Playing a role in an escalating conflict

We are in a workshop called “Training in Advocacy and Reporting Strategies.” The IWPR (Institute for War and Peace Reporting) is implementing the workshop for UN Women as part of an initiative called “Women Connected for Peace—The Voice of Change.” Six participants from Georgia as well as four from the conflict zones of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have traveled to Yerevan, Armenia.

On the morning of the first day, professor Revaz Jorbenadze asks us to participate in a practical exercise in conflict escalation. We must create a conflict scenario and play different roles. Here’s our scenario—a man and his friends are drinking beer while watching a soccer match (during the workshop period, the Euro 2012 championship has been grabbing the attention of millions of soccer fans, including me). The man allows his 14-year-old son to drink beer, and when the wife/mother returns, she is upset. As the family conflict grows louder and louder, neighbors complain. Then someone suggests breaking a neighbor’s window in retaliation. Reva used the exercise to discuss conflict resolving theory and strategies of behavior in conflict situations.

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

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

What is a good documentary film?

The easy answer to this question is “Any film that (your name) makes.” Most people like their creative efforts, and the more effort people make to complete a project, the more they like it. These “rules” especially apply to documentary films, which require a lot of time and a lot of money. Since filmmakers seldom earn back their investment, their primary reward is an appreciative audience. So would-be film critics should tread lightly. Critics should be especially careful if they might show their own films within the upcoming year(s).

Susanna and I saw three short documentary films by Go Group Media ( Go Group Media is an NGO in the Caucasus region that “unites professional and citizen journalists documenting real-life stories.” It has a worthy mission—challenge stereotypes, smooth tensions, and support civil leaders. I absolutely love this type of organization.

The three films were made by journalists in North and South Ossetia. North Ossetia is a republic in Russia, and South Ossetia is a disputed region that declared independence from Georgia in 1990. Georgia responded by trying to retake the region by force in 1991 and 1992. Other wars followed in 2004 and 2008 and its borders with Georgia are closed. As a result, Georgians might be uninformed or misinformed about the region.

In each film, viewers hear an individual talk about repercussions from the 1991-1992 war. The three Ossetians have suffered from the disruption to their lives and they have been hurt by insults and prejudicial actions. We can relate to them; we feel for them; but . . . . I want more. Rather than simply hearing their stories, I’d like to see their lives. If you watched the films without sound, I don’t think you’d gain an understanding of these three people. I’d also like the last two films to follow a storyline; for example, each person has a perfectly good life; then Ossetia and Georgia fight a war, which brings hardships and challenges; but then each individual uses his/her wits and hard work to meet those challenges and return to a “normal” life. The first of the films has a story, but it could be strengthened.

It’s easy to be a critic and difficult to be a filmmaker. I tip my hat to Go Group Media and hope they continue to produce documentary films–they’ve already made 200!

(My computer is very sick 😦 so there is no photo)