Would you like to live here?

2023 9 Georgia Satkhe

The highlands near Satkhe in the south of Georgia not far from the Turkish border, are hot in summer. The main town in  as this area is commonly referred to, is Achalkalaki, “new town”. Not much grows here apart from the grass that is eagerly eaten by herds of cows guarded by “cowboys”. Trees have little chance as slow rolling hills reach up to 2,500 meters and higher; only emptiness as far as the eye can see. In winter temperatures sink to tens below zero. Heating is done with cow manure mixed with straw dried in neat rows in the blasting summer sun. Hay is stacked geometrically and will hopefully last for the winter.

Satkhe potato harvest

Fugitives from Atatürk

“Life is hard here,” Tamara Polayan tells me. “I want to leave, I am 18 years old now and want to study English and another language like Spanish. Would you like to live here?” She has an Armenian background (as have around 95% in this area) and thus attends the Armenian school; her ancestors most probably fled from Turkey as a result of the great cleansing of Ataturk. There is also a Georgian and Russian school, the latter having the best reputation. Georgian is the main language as a propaganda mural teaches the workers: “Our language”. The Georgian government actively encourages the knowledge of the Georgian language do not have a good proficiency of the official language thus limiting the possibilities for further advanced education. (Ref 1)

“Learn your mother tongue, it will bring you the world”

Deportées and guests from the Tsar

Apart from Armenians, there are many other minority groups here like the Doukhobors, a “protestant” Christian group seen as heretics by the Orthodox Church, who were deported by the Tsar in 1841 – 1845 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doukhobors to this unhospitable corner of the world. In sharp contrast the same Tsar invited in the same period protestant Germans (Schwabians) to settle in the nearby Kvemo-Kartli district. Most descendants have left, especially after the dismantling of the Soviet Union, but some buildings reminding of their presence can still be found.

Schwabian house and church in Trialeti (formerly Alexandershilf)

Harvesting potatoes is hard work

Today is harvest time and together with her aunt, grandmother, mother and brother she gathers potatoes from the black earth. Their plot is near the road to Ninotsminda (Saint Nino). The road runs roughly parallel to the oil pipeline from Baku to Turkey, built by order of Stalin personally. Presently, again parallel to the pipeline, a modern railway track is constructed by Turkish contractors supported by American funding. The project includes a majestic container transshipment terminal.

Many potato plots are scattered haphazardly over the slopes, most probably due to the rotational character of growing potatoes. In so doing the development of potato fatigue is prevented. Most of the land belonged to a Sovcholz or Kolchoz but have be redistributed to small owners.

“They are small this year; there was too little rain. They could not grow. Now the traders do not want them so we eat them ourselves or feed them to the cows. My father works in Russia, something with big machines. I named my Instagram account after him. What is your Insta?” A posed picture is unavoidable.

Tamara with mother

There is little time to talk, the family shouts to her: the light is fading and there is still a lot to do. The cow walks slowly home, ignoring the traffic and deciding on its own pace.

Coming home after nearly two centuries

2023 9 Georgia Jokolo

Deported in 1865

“My ancestors were forcibly deported from Chechenya to Anatolia” (then the Ottoman Empire, probably around 1865) Emirhan tells me. There are still some Chechen villages where we have kept our traditions, but the recent generations lack language.”

Invited in 1867

We meet the Pankisi Valley in Georgia, an area inhabited by descendants of migrants from Chechnya. Unlike Emirhan’s ancestors, they were invited by the Georgian governor in 1867 to inhabit this deserted valley as a countermeasure against invaders. The first migrants came from Kist, who were reputed for their fighting spirit and hence the whole population is now being designated by this name. Originally a mix of Christians, pagans and Muslims the population is now predominantly Muslim, albeit from different designations. The valley has suffered severe depopulation in the last 20 years, although those who left still have ties with their place of origin. There are two mosques in the main village of Duisi, the old one is Sunist Sufi and open to women performing the Zikr ceremony, the new “red” appears to have a different approach.

Turkish do not know what Chechens look like

Emirhan tells me: “I feel 100% Chechen, and never felt Turkish in my entire life. It is quite hard for a Chechen to feel otherwise
served in the regular army just like any Turkish citizen, and one of my comrades was of Armenian origin. There were also Turks, Sephardic Jews, Kurds, Circassians, etc. Although my looks and language are perfectly Turkish we can still be identified as Chechen. Turkish do not know what Chechens look like,”

“Presently I work as a software engineer. I lived in Northern Cyprus for the last eight years. Actually from my window, I could see the Greek part but I could not go there without first going back to Turkey and travelling through Greece. The relationship with my fiancée broke up and I decided to find out where I wanted to live. The options are numerous in my profession as I can live anywhere. In the end, I found the Pankisi Valley in Georgia as my place of choice to settle down for a while.”

A circle closes

Emirhan: “I recognize so much here, of course, the language but not just that. We Chechens have a natural facial expression that can easily be interpreted as angry but it is not. It is so to speak my neutral face. Here in the valley, everybody seems to look like this. Also, the way people relate to one another feels natural, we are an equalitarian society. The elderly are treated with respect. It is not that we can have an exchange of ideas with them however, the younger person needs to be invited to do so and will not initiate this on his/her own accord.”

Jokolo evening view

Emirhan, in the meantime, does not know when he will leave the guesthouse in the Valley. He does not intend to stay permanently. However, at present, it feels like coming home. The circle seems to close after more than a century and a half.

Ref 1.
The Integration of National Minorities in the Samtskhe-Javakheti and Kvemo Kartli Provinces of Georgia Five Years into the Presidency of Mikheil Saakashvili Jonathan Wheatley ECMI Working Paper # 44 September 2009

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.