Our arrival into Georgia happened to coincide with Independence Day here, and the opposition parties planned a day of protests against the incumbent Saakashvili government. While dramatic, these protests, which have been going on for most of the spring, have been relatively peaceful and well organized. Given that the opposition planned an escalation of their ongoing actions for that Tuesday, however, our hosts felt that the best possible thing for us to do was to take the day and spend it as tourists outside of Tbilisi.
Tuesday morning, we were picked up at our flat and whisked off on a whirlwind tour of the historical sites in the communities surrounding Tbilisi, including several ancient Christian churches and the ruins of a town that was carved out of a sandstone cliff. The highlight of the tour for me was a visit to Gori, a city of about 50,000 people in eastern Georgia. The name Gori, comes from the Georgian for “heap” or “hill,” and refers to a castle that sits on a mount above the city. As we drove past the city hall on the way to our destination, I couldn’t miss the giant statue of Joseph Stalin that stood in the plaza out front—seemingly one of the last vestiges of the Soviet era. Gori was Stalin’s birthplace, and we were on our way to see the very spot where he spent his early years.
To be honest, I am not really sure how to describe the Stalin museum. If anything, it felt like we were stepping back into the Soviet era, with its architecture and iconography in full glory. We were given a tour of the museum, which included Stalin’s biography, death mask, state gifts, personal memorabilia, his personal train coach, and the house where he was born. We seemed to be presented with a very thin veneer that attempted to cover a painful history. Afterwards, we went on a drive around town and enjoyed a meal of Georgian cuisine at a local restaurant. While our visit was short, I was glad to have spent time there as a tourist learning about their fascinating history.
It wasn’t long before we returned to Gori, however. During the rest of the first week, we visited IRD’s project sites around the country. One such project was their USAID transitional shelter program in Gori.
Located only about a half an hour from Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, Gori is where the Russian troops halted their invasion during the war in August 2008. During the war, ordinary citizens fled South Ossetia, the main area of conflict, to stay with family and friends in Gori and elsewhere in the country. Typically, they were only able to bring what they could carry with them, and most of the families that hosted Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) were ill-equipped to support them. In the wake of the conflict, IRD set up a project in Gori to help IDPs and their host families with financial and material support. IRD provided money to help winterize hosts’ homes and offered a menu of material packages that included bedding, firewood, household supplies and other non-food items.
During our return visit we saw a completely different side to Gori: this time we visited with IDPs and their hosts. One such family is that of a South Ossetian man who now lives on Radzmadizu Street in Gori. He and his family lived in South Ossetia before the war and fled when South Ossetian and Russian troops came into his hometown. He greeted us with warmth and insisted that we sit down to enjoy some pastries, and cha-cha (homemade vodka) that his wife had prepared for us. As we ate together, he told us about how he awoke to the sounds of soldiers entering his house and narrowly escaped with his family to his neighbor’s attic. He watched as they ransacked his house in search of guns, destroying the house and the memories that made it a home. Shortly thereafter, he brought his family to stay with his mother-in-law in Gori. IRD’s assistance meant that they could add a room to his mother-in-law’s small house, making it livable for his two children. The assistance package, while ultimately modest, helped them at a time of critical need.
During the last few months, he has tried to return home to rebuild his life in South Ossetia. For the time being, he and his wife have left their children in Gori because he says it is not safe enough for them to return yet. While they have secured their house, they have decided not to replace the windows or finalize the reconstruction until after Russian troops leave South Ossetia. Until then, they live with the constant fear that war could break out and they could lose everything again.
I wish that that this experience was unique. Unfortunately, there are thousands of IDPs living with family, in collective centers and in settlements in and around Gori. All told, during their four-month project, IRD was able to help some 17,500 IDPs, all of whom have similar stories to tell. More importantly, IRD is committed to developing and implementing new programs aimed at helping IDPs in long-term and sustainable ways. If I was “glad” for my first visit to Gori, I was deeply moved and grateful for the second one.
In the last week, I have tried to make sense out of these two opposing experiences in Gori. I suspect that as I learn more about the experiences of post-Soviet Georgia and the complexities of its history, spirituality, culture and people, I will return there often. What I have learned is that the pain underneath that veneer in Gori is real and current. And the work IRD is doing is critical.