Three weeks ago, while sitting in the dark smoky room of Traffic Bar in
In 2004, the newly installed revolutionary government of Misha Saakashvili came up with a youth program designed to take kids off the streets and into camp sites where they would play sports, make friends, learn songs and dances from different parts of
As you might imagine, it doesn’t take much of a stretch of imagination to concoct a conspiracy theory based on the above information. It may sound like this: Saakashvili takes kids to military training camps in border regions with Abkhazia, designed to indoctrinate them with a militaristic ideology; some of the largest camps are located just next to conflict zones, contributing to stirring up problems and exacerbating the negative image that
I spent the next two weeks or so bugging Revi about going to visit the camp in Kodori. The proximity to the Abkhaz black hole, the presence of the Abkhaz government in exile added to the appeal of the area. Revi’s response was always the same: the camp is not yet open, but it will open very soon. Of course, nobody knows what soon meant.
This Monday I officially gave up on the idea of visiting the Patriot Camps. However, I was trying to get an interview with the guy running them, who also happens to be the Deputy Minister of Culture. It turned out my man was visiting the Mecca of Euro-aspiring countries. The director of the Youth department was available though.
I got Revi and went to the Department of Youth and Sport, where I met a young (probably late 20’s), bright-eyed, jeans and fashion T-shirt-clad government official. After the interview, I asked whether I might be able to visit one of the Camps. A shot in the dark. Irakli obliged and invited me to join them the next day for a ride to the Camp at
Before proceeding, I should probably tell you that I wasn’t able to find any trace of military training at the camp. While this makes the remainder of the story significantly less exciting, it confirms that the Government has discontinued this part of the program starting this year, partly as a response to Opposition protests.
The next day I met Irakli, his wife and two friends, got on board the Mercedes SUV (standard ride for Georgia’s middle-class or, as I like to call it, “the new Niva”) and proceeded to Bazaleti.
The camp is located right next to a lake, in a pristine landscape of hills, valleys, fresh air, blue sky, and ubiquitous mosquitoes. The camp is a fairly small enclosed area lined with bungalows. Facilities include an astro-turf football court, a basketball court, and an outdoor cafeteria.
My second take on the Patriot Camps turns out to be quite different from my initial conspiracy theory. Although I tried hard to find traces of ideology, indoctrination or a sinister political agenda, it appears that most of the activities are genuinely oriented toward providing low-income youth with a 10-day vacation, and allowing them to interact with people from different parts of
All Patriots wear orange long-sleeved T-shirts (imported from
After dinner and a football game with some of the kids (my skills proved horrible, although I did manage a rather inspired assist), we sat down for the show that marked the end of the Camp for the 300 kids there. What I saw was a succession of traditional songs and dances from different parts of
Two interesting moments of the show are when a Chechen girl from the upper Pankisi region of
The second memorable moment was a short play interpreted by two youth, probably in their late teens or early twenties. One of them is lying on a bed and seems to be having a bad dream. He is a refugee from Abkhazia, and is dreaming of his friend’s mother being killed by the Abkhaz. His friend is hiding in a corner, but is discovered and shot himself. Follows a loud and emotional exchange between the two actors. Two rows behind me, I can hear somebody crying. I turn around and see a 12-year old in tears. She is from Abkhazia. On the stage, the two men embrace and shout: Abkhazia is