The War Diaries

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Archive for the ‘Chechnya’ tag

Between Propaganda and Reality in the Caucasus

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An elderly refugee from southern Chechnya's Itum-Kale district sits in the home of a Kist host family in Duisi, Georgia. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

An elderly refugee from southern Chechnya’s Itum-Kale district sits in the home of a Kist host family in Duisi, Georgia. I was struck by how incredibly hospitable these people relentlessly vilified by the FSB were. They told me of the horrors of Putin’s onslaught on their villages while offering endless cups of tea and bread me. I felt powerless, having nothing to givein return  but a sympathetic ear. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

New York- I have an article out in this month’s edition of the CTC Sentinel about the evolution over the last two decades of the fight for the North Caucasus which has morphed a great deal. In my view, Syria has been a game changer with regard to Chechens and other ethno-linguistic nationalities from that region fighting with abundant documentation outside their homeland. I first encountered members of the Chechen community in Georgia in 2002. The stories of their under reported struggle fascinated me.

Screen Shot 2014-03-26 at 7.20.21 PMPersonally, I was in an early career lull between 9/11 back here in NYC and covering the Afghan war yet before the Iraq would begin in 2003. I was roving around the Levant and the Caucasus in the summer of 2002 looking for original stories to cover on my own. Sure there were the mostly crude analogies to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan of a grass roots holy war being fought by righteous bearded guys against cruel, drunken Russian officers and their hapless young conscripts, but I wanted to meet ordinary people whose lives were gravely affected by the war that solidified Putin as the Russian Federation’s post-Yeltsin czar.

I’d wanted to meet Ruslan Gelayev (an infamous side-witching warlord present in northeastern Georgia at the time) and perhaps travel with his mujahideen unit onward to Ingushetia and Chechnya. I ultimately decided that the risk didn’t measure up to the reward, particularly in the case of being a freelancer with a story no one in the West much cared about anyway. I also wanted to make sure I was back in New York to document the one year anniversary of 9/11 which was of paramount importance at that time to me.

I settled for trekking around villages populated with refugees who had crossed from souther Chechnya in the autumn of 1999. I ended up staying in what I determined was basically a hostel for foreign volunteers heading northward through the ravines of the Greater Caucasus range to wage war against a dehumanized enemy.  Russian soldiers and officers from various federal organizations like the OMON were portrayed as soulless cannon fodder in muj propaganda videos produced in the GCC which were used to draw attention to the fight for Chechnya among Arab audiences. These videos–some of which I were shown by Chechens in Tbilisi–painted the conflict as a righteous cause. The whole situation was a mess and Georgia itself was in a state of contained chaos back then.

One of the major points I have tried to make in my new piece is that propaganda has–over time–become a kind of new reality. From the fantasies of the Lubyanka to the web forum hosts of the Gulf, Chechens are other North (and South) Caucasians are now really, undeniably fighting abroad. I remember being at a terrorism conference in Washington in the mid-2000s and a young Marine officer stood up during a Q & A session and spoke of his unit having fought ‘Chechens’ in Iraq. But when pressed, he had no method of verifying this. Of course there are Chechens who are semi-indigenous to Iraq from their expulsion to the Ottoman empire–though that nuance was rarely, if ever, mentioned. Then there were the stories of Chechens fighting ISAF troops in Afghanistan and the Pakistani Army encountering Chechens in various battles in the FATA. But not one of these assertions was ever proven with even a shred of evidence.

Ismail with his scruffy cat in the village of Birkiani. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

Ismail with his scruffy cat in the village of Birkiani. He was a young refugee living in limbo like thousands of others. Though there was condemnation of all-out war in Chechnya at the time, there was no real action to back it up. Or should I say nothing ‘actionable’ was ever done. Challenging so-called tin pot regimes in weak states was acceptable and even fashionable for a time among liberal internationalist and neoconservative circles for a time but challenging Russian neo-imperialism directly has never been on the table. One could even draw a continuity between inaction on the Caucasus then and Crimea now. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

Now, however, Chechens (many coming from the EU or those who were already present in the Arab world), Dagestanis, Azerbaijanis, Georgian Kists, Tatars and all sorts of other guys are indeed fighting in Syria. It is as if the FSB and GRU’s dream has come true…albeit over a decade too late. This situation serves several interested parties but in my view does a great disservice to the Chechens themselves. As a colleague and friend messaged me earlier this year: “[It is] sad what has happened to my people.”

