Ben Sweeney’s Weblog

Got a Fulbright, living in Georgia for a year.

Visit to the Collective Center

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Well, I’ll catch up on older stuff in a bit – today was a bit of a day, and I was recommended to write about it while everything is fresh on my mind.  However I tried hard to relax a bit afterwards and watched a bizarre (and great, and really good to relax my mind) Japanese movie – Survive Style 5+.  Anyways, after that, my emotional fragility subsided a little, but here goes anyways.

I got up latish – wanted to sleep in and possibly I wanted to avoid Shaman.  Shaman deserves a whole ‘nother post, but he is this stray we adopted, not a particularly unsavory character, just someone I don’t want to have to deal with in the morning.  So, I get up, and Shaman is gone, and I prepare to go out and do some research, study some Georgian.  Then I get a text off Ian, my roommate who works at an NGO dealing with IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, inviting me along to a collective center.  These collective centers are essentially refugee camps, but in an urban environment – most of the camp-like refugee camps have been closed, and IDPs resettled, which is good, because the camps were summer tents, and winter is fast approaching.

So, I got my stuff together, and went to one of my research haunts where I worked for a bit, grabbed a snack and then went to register for classes at another institute.  Met up with Ian and Mats (the other other guy living with us now – I’ll put this up later) as well as a German girl who works with a friend (the community here is really quite close).  We took a subway ride out to one of the edges of the center of the city to an old hospital, converted into the collective center.  Ian was going out to see how the programs for kids were going – one of his projects is working on child-safe spaces.  The German girl, Valerie, was interested in distribution of food aid, and Mats was working in capacity as a Swedish journalist and interested person.  Of course, my focus was pensioners and how they are getting along.

We brought some stickers to give to the kids (the flower ones from the artist we met that are all over the city), and were shown the children’s room, this small shabby room in the rundown old building.  There were big pieces of paper on the walls with writing in Georgian and pictures of mines and grenades and bombs.  Ian’s coworker came in and brought some kids.  We gave them some stickers and they introduced themselves, saying their names, ages and what they liked.  They were about 4-8 if I remember correctly and a lot of them seemed to like cake.  They were some of the cutest kids I’ve seen, and I really wanted to tell them that I was also a big fan of cake and juice.  They started playing with the stickers, putting them on themselves and on the walls and stuff.  Valerie asked what the kids were going to be taught in the center, and I told her, well, we are teaching them how to vandalize.

Then Ian’s coworker started a quick lesson, going over the various pictures of unexploded ordnance, explaining where they come from, how they work, and how to avoid them.  He handed out markers and paper to the excited kids, and they started scribbling their own depictions of it all.  This is training in the case they ever go back to their villages, which as I see it is a very slim chance.

Ian’s coworker, who had been speaking in English to us, left and we were then led around by a psychologist who works at the center.  She didn’t speak any English, so I had to translate for everyone.  We were shown a typical room, pretty small, about the size of a generous single dorm room.  4 people lived in this one.  Most of what they had came from the government – 2 beds, a table and two chairs.  They also had a few pots, probably donated from charities.  They each get a loaf of bread every two days from the government and a kilogram of beans and a 1.5 kilograms of pasta every 20 days from some charity organization.  They hardly see fresh vegetables, apparently they can sell their pasta at the market to buy fresh produce, but many are afraid of the unstable situation and are saving a lot of their pasta for the winter.  A few days ago a truck came with some parsley to mixed reactions, mostly “what are we going to eat this with,” “well, thanks…” and “well, if we had some cattle, this would be classy.”

There was no toilet on the first floor, but they were repairing it as well as the thin aluminum wires which could be a fire hazard in winter when people will turn on the heaters they probably won’t get.  The second floor had a few toilets, and they were working on a bathroom to wash in.  People mostly wash in the sinks in their rooms or the toilets – “Where ever they can” as one lady told me.

