Gori & Villages Near Tskinvali

Two weeks ago I went with Ben to Gori, where we were to meet up with a group of Israeli aid workers and help them distribute aid to villages near Tskinvali, more or less on the border with the sealed off sections of

An inflated Ben; Adi; Lasha at the castle

An inflated Ben; Adi; Lasha at the castle

South Ossetia.  Several days prior to this, Ben and I had met Lasha (a young Georgian man helping out the Israeli organization) and Adi (one of the Israeli aid workers) at the castle while sight-seeing.  The organization had a day off, and Adi had decided to see some sights in Tbilisi, with Lasha as her guide, since she’d as yet spent her whole visit to Georgia in Gori and villages near the buffer zone.  Ben and I met them on a windy promontory with excellent views over the city, chatted for a while, exchanged numbers, and arranged to go with them on their next jaunt into the buffer-zone villages. Lasha’s a pleasant, serious but friendly and mild-mannered fellow of no more than 22, and Adi was agreeable, phlegmatic and feeling slightly woozy from her fast—that day happened to be one of the Jewish fasting holidays.  We walked down to the city together, and agreed to drive up to Gori with Lasha the following Tuesday to meet up with Adi and the rest of the Israeli aid mission.

Lasha, Ben and I met at 8am at the Didube bus station, where Lasha had negotiated with a taxi-driver to take us to Gori and back—a trip of perhaps an hour and fifteen minutes one-way—for something around 6 dollars each.  On the way we talked about the humanitarian situation in and around Gori, about which Lasha was quite knowledgeable.  He’d had considerable experience translating for various agencies and missions, and was full of interesting anecdotes.  He also pointed out the sights along the way, principally monastaries, convents, churches, and the holy city of Mtskheta (the medieval capital of the region), which sits very prettily on the other side of the river from the highway.  We also passed a number of IDP camps

IDP villages under construction

IDP villages under construction

that were still being built, small square dwellings of grey brick that could perhaps comfortably accommodated two small families, but will most likely have to fit more.  I was told that there are still tens of thousands of IDPs in and around Tbilisi and Gori, with many of them still without adequate shelter and provisions for the winter—and these were only the ones unable to return home: many thousands more still living in their villages are also living without means of sustenance.  In one case the confusion over which humanitarian organization would deliver what to which collective center resulted in one sizeable camp falling through the cracks, and is now more or less entirely without support for the oncoming winter.

We arrived at the Gori bazaar by 9:30, where we met up with the Israeli girls, who were energetically running

Gori castle from the bazaar

Gori castle from the bazaar

around buying provisions: around 500 loaves of bread, hundreds of notebooks and pens, boxes of sweets.

Ben waiting at the bazaar

Ben waiting at the bazaar

As they did this, Ben and I loitered around the mountain of bread and heaps of notebooks, munching some bread and chuchilla and waiting for the girls to finish their preparations.  Adi had apparently failed to mention to her colleagues—one of whom seemed to be the boss—that she had invited Ben and me to come along on this trip, and there appeared to be a little friction over whether or not everyone would fit in the two Land-Rover-type vehicles.  But Lasha was smilingly unperturbed, and assured us there’d be plenty of room.

Adi and Lasha

Maia and Lasha

Shortly before ten the drivers of the jeeps came over to the heap of provisions with a large ramshackle market trolley on which we put the bread and other stuff,  and transported it to a courtyard of the bazaar where the jeeps were waiting to be loaded.  This was done with a great deal of energy and laughter—the girls directing traffic, zipping to and fro and indicating what should go where, affixing Israeli flags onto the back of the jeeps, taking pictures, helping the men load the vehicles with bread.  Ben, Lasha, myself, and one other young Georgian helped the drivers load the bread, occasionally taking a few pictures and joining in the general merriment.  Several older men and women, passing through the courtyard to or from the bazaar, would look around with curious, benevolent expressions at the festive commotion, wave or give a warm, wrinkly smile; one even said “Shalom!” to me with a friendly gesture, which I happily returned.

A short while later we were under way—there was, it turned out, enough room for all of us: the two Israeli girls who had organized the whole venture; another Georgian girl who served as a translator; Ben, Lasha and myself; and one other Georgian guy who had, I was told, begged a ride to one of the villages we’d be passing through where his grandmother lived, though he behaved more as though he just wanted to hang around some pretty foreign girls and have something to do that day.  I have no idea how they met.  I was in one jeep with Lasha and Ben, the others following in the other jeep behind us—frequently quite far behind

Wandering livestock.

