Text and Photos by Tamuna Chkareuli
Edited by Monica Ellena
A sea of orderly lines of red-roofed, ocher-painted cottages, Tserovani is a stark reminder of Georgia’s open wound of South Ossetia, the Russian-backed breakaway region against which Tbilisi fought two wars in the early 1990s and in 2008.
Until the summer of 2008, a vast, grassy plain stretched between the highway connecting Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, with the city of Gori and the hills of the Dusheti region. As the August war unfolded that year, thousands of people fled South Ossetia, heading across the administrative line into Georgian-controlled territory. They carried with them few items; among them, stacks of photos and bags of memories.
International donors reached to their coffers and, within a few months, the settlement was built to provide the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) with a house and an option to rebuild their lives.
Nunuka Mghebrishvili, 54, was born into a family of merchants in Akhalgori.
“[In the past,] people had a beautiful lifestyle. Women would have tea parties where everyone would bring a dish they’d baked at home. I found [some of] those recipes and restored the custom. I’m having tea parties in my cottage now. The years I lived in Akhalgori are a big part of my identity, and I feel a strong connection with my ancestry. When I dream, I see our old house."
Her name is Nadia Muladze, but everyone knows her as “nadia bebo” (Granny Nadia). At 95, she is one of the eldest residents of Tserovani. By the 1970s, she had become a deputy to the Tskhinvali council; a senior position rarely held by women. “When they invited me for my first speech, I didn’t want to go. I was an average village woman. But as soon as I started speaking, everyone would hold their breath.”
Giorgi Kapanadze 51, is a former civil servant from the Avnevi district. He now works in the Tbilisi-based administration for South Ossetia.
“In the 1990s, when everything was falling apart, I became the head of an agricultural cooperative. Poverty was rife. I was young and enthusiastic, I wanted to fight it and give people their dignity back. All we had was land and we started to work on it actively. In a year and a half, the village was like new. It was a great time.”
Tea Jamrishvili, 26, is an enamel artist and art teacher at the Tserovani youth house run by the local NGO For a Better Future. She remembers her childhood in Akhalgori as full of life.
“We hung out all the time. Here, it’s a bit boring, but the children encourage me.”
Music is Nana Gogidze’s passion. As she fled her village of Tamarasheni on August 8, 2008, the 56-year-old only took with her a stack of documents and her beloved panduri, a traditional Georgian three-stringed instrument. Her youngest daughter, Mariam, 24, often played it, while singing songs in Georgian and Russian.
“My girl doesn’t really know Russian, but when she sings it’s as clear as if she were fluent. And anyway, I don’t think it’s bad to teach her Russian songs. Politics is politics, but songs have done nothing wrong. Artists always loved each other [regardless of borders]. And sometimes I’m wondering [whether] Ossetians still sing songs in Georgian in Tskhinvali.”
A well-known poet among those displaced from South Ossetia, Mzeguli Tkeshelashvili, 63, authored “Silaura,” a book dedicated to the places from which she fled.
“After we moved, one day I was angry and sad, and I sat down and began to write. You write poetry when you’re overwhelmed by emotions. I’ve been writing ever since. [Writing] helps me to get through all that pain.”
Nino Jojua, 35, has come to terms with her displacement.
“As long as my husband is with me, I have everything. That is the most important [thing]. One day, I have everything; the other, I may be begging, but my family is all that matters to me.”
(left) In Tserovani, villagers have put up signs from the villages they left behind in South Ossetia, often located kilometers away from each other.
(right) Residents are developing new memories in Tserovani through the relationships and the work they have found in the village.
“[Other] people feel sorry for us,” laments Nana Kakhniashvili, a Tserovani resident from the South Ossetian village of Kurta. “When I was on a minibus traveling by the settlement, I heard people saying they could never live there . . . they did not know one [IDP] was sitting right next to them.”
Kakhniashvili is a journalist and works for the “Liakhvi Gorge,” a state-funded magazine distributed for free among Tserovani’s inhabitants. Similar publications try to “reconnect the disconnected,” as people had to start from scratch, building a new community around a common fate.
Tserovani is rigorously planned; its perpendicular streets form a neat grid. Yet the invisible network among its residents is more complicated. The settlement brought together people from various villages, forcing them to shape new relations with new neighbors. Tserovani, with its artificial atmosphere, provides a dramatically different background in the photos residents snap for the new photo albums they’re compiling.
