Sunday, August 31, 2008

Georgia forever

I spent the best part of this week in Georgia. It was a short, yet intense trip. I had never been in a war scenario so shortly after the war took place. And this isn't a pleasant experience... First, I went to Gori, the birthplace of Josefh Stalin. Gori is located 76 km west of Tbilisi and, before the war, had a population of almost 50,000. It is the Georgian city closest to the South Ossetia breakaway region, less than 20km away from Tskhinvali. The city was under aerial attack by the Russian Air Force from the outset of the conflict, and many of its residential districts were hit by cluster bombs. As a consequence of these attacks, the Georgian military and most residents fled the city, which was then captured and occupied by Russian forces and South Ossetian separatist militia; the latter seem to be responsible for the looting, arson, kidnapping and other attacks against the remaining civilian population. The occupation forces withdrew from the city on August 22 and, four days later, when I visited it, the first residents were returning to what was left of their houses. It wasn't nice to see... I will always remember those faces, with eyes red of heavy and long crying... but also that family who insisted in that we stayed for lunch, even though they hardly had food for themselves and we ended up trying the Humanitarian Aid food, "from the people of America"... On the way back to Tbilisi, we stopped at Mtskheta, one of the oldest cities in Georgia, located some 20 km northeast of the capital, at the confluence of the Aragvi and Mt'k'vari rivers. The city, due to its monuments, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994; capital of the Georgian kingdom of Iberia since the 3rd century BC, it was the site of early Christian activity and the location where Christianity was proclaimed the state religion of Georgia in 317. The city still remains the headquarters of the Georgian Orthodox and Apostolic Church, and there I had my first encounter with the deep religious devotion of the Georgian people. Back in Tbilisi we heard the news coming from Moscow: Russia had decided to recognise the independence of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Between the disbelief and the black humour jokes, the rage and the humiliation felt by so many of the Georgian nationals were obvious... what can one say to cheer-up people who see their powerful neighbour invade, occupy and steal almost one third of their country? I still don't know... The following day, after a very successful and positive meeting with a good bunch of Georgian youth organisations, we went to visit one of the many places where the newly internally displaced persons are living... The place we visited was the old building of the Sports' Academy, a university building that has been abandoned some time ago. There were around 350 people there, mostly children and old persons. The conditions of the building are deplorable, and so were the conditions in which these people were living... without money or healthcare, without almost any food, without hardly any hope... people who have lost everything, who don't have anywhere to go back to, who will probably remain there for many weeks and months; and yet, almost totally abandoned by their own government and the international humanitarian aid... each and every one had a sad story to tell... and for the first time during my trip, I felt happy for not being able to understand Georgian... If it was not for these refugees' centres, Tbilisi would look like a normal city, as the lives of most of its more than one million inhabitants runs smoothly on the banks of the Mt'k'vari river. Founded in the 5th century and made into a capital in the 6th, located strategically at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, and lying along the historical Silk Road routes, Tbilisi is a city which story can be seen by its architecture, where the Haussmannized Rustaveli Avenue and downtown area are blended with the narrower streets of the medieval Narikala district. Despite being overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian, Tbilisi is one of the few places in the world where a synagogue and a mosque are located next to each other, and just some meters from one church. It was nearby that, together with some friends, I had my first introduction to the delicious Georgian cuisine; but until one experiences a full Georgian meal, complete with lengthy toasting ceremonies, one can't truthfully claim to have seen the real Georgia... That privilege was reserved to the last evening, and I will never forget how my hosting family made me feel like one of them. They made me promise to go back, and I intend to keep that promise! For now, I can only say "didi madloba", and reassure all my old and new Georgian friends, that they will never be alone. And me neither... for what I saw there will remain with me forever.


Blogger kiscsillag said...

Georgia forever...

i dont have anything else to say really, except that we will be with you in our hearts and do everything we can to help..

11:49 PM  
Anonymous carol ann said...

thanks for this diogo - i enjoyed reading it - enjoyed is not maybe the word - not to insult but you know what i mean - it was tough for you i guess. Howevere the meal not so. Anyway greeting from a balmy tbilisi

6:25 PM  

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