Cheberloy – land of mountain-dwellers
By Ruslan Isayev, special to Prague Watchdog
The history of Chechnya is inextricably linked with the mountains. Almost every Chechen knows his roots and the place from which his teyp, or clan, originates. Though they may spend long years living on the plains, many of Chechens never break their connection with the land of their fathers (Daymohk), which is situated in the mountains.
The homeland of the Cheberloy teyp, one of Chechnya’s many communities, is located in the mountainous part of the south-east of the republic, bordering on Dagestan. Of the Cheberloyans’ once densely inhabited place of residence it may be said that it has become depopulated. Cut off from the outside world, only around ten families now live here.
The road to Cheberloy begins at the village of Kharachoy, near Vedeno, and then rises sharply in a narrow serpentine coil through the mountains. After an hour of travel one is already at cloud level. On this very difficult stretch of the road there were formerly two staging posts for travellers who became waylaid. Here there were small, tent-like huts in which they could wait for bad weather to pass, or spend the night.
The road continues to the very top of the ridge, at times descending, but then once again rising steeply above the clouds. This road is the only one along which it is possible to drive by car, and it leads past Lake Kezenoy-Am, known because of its beauty and uniqueness as “the pearl of the Caucasus”.
After a drive of one and half hours along the mountain, the road diverges in different directions: one fork leads to Dagestan, the other to the neighbouring Shatoysky district. This is the birthplace of the Cheberloy teyp, which some historians consider one of the oldest in contemporary Chechnya. Incidentally, it was along this road that Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev and his forces crossed into Dagestan in 1999.
These localities are now almost empty. A dozen villages are totally deserted. Only a few people continue to live here, and only in one village, Makazhoy. The other villages – Kenkhi, Kiri, Buni, and so on, are now derelict. The mountain folk who remain socialize with residents of the border villages in Dagestan, for they are geographically closer.
The occupations of the Cheberloyans are the ones traditional among mountain-dwellers: cattle breeding and bee-keeping. Fortunately, the climatic conditions allow them. The area is located in alpine meadows. In winter the road is cut off from the outside world. The mountain folk themselves sat that this time of year is the most tedious one, for there isn’t even any one to talk to on the long winter nights. Things liven up in spring, when their relatives travel to the mountains, and there have recently been some visitors who simply want to relax and breathe fresh mountain air for a few days.
56-year-old Adiz has lived in Makazhoy since 1959. He returned here with his family after the authorities gave the Chechens permission to return from their exile in Kazakhstan. Recently he has been based in the village of Petropavlovskaya, but he spends each summer in Makazhoy until the onset of winter. "It used to be good. There was life here,” he says with nostalgia in his voice. "We say bad things about the Soviet times, but in those days there was a road which the services looked after. Nowadays no one wants to have anything to do with these places. In the old days there were 244 families living here. Now there’s practically no one," Adiz says as he stirs some mutton in a saucepan on the fire.
Adiz discusses the simple concerns of everyday life, but avoids mentioning politics. Politicians he refers to contemptuously as “politickers” [politikany] . "Chechens used to be more friendly. They had respect for one another. Since 1959 there have only been three killings in our village. They were mostly the result of domestic quarrels and blood feuds. Apart from those, there haven’t been any incidents like the ones that happen almost daily down on the plains. Politics is something that should be taken care of by the ‘politickers’ – we’re just ordinary residents," Adiz comments, sampling the gravy in the saucepan, and nodding as a sign that the mutton is ready to eat.
Three or four kilometres from Makazhoy one comes to the farm of Buni. Former residents say that the name of the locality is derived from the Arabic word bani, meaning “son of”, or “descendant”. The village is now derelict.
Dzhalavdi lived in Buni until 1992. He was the first of his four brothers to truly come down from the mountains to the plains, and he settled in the village of Petropavlovskaya, near Grozny. There were still people living there during the first war and until the outbreak of the second, but the constant “mop-ups” by Russian soldiers and the intolerable living conditions forced them all to change their place of residence.