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A peace plan forth by ChRI’s Ilyas Akhmadov which went essentially nowhere. By 2003, it was far too late.

When Chechen rebel officials were asking for the internationalization of the situation in their republic, they were ignored. When moderate Syrian rebels asked for a no-fly buffer zone along the Turkish border, they were ignored. Then when these places descend into nihilism, people condemn them devoid of context.

The Chechens were villains in poorly scripted Hollywood films and novels but the reality has always been they were mostly an embattled people consumed with the fight for their own homeland as a opposed to global salafi-jihad in general. A pillar of this sort of thing was the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (ie the Taliban) recognizing the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (the rebels).

This move of non-state diplomacy served to benefit neither party. The Taliban wanted to be recognized worldwide well beyond the just littoral states of the Arabian Sea and when their efforts were rebuffed, they recognized the ChRI government. Moreover, the late Aslan Maskhadov, who was then president of the ChRI, was less than thrilled with the Taliban recognition and apparently believed it to be a play by Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev and Movladi Udugov to strengthen their position within a growing rebel schism.

The outside world’s contempt in the form of apathy for the horrors perpetrated in Chechnya with it relegated to an “internal affair” for Moscow to resolve struck me as simply sad. Interventionists patted themselves on the back for aleviating suffering the Balkans and lashed themselves (to a far lesser extent) for doing nothing in Rwanda,  while they let the internal affair in the Caucasus fester for years.

In other news, my CTC Sentinel article on Syria from 2012 was cited The War Report: 2012, edited by Stuart Casey-Maslen, published by Oxford University Press and an interview I did with a top former Afghan police official was cited in Policing Afghanistan: The Politics of the Lame Leviathan by Antonio Giustozzi and Mohammed Isaqzadeh by Columbia University Press.

I appeared on BBC Arabic on March 22 with presenter Rasha Qandeel and former Russian diplomat Vyacheslav Matuzov to discuss Russian's foreign policy of protecting its external minorities.

I appeared on BBC Arabic on March 22 with presenter Rasha Qandeel and former Russian diplomat Vyacheslav Matuzov to discuss Russian’s foreign policy of protecting its external minorities. I pointed out what I see as a staggering hypocrisy in Russian policy with regard to internal minorities within the Russian Federation and Moscow’s military adventures in the post-Soviet space.

Written by derekhenryflood

March 26th, 2014 at 6:09 pm

The Beauty of a Misunderstood Place

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An effusive Chechen elder I met at sundown in the village of Birkiani. What a cool guy! A random Westerner shows up at his gate and he immediately offers warm, old school Chechen hospitality. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

An effusive Chechen elder I met at sundown in the village of Birkiani where I stayed in 2002. What a cool guy! A random Westerner shows up at his gate and he immediately offers warm, old school Chechen hospitality. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

New York- I haven’t done a blog post in nearly a month and felt like posting a few images if for no other reason than to do an update for the sake of doing an update. In October I visited the Pankisi Gorge for the third time in my career/life whatever I should call it. The first two visits were filled with tension and suspicion that had the feel on journalistic espionage. On this recent trip, I was able to take a few moments to remember the splendor of this far off place. Pankisi is beautiful because much of the Caucasus is gorgeous in general. Low slung cloud formations above the peaks, horses trotting along, and stunning young Chechen and Kist  women.

The Chechens are perhaps the most globally vilified people in recent history thanks to tireless propaganda efforts up north at the Lubyanka. Seemingly nearly everyone around the world bought into rather unsophisticated FSB pay-ops since the late 1990s from Hollywood screenwriters to Pakistani generals. But beyond all of this hype, most of which is completely unsupported in an empirical sense, are a very real people with a pained history. Yes, Chechens are  renown for anti-state warfare. However they also make a good cup of chai and are good conversationalists.

A boy and his horse between Duisi and Jokolo. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

A boy and his horse between Duisi and Jokolo. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Soviet-style gravestones in Duisi's main cemetery written in both Cyrillic and Arabic scripts. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Soviet-style gravestones in Duisi’s main cemetery written in both Cyrillic and Arabic scripts. These visages definitely wouldn’t fit into the Salafi ideology that has been seeping into the valley in recent years. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

This guy was hilarious. How many times have you heard "Chechen" and "hilarious" in the same sentence? My guess is…never. The difference between removed analysis and field work is that you must actually interact with real people rather than study them in some abstraction. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

