One Sunday in April 2013 with Georgian partners, Tamara and Maia, several of us from the Lydia Project visited children who had benefitted from their two holiday camps. Refugee children had had a joyful Christmas holiday in the snow, playing in winter outfits gathered in Scotland and sent out with Tamara, when she was in Edinburgh for a work related conference. The town was Sagarejo, where Maia’s sister works in social services and where Maia grew up before her parents moved to Ossetia. It is in a very poor region, and the average salary is 500 lari/month ($260 USD roughly).
On the edge of the town is a former technological college residence, marked with rusty dribble marks, entered by an unkempt, dark entrance and cold echoing stairway with broken walls and odd bits of metal dumped there. In several rooms on the first floor, a mother Tamara lives with her husband and six children. The rooms are painted in cheap tempera paint (as in the Soviet era). At first they had two rooms, but now that the eldest boy is 17, (13 when they fled) they have another room. But their income is limited to a tiny pension (£12 each per month). The eldest son is not able to get good marks without private teachers, which is necessary to reach further education. He’s interested in the police or army academy, perhaps his only hope.
They seem parked, a stop put on the life of the parents who once had a rich fruit farm; their main goal is now survival. Three children jumped about on the broken pavement which serves as their main play area, where two poles hold up the sorry remains of a volleyball net. Perhaps requests for contributions for a playground, a practical and long-lasting project, might gain support from Canadian Rotary and other contributors.
Maia hugged the quiet boy who was her favourite, and we enjoyed the littlest one, not born when they escaped. One sister, 11 at the time, lost hair in great bunches after the terrifying experience of running away through the woods, threatened by bombs. Even Maia cannot visit her parents in Ossetia, which is a close 20-30 kilometres away from the city. She needs to go through a great deal of red tape beforehand, although her parents were given Russian passports and can visit her. She expects a baby in early August, but difficulties visiting parents will dampen her joy
Mother Tamara recounted her escape, while pregnant, from their small Georgian village called Achabeti in south Ossetia’s Samachablo region, when bombing started in August 2008. They were warned that Russian bombing was going to destroy their village and they fled at night, through the forest, and lost everything. They cannot return to the tense, Russian patrolled rural area again. And they cannot move on or work. Mother Tamara seems like an ancient statue of majestic womanhood, the strong core of this group who cling to her and count on her ability to feed them from nothing. They didn’t know where to go with their grandmother and five children. First they were put in a fire station, and beds were found to stay until Dec. ‘09. Their grandmather died, and now 24 families with 86 people live in these ex-college buildings (10 new additions since they arrived). They are from 9 Georgian villages of that region. No-one helped find work and all are unemployed. If private people seek day workers, they might have a little work. When the grape harvest is over there is no work. Social support is 28 lari per person per month (2.1 lari = 1 Euro, 2.7 = 1 pound sterling , so they receive 14 Euros or £12 per month), less than 1 lari a day. Social workers come and check for medical insurance but not to give medicines. They pay normal water and electricity rates. One family of 5 has 2 rooms, which they find difficult.
The home they left was bombed and flattened; the Red Cross gave information about the village and it was on the internet. Some elderly people stayed, were arrested by Russians and helped by the Red Cross. There were mixed marriages but local Ossetians supported the Russians (they gained Russian citizenship to boost their support).
At first it was difficult for the elder ones in school; the small ones were warmly welcomed by classmates as oppressed children. They hadn’t known they were going to be bombed, but young Georgian soldiers left their uniforms and ran away, too. On 7th August ’08 bombing destroyed 9 Georgian villages, with Ossetian villages all around. Since there were Ossetians in their village, they fled through the forest in the rain, where it was extremely difficult to move. Only women and children went. On 9th August intense bombing began, and Russian soldiers looted and killed. However, mainly Ossetians murdered, looted and set alight their neighbours’ homes! It was a very rich area with abundant fruit, apples and peaches (up to 500 kilos of fruit a year) as well as animals. Ossetians became Russian until the border closed. Tamara is very angry that the land was ruined and the wood cut from the fruit trees which takes 10 years to build up. Now Russian soldiers patrol the borders and not even Ossetians live there; once they lived 50 km from a Russian village but now the border has been moved.
The ministry of Economics held a competition for projects and one woman won 1,500 lari for a project with nearby land. The UN gave money to the local authority to help and apples are famous in this area. But the people with land near another village won’t allow them near, in spite of official documents and a local government report that all was done as promised.
Asked what she would like for the children (it is peace and health) Tamara said she was grateful for their chance to escape; Ossetian homes in Georgian villages were also bombed. Children grew up in this wartime, with 20 years of conflict, shooting and arbitrary deaths. This may be a quiet and restoring time for the children with other experiences (such as their joyful Christmas holiday with Maia and Tamara). One child became a judo expert and won prizes which meant free courses. There are possibilities to play chess or basketball, which are free, or dancing Georgian national dance. (Even break dances are provided by the municipality!) There is an art studio and 2 fathers took part and classes were free for refugee children, with support.
Asked if any other organisations helped them, Tamara told of one American group that came and trained them to wash their hands and brush their teeth! Some take the children on a Sunday for an excursion to Tbilisi or something similar. Where there are large settlements of refugees, people pay more attention.
Once Tamara met a high Russian military man and asked why there was a problem. “Who needs Ossetians?” he replied; the Russians only wanted a method to control the Georgians. Ossetians are now in a poor situation with low salaries and a costly life.
The local municipality promised some playground equipment before October elections, and then forgot. Even one swing or any playground equipment would be appreciated. There is a separate ministry of refugees, and the group do have a ‘leader’ or spokesman. If they had play equipment, other local children might come and join them, for If they play volleyball, others join in.
“We’ve talked a lot of bad things”, said the refugee mother, Tamara, at the end of our visit, “but life is still beautiful!”