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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

From the Pankisi Gorge: Don't Believe the Hype

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PANKISI GORGE, Georgia -- Considering the hype that has surrounded the Pankisi Gorge for the last few months -- that it is home to Chechen warlords, drug racketeers, dirty-bomb constructors and a smattering of common criminals to boot -- it's a wonder anyone goes near the place.

Nevertheless, the World Food Program still operates there, handing out flour and sugar and cooking oil to Chechen refugees who have made the gorge their temporary home, and when they organized a trip for journalists to Pankisi last week, I jumped at the chance to see it for myself.

The Pankisi Gorge gained its reputation as a nest of criminal activity in September, when President Vladimir Putin accused Georgia of harboring Chechen separatists there and threatened to bomb the narrow valley unless the Georgians brought the situation under control.

At the local headquarters of the UNHCR, the United Nations' refugee agency, they said they were fed up with the gorge's reputation as a hotbed for terrorists. It's just a refuge for hundreds of Chechens -- mostly women, children and elderly people -- who fled there to escape the war, they told us. To watch CNN, you'd think it was on a par with the Tora Bora cave complex in Afghanistan, or those FARC training camps in Colombia.

As you approach the gorge, the road narrows into a stony one-lane track. Our police escort ensured we were waved through two road blocks manned by Georgian troops in bulletproof vests. Beside the road blocks, row upon row of green canvas tents have been set up for the hundreds of Georgian special forces troops who were sent to Pankisi in August to flush out the elusive Chechen rebels.

Halfway into the gorge, we stopped at Duisi. Small groups of women and children huddled together along the sodden track -- the rains had been unkind to them this year, we were told.

A hunched woman named Malika with a deeply lined face and sad eyes took us to an old school building, where she lives with her five small children. She said she couldn't remember the last time they had electricity in Duisi. She relies on a tiny wood-burning stove for cooking and to keep warm. There are only two beds in the room. Three of the children sleep on the concrete floor.

Like many in Georgia, Malika believes the Russians simply invented the idea that separatists are hiding in Pankisi to divert attention from their failure to end the war in Chechnya.

"We aren't terrorists. We're just a lot of unhappy refugees whose greatest wish is for the war to be over so that we can go home," Malika said as she brushed away her tears. "Is that really too much to ask?"

Chloe Arnold is a freelance journalist based in Baku, Azerbaijan.