Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Abkhazia, an Update and a Move

It's 18 months since I first dipped my toe into the big Blog pond and experimented with the medium.

This little blog was produced only over a matter of days but it has not been short lived. Time and time again I came back to see the material I had posted and it was a great extension to my notes and a constant source of inspiration for the features I subsequently produced.

I'm sure that blogging will figure in my future reporting. How exactly is something I'm still tinkering with.

Meanwhile, I've added a few things and made a few changes to the blog.

You can now listen to and download all of the Georgian radio features I produced. And, I will gradually add some slideshows.

Perhaps the most significant addition to The Georgia Project is material produced from my Nov-Dec 2006 trip to Abkhazia.(Sadly, I had to surrender the green laminated plastic visa on the way out - passports are not stamped).

Blogging was not an option as internet speeds in Sukhum/Sukhumi were circa 1996 (this is where Twitter would have worked quite well via Russian mobile networks). It was an enormously informative trip though and I made many friends - both Abkhaz and Georgian.

On the Georgian side it was great to team up again with my ever dependable driver Chaco who took great pleasure showing me around his home town of Kutaisi on the way to and from the Zugdidi border. In Abkhazia, Arto was one of the best fixers I've worked with and Timur and his black right hand drive Subaru took up driving duties for me.

My thanks to the independent Basque journalist Karlos Zurutuza for making the Thomas Goltz connection for me.

I can thoroughly recommend Goltz's Georgia Diary and Chechnya Diary. Goltz should be the first thing anyone considers reading before venturing to the Caucasus. I'm reading Azerbaijan Diary at the moment. If TG writes that getting a grip on post-Soviet Caucasus is like walking into the middle of a movie and playing intellectual catch-up of Georgian issues ever after, then I've only scratched the surface.

Three radio features I produced from my Abkhazia material are below. The first is a mini-documentary about the political situation and general life in Abkhazia. The second looks at how the European Union is helping to support independent media and the final feature profiles Abkhazia's one and only hip-hop band Black & White. It was the first time they had been interviewed.

More photos and video from Abkhazia to follow shortly.

The other little bit of news is I'm planning to link The Georgia Project to a new all-purpose reporter blog which I will use for future trips and other media related themes in the future.

See you over there soon.


Thursday, December 08, 2005

Postscript And a Pint

On my way to Holland Park from Heathrow Airport yesterday afternoon, Jeremy, an old mate from school whose floor I'm camping on in London, rang to tell me that Lady D's housekeeper Benildi was not in and I'd have to wait until she returned to get inside the flat. "No problem," I said, and thought about having lunch at the pub around the corner. Just as The Kensington came into view I noticed a house opposite the pub with the unmistakeable red and white Georgian Flag hanging from a small flagpole. I had to do a little double-take. Yes, this is London. There's red double decker buses going by so what's a Georgian Flag doing here? As I approached the house I saw cyrillic script on the brassplate of the front door and neatly inscribed below that in English:'Emabssy of Georgia'.

When I entered the pub, I mentioned to the young bloke behind the bar this trivial coincidence of just arriving from Georgia and now finding myself opposite its embassy. He frowned at me. He said knew of the embassy but didn't really know where Georgia was.

"Need to do a bit more travelling," he said. "But I spent three months in Australia last year though."


I told him to hit the road and see more of the world as soon as he could.

As my trip has now come to an end it would be remiss of me not to thank the people who've helped me over the past weeks while I was in Georgia. Whether it was with information, contacts, driving, translation, lending me a book, coffee, a meal... Or just calling me up to check that I was safe and OK. I truly appreciate it and my sincere thanks to you all.

So, that's all from The Georgia Project. Until next time, thanks for stopping by and ciao for now.


Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Smoke gets in your eyes

Rising early today, Lala, my hotel landlady, made me breakfast and told me to be careful for the last time before wishing me farewell. Surprisingly, my taxi driver fastened his seat belt after watching me do so. A first time for everything in Georgia. Driving through Tbilisi to the airport, a smoky morning haze from piles of burning rubbish in the streets hung thick in the air. The radio blared Georgian folk songs and the driver gave me a toothy smile as I unloaded a collection of Georgian small change into his hands for a tip.