This guy from southern Chechnya was hilarious. How many times have you heard “Chechen” and “hilarious” in the same sentence? My guess is…never. The difference between removed analysis and field work is that you must actually interact with real people rather than study them in some abstraction. The results can sometimes be amusing. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Written by derekhenryflood

November 20th, 2013 at 6:26 pm

Posted in Caucasus,Georgia

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Chasing Old Ghosts in Georgia

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The Marjanshvilli metro station. If there is a long escalator anywhere in this world I haven't seen it. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

The Marjansihvilli metro station. If there is a longer escalator anywhere in this world I haven’t seen it. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Tbilisi- After inhabiting this post-9/11 realm for so long now,  I occasionally find myself in locales of yore retracing old steps in the name of an unfinished book. I sometimes photograph places and people (if I can still find them). I first came to Georgia in 2002 to inspect for myself the hype about the Pankisi Gorge/Valley with the West’s sudden fascination with Zarqawi, ricin and the think-tank obsession with foreign mujahideen (the meme that still won’t die) going to fight in Chechnya next door.

I arrived in Eduard Shevardnadze’s pot-hole ridden, shattered Caucasian republic after my efforts to meet with Iraqi Kurds in Syria were thwarted by the pervasive paranoid of Assad’s rather recently inherited police state. I lived with a widowed grandmother who gave shelter to Japanese backpackers (once ubiquitous in Eurasian budget travel scenes) and ended up in a mujahideen hostel in Pankisi with a Russian Federation Sukhoi (or a Georgian one in a version thinly sourced and convoluted) flying menacingly overhead.  The following are pictures that will appear random but are part of the narrative I am visually reconstructing to aid in my writing efforts.

Tsiela, the Georgian babushka I lived with in August 2002. She insisted I not go to Pankisi. She was a bit surprised that I found her 11 years on to shoot her portrait. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Tsiela, the Georgian babushka I lived with in August 2002 on Chitaya Street. She insisted I not go to Pankisi. She was a bit surprised that I found her 11 years on to shoot her portrait. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

My Chechen fixer's apartment block in Tbilisi's Saburtalo District. I was curious to go back there after reading that the Chechens involved in the August 2012 Lopota incident had been housed in this district supposedly by Georgian authorities who had recruited them in the EU if you're inclined to believe that version of events. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

My Chechen fixer’s depressing Soviet apartment block in Tbilisi’s Saburtalo District on Kavteradze Street. I was curious to go back there after reading that the Chechens involved in the August 2012 Lopota incident had been housed in this district supposedly by Georgian authorities who had recruited them in the EU if you’re inclined to believe that version of events. Saburtalo was where many of Tbilisi’s Chechen exiles once lived and now is home to part of the city’s migrant community including Pakistanis and Bangladeshis judging by my observations the other day. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

The barber shop where I ran in after my arrest by Georgian intelligence to get my beard shaved off. First and only time I ever had a woman shave my beard I think. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

The barber shop where I ran in after my arrest by Georgian intelligence to get my beard shaved off. First and only time I ever had a woman shave my beard I think. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

The lobby of the Sheraton Metechi Palace where the adventure started. There was a USAID office there and I asked a friendly yet clueless AID guy about going up to Pankisi and the prospect of getting in: "Oh yeah the refugees are there. I don't see why you can't go." Umm yeah, ok. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

The lobby of the Sheraton Metechi Palace where the adventure started. There was a USAID office there and I asked a friendly yet clueless AID guy about going up to Pankisi and the prospect of getting in: “Oh yeah the refugees are there. I don’t see why you can’t go.” Umm yeah, ok. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

In order to try and blend in with the guests while shooting photos at the Metechi, I ducked in for a beer in order to not seem suspicious. And of course there were working class BP guys at the bar talking Baku this, and pipeline that. I've been meeting BP guys every time I go out here it seems like. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

In order to try and blend in with the guests while shooting photos at the Metechi, I ducked in for a beer in order to not seem suspicious. Sometimes snooping around has its perks. And of course there were working class BP guys at the bar talking Baku this, and pipeline that. I’ve been meeting BP guys every time I go out here it seems like. ©2013 Derek Henry Flood

Written by derekhenryflood

October 22nd, 2013 at 8:50 am

Posted in Caucasus,Georgia

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TWD Chechnya/North Caucasus Reading List

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A Turkish-language poster of the late Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

