A Trail of Death: from Pankisi to Syria
02 October, 2014
American airstrikes on the Islamic State’s military encampments have once again reminded the world of the Pankisi Gorge and have brought back the horror of war to denizens of Pankisi itself. Today, several dead youths are being mourned in Pankisi, the youngest of them, Beso Kushtanashvili, was only eighteen years old. Due to financial need, the only child of the Kushatanashvili family went to Turkey to work at a clothing manufactory. His family does not know how he ended up
in Syria. Unfortunately, this is hardly the first case when families discover that bodies of their children, who went to Turkey to find work, were found in Syria.

The fact that there are Georgian citizens fighting alongside Islamic mujahedeen is nothing new. Hundreds of Pankisian youngsters followed the example of three prominent Chechen warlords – Tarkhan Batirashvili O al-Shishani), Murad Margoshvili (Muslim al-Shishani) and Ruslan Machalikashvili (Sayfullakh al-Shishani), who left Pankisi Gorge to fight for the Islamic State. But unlike the “Big Three”, no one knows these youngsters’ names, last names or sometimes even their final resting places. Nobody seems to be in a hurry to answer the question of why are people holding Georgian passports going abroad to fight a war – neither the elders’ council in Pankisi, nor the Georgian government, which has been shying away from addressing the Pankisian dilemma for two years now.
Still, what is the trail of death from Pankisi Gorge to Syria like? After finishing school, higher education remains financially inaccessible to many young locals, despite their desires. Unfortunately, many of them struggle with finding employment and are forced to go abroad in search of a better life. And so these youngsters end up in Syria or even in Iraq. But according to locals, many of them are being recruited in Pankisi Gorge itself; after they’ve been recruited, they are taken to Istanbul, then to Aksaray and then to Syria. New arrivals are quickly brainwashed into becoming “holy warriors” by special “priests” and then thrown into the bloody melee. Nobody knows how much these youths get paid and whether they get paid at all – almost none of them return alive, and their only reward seems to be the title of a “shaheed.”
Today, the Islamic State’s chain of command is centered around two points – a public one in Iraq and a covert one in Syria. The latter is led by warlord Omar al-Shishani, who has become quite rich from the spoils of war that he wages. He is always accompanied by 40 bodyguards and travels using an armored car, customized by experts he commissioned from Iran. Members of his family who remain in Pankisi claim that al-Shishani broke all contact with them, but nobody in the Gorge explicitly tries to hide the fact that they are covering for their warring compatriots.
Like Beso Kushatanashvili, many other Pankisian youths were pronounced dead, but some of them so far remain unidentified. It is said that once the mourning is over, more youths will set foot upon the trail of death, seeking revenge…