As I type this out on the way to London I have so many different feelings about Georgia that will probably take much time to distil. I have only just scratched the surface of this incredibly complex country, but the generosity, hospitality and warm of Georgians will be something always to remember. Just a few days ago in Akhalkalaki I ate in the restaurant owned by a veteran of the civil war in the early 90's. He rolled up his sleeve to show me the symbol of St George tattooed on his left arm. A tattoo not only for pride but also for him to be identified as Georgian if he was killed in action. Over dinner we discovered that we were the same age. When he was fighting I was an undergraduate reading history. He asked me a strange question. If Australia and Georgia were ever at war, and by some quirk of fate we met in battle, would I shoot him? I said as a journalist I'd much rather avoid fighting and use a pen over a gun. But he continued to press me for an answer. In the end I said that I could not fight a people that I knew and respected. He smiled and nodded. Leaning over the table he said that out of loyalty he could not kill a man who had eaten his food, drunk his wine and been a guest in his home. The next time I am in Australia, he asked me to raise a glass of wine, and to remember that I have a brother in Georgia and a bed and a meal anytime I need.

I will do that Malhaz. Cheers!

Mr UFO - No Space Cadet

My last story of the trip was to interview Irakli Shonia, son of the late Tales Shonia who was Georgia's official researcher into UFO's and other unexplained phenomena. Irakli showed me some fascinating footage of experiments his father conducted when he lead the Institute of Cybernetics. His wife Anna also played some music for me on a piano written by a woman under the influence of a poltergeist. Watching the films made me think of a 70's science programme, 'Believe It Or Not', narrated by none other than Dr Spock, Leonard Nimoy. UFO's, Big Foot and the paranormal were the stuff of this very cheesy series. Tales work would have made for a great episode. It was easy to see the pride in Irakli's face watching his father at work. Though entirely unsupported, Irakli intends to continue the research of his father and to help people who seek out answers to things or experiences they can't explain.

Listen to the story: an mp3 file is available for download at DivShare (5 MB)

A last stroll

Having conducted a few interviews yesterday morning I made time in the afternoon for one last wander around town. There's a great charm about Tbilisi's architecture - be it the backyards of rustic carved wooden balconies and wrought iron staircases, imposing 19th century stone buildings, fragments of Art Nouveau, bizarre Soviet monoliths or shambolic apartment blocks made of literally anything available.

Unfortunately, I couldn't find the man I had passed on many ocassions who sold handmade wooden kitchen utensils. I really wanted to buy some wooden spoons from him. Huge spoons with cavernous scoops and roughly shaped - their imperfections were perfect. Next time.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

An International City of Acronyms and Intrigue

For such a small city Tbilisi has a large expatriate community working in foreign embassies and for a vast array international acronym organisations. ICRC, OSCE, UNDP, UNICEF, UNHCR, UNESCO, WFP, MSF etc - if it has an acronym it's here. Such a melting pot of international bodies also makes for rather interesting eavesdropping in the city's cafes, restaurants and bars. Though, when one hears snippets of fairly juicy information such as a budget blow out, a new flare up in an area of conflict or the sacking of an official, one wonders about the discretion of some people. What was that old maxim..."Loose lips sink ships?"

Here's a little taste. The acronyms are not mentioned to protect the indiscreet.

A mid-week afternoon in the cafe of Prospero's Book Shop...

A group of colleagues from the world's peak international heritage organisation earnestly discuss the prospects of proposing a new site in Georgia for the world heritage list. The conversation switches back and forth from French to English. One of the more idealistic of the party presents a passionate case for the site. She argues that local people will embrace the idea and world heritage listing will see them begin to care for their maligned area.

Over a meal at the German Biergarten...

Two clearly worried colleagues from a very active international security and monitoring organisation contemplate a sticky development in a certain area of instability in Georgia. The senior colleague is adamant that he will 'pull his people out if necessary'. In between courses he reaches for his mobile phone:

"Hello, this is Paul here in Tbilisi. Is Gordon there or is he still in Vilnius?"

(Much nodding and sipping of beer)

"Well, look it's too late now for Brussels to do anything today but I've made our position absolutely clear to The President and to the Ministry of Defence."

Friday night Happy Hour in the lounge bar of at Betsy's Hotel...

Two groups of, lets put it this way, mainly Commonwealth expatriates judging from the accents are letting off a little steam after a hard week. One group sitting down (and by the number of bottles at their table clearly enjoying the cheap drinks) mulls over the similarities and linguistic relationship between Dutch, German and English. Meanwhile, two gentlemen, clearly ex-Army types from their military bearing, very loudly deliver their opinion of the inadequacies of the reforms and training of the Georgian armed forces to a Georgian official.