We were shown another room where 7 people lived, ages ranging from 13 to 75.  The 75 year old had been a prisoner of the South Ossetians, captured cause he did not have it together enough to leave, and so he sat, waiting, almost expecting to die or be killed.  Eventually the Red Cross got its stuff together and got him released.

The mother in another room, again with 4 people, invited us in to talk.  She told us about her village and the surrounding ones, up past Tskinvali, near the Roki Tunnel close to Russia.  There is nothing left as she said, and everyone else said.  Their homes are gone, burned down, looted.  They still want to go back.  City life is not going that well for all these people.  They don’t know how to adjust, and they have nothing to do.  Employment prospects are minimal, and she told us about her two young kids who used to run around and climb trees, now crammed into a tiny room.  The land there apparently is amazing, they love it, and said they would go back if they could.  They are too afraid though.  If they go back, if they are allowed back, they might have to renounce Georgian citizenship or even become Russians, as well as facing life with Ossetians, who had raided their villages.  At the same time, almost every family has connections with Ossetians – inlaws and relatives.  Most of the families are mixed and I heard about people who stayed behind with their Ossetian spouses and children.

The lady made us coffee, which I tried to refuse, embarrassed.  The psychologist and the lady said there was no way to refuse, that this is an integral part of Georgian hospitality, which is really is.  So we sat down to coffee, they cut up what I think might have been a persimmon, and we kept talking.  The topic changed to all kinds of horrific stories about brutal murders – killing the elderly and mass burials of unknown body parts.  I stopped translating everything, and even stopped Mats from asking questions.  I had enough (as had Ian), the lady was getting emotional, and the psychologist was getting uncomfortable.

We talked about plans for the future.  No one knows them at all.  The government is building a lot of cottages, but no one knows when they will be done, which refugees they will be for, or if they will be habitable.  And then when they move there, what will the do?  Their food aid might stop, and they don’t think they will be given any land, let alone enough land to live off of.  The government has given them aid, but not regularly or enough.  Families don’t have enough beds, and their gas stoves are useless once the tank empties, and promised refills are not coming.

We managed to leave, after many thank yous, and continuations of the conversation, and stood dazed outside.  After a minute, I went over to the group of pensioners sitting where they sit all day, on some benches by the street.  That is all they do, just sit there and talk.  I asked them what they want, if they get their pensions all right.  They do get their pensions, 70 lari a month, about 40-50 dollars.  For many this is not enough to pay for their medicines.  With the remainder, they buy some vegetables or take care of themselves and relatives.  The guy I talked to had a 300 lari medical bill for his grandson, for which he had borrowed money he has no idea how he will repay.  They want warm clothing for when winter comes, maybe shoes for the children.  I was thinking it would be nice to buy them some backgammon boards or dominoes and arrange some kind of organization, formalizing their relation with kids, like getting some kind of thing together were they can mutually benefit and have something to.  What they really want is more money, maybe 10 lari a month, but I doubt that will be enough to cover their needs.  They gather in front of parliament sometimes, he said, but they are told to go away, that the government can’t talk to them all.  They were told to send a representative back with their demands.  The guy might have implied that the government slips some money into the representative’s pocket to get him to calm the others down.  In any case, they make promises that won’t come true.

We left, emotionally drained, caught the wrong bus and then split up.

Right now I am sitting in the café that I went to yesterday after the center.  The waitress is talking to me in Georgian, joking that I always order the same thing, and I haltingly respond that no, I would like the bread filled with beans.  I came in yesterday evening and ordered a big greasy cheesy bread and didn’t even scrape the huge pat of butter off of it.  There is wifi here, so I chatted with a few friends and then what I had heard and seen came to a boil in my head.  I almost started to cry.  Their living situations were relatively ok – they weren’t on the streets or in tent camps, but their lives have no prospects and they have lived through such horrific times.

P.S. new post from Stefano – http://ourmanintbilisi.wordpress.com/ – involving myself.

Written by bensweeney

October 22, 2008 at 5:52 am

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