Wandering livestock.

us, since our driver, a tall, stout, formidable-looking fellow with heavy jowls and sparkling eyes, drove like a total maniac: speeding down rural semi-paved roads, windows down and Georgian pop-music blaring from the radio, chain-smoking and occasionally answering his phone with a barking growl, cigarette at one corner of his mouth, careening around corners and the occasional cow or ox placidly ruminating in the middle of the road.  He would also point out sights of interest: here was where the Russian checkpoint had been until the previous week; this was the road along which Russian tanks had surged towards Gori from Tskinvali; here and there houses that had been gutted by fire from Russian troops.  At one point he slowed the vehicle and came to a stop, for no immediately discernible purpose—there were no houses in the vicinity, no buildings, nothing to draw one’s attention, until Lasha translated for us that perhaps a kilometer to one side of the road was the unofficial border with South Ossetia, where, by a loosely grouped thicket of trees and bushes, Ossetian militia had a few weeks previously completely destroyed a Georgian village.  We couldn’t see anything of note except the trees, but it was impressive nonetheless; we looked around and listened to the driver’s stories of events in the area the past few weeks, until the other jeep caught up, and we got back in and drove off again.

The first village at which we stopped was a ramshackle collection of scattered old houses, with a large, dusty open space with a small, low-walled cemetery in the middle.  Villagers were huddled in groups of three or

Maia with the kids

Maia with the kids

four in various places around the irregular central ‘square’,

Adi, Lasha & kids

Adi, Lasha & kids

leaning against dilapidated walls or squating and smoking, and eyed us warily as we got out of the cars.  The girls swept into action: Maia directing who was to do what; Adi and Lasha distributed the bread and notebooks and candy; the Georgian girl translated; Ben was enlisted to video the whole proceedings with their video recorder; I took pictures; the random Georgian guy, Vitali, at first stood around idly with a leer, and finally annoyed Maia by randomly giving out too much stuff without consulting her.

Maia et al.

People gathered around, particularly the women and children,  and accepted the bread gratefully.  The younger children smiled self-consciously, stood together obediently for a few pictures, clutching their fistfuls of sweets and notebooks tucked under an arm.  The older women were given the bread, and through the translators told us of the terror of the Russian advance through the town: the sound of bombing over towards Tskinvali, the roar of tanks charging through the village, the random destruction of houses, the confiscation of livestock.  One lady, hearing a column of troops approaching, jumped into an irrigation ditch half-filled with stagnant water near the road out of fear.

Meanwhile Adi and the others were handing out stuff to the kids, including drawings inscribed with messages of friendship and encouragement from Israeli schoolchildren.  The children accepted these with a sort of bemused curiosity, obligingly held them up for a few photos, and seemed more  interested in the general hubbub.  While we were there several others showed up, including a young man with a Che Guevara t-shirt, to see what was happening.

After perhaps twenty minutes we packed up and drove to the next village.  Here and there there was the odd burned out house, but these were relatively rare.  In the next village there wasn’t a central square, so we just parked on the side of the road, where a small crowd soon gathered.  Similar story here: women gratefully accepting the bread, relating incidents of the Russian occupation; children timid but inquisitive, the men looking on from the background.  Vitali, tall and lanky, head slouched forward vulture-like  with a baseball cap perched on the back, glanced around furtively and fidgeted.  Eventually Maia let him do something, which he did with self-important alacrity.  One small boy, stuffing the sweets into his pockets, produced from somewhere two handfuls of walnuts, which he pressed into Adi’s hands with a sort of shy assertiveness.  The other children rapidly followed suit, eagerly handing out more until soon everyone had hands and pockets full.  These rattled around the various compartments of the jeeps for the rest of the journey.  A lively old woman, clutching three or four loaves of bread, wanted to invite us to her house to thank us with what food and drink she had, but Maia managed to corral everyone back into the jeeps for the next leg.