One little gem though from the world of acronyms. Yesterday I interviewed a senior UNHCR official about internally displaced people in Georgia from South Ossetia and Abkhazia. I received a highly detailed and intuitive briefing. We both smiled on agreeing that while referring to internally displaced people as 'IDPs' is international development parlance and convenient, the term dehumanises those who have been left in limbo from the unresolved conflicts within Georgia.

Monday, December 05, 2005

The Detour Tour Back To Tbilisi

The return trip via the caves of Vardzia was to be a little treat for me and for the others more of a relaxing day. Translator Nino slept in. This had Driver Chaco pacing the hotel corridors anxiously shouting, from what I could only imagine, a few well chosen Georgian phrases appropriate for this occasion. He resorted to pounding on her door, and then in exasperation, simply blasting the car horn in long bursts. I refrained from making any comment but took up the hotel landlord’s offer of a tour of the ‘Lux’ suites to kill a little time.

Once we set off, I then pointed out to Chaco after about 5 minutes that we heading in the wrong direction. Chaco then wanted to ‘service’ the car. No problem I said in the interests of safety. Nino took up the opportunity to get provisions for the day. After a roadside picnic just outside of town it was 11am before we were underway. Perhaps my punishment for the 13 hour working day on Sunday.

The remains of the 12th century cave system in Vardzia was remarkable and somewhat sad. It reminded me of Mesa Verde in New Mexico. The Church of the Assumption was the highlight and one of the five monks in residence gave an excellent explanation of the frescos inside. On the other hand the state and upkeep of the caves and the reserve is disappointing. I have written earlier about visiting places of historical interest in Georgia means bringing your own notes. Georgia has much to offer people interested in the country’s rich history and natural environment. Sadly, from what I have experienced so far, the basic infrastructure is just not there for tourists to enjoy and appreciate this heritage.

And just enough energy to note that I did see a tiny section of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. I wonder if it can seen from space?

The Dukhobors

The goal of the trip was to meet with the Russian religious group called the Dukhobors. Their villages are just near the Georgia's southern border with Armenia and Turkey. The influence of Armenia is very apparent. Armenian is widely spoken and for Nino and Chaco, Russian was the linqua franca. In Akhalkalaki (about 6 hours drive south from Tbilisi) the local UNDP office was very helpful in setting up meetings with nearby NGO's and Dukhobor community leaders. Our biggest problems though were the roads and Chaco's car. Beyond Ninotsminda (20 kms south-east of Akhalkalaki)the roads became muddy potholed tracks. Everyone told us we were lucky that heavy snow had not yet fallen as by December the Dukhobor villages are usually snowbound.

The constant bumping had loosened the Lancia's timing chain and finding a mechanic on Sunday was tough. To keep our appointments, Nino and I managed to flag down a ride to Gorelovka - about 20 minutes away. Chaco said he'd find us once the car was fixed. My thanks to Zurab and his Lada Niva for taking a long detour home to drive us.

In Gorelovka we met Luba, a Dukhobor leader (sitting to my left in photo). A very resolute and determined woman it took a great deal of negotiations to convince her that our intentions were genuine and that we would respect the Dukhobor culture. Through her we were introduced to several families. Their warmth and hospitality was touching. Over the past decade their numbers have dwindled from 6000 to around 400. The majority have sort new lives in Russia and a number of people we spoke to were intending to migrate to Russia shortly. As it became dark they sang a traditional Dukhobor song for us. It was one of those rare occasions where as a journalist you feel incredibly privileged to be allowed inside the lives of a group of people – even for just a moment. Several toasts of potent wine were made in our honour and in return Chaco, in true Georgian spirit, got up and returned the honour with a long and heartfelt toast.

Listen to the story. Downloadable via Divshare:

On tour with the team

Just returned a couple of hours ago from Akhalkalaki. I thought I'd never say that it feels great to be back in Tbilisi. It has been quite an arduous long weekend with Driver Chaco and Translator Nino. Both worked very hard and together we had plenty of laughs. But in our own ways we each tested each other's patience. That's only natural under the circumstances. It's not a school excursion and both of them were very extremely flexible with the demands of the trip. We set off early on Friday morning in Chaco's green Fiat Lancia. A reasonable vehicle one could say. The tyres could of used a little more tread and by the end of the trip the front left indicator had all but fallen off. However Chaco made up for any deficiencies with deft driving skills. In his own words: "I am Schumacher's Assistant." I'll vouch for that.

Translator Nino, a graduate with two degrees, was overjoyed to be out of Tbilisi and on a road trip and marveled at literally everything.... All of the time. Throw in Chaco's compilation tapes of Georgian folk music, and his need to play them VERY LOUDLY, and maybe you can get the sense that it was quite an experience roaring around the Georgian countryside for three days.

