Vol 1, No 4, 19 July 1999
S L I C E O F L I F E:
Legend has it that when God was parceling land to the peoples of the world, the Georgians somehow missed the boat and were left without their share. God, however, having kept a special little place for himself, gifted it to the landless people of Georgia.
Tbilisi, the capital, is situated in the Southern Caucasus between the Black and Caspian Seas and is my first destination on trip which will see me travel throughout the Caucasus region on an initiative aimed at providing journalism training to local students and reporters.
While the focus of the world's attention is centered on the reconstruction and re-development of the war-torn Balkan region, in far-off Georgia this nation is still recovering from a legacy of wars and conflicts of this decade.
I arrived in Tbilisi via Moscow and Budapest on what was my first Aeroflot flight. Having little idea what to expect, I ended up finding a chaotic yet strikingly beautiful, slightly exotic city.
The streets are wide and bustling with motorists, who have very little respect for traffic regulations. While I adopt a run-like-hell-and-avoid-the-oncoming-vehicles approach, the Georgians cannot be bothered to run and seem to be used to it.
Although there is a public transportation system, the preferred way to get around is the Marshrutka. Marshrutka are mostly antiquated privately-owned vans that travel along designated routes throughout the city. People line the streets and flag one down, since there are no specific stops. The Marshrutka are usually full, and cost about 30-50 tetris. (roughly twenty US cents)
On my first afternoon in Tbilisi, one of my hosts brought me on a tour of the capital and the historical capital city of Mtskheta, about a half-hour drive from my hotel. The largely uninhabited landscape of sharply rising hills was a breathtaking sight at sundown. A centuries-old Church stood perched high above the former capital, now a relatively small settlement dominated by three historical churches.
As we drove through the town, townspeople had gathered for a late-evening stroll. Cars, dogs and even pigs roamed freely on the edges of the pocked roads. My guests assured me that the cows and pigs knew their way home, while the dogs, many of which seemed to be strays, were simply looking for a friendly handout.
Anna, the young daughter of one of my hosts added, "when I get home late, my mother always tells me: 'If the cows know where their home is, why does my own daughter forget?'"
Lined up on the edges of the motorways, vendors of all sorts can be found. They sell cigarettes, creams and soaps, gifts, candles and other paraphernalia. I am told that many of these newly discovered entrepreneurs are refugees of the Abhkaz war who, for lack of better opportunities, make their living as best they can.
Tbilisi is a city that in any other Western center would be a haven for tourists. However, ethnic conflicts and regional instability have prevented any such development. I have yet to notice more than a handful of tourists of any sort, let alone the camera-toting Europeans, North Americans or Japanese.
While Georgia declared its independence on 9 April 1991, the nation is by no means consolidated. Ethnic strife and political pressures from various forces have left the country fragmented by areas of real or potential rebellion or separation. Most notable among these is the coastal region of Abkhazia, which has seen terrible violence in recent years. Outright wars between Georgian forces and the allegedly Russian-backed Abkhaz secessionists ended in a 1994 cease-fire agreement between Georgia, Russia and United Nations officials. The fragile peace, maintained by a Russian peace keeping force - consisting of 1500 troops - has by no means put an end to the tensions in the break-away region.
Reminiscent of the current Balkan crisis, the conflict in Abkhazia has resulted in a mass exodus of refugees into other Georgian territories. An estimated 200,000 refugees have been displaced - with few returning, even after the peace deal was signed.
The English-language version of the local newspaper, Resonance, is dominated by the Abkhaz issue as well as the ongoing investigations into the latest of two attempts on the life of prominent Georgian President Eduard Shevarnadze. The President, who formerly served as the Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union, is quoted as claiming that the world community will soon learn for the first time about the scale of ethnic cleansing which allegedly took place in Abkhazia when materials are presented to the Hague-based International Tribunal.
It was some five hundred meters from where I write these words - in the Nikala Restaurant on Gorgasali Street on the wooded embankment of the Mtvary River - that one of these attempts on the President was made. Heavily armed bandits riddled the area with bullets and firepower, footage of which was aired the world over. Armed police watch over the area at spaced intervals of every few hundred meters.
Against this background, present-day Tbilisi is calm and cozy. While there is a police presence, with some officers carrying machine guns, the music plays loud in the bar, which are full of dancing youth. Throughout the course of my stay, my hosts - Ia, Natalie and Salome - provide me with a taste of the local night life, taking me to The Beatles Club, an ex-pat Fourth of July party and a jazz club.
Before my 30 June departure from Budapest, I felt a mixture of anxiety, fear and excitement. While still on my guard, like Antoine de St. Exupery's Little Prince, who tamed his rose, I tame this fear of the unknown with the help of the friendly rolling hills of Tbilisi, the ancient churches, mosques, synagogues and fortresses and the new faces I meet.
Andrew Princz, 19 July 1999
Andrew Princz is a freelance journalist based in Budapest. His website is HERE
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