The Power of a Voice

The Pankisi Gorge, North East Georgia - photo: Henrietta Thomson

The Pankisi Gorge, North East Georgia – photo: Henrietta Thomson

Henrietta Thomson reflects on her experiences working with the Roddy Scott Foundation, teaching English to Chechen children in Georgia.

Last year York PEN and Granta Books hosted the launch of The Sky Wept Fire, the memoirs of the Chechen journalist Mikhail Eldin, who had sought political asylum in Norway following his arrest and torture at the hands of the Russians during the conflict in Chechnya. The event included a discussion panel with Mikhail (through his interpreter), along with the translator of his book Anna Gunin, and Vaughan Smith—an English journalist who founded the Frontline Club to promote independent journalism in warzones. This was a moving and informative event for anyone interested in international politics and the impact of censorship on journalism. However, I found it a particularly hard-hitting talk due to my personal experience as a volunteer English teacher in Georgia, only a few miles across the mountains from Chechnya, where such terrible events took place.

Flashback to July 2012: I had just finished my A levels, and needed to explore the world a bit further beyond my home county of Somerset, despite how nice it is there (and I don’t mean crossing the border into Devon). Following my nose for likely opportunities to travel with a purpose led me to meet Stina and Robin Scott, who had founded the Roddy Scott Foundation. This is a charity in the remote Pankisi Gorge in North-East Georgia, with the aim of providing the local children with an education, and I spent a month of my summer living there as a volunteer English teacher.

The relevance to the York PEN event is that the school was set up following the death in 2002 of the Scotts’ son Roddy, who was a journalist reporting on the Chechen conflict. He was trying to shed some light on a very under-reported and violent war, of which we are shamefully ignorant here in the UK. Unable to remain permanently based in Chechnya due to tough restrictions, Roddy was staying over the border in the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia, where he became a trusted figure within the community. There are several small villages in the valley made up of native Chechens who have been living there for generations. Their way of life is different from most native Georgians, and many of them still have close family living in Chechnya and Russia. Roddy’s murder shocked not only the British press, but also had a profound effect on the Chechens and Georgians he had befriended.

Following the death of their son, the Scotts visited the region, and found that the local Chechen people were living in relative poverty compared to their Georgian neighbours: they had poor job prospects and their ability to earn money was mainly limited to manual labour or farming. The best way of improving their prospects was through a knowledge of English and IT. This would enable the children to apply for scholarships at academies in the capital, Tbilisi, and significantly improve their ability to move away to bigger towns for work. The Scotts raised substantial sums of money, acquired a building, and gathered the support of local people. Into its 7th year, the school has successfully employed several local women as teachers, giving them a secure source of income, and it provides English lessons for 11-15 year olds in the valley. They hope to expand to include IT lessons, but this will depend on funding and a reliable internet connection.

I was in the Pankisi Valley for a month, with the aim of speaking as much English to the pupils as I could. I took English lessons, and spent every waking minute with the local people, speaking to them and hearing about how much of a difference learning English could make to their lives. On paper, I was completely out of my comfort zone— I was living in a country with a completely different way of life; new religion, culture, customs, and language. But all I can say is that the people of the Pankisi were the most welcoming, kind, and generous I have met.

Fast forward 18 months to November 2013: imagine my surprise when my memories of the Pankisi were reignited here at the University of York. I received a message from Stina Scott telling me about the book launch, which she and her husband would be attending. I was very interested to hear about Mikhail’s personal experiences of the war, and to see how it related to the people I had met and the places I had been. Whilst I was in Georgia I was naively unaware of the horror of the war, and the extent to which the press had censored coverage of the conflict. The Chechens I had met were all very elusive about any goings on; many were traumatised and wanted to forget about what had happened. Their positivity and enthusiasm, as well as the tranquil beauty of the valley, belied the trials and tribulations faced by fellow Chechens only a few miles away over the mountains. Hearing Mikhail speak about his torture at the hands of the Russians, and the atrocities committed in Chechnya, particularly the destruction of the city of Grozny, was extremely moving. I had heard stories from the Chechens I met about relatives who had died in the war, or who had fled their homes. It was not until I heard Mikhail speak that the full scale of the horror hit me.

Mikhail Eldin’s book, The Sky Wept Fire has, as of yet, only been published in English. The reality is that its circulation would not be allowed in Chechnya or Russia; Mikhail cannot even return there himself for fear of his life. Anna Gunin did not meet the author whilst she was translating his manuscript, and relied on sporadic phone calls and the raw emotion of his prose to help her create an authentic image of what went on during the war. Maybe one day there will be a time when censorship and the torture of journalists by oppressive governments will be a thing of the past. Until that time, it is the job of writers like Mikhail Eldin and journalists like Roddy Scott to report the truth. Organisations like the Frontline Club represent those who continue to work, at great personal risk, to cover conflicts abroad. We should be thankful that our press here in the UK does not suffer the censorship of some nations. However, the fate of people like Mikhail should make us vigilant to the fact that freedom of expression is something to cherish, and hold on to at all costs.

Henrietta Thomson is an English and Related Literature student and has in the past volunteered for organisations such as The Roddy Scott Foundation and The Story Museum.

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