“It is neither your usual Georgian village, nor a [new] city. I still have trouble with the local geography,” explains 40-year-old Nana Chkareuli, the founding director of For a Better Future, an NGO which works mostly with youth and women.
In this eerie landscape, employment remains one of the biggest challenges, notes Chkareuli. People were pushed into a new territory where making ends meet is a struggle. The small garden at the back of each cottage provides basic crops. Some people set up small shops in the village, others managed to find employment in either Tbilisi or Gori.
The IDPs travel there on public transportation with highly subsidized fares, but most families rely on a monthly allowance of 45 laris ($18.52) that the Georgian government grants to each IDP. As of December 2016, the number of registered IDPs in Georgia was 273,944; mostly hailing from Abkhazia, Georgia’s other separatist region.
Most of those born in Tserovani still take pride in their roots. Ask nine-year-old children where they’re from and they will most likely tell you the names of their parents’ villages in South Ossetia. For those who recall the past, their original village is an integral part of their identity, including their past worklife. Adjusting is hard and memories are precious.
“They come in the form of dreams. That’s the only thing left of my village,” sighs Kakhniashvili.
The human connection is everything here. People depend on each other. Yet the traditions linked to each village are disappearing. Cemeteries, for instance, are on the other side of the adminstrative border with South Ossetia and most residents cannot travel there to commemorate their deceased; a practice central to Georgia.
“Still, I hardly know anyone who would leave the camp,” says Chkareuli. “[This] is a traditional country and when I go out, I want to see people I know, who share my story. Sometimes I think that young people should not be dwelling in the past. They should free themselves for the future, but I [also] realize how important it is for them to know as much as they can. We live in an occupied country and their generation will be dealing with this problem. They should be thinking about the past, as we all do.”
“New Photo Albums” compiles people’s visual memories, juxtaposing past and present. Those earlier images and memories help Tserovani’s residents live in the present and build a new future.
Early mornings in Tserovani are like in any other Georgian village: Roosters’ songs and the smell of shoti, tone-bakedbread, fill the air. Yet, the settlement doesn’t look like an ordinary village as the geometrically aligned, red-roofed cottages are a world apart from the colorful chaos of a traditional Georgian village. Every morning, scores of people stand on street corners waiting for marshrutkas, minibuses, to go to work in either Tbilisi or Gori.
A gargantuan greenhouse sits idle and decayed in the heart of Tserovani. The facility opened in 2010 with high hopes that it would create an agricultural hub in the newly built village. Initially owned by the late Kakha Bendukidze, a business tycoon and former economy minister, it was soon sold and finally closed in 2013. High heating costs and the price of transported turf made it unprofitable. The Ministry of Economic Development, the greenhouse’s latest owner, gave it to the Municipal Development Fund and plans are reportedly in place to renovate it.
In the meantime, its skeleton only provides shelter to stray dogs.
There is little land to cultivate in the settlement, but the plots between cottages are sufficient for small fruit and vegetable gardens.
Trees are scarce in Tserovani, apart from the few in people’s gardens. Heating is a problem in the settlement because gas is expensive. Instead, residents still widely use wood, which they either buy or collect from construction sites.
Some of Tserovani’s houses are occupied by an entire family, others by a single person. Even though all of the cottages were built according to the same specifications,residents over the years have upgraded, expanded or decorated them to make them more personal.
Tserovani sits in an open valley between the main road connecting Tbilisi and Gori, and the hills of Dusheti. It is designed on a perfect grid. Each street’s end is clearly visible; something residents say they find hard to get used to.
For children born in the settlement, Tserovani is just home. They do not have another one for which they long.
Unemployment is high and many cannot afford to pay for utilities, especially in winter. It is not rare for families to spend the winter with relatives to share the heating expenses.
In winter, Tserovani’s residents try to get home before it gets dark since, they say, the street lights don’t sufficiently illuminate the settlement.
As night falls, it is hard to distinguish one street from another since they all look the same. “Beware of the dogs,” residents warn visitors.
Nights in Tserovani are very quiet. There are no restaurants, no activities. The only café, the Hello Café, closed in 2017 for lack of customers.