Friday, December 02, 2005

At large with entourage

The leader of Georgia's Labor Party, Shakya Natelashvili, has told local reporters this week that he's done the sums on President Saakashvili's overseas trips this year... and the President has accumulated more than just some frequent flyer points. According to Natelashvili, The President has been on 38 overseas trips on which he was accompanied by around 2000 people and at a cost of 30 million lari (about $US15 million). Meanwhile I'm still at large of course and tomorrow, with my entourage of only a driver and a translator, our destination is Akhalkalaki and Gorelovka. In what looks like a reasonable roadworthy Lancia we'll drive through Borjourmi known for it's mineral water and Akhatsikhe. Hopefully we'll get to see something of the new Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline. While we're down in the Samtskhe-Javakheti province, I hope to find out more about a Russian sect, the Dukhobors. They came to Georgia about 150 years ago but now the younger generation is moving on and moving out. And, if I can manage it, I'll try to get to the vast system of caves near Vardzia. There's a monastery down there and I think it might be interesting to see what life is like for the brothers among the caves. This is all happening very close to the Armenian border and curiously the Lonely Planet guide sort of ends at Vardzia. I have little idea of what internet access is down that way but I'll post an update when I can. The plan is to be back in Tbilisi Monday evening and ready for a final round of interviews on Tuesday - including Mr UFO.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Lelo: Georgian Rugby

By chance the ecology manager of Batumi's Oil Refinery shared my compartment last night on the train back to Tbilisi. After finding out I was Australian he asked me if I had watched Georgia's national rugby union team play at 2003 Rugby World Cup in Sydney. I diplomatically avoided talking about big scores some teams notched up against Georgia but tactfully added that Australians love backing the underdog. We both agreed it was a great achievment that Georgia actually qualified. He went on to tell me why Georgians love Rugby... Because it's similar to Lelo - a traditional Georgian game from Guria that's just as barbaric.

Batumi Chic and Adjarian Khachapuri

Sporting some very cool 70's Carrera sunnies, Zimon was my driver in Batumi. He's not a fan of driving a taxi all day, but he counts himself lucky that having his old Lada allows him to bring in an income for his family. The thing I loved about his taxi was every panel was a different shade of biege.

And for a welcomed lunch break yesterday Irakli took me to his favourite Khachapuri cafe in Batumi. Khachapuri is a national dish - a kind of cheesy, buttery and eggy pie. In this part of Georgia it's shaped like a boat. Irakli studiously ignored my concerns about cholesterol.

Room 1213 in the Hotel Medea

Last night I met Manana and one of her two sons Paata - Georgians from near Sukhumi in Abkhazia. They fled their home in 1992 after their neighbours were killed by a gang of Abkhaz. In August of that year, Georgian forces had entered Sukhumi with tanks and soon afterwards the Abhkaz began a counteroffensive - 13 years later the conflict is still unresolved. Getting into Abkhazia today is possible but one needs the permission of the Abkhaz authorities and travelling through Gali is I'm told a little hectic (kidnapping and the like).

Today Manana and her son are still living as 'internally displaced people' in Batumi's Hotel Medea along with thousands of others. Even after all this time they dream about returning to Sukhumi. However, they believe the conflict can only be resolved by force. When I asked Paata about taking up arms for the return of his homeland he said he would be prepared to fight. This I found surprising from a man who since coming to Batumi has studied to become a lawyer and is working at a local human rights NGO. As Paata explained: "There's a Caucasian mentality. When your brother or when your neighbour or when an ordinary person from your town is fighting there is something in your heart that pushes you to fight too."

Listen to the story: an mp3 file is available to download from DivShare (5.5 MB)

Boom or bust in Batumi

It's difficult to judge if Adjara's integration with Georgia is really bringing prosperity to Batumi. My fixer/translator Irakli seemed very positive about the future. He said the past summer season was a bumper one for tourists - mostly from within Georgia. With unemployment perhaps the region's biggest problem, many locals rely on making an income during the summer and stretching that out for the rest of the year. Certainly along the beach I saw some new cafes and a hotel is undergoing renovation. Irakli proudly showed me a new electronic big screen erected near the beach and a fountain. Strolling around the administrative heart of the city is also pleasant but you don't have to stray too far to see that Batumi badly needs an overhaul. Street lighting, footpaths and drainage are random. A quick downpour has one thinking about Wellington boots and large potholes turn roads into slalom courses. Looking up at the decrepit exteriors of many apartment blocks one wonders about life inside.