The third village was a cluster of houses in loose orbit around a lovely old church.  This time we accepted the invitation of one of the villagers, and went to his house.  The building itself was in a rather poor state of

Ben with a farmer, outside the latter's house

Ben with a farmer, outside the latter's house

disrepair, as though hastily put together with whatever materials happened to be available, and similarly repaired through the years.  Outside in the large walled-in garden there was a decomposing Lada (not the one in the picture), and a large, sooty, rusty engine of some kind, perhaps from a large tractor.  But the garden itself was quite lovely: lots of apple trees, rows of grape vines heavy with clusters of small but sweet purple grapes.  In one small barn-like structure was a vast pile of apples; elsewhere were vegetables and baskets of apples stacked in random places. The man appeared warm and friendly, and spoke mostly to Ben in Russian, so I didn’t catch what he was talking about.  He naturally offered us all sorts of things: grapes, apples, a drink, but we declined and gradually made our way back through the garden to the jeeps.  As we passed the gate, he caught up with us, handing us bulging plastic bags filled with the apples and grapes he’d offered us.

School teachers

As we drove along, we’d occasionally stop by isolated houses by the side of the road with people sitting out in front.  The drivers would stop, and we’d hand out bread and notebooks from the windows, and then zoom off again.  One pair of women were school-teachers, who told us they have no materials to give to the students, so we gave them 50 or 60 notebooks, and a corresponding number of pens along with half-a-dozen loaves of bread.  At another brief pit-stop we gave three loaves to an old farmer, who was pathetically grateful, and touched his head and chest in thanks.

The next stop we made was at the childhood home of one of the drivers, a pleasant, low, old building by the side of the road, surrounded by several rows of grape-vines and a medium-sized vegetable garden.  Several men appeared from inside, a few of whom looked middle-aged, and one elderly but energetic fellow who

Adi, wine, and Maia

Adi, wine, and Maia

silently began preparing a table, inverting a wooden crate and placing on it a huge bottle of fresh wine, a few grapes still floating near the top.  It smelled delicious, and soon the driver had procured a siphon and was filling a beautiful crystal drinking horn.  As he held it aloft and declaimed his toast—to freedom, to peace, to the friendship of Georgia and Israel and the generosity of the Israeli mission—the elderly man quietly brought out pickles,

Adi

Adi

tomatoes, sausages, and started cutting up the bread we’d brought.  The drinking horn was filled again and passed to the next person, who contributed his toast and downed the fresh, fruity wine.  Plastic cups were brought, and everyone joined in the general merry-making, eating, drinking, joking, laughing.  A note of somberness was injected into

Maia

Maia

the festivities by the revelation that one of the men, a stocky, round-faced fellow with a warm but melancholy expression, who looked like he was 40 (careworn features and gray hair), was actually 28, and had acquired his sudden appearance of age by having spent three or four horrific days in Russian custody.  But generally the improvised supra was full of jollity.  The girls, amid much laughter and jolly horseplay, attempted to down their drinking

Adi failed to down it in one...

Adi failed to down it in one...

horns, with varying success but invariable pleasure.  Toasts became more earnest, and the wine flowed freely.  Vitali was finally in his element: he’d call for everyone’s attention and with great deliberation place a glass of wine in the crook of his elbow, raise his arm and drink it down; or put the glass—full

Adi, Maia, & one of the drivers

Adi, Maia, & one of the drivers

once again—on his forehead and balance it there until people’s attention wandered.  He also took advantage of the general relaxation to flirt with Adi and Maia, who nervously laughed off his murmured advances while extricating themselves from his groping arms.  Another wiry young man—he was apparently a wrestler, one of many in the area; I was told that it was one of the most popular sports in the zone, and many top Georgian wrestlers came from there—placed a glass on the ground, eased his feet far to each side in a sort of quasi-splits position, picked up the glass by the rim with his teeth, and in some manner managed to drink it down without using his hands.  After perhaps an hour or hour and a half, with everyone in a semi-drunken state, we parted amid earnest protestations of thanks and friendship and hugs

Adi & Maia

Adi & Maia

Ben

Ben

Maia, Lasha, Adi

Maia, Lasha, Adi

and kisses and lurched back into the jeeps.  Everything was extremely jovial from this point on: speeding down the roads, windows down, radio blaring local pop music, people jumbled in the back seat among the now open boxes of notebooks and pens and candies, joking, laughing, flirting playfully and exchanging Facebook names and email addresses; at one point the other jeep sped up to overtake us, but, our driver catching their advance in his mirror, himself stepped on the gas so were were

Lasha

Lasha

roaring down the road, side by side, the girls in the other car squeezing together by the window laughing and shrieking, Lasha leaning out the window on the other side filming everything with the little video recorder.  The whole things started to take on the feel of some amusing carnival, like a well-intentioned frat party.  The drivers would still stop occasionally, and with much hilarity mingled with a laughing seriousness of intention goods would be excavated from the back seat and handed out the windows.

