Summer or winter, they shine on his chest - the “USSR” script in chunky letters, the hammer-and-sickle mingling with convoluted decorations, and colored striped badges gleaming over his heart. Medals are Hasan Novruzov’s most cherished treasure.
Novruzov is 91. He lives in Sabir, a village in the predominantly Azerbaijani-populated municipality of Marneuli, and is one of the few veterans from the World War II still alive in Georgia.
"I still remember that day, April 17, 1941. I was 18. I saw a group of volunteers and joined them. In the beginning I was dispatched to Kharkov, in Ukraine, with the Azerbaijani Guard of the Russian Soviet Army, then to Belarus. It was a hard battle. The sounds of gunshots pawned the ears, many brave sons died there."
His memory is clear, yet he is a frail man - as the interview proceeds, he asks to get closer as his hearing fails. Curved, his eyes sinking in the wrinkles, at times he glances in a vacuum, chasing images from the past.
“Two months after I joined the fighting, gun bullets hit my feet and I stayed in a military hospital for four days. Then I went back to my ranks. I still have these splinters to this day. Bullet splinters also hit my face and got into my ear, I have not heard well ever since then. There were many hard days, it was a real great war."
Novruzov and his fellow soldiers suffered hunger and thirst for 12 days. Yet, good memories live on too - he cannot forget the beauty of the Ukrainian women, although the letters are long gone.
"My grandchildren often ask me to tell them stories from the war. My grandsons know that my wife is jealous, they deliberately ask me about the Russian women. And I began to tell. I had several. Like Olga. I met her in the military hospital. After the war ended, I returned to the village and I immediately married her. Olga and I wrote each other letters for about seven, eight years. My wife saw the letters and sometimes she was jealous, sometimes did not care. I’ve never seen girls as beautiful as the Ukrainians.”
700,000 Georgians were sent to the front and about 300,000 died. Today just a handful are still alive, yet Novruzov has someone to chat with in Sabris. 93-year-old Abbas Aliyev enlisted in the Soviet army as a volunteer and fought in the 28th Russian Division - traditionally difficult to get in, he proudly says.
In the early days of independence, the Georgian Government did not have a high consideration of war veterans.
"When the war was over, many soldiers were awarded medals, but after the collapse of Soviet Union the [newly-established] government did not value us very highly. There was an anti-Soviet mood, it was not advisable to talk about the war on the street. My wife secretly threw my medals away. She was afraid that the government would create problems for our children, or imprison them. Many people in this village threw their medals away.”
Veterans from Kvemo Kartli, in Eastern Georgia, with a sizable Azerbaijani community, rented a small room for a little while to meet in the center of Marneuli. But then each of them’s lives took over and now they only meet and share memories at official celebrations.
Over the years, the attitude towards WWII veterans has changed and they are now treated with high respect. Aliyev receives a pension of GEL 220 ($ 81) a month out of which GEL 100 ($ 31) is a specific veteran allowance.
"They remember us on official holidays and present certificates and medals. But it is not mean they respect us. I have many injures on my body but 220 lari a month are not enough for medicine even."
The Ministry of Defence also allocates GEL 1,000 ($ 371) per war veteran once a year on May 9 which marks the end of WWII - traditionally celebrated across the former Soviet Union republics and is called the Great Patriotic War.