A Turkish-language poster of the late Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov. The poster reads “Chechen Republic of Ichkeria State Leader” with “Noxçijcö” in the center being the endonym of “Chechnya”as transliterated into Turkish. This term is surrounding  a wolf which is the animal symbol of the Chechen people favored by nationalist separatists. I photographed this poster in a school in the village of Duisi, Georgia south of the Chechen border along the Alazani river. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

New York- In the two weeks since the tragic double bombing of the Boston marathon with improvised explosive devices, the media has fixated on the ethnic and religious background of the Tsarnaev brothers of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Though various mass casualty attacked have been carried out in the United States in the past year, media outlets did not fixate on whether James Eagan Holmes, who killed 12 people in Aurora, Colorado or Adam Lanza, who killed 26 people in Newtown, Connecticut were Protestants or Catholics nor what their precise ostensibly ethnic European backgrounds were.  But the fact that Tamarlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were ethnic Chechens and [I would think Sufi] Muslims while also not being native-born Americans has become an obsession of U.S. national media which has almost no knowledge of the history nor present dynamics of the North Caucasus region of which Chechnya is a central part.

In the wake of the Boston attacks and with the Sochi Winter Olympic Games just 10 months away and the insurgency’s western most fringe not far with just 250 kilometers (155 miles) drive separating Sochi and Nalchik, it may behoove some of the ultra ambitious yet very young D.C. jihadi wonks or overnight area experts in the Dupont Circle-Think Tank Row (Massachusetts Avenue) zone to read up on some of this stuff before inadvertently advancing an FSB narrative on the North Caucasus.

With so many people suddenly thrust in writing about a region with which they appear to have only the faintest familiarity (judging by for instance referring to Dagestan as “Russia” rather than as a constituent republic of the Russian Federation), it struck me that a minimal reading list might be useful.

This is by no means meant to be a comprehensive list but more of books in my collection the influenced me into the intrigue that is the Caucasus region. A longer list would have to begin with Anatol Lieven’s Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power which was published only months before the start of the second war in 1999 or say Thomas de Waal and Carolotta Gall’s Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus all the way to Emma Gilligan’s Terror in Chechnya: Russia and the Tragedy of Civilians in War.

Here is my very short Chechnya/North Caucasus reading list in no particular order as drawn from my personal library:


1. A Dirty War-A Russian Reporter in Chechnya by Anna Politkovskaya

I stumbled upon an autographed copy of the incredible book in New York’s legendary strand bookstore not long after returning to the U.S. from covering the Afghanistan war in the fall of 2001. With a classic James Nachtwey cover photo catching my eye in the book stacks, I quickly became enthralled with the story of Chechnya forever. Part of the reason I went to the first D.C. conference I ever attended was because Ms. Politkovskaya was slated to be a speaker. Disappointed she wasn’t actually there, all day throughout the conference I wondered what happened to her.

Finally a very frustrated audience member shouted out that she didn’t come to Washington because she had been threatened by the Kremlin that were she to speak about war crimes in Chechnya to [an anti-Kremlin] D.C. crowd, she would not be allowed to return to Russia (she was a dual Russian/American citizen). She was then killed by a “control shot” less than three years later while entering her Moscow apartment building.

My autographed copy of the English translation of Anna Politkovskaya's A Dirty War from 2001.

My autographed copy of the English translation of Anna Politkovskaya’s A Dirty War from 2001.

2. The Chechen Wars-Will Russia Go the Way of the Soviet Union? by Matthew Evangelista

This analysis of the first Chechen war (December 1994-August 1996) and the early stages of the second war beginning in the fall of 1999 discusses the role (or lack thereof) of international law in the Chechen conflict and what it meant for the future of democratization in the Russian Federation. Done from an in-depth sociological angle, Evangelista examines the broader problems inherent to Russian federalism when faced with ethnic and regional nationalisms in places other than Chechnya such as Tatarstan, Bashkortostan and even Sakhalin island facing the Sea of Okhotsk. A fascinating read.

3. Open Wound-Chechnya 1994 to 2003 by Stanley Greene

Nearly all of the books in my collection on Chechnya have covers and are illustrated by black and white photography. The Chechen wars were perhaps the last great era of black and white photojournalism before the American intervention in Afghanistan after 9/11 heralded in the mainstreaming of digital photography writ large. The defining photography book of both Chechen war is Open Wound by Stanley Greene by Trolley Books of London. As a fellow photographer, I cannot recommend this stunning, chilling book highly enough.