The girls

The girls

Cruising through the towns

Cruising through the towns

On the way back we stopped again at the village where we’d made our first stop, and again got out and distributed more bread to a new set of villagers.  One old woman was walking her cow back home, and was laden with a large bucket full of bread and notebooks; there were two families living at a house not far away, and so she was given another armful of loaves which she clutched to her breast with her free arm, the other holding a rope tied around the cow’s neck.  Since she couldn’t manage the bucket, I accompanied her to her house carrying the bucket of provisions and the camera around my neck.  Adi also came along, since she was desperate for a toilet.  So we lumbered behind the woman, next to the beast who would occasionally slow its walk and swing its vast head toward me and eye me with what appeared to me a mournful, baleful gaze with its glassy, black, apple-sized eyes, until the woman chided it affectionately and pulled vigorously at the rope.  With a sort of good-natured, wine-inspired contentment I patted the cow on its shoulder, and was disconcerted to find its coat intensely oily, and reeking powerfully of barn; I glanced at my glazed hand in dismay, and held it open awkwardly until I should have a chance to wash it.  At the house the woman thanked us and disappeared into the house, gesturing to an outhouse for Adi to use.  There was, however, no paper, other than a bucket filled with some that’d already been used, so Adi rolled her eyes and said she’d wait.  On the way back Vitali materialized, face flushed red, and with increasing determination wrapped himself around a tipsy, nervous, impatient, and increasingly annoyed Adi, murmuring his importunate endearments in varying combinations of the score or so of English words he knew.  I insinuated myself between them, put my arm around him and massaged his shoulder with my greasy, cow-scented hand, and told him that Adi was my girlfriend, and I didn’t really like people flirting with her.  He made a show of bravado, but by this time Adi had rushed back to the jeeps, and without an audience he simply leered at me with narrowed eyes.

The last stop was another village center, where the distribution of bread took place with much less energy than before.  Everyone was drowsy and lethargic, the high of the wine having sunk into lazy, leaden fatigue.  At this point we were to separate, with Ben, myself, and—alas—Vitali to head back to Gori, while the girls had some unspecified errand elsewhere, until we’d all meet up again later in the evening to exchange photos from our cameras.

The driver dropped us off near the large palace-like structure that houses the Stalin museum in the center of Gori.  Just outside it, in a long and narrow park that fills the area between two parallel streets, is the

The Stalin temple

The Stalin temple

house where Stalin was born and grew up.  The house itself is a small wooden cabin with two rooms open to visitors, filled with simple

Stalin Museum

Stalin Museum

wooden furniture; what is striking is the large temple that has been erected around it, protect it from the elements and giving the diminutive hut the appearance of a bizarre kind of altar.  Four large stucco hammer and sickle insignia look down at one from the ceiling of the temple.  The museum itself is tolerably interesting, though almost all of it is in Russian.  There happened to be a pair of Italian Red Cross workers taking the tour, so I lingered by them for a few minutes listening to the guide’s explanation of some photographs of the young Stalin, but then wandered off, tired and without the energy

Stalin's railway carriage

Stalin's railway carriage

to concentrate seriously on the myriad exhibits.  Ben had been there on his previous visit, and had taken the tour, so he gave me an abbreviated version as we walked through the rooms with a sort of langorous haste: “Stalin as a seminarian.  Stalin with Lenin.  Bust of Stalin.  Stalin’s writing desk with his favorite lamp.  A fur coat given to Stalin by the workers of a fur coat factory. Stalin’s death-mask.”  Outside one can also see his personal train carriage, a luxurious set of compartments for staff, kitchen, Soso’s private bedroom connected to his bathroom including a large bathtub, and conference room, all of which was equipped with up-to-date mod-cons.

Afterwards we finally sat down in the park facing the temple, and relaxed for a while.  Eventually we met Lasha for a dinner of khinkali, and then dropped by the girls’ host family’s house to swap pictures and chat.  Then Ben and I got a ride back to Tbilisi with the driver who had driven the three of us to Gori that morning.  An interesting experience.

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