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.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Still the Olympics... and Georgia again

The 2008 Beijing Olympics are now officially closed, and the countdown to London 2012 can finally begin. The second week's highlights included the confirmation of Usain Bolt and Jamaica as the king and kingdom of human speed, as two other world records were broken; and a gold medal for Portugal! Nelson Evora, another Benfica's athlete, won the men's triple jump competition and made it possible for the Portuguese national anthem to be played at the Olympics, for the first time in the 21st century. With only two medals won, the Beijing Olympics were a bit disappointing for Portuguese people, but confirmed China as the number one world's superpower in sports; an anticipation of what will soon happen in economical and political terms too. I have to confess that I don't regret seeing the USA and Russia relegated to the second and third positions; neither in the medals' ranking, nor in the other terms... Tomorrow I will fly to Tbilisi; I would have preferred my first visit to Georgia to take place under different circumstances, but I am really looking forward to arriving and start bringing the Youth Forum's support to young people and youth organisations in there. I hesitated a lot before deciding to go there; not only because of obvious safety reasons, but especially because I was not sure of the real usefulness of this visit. The feedback I have been receiving from both friends in the youth organisations' field, and especially from people in Georgia reassured me though: they all seem to be happy about the Youth Forum's action, and looking forward for my arrival too. This is enough for me; if they are happy that I am coming, I will be happy to come. It will be a short, yet intense visit, and I promise to share my impressions afterwards. This will also be my first work-related trip after holidays, and it will mark the beggining of an extremely busy period which will only be over in mid-November. These are good news for this blog's readers though, because I am sure I will have a lot to tell you about. So, please do keep coming for more; I will do my best to make it worthy.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Olympic Games, and Human Rights

One week goes by very fast. Especially if it is the first week back at work after four weeks of holidays, and one has an inbox with more than 1.000 unread emails, lots of things to catch up with, a little brother visiting, the Olympic Games going on, and one war affecting dear friends. I wouldn't know where to start from, if I was to write about everything I did, observed or simply know that happened. Instead, let me just share with you some of the highlights of these last few days. Going back to work was nice, even though I would have preferred to stay on holidays for a few weeks longer; my little brother visited me, and it was cool having him around; the Olympic Games are taking a good bunch of my time and concentration, and I am impressed by the achievements of Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt and some other super-athletes alike, who challenge natural limits on behalf of the human race; I was expecting more medals to be won by Portuguese athletes, but am proud of Vanessa Fernandes who, apart from being Portuguese, defends the colours of the biggest sports club in the world: Benfica; after three years living in Brussels, I was finally able to admire the tapis de fleurs in the Grand Place, and eat a waffle; and, last but not the least, this week kept reminding me of the absurdity of war and its dramatic consequences, and the need to keep fighting for democracy, human rights and the rule of law, not only in far away places, but also here in Europe. And, also, that this so-called new international order sucks, and that the world, more than ever before, needs strong and respected international institutions capable of setting and imposing rules based on the equal rights of all individuals, peoples and states, and on international friendship and solidarity, aimed at achieving peace and development for all. Imperialism and colonialism should exist on history books only!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The right questions

Changes are part of life, and I will be telling you about many changes in the weeks and months to come; and, unfortunately, war too. Europe, this beautiful continent where we live and use to consider the role-model for other regions in the world, is again at war... for many people, Georgia is just a name and another spot in the map; for me it means real people, many real and beautiful people that I appreciate and respect a lot. And, because of that, I can't simply produce a cold and very clever geo-strategic analysis of the sources of the conflict... I can only think of my friends whose cities are now being bombed and, because of them, and only because of them, I want it to stop, and I want it to stop now! As a magnet on my fridge states, "if war is the answer, then we are asking the wrong question". In Georgia, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Darfur, in Palestine, and in many other places all around the world, the time has come for us to ask the right questions! Let's dare asking them!

Holidays - The End

28 days, 7.000km, 9 countries and many dives in several beaches later, my summer holidays are officialy over, and tomorrow I will be back to the office and to my normal professional life in Brussels. Contrary to what I thought, I don't feel sad. I actually feel very happy, because I had great holidays: one amazing week in the Algarve with Francisco; another relaxing week in Guimarães with my parents, my little brother and sister; and yet a third week, again by the sea, this time in Croatia, with good friends. The fourth week has been spent on the road, going from one place to the following, and apart from some episodes not worth writing about, these were also nice days. As a consequence of all this fun, I feel my batteries recharged, and I actually like to see that my skin can still absorb the sunrays and turn a bit darker! The nice memories of these past few weeks will help me facing the busy and difficult times ahead, and will remind me that there is more in life than just work!