Refugee Women of Tserovani

Copyright Susanna Melo, 2011

Susanna Melo wrote the story and took the photos 

The 2008 South Ossetia conflict with Georgia spilled thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) into Tserovani, a quickly constructed town west of Tbilisi. Today nearly 7,000 displaced people live in approximately 2,000 pink, cookie-cut homes built along criss-crossing streets, some paved, others not. I accompanied two female journalism students from a CSJMM conflict reporting class who were interested in documenting stories voiced by the women of this community. They had heard that the men surviving the conflict had resigned to their misfortunes, whereas the women acted to keep their families together and bring some stability caused by the chaos.

Looking for women who were willing to talk to us was our first job.  Fortunately, when we reached the main street of Tserovani, which housed a modern school, a bank, a drugstore and a few other stores, we saw a group of individuals swarming around a minivan: men on the left, women on the right. At a closer look, these individuals were standing in line to receive a monthly stipend delivered by the mobile bank.

Copyright Susanna Melo, 2011

The first interviewee, an elderly woman without teeth and with no gloves to warm her bare hands, folded carefully the sheet of paper she had received through the small window of the van. We accompanied her to her home, shared by a daughter and grandchild. This was the first of many homes we entered, and to be honest, I was pleasantly surprised with the accommodations, albeit we did go into a house or two that were unlike the others.

The homes were all built the same: you entered into a living/dining area with two rooms to the left, a bathroom and kitchen to the back.  Inside, each décor was different, but all were clean and organized; the majority had nice furniture, a TV, computer, and kitchen appliances including a washing machine.  Some families had a car. Some “owners” had taken the initiative to build basements to store homemade food, wine, or vodka; others had added on a room or a carport to the existing basic structure. The small plot of land around the houses was also developed differently by each owner: some created chicken coops, others grew vegetable gardens, while a few planted bright yellow and purple clumps of flowers that broke the monotony of the sameness of structures, even the drabness of the cold, winter day.

Copyright Susanna Melo, 2011

We spent about 6 hours interviewing women, but soon after we had begun, the two future journalists realized that in order to be fair and diverse reporters, they also needed to interview some men to find out how they felt about these action-oriented women! They were surprised that the men they interviewed, despite not necessarily “liking it,” were more accepting of the new roles these women were carving out for themselves. Many working women are doing such things as waiting on tables, which for the male ego, would bare too much shame.

I was told by one of the students, that the individuals interviewed all believed that their lives were far better before the conflict. I would imagine so! One family lost 3 properties and a few businesses. Maybe a few ended up better off in terms of their living conditions, but worse off in terms of their overall well being; displacement is so traumatic! The head of “For The Better Future” organization still has dreams of returning to her place of birth, but she knows her life will never be the same.  I guess that any of us who leave our homeland, whether by choice or not, will always have to take the best of each place and try to make the fusion of experiences and cultures a means to make this world a peaceful place to live.

Copyright Susanna Melo, 2011

Copyright Susanna Melo, 2011

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Warm reception for conflict reporting class

Copyright Keith Kenney, 2011

A group from a CSJMM’s conflict reporting class and I travelled by bus to the border of Georgia and South Ossetia on a cold, snowy day. Upon arrival in Nokozi, Eteri Longurashvili saw our bus and immediately invited us into her home to warm ourselves by the wood-burning stove. Thank goodness! Although Eteri was not expecting ten strangers, she brought out a fresh tablecloth and started emptying her pantry. She offered all kinds of fruit, bread, cheese, different vegetable dishes, chicken, fish, candies, and several other items. “Please eat,” she said. Then she poured everyone a glass of homemade vodka. The fire warmed our outsides and the vodka finished the job by warming our insides. But then it was time to work. CSJMM’s students began to interview various Nikozi residents about the security situation and the economic conditions in the area. Stepnadtze Maro, pictured below, has gone through a lot in her life, but she still finds joy and she seemed to enjoy the students’ attention.

Copyright Keith Kenney, 2011

Last house in Georgia

Copyright Keith Kenney, 2011

Copyright Keith Kenney, 2011

Susanna Melo and I joined a CSJMM conflict reporting class on a field trip to three areas affected by the 2008 Ossetia-Georgia war. I visited Nikozi, which is a town in Georgia, but it borders on the disputed region controlled by Ossetian separatists and Russian troops.

Students and I walked to the edge of town, where residents warned us that it was not safe to go further. At the end of the road, there is a bunker and then a field, which is now in the neutral zone. Misha Roelashvili, 76, pictured on the right, joined us. He pointed to an unfinished house in the neutral zone and said it was his, but he has not been able to approach this house since the conflict. Before the war, this lonely house with lots of land around it belonged to him. An apple orchard had produced 15,000 kilos of fruit each year before it was destroyed by tanks. Misha can no longer farm the land, so he must rely on a government pension to survive. Fortunately, Misha also owns a house on the “safe” side of the border.

During the war, about 400 families left Nikozi for safer regions. Misha was one of the ten residents who stayed behind. Although he and his wife were very scared, they could not leave because she was bedridden. Together they bravely hid in the basement while tanks fired seven shells into their home.

After the 4-day war, Ossetians entered Nikozi, robbed all of the homes, and broke all of the windows. Misha’s house was untouched. He might not have been able to do much to fight off thieves, but he said he knew every one of the robbers: they were neighbors from the other side of the field. The only thing the Ossetians took from Misha was a military vehicle that the Georgian army had parked in his yard.

Copyright Keith Kenney, 2011