Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Continued thoughts on Georgia: Civil War

In 1991, Georgia announced independence from the Soviet Union. And soon afterwards, they went to war. Two of its regions wanted to secede from Georgia: Abkhazia and South Osseida. They had been part of Georgia during the Soviet Union, and they were historically parts of the kingdom of Georgia on and off again for the past two thousand years. However, there were some reasons for them to want to be separate. I don’t know much about South Ossedia, so I’ll focus mostly on Abkhazia. (This is what we may call interpreted history rather than objective history. I am repeating what I was told, so in some ways this is the history that exists in the minds of at least some people in Georgia. I must admit that this is a one-sided story, but unfortunately that’s the only side I got to hear. I hope that reading this will encourage some people to look up information themselves and find out more.)

Abkhazians have their own language. They are also mostly Islamic, while Georgians are Christians with a capital C. However, in 1991, only say 20% of the population in Abkhazia was actually Abkhaz. Georgian (or Mengrellian, but they consider themselves Georgian). So 20% of the population said, we want to secede. And 80% said, what? And then the minority said, get out. And the majority said, what? And then war started and 200,000 people fled Abkhazia for Georgia. The Abkhaz with the Russians helped kick out 80% of the population and then declared independence from Georgia.

A new country and a new economy are hard things to manage. Countries all over the Soviet Union went into chaos in the early 1990s. Imagine everything depending on the government. Your job, your healthcare, all your utilities. And then one day, the government stops existing. It’s hard to imagine. People don’t get paid. Things don’t get made. Utilities don’t work. People have no heating in the winter. It was tough times. In Georgia, these were exacerbated by a civil war. Not only was there a sudden lack of government, there was a war and hundreds of thousands of refugees.

I was fortunate enough to meet some amazing people during my trip, and it turned out about a dozen or so of them were refugees. Through a friend of a friend, I met up with Irakli and his family in Zugdidi, which is the city closest to the border with Abkhazia. Of course, the fighting has been over for 15 years now, and they are living a normal enough life. The government gave them an apartment to live in. Irakli and his brother both graduated from university. His father has a small business making bags for food products. But they long for their old life. Irakli grew up in a town on the coast of the Black Sea. Their house was only 30 meters away from the water. His parents grew up in that town. That was their life. And now, they are forbidden to go back. And with a mere percentage of the original residents, their house has probably been looted and now sites abandoned. Sitting there, 30 meters from the water, empty.

Irakli and his family live in a normal, although modest, apartment. Some of his relatives still haven’t received normal apartments. They live in a converted preschool. It’s not bad, but for them, it still didn’t feel like home. Soon though, seventeen years after the war, they are going to finally get apartment in a new city and somehow try and start a new life there.

August 2008. For me, that’s when I came to Kazakhstan. It’s also the Beijing Olympics. I remember because they started on my birthday. Maybe you remember another event that happened around that time. Russia invaded Georgia. The way I remember it being presented, Russia was the bad guy picking on little, innocent Georgia. They wanted to disrupt some pipeline or get land or something. In reality, this was a complicated situation. I don’t really understand what happened, but it wasn’t just a flashfire event. It had been building up for years and fighting had been escalating for months leading up to the incident. The wikipedia page on it presents an interesting story, although it is flagged for questionable neutrality (although I’m not sure from which side; it presents both in a negative light). It seems simple to conclude though, that both sides were at least partly responsible.

My new friends briefly recounted some events from the first war and the 2008 war. When I was riding around in Irakli’s uncle’s Zhugili (an old Soviet station wagon type car) he joked that it was his tank. It’s what they used when they were fleeing Abkhazia with eleven people and everything they could bring with them crammed inside. A small shell actually hit the top of it, but it was stopped by the luggage they had on top. Their tank, indeed. In 2008, everything happened quickly. Russian jets were flying everywhere. They apparently bombed the Borjomi region which started some serious fires. There were civilian casualties, including at least one foreign journalist. Peace Corps volunteers were also affected. I heard they called their Safety and Security Office saying, “Uh… there are Russian troops in my yard. What do I do?” (Since then Peace Corps rules in Georgia have been extra strict. They are issued cell phones. They get free minutes on all calls between Peace Corps phones. And you MUST have your phone with you at all times.) But the war was a short one, and a tentative peace was made. However, a war only increased incentive and justification for Russia’s presence in the disputed territories.

The refugees know that the process won’t end soon. They certainly don’t expect to go home tomorrow. But I think they have hope. How can they not? In their minds, that is their land. Their houses, their belongings, they are just 100 kilometers away, but across a distance that cannot yet be crossed. They talk about Abkhazia fondly. The beaches butt up right against the mountains. Not like Batumi, which is flat. They long to go home; they hope one day they might be able to, but until then, they are living their lives in other parts of Georgia.

Two incidents were interesting to me. One, when we were going to a cave city about 70 km away from Borjomi, we brought along a young boy of about eleven years old. He was Abkhaz, but he was visiting Georgia. The other travelers were me, and four refugees from Abkhazia. They spoke about him as if he was a novelty. Look at us, four refugees, an American, and an Abkhaz. What a crazy bunch! It seemed like they were slightly jealous of the boy, and why wouldn’t they be. He still gets to live there; and they can only dream. At one point, he was saying how beautiful Georgia was, but how Abkhazia was even prettier. The four other people with us jokingly said, we know, we lived there our whole lives!

Another time, someone was telling a friend news of Abkhazia they had heard from the boy’s mother. Apparently, Russian tourists were trying to go into the region, but they had trouble because police enforcement is rather lax there. My friend became slightly incensed, why were Russians going there? What were they doing there? There’s no reason for them to be there? And I could only think that I’ve heard constantly about how it’s amazingly beautiful, why wouldn’t they go there if they could? But that logic wasn’t in the mind of my friend. That’s his home, what right do people have to go there when he himself can’t. I assume that’s what he was thinking.

For me, it was fascinating talking to the people of Georgia about what had happened. Never in my life had I talked to refugees before. In development, you hear a lot about them. Refugees. Refugee camps. But then to meet someone who had to leave their home and couldn’t go back. To change their whole life due to war. And I longed to hear the other side. I know what I heard had to be at least somewhat biased, but honestly no one spoke badly about anyone else. If there were any bitter feelings, they did not share them with me, their guest. They only spoke about their land which is now unreachable for them. The beauty of it, and how much they miss it. Either way, it was quite an impressive display of forgiveness or restraint. And a reminder that things are never as simple as they seem.

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