Stanley Greene's photo of Chechen rebel President Dzhokhar Dudaev. Dudaev was assasinated while talking on a satellite phone on April 21, 1996. To Daudaev's right is rebel Vice-President Zeilmkhan Yanderbiyev. Yanderbiyev succeeded Dudaev as president and was later assassinated in Doha, Qatar on February 13, 2004

Stanley Greene’s photo of Chechen rebel President Dzhokhar Dudaev  in Grozny in February 1994. Dudaev was assasinated while talking on a satellite phone on April 21, 1996. To Daudaev’s right is rebel Vice-President Zeilmkhan Yanderbiyev. Yanderbiyev succeeded Dudaev as president and was later assassinated in Doha, Qatar on February 13, 2004.

4. Chechnya Diary: A War Correspondent’s Story of Surviving the War in Chechnya by Thomas Goltz

This book by veteran Caucasus correspondent Goltz is centered around in the notorious Samashki massacre that took place in April 1995 near Chechnya’s eastern border with Ingushetia. Goltz’s book, a sort of sequel-at least in title anyway-to his earlier Azerbaijan Diary, is a real journo’s type of book. It contrasts the viciousness of war and it attendant crimes with the banal egotism and tiresome logistical challenges of getting a tough story out of a deadly environment.

5. The Man Who Tried to Save the World: The Dangerous Life and Mysterious Disappearance of an American Hero by Scott Anderson

My current read about the disappearance of The Open Society Institute’s Fred Cuny who was on his way to Bamut, Chechnya in February 1995 and was never seen again. With a stark cover photo diptych by the above mentioned Stanley Greene, this book reads like a fictious thriller save for the scary fact that it is real.

6. A Small Corner of Hell-Dispatches from Chechnya by Anna Politkovskaya

Politkovskaya’s 2003 follow up to a A Dirty War with a dramatic cover photo by Dutch photojournalist Eddy van Wessel. Hard to read but of course well worth it.

7, To Catch a Tartar: Notes from the Caucasus by Chris Bird

A memoir of the chaos taking place in the post-Soviet Transcaucasus of the 1990s by a former AFP and AP Tbilisi-based correspondent with cover photos by my colleague Thomas Dworzak.  This book focuses not solely on the first Russo-Chechen war but also on the tumult in Georgia and even a bit on Abkhazia-which are essential to understanding the overall situation in the greater Caucasus region today.

8. Caucasus: Mountain Men and Holy Wars by Nicholas Griffin

Griffin’s book explore the legacy of the legendary ethnic-Avari anti-colonial warrior Imam Shamil from a sector of Avaristan in what is now Dagestan. Griffin writes about the difficult sectarian and communal history of the Caucasus ending with the rise of the late Shamil Basaev, named after the 19th century Sunni Avari resistance leader.

9. Allah’s Mountains-The Battle for Chechnya by Sebastian Smith

Smith, an AFP correspondent during the first Chechen war and later IWPR analyst in Tbilisi, profiles Russia’s geopolitical enfant terrible that is the Caucasus. All in all, a complex, fantastic read.

9. Chienne de Guerre: A Woman Reporter Behind the Lines of the War in Chechnya by Anne Nivat

Nivat’s recollection of 6 months spent behind the lines after sneaking in Chechnya from neighboring Ingushetia during Putin’s re-invasion of the rebellious independence-minded republic. Nivat’s book highlights the importance of refusing to follow rules imposed on modern journalists by both authoritarian and democratic states (think of the French military impeding journalists in northern Mali at present). A decade ago, Nivat very astutely put the hopelessness of the conflict in a passionate context in an excellent NPR interview.

Written by derekhenryflood

April 29th, 2013 at 5:17 pm

Viewing Syria Through the Chechen Prism

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Syria, then. ©2002 Derek Henry Flood

New York- I have a piece in today’s edition of Asia Times Online about Russia, Chechnya and the Russian view of Syria. Russia, like it’s red-headed authoritarian stepchild China, constantly asserts an inviolable concept known as “national sovereignty” which is essentially a brutal policy used to suppress ethnic questions within present day borders.

Being schooled in the West, it is easy to believe that an empires had two distinct traits that defined them: they began with death defying, deep sea voyages that emanated from western and northern Europe and that after the immense devastation European societies incurred during the second world war, they had no choice but to abandon their colonies in Africa and Asia whose upkeep and administration was no longer viable as Europe’s shattered nation-states were forced to turn inward in order to rebuild themselves from the ground up.