There is not a single undamaged house in the village. They were all destroyed by explosions. This was done by the Russian soldiers who lived in the village for several years. The traces of their long presence are everywhere. In every corner of the houses there are large piles of rubbish, thousands of empty tin cans that once contained butter or canned meat, and cartridge boxes. In a corner of one house there are even two intact artillery shells, which the locals call “landmines” [fugasy].
Dzhalavdi takes a long look at what is left of his home. "If there was electricity and gas, I’d be happy to come back here. It wouldn’t be any harder to live here than going to school was when I was a boy," says, recalling the years of his childhood, when every day he had to walk five kilometres across mountain slopes.
Near his house there is a large amount of agricultural machinery. "That’s a potato planter, and that’s a potato digger," says, pointing to the rusty trailers for the tractors. Potato-growing is one of the most lucrative occupations in these mountains. The potatoes are exported to Russia and sold.
"The land here is fertile. If you treat it as a living being, it gives you a good return. If you put a wooden walking stick in the ground here, it will grow into a tree after a couple of years,” Dzhalavdi says jokingly about the quality of the soil.
In Makazhoy and the other villages there are many reminders of antiquity. It is easy enough to destroy the house of a mountain-dweller, but the soldiers have not managed to get rid of the cattle sheds, some of which are a hundred years old, or more. They could have done so with dynamite, of course, but either they grudged it or their consciences were pricked. So these sheds, which can be classed as architectural relics, still stand. They were built of unhewn blocks of stone which were fitted together so that their ceilings formed an arch. In this design is so solid that stand the roof and heavy tank and truck.
Each village has a local cemetery beside it. Many of these cemeteries are derelict. In Makazhoy an old one has survived in good condition. Some of the grave markers, which have grown crooked with age and resemble arrows stuck in the ground, are more than 150 years old. On many of them, next to the Arabic script, a Star of David can be seen. The large lumps of rock which served as gravestones were made in such a way that everything superfluous was scraped off the surface, leaving only the essential symbols and quotations from the Koran. The modern craftsmen have an easier task: they simply clean the symbols and Arabic script out of the stone.
The derelict Cheberloysky district has become a favourite haunt of the neighbouring Dagestanis. Mostly they are Andis and Avars who live in two villages, Ansalt and Rakhat. They often spend whol summers in the Chechen villages, where they graze their cattle and keep bees..The Cheberloyans take a cautious view this of this quiet expansion by their neighbours. After all, a neighbour is closer than a distant relative. So unless one doesn’t show them that there are owners of this land, they may come and live here permanently, they reason.
While it is possible to settle most issues with the neighbouring Dagestanis, it is far more difficult to do this with the Russian soldiers. The Russian army’s top brass, having observed that few people live in the district, have decided to use it for an artillery training polygon, or target site. The fact that all around there are historic tower structures, many of which are hundreds of years old, causes them little concern.
Lake Kezenoy-Am was once famous for its unique beauty and its tourist centre at Benoy. The water in the lake is brilliantly transparent and eternally icy. The Soviet academic rowing team used to train on the lake. The fact of the matter remains unverified, but some particularly advanced mountain dwellers maintain that there are only two lakes in the world that are suitable for such training. One is in Switzerland and the other is Kezenoy-Am. The height of more than 1800 metres above sea level gives the water sufficient density to provide the rowers with increased strain during training.
There are several legends about how the lake came into being. The most common of these says that this was originally the site of a village where nearly all the inhabitants had refused an old man a bed for the night. Only one lonely old woman took him in. In the morning, when he left, the old man, who was a visionary, warned of a future flood. Thus all the villagers drowned, while the old woman managed to climb a hill and watch the village being swept away.
At present the Benoy tourist centre is in a state of complete ruin. Its restoration forms part of the plans for the development of tourism in Chechnya. The mountain dwellers hope this will happen soon. "If they make this place attractive to tourists again, it will be nice for us as well. We don’t care how they do it, as long as they restore the district to how it used to be.”
Check out the photogallery that accompanies this article.
(Translation by DM)