Pankisi Gorge, Georgia; 14 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- It's spring in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge and a group of boys endlessly chase a battered soccer ball around the Duisi village field. The surrounding mountains form a natural amphitheatre.
It's a common enough sight in any village in Georgia. What makes this one different is that these boys are Chechens, refugees from the war just across the border in Russia.
One of the boys takes a rest from the game to speak with me. He says all he can think of is leaving the gorge. "This is my sixth year here. If things work out, I want to go abroad," he says. "Things aren't so great in Chechnya. The war is still going on and they arrest anyone who looks strong or attractive."
Just up the road in the neighboring village of Joqolo, Raisa Dokaeva has much the same message to tell. She left Chechnya in 1999, when her home town of Urus-Martan came under heavy bombardment.
"Of course we would like to go home if conditions were normal and the children could study," she says. "Here, it's impossible to live. If we can, we'll try to go to a third country. These kids will become stupid here. It's impossible to study Russian. If things go on like this much longer they won't have any education."
It's the refrain of most of the Chechen refugees left in the valley. They want to escape -- to anywhere. The militancy of three years ago has evaporated, along with the fighters and drug barons who once made the Pankisi Gorge a byword for international crime and terrorism.
"Many criminals fled the country as well, some were arrested, and others died in clashes with the forces of law and order. For the last couple of years there has been complete calm in the gorge."
The main village in the valley is Duisi, a sleepy place where buffaloes wallow in the drains beside the road and horse and cart is the main form of transport. Jarap Khangoshvili is what the Georgians call a Kist -- one of the small community of Chechens that has been in the valley for some 200 years. He's also the Duisi village chief.
"The situation clearly changed for the better after the Georgian Interior Ministry troops moved in -- and the Chechen fighters left before that," he says. "Many criminals fled the country as well, some were arrested, and others died in clashes with the forces of law and order. For the last couple of years there has been complete calm in the gorge."
His biggest problem these days, he says, is not drugs or Chechen fighters but horse rustling. And yet the Russian government continues to describe the gorge as a hotbed of international terrorism. It's a claim met with derision by those who live in the region. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's regional representative is Petre Tsiskareishvili, one of a new generation of U.S.-educated Georgians.
"We have to admit that two years ago the situation in the Pankisi was not the best situation we could hope for," Tsiskareishvili says. "But now it has changed completely and if you talk to the locals they will even tell you that it has not been this quiet even back during the Soviet days. We have arrested many criminals, many drug dealers, people who felt very comfortable during the years when the Chechens were there in the Pankisi. The local population basically understood that regular security was being enforced again in the valley. So everyone feels like [they are] part of our country and our region again. For a few years they had a feeling that they were separate and had a separate regime."
Three years ago, a foreigner could not have walked alone in the Pankisi Gorge. Kidnapping was still a thriving industry. Today there is almost nothing left of that menacing past. The only guns you see are in the hands of the local police. The fighters who came here to train or recover from their wounds are all gone.
Yet something of the past still lingers. Just off the main street through Duisi, a red-brick fortress of a house rises above its modest two-story neighbors. It bristles with suspicion and satellite dishes.
Three men sitting on a bench watch me watching. I ask whose house it is. The owner, it emerges, is a local man who made a fortune in the drugs trade and is now languishing in a Tbilisi prison.
Just down the street another example of conspicuous expenditure catches the eye -- the newest and finest of several mosques built with Arab money. It makes no secret of its leanings toward Wahabbism, a radical form of Islam that took root in the gorge when the Chechen fighters began to come. But today the fervor has gone. As I watched, a trickle of bearded young men and veiled women arrived for midday prayers. Others dozed in the shade outside to escape the midday sun. I asked Petre Tsiskareishvili whether the presence of the Wahabbist mosque was a source of concern.
"We don't approve of the Wahabbist actions in the valley and furthermore we managed to discontinue the operations of the few so-called schools where they taught Wahabbism, but this mosque was constructed in those certain years when uninvited people were living in the valley," he says. "Now there [are] some that are still willing and still considering themselves as part of that mosque and still going there for the prayers, but there [are] a lot more people who go to the old regular mosques."
Wandering among the gardens that line the backstreets of Duisi, the words of a song about the war in Chechnya drifted among the fruit trees and a Chechen flag flapped lazily above a wooden balcony -- evidence of an enduring link with the conflict in Chechnya certainly, but not of the kind often claimed in the Russian media. More the aching nostalgia of people longing, almost without hope, for better times.