We are not just pronouncing words. We are communicating. This is a
special kind of a conversation I first came across in
Nagorno-Karabakh. A language offers protection against a horror once
experienced. It refuses to call things their proper names. But the
necessity to share one’s experience with others remains. So people
choose the best option available: they take neutral words, give them
a different intonation, a different rhythm-and a conversation will
inevitably begin about one’s inmost feelings, without one word about
them being pronounced.

Perhaps we are subconsciously sparing our psyche, perhaps the tongue,
perhaps language resists sheer hell. Which is most important, I don’t
know. In our game even the word war is stripped of its fearsome
meaning. We control that word.

We devote the second evening to the proverbs and sayings of the three
peoples. We come across a Chechen proverb: He who answers evil with
good becomes a blood enemy.

Is this `an eye for eye’? Even if one answers evil with good? What
does it mean, this talk of `becomes a blood enemy’?

We chose this proverb from a book published specially for refugees.
The book is in three languages, Russian, Chechen, and Georgian. The
publisher is Kavkazskii dom (House of the Caucasus). The Russian part
of the book is the weakest. The Wahhabites [followers of the austere
form of Islam particularly widely practiced in Saudi Arabia and only
recently introduced in Chechnya] were unhappy with the book, because
they found the pagan aspects of the folklore blasphemous. They had
apparently burnt some of the books.

The book has a foreword, written in keeping with the Chechens’
deepest spiritual and cultural traditions. There is not one bad word
about the country these children have had to flee as refugees. There
are no accusations. It expresses compassion for and a sense of guilt
toward children whose fate it is to live outside their homeland.

`In the world created by God only a spiritual victory is a real
victory and a spiritual defeat is a real defeat. Please forgive us
for your fate.’

I leaf through a textbook for the Russian sector photocopied by a
Norwegian refugee center. I leaf through the book published by
Kavkazskii dom, and I am filled with shame. Where have we been all
this time? If we could not spare these children from bombings, what
at least have we written for them?

Malika and I are preparing a lesson in Russian literature. A strange
selection of texts. There is barely a lighthearted page in them. How
can one go through the desert of puberty with such a textbook? As if
on purpose the authors selected the gloomiest pages from Bunin,
Andreev, Kazakov, Abramov. The final sentence of the textbook reads,
`At dawn a policeman ran into his corpse lying in the snow.’

I wonder: What concept of childhood is it that lies at the heart of
this textbook of literature?

The youngest member of the family, Zarema, decides to take a serious
step: she gives a book as a gift. I resist. The book is already in my
bag. Zarema throws up her arms as she would in a Chechen dance and
says solemnly:

`I gave her a book that has all the languages in the world!’