Life after War

AFG Visits a Border Village Caught in the South Ossetian Conflict

In June 2010, AFG Director Marusya Chavchavadze, Country Director Lena Kiladze, Gela Suli – as well as other guests from America and member of the Georgian marionette theater –took a group of a dozen children displaced by the war on a field trip to the edge of the conflict.

For the past two years, thanks to generous contributions from supporters, AFG has been working with IDPs displaced by the 2008 war. Programs like art therapy and rehabilitation have given young victims of the conflict a second chance for a normal childhood. Likewise, the Skills for Life program has given older children and adults hope at rebuilding their lives by using knowledge learned to find new jobs.

Young boys and girls from IDP settlements have turned into masters of Georgian storytelling – and have recaptured some of the innocence destroyed by their forced resettlement.

During the day-long outing, children from Khurvaleti IDP settlement gave a puppet performance, played music and danced with the community of Nikozi – a hamlet that sits on the unrecognized border between separatist South Ossetia and Georgia.

Hours of practice over the past year with Zura Kilodze, a renowned Georgian artisan and the head of the Marionette theater puppet union, helped the children perfect their skills for the performance. Together with Kilodze, the children poured their imagination, fears and fantasies into an original production about a wolf who fell in love with a cow.

The 2008 war and occupation have played out in tiny villages, like Nikozi, far from Georgia’s urban centers. These communities are often the home of “mixed families” – marriages between Georgian and Ossetians have been common for centuries – and it is not uncommon for villages to be populated by both Georgian and Ossetian families who lived together as neighbors for generations.

According to Metropolitan Isaia, who leads the eparchy in Nikozi for the Georgian Orthodox Church, a true appreciate for Nikozi’s location is key to comprehending the impact the conflict has on the community.

The monastery and town of Nikozi are located just over a mile from Tskhinvali, the capital of separatist South Ossetia. Both the village and the monastery was heavily bombed during the fighting and the people of Nikozi suffered additionally during the occupation of Russian and Ossetian forces following the initial ceasefire agreement.

“It is important to understand where Nikozi is located,” Metropolitan Isaia said. “It is right next to Tskhinvali – in the epicenter [of the conflict] you could say.”

Today, while most families have returned to the area, there are households that refused to return home: some Georgian homes and property extend right up to the border with Tskhinvali and the families fear for their safety.

The Nikozi Monastery, a Georgian Orthodox Church that dates back centuries, was damaged during bombing in the August 2008 war between Georgia and Russia.

The trip, noted Gela Suli, a Georgian born American entrepreneur, was an eye opening experience: amidst a back drop of war and suffering, children in Nikozi enjoyed the imaginative butterflies and fairytales created by the plays and performances.

He said he was struck most by the “the beauty of the village and the eerie calmness” of Nikozi despite the fact that Russian occupational forces stand just steps outside its borders.

“The first thing I noticed, vividly, around the time I was watching a marionettes performance: there is no “ethnic” conflict in this place in terms of hate or anything between Georgians and Ossetians,” he said. One performance was an Ossetian dance – I think this was the most well-received piece from the audience.”

According to Metropolitan Isaia, the Nikozi community is working hard to dispel any lingering feelings of hate or animosity between Georgians and Ossetians living in the region.

“We are raising our children with the principal of love,” he said.

But he stressed that security and sustainability for Nikozi and its neighboring villages caught in the conflict, depends on people’s ability to work and prosper.

There are few government sponsored programs to combat poverty in the villages affected by the conflict and families are largely left to eke out a living with small plot farming and trading.

Nikozi, like many Georgian (and Ossetian) villages is mired in poverty. It is largely a farming community and depends on ties to Gori and other Tbilisi urban centers. While there is a grade school, the village needs continuing education facilities to push people over the poverty line and develop the local economy.

Metropolitan Isaia is working with Polish donors, among others, to create a strong professional, vocational training center in the village. A former animator, the metropolitan is turning to former colleagues as well as other enthusiasts to educate over 40 village teenagers in animation, ceramics, weaving, English, computer skills and other needed professions.

“If we help them…these professions will give them the opportunity to feed themselves,” he said.

AFG hopes, with continued support from donors, to extend its successful art rehabilitation and Skills for Life programs to Nikozi.

While Metropolitan Isaia and his staff have raised enough money to offer classes and build an animation studio, the community is still in need of a safe building for the students to meet in, as well as funds for teacher salaries.

“These people, through their own, good labor, will be able to take care of themselves,” he said.

According to Lena Kiladze, the country director for AFG, learning new skills helps young people find creative solutions to the problems they face everyday.

“Life long learning is the concept we are trying to use in our programs — it helps people to learn new skills in the life and find solution of their problems,” Lena Kiladze said.

“One project can’t solve all problems in the region but we hope it will help to unify all society and take part in the creation of better future of our children.”