Beginning with the Netherlands’s withdrawal from Indonesia in 1949 and Britain’s exit from Libya in 1951 and largely ending (at least in a formal sense) with the collapse of the recalcitrant Portuguese empire in 1975, Europe’s last remaining maritime colonial power, Americans and other Westerners have been under the impression that the Age of Empire is a dusty relic of a best forgotten time period that long predated the political correctness revolution that began in the early 1990s.

But what this unfortunate view of history largely obscures though is that broader Eurasia today remains a continent of present-day land-based empires who have very much yet to embrace “the end of history” as it were. Russia’s never-ending struggles to contain ethnic rebellion in the Caucasus and even ensure that a restless Republic of Tatarstan remains in the Kremlin’s fold and a China still very much wrestling with the Tibet question while trying to turn Xinjiang Province into some sort of a living cultural museum run by ethnic-Han migrants, indicates that the still subjugated populations in these regions often view Moscow and Beijing as colonial powers in the post-modern Oriental sense of things.

So sure, at points you will have people abroad advocating for human rights in these places in order to serve an anti-authoritarian agenda but the post-war Western powers with their own unaccounted for, sordid history of collective rape and colonization, combined with half-hearted diplomacy that is doomed to fail from the start and hampered by both conservative isolationists and anti-imperialists at home, means that there are no worthwhile mechanisms for resolving these conflicts.

So in essence, Chechnya and Tibet, Tatarstan and East Turkestan can have no realistic hope of achieving an independent statehood because the very IDEA that they are presently under the yoke of empire has been suppressed. When the British Foreign Office issues weak kneed statements like “Tibet is part of China. Full stop” and when President Bill Clinton characterized the then ongoing ethnocide in Chechnya as an “internal affair” for the Russians alone to resolve, Whitehall, the White House and others abet expansionist authoritarianism with Eurasian characteristics.

Russia, and to a somewhat lesser extent China, have extended this hardened concept of non-interventionism to the unwilling inhabitants of Syria. Today, we the world have let the ancient, stunning city of Aleppo be transformed into another Grozny. When will it stop?

Written by derekhenryflood

December 11th, 2012 at 3:09 pm

New HuffPo Piece

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Written by derekhenryflood

May 10th, 2010 at 6:26 pm

Prisoner of the Caucasus

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The Bastara River valley, a route once used by Chechen resistance fighters and foreign terrorists to travel to the battle zone. ©2009 DHF

The Bastara River valley, a route once used by Chechen resistance fighters and foreign terrorists to travel from the Pankisi Gorge to to the battle zones of the North Caucasus. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

Birkiani, Georgia- I returned to Georgia’s once infamous Pankisi Gorge yesterday after visiting the area seven years ago when it was hyped to be one of the most dangerous places in the world (which it sort of was). Revisiting the gorge to do fact checking for a book project was my impetus for this return trip to the Caucasus. A lot has changed since the flailing, quasi-failed state, late Shevarnadze period in 2002 when Pankisi was under the effective control of Chechen rebel commander/warlord Ruslan Gelayev (who was killed at a random checkpoint in Dagestan in early 2004).

Pankisi was once overrun by Chechen mujahideen and their Arab and Turkish epigones and was rumoured to have had the occasional spetznaz infiltration from north of the border. Pankisi was used a political football by both Moscow and Washington to advance their interests in a peripheral and weak Georgia. The BTC pipeline was more of an idea than reality at the time and the second Chechen war was still going very badly much to the consternation of Mr. Putin. Today the gorge exists as the quiet alluvial fan it once was before 1999 when Moscow came to Grozny in an attempt to demonstrate its will and refugees from Itum Kale and Shatoi poured over the mountainous border.

The refugee population has gone from somewhere in the range of 7-8000 at its height to just shy of 1000 today. The one prominent reminder of that era is the small, brick, supposedly Saudi-funded mosque in the center of Duisi. I found the house where I once stayed in the village of Birkiani which was a sort of mujahideen hostel at the time and found only a very senile, old Kist (ethnic Chechen, Georgian national) man who had no idea what I was talking about. I was taken to the region courtesy of Georgia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs in part to demonstrate once of Mikhail Saakashvilli’s early tactical successes in reintegrating this very fractured nation.

Out of place Wahabbi mosque in Duisi. ©2009 DHF

Out of place “Wahabbi” mosque in Duisi. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

Mother and child in Birkiani village. ©2009 DHF

Mother and child in Birkiani village. ©2009 Derek Henry Flood

Written by derekhenryflood

October 30th, 2009 at 7:27 am