Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A Night at the Patriot Camps

Three weeks ago, while sitting in the dark smoky room of Traffic Bar in Tbilisi, I had a conversation with an expat about something called Patriot Camps. The very name lit up many lights on my radar screen, and prompted further digging into the subject.

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 Georgia, and, well, play with guns. The program has been running for three years. This year, the government already opened a camp basically meters away from the border with the breakaway region in Abkhazia and intends to open the second one in Kodori, situated to the north of the aforementioned non-state and in an area reputed for its unstable security situation.

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 Georgia has among the Abkhaz.

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 Bazaleti Lake, for the closing evening of a 10-day series of Patriots.

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 Georgia. I meet a group of Armenians, another group of Azeris, none of which speak English (I am told some of them don’t speak Russian either), a young girl from Adjara with textbook-perfect English and some Georgians who are running the camp. It seems all the kids agree about having a great time at the camp and having made many friends. The girl from Adjara tells me she misses home, though. When I ask her if she made friends with any Armenians or Azeris, she smiles and averts her eyes. Ethnic prejudice seems to present (albeit in a muted form) even in the Patriot Camps.

All Patriots wear orange long-sleeved T-shirts (imported from Ukraine, maybe?) and blue overcoats. The Georgian flag is sown on the garments. It also adorns the back of the large podium, next to a map of Georgia divided into its composing regions. Next to the cafeteria I notice a large cross when It becomes lit by Christmas lights.

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 Georgia. I found out the Georgian national instrument is called Pandura. To me it looks a lot like the Greek bouzoukia. The kids are impressively talented, and the Georgian polyphonic songs sound like a mixture of Gregorian chants and Balkan rhythms, with a twist of Georgian je ne sais quoi. Well, nevermind that…

Two interesting moments of the show are when a Chechen girl from the upper Pankisi region of Georgia performs a traditional Chechen song accompanied by a guitar-like instrument. The first half of the lyrics is in Chechen, and the second in Georgian. The audience is extatic.

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 Georgia, and Georgia is Abkhazia! End of act.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Ossetia Safari V

We only drive back for a hundred meters. Seeing a lit window at one of the nearby houses, we stop to talk to the locals. A woman comes out, puzzled by the camera but nevertheless willing to give us her story. She is Ossetian, her husband died and she now lives alone in this house in no man’s land. Her son lives in Tskhinvali now, but she doesn’t want to abandon the house. She shows us the bullet holes that pierced the metal front door and hit her husband. He eventually recovered from the wound, but his lower limbs stayed inert until he died.

The woman takes us to the house next door. We make our way through pitch darkness helped by cell phones improvised as flash lights. In the next house we see a man, probably in his 60s, with sharp blue eyes and a prominent nose. We ask him a few question about the conflict, what they think about this and that politician, but the old man really wants to tell us his story. Which is similar to many of the story we’ve heard on either side today. Filled with frustration, sadness, desperation and fear. Unaware that I don’t speak Russian, the man addresses me in long sentences, and his eyes start filling with tears.

This is a sad ending to a long and exhausting day. I thought this would be an adventure, and indeed the experience of seeing the actual front lines of a frozen conflict is unique. Yet the sheer impact of reality doesn’t hit you when seeing the tanks, or the soldiers. It is the local people – their sadness, desperation, hopelessness and anger – that really drives home the unique relevance of this conflict for the ones most affected by it.

The old Ossetian man wipes his tears, invites us inside the house and, helped by the women, produces a two liter Pepsi bottle filled with homemade wine, as well as cheese, tomatoes and bread. We toast to everything, but especially to piece, friendship, families (living or gone). The Ossetian (and Georgian) ritual requires one to drink the entire glass of wine once the toast is finished. As we get to the fourth glass, I realize the absurdity of the situation: I am having an improvised supra (banquet) offered by Ossetians, according to Georgian rituals, in a strip of no man’s land that is disputed between a recently recovered failed state and a non-state backed up by a super-state. If it sounds complicated, well, that’s because it is.

Once the wine is finished and the good-byes are said, we get back into the old Niva. To my surprise, the Soviet SUV makes it successfully up the hill through the non-existent road. We reach the Georgian troops to find out that everybody is on high alert looking for us. They seem relieved to see us and inform us that all soldiers are aware of our presence and that the road is clear. We make our way into the gravel road, onto the potholed road, back into Georgia and finally to the highway going to Tbilisi.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Ossetia Safari IV

I left off the story after a failed attempt to get past the last check point and cross into South Ossetian controlled territory with a Georgian TV crew that lacked official clearance to go there.

It was time for plan B. We were going to try to get to the site of protests andskirmishes last week. The story goes like this. Georgians are trying to build a road that connects two Georgian controlled-villages, one of which theoretically lies within South Ossetia. This bypass road would allow Georgian villagers to maintain a lifeline with the ‘mainland’, while avoiding the need to pass through Ossetian villages. Amid South Ossetian protests against the building of the road, Russian peace-keepers intervened and blocked construction works until the two sides would reach an agreement. The Georgians naturally saw the peace-keepers’ action as further proof of collusion with Ossetians. Georgian villagers reacted by staging a protest against the peace-keepers, throwing paint and gas at the soldiers. This incident was one of the first of a series of minor shootings, grenade attacks, leading to increased fears that the worst was yet to come.

The road building site was, in fact, a strip of gravel winding for a few kilometers through an extremely scenic landscape of green hills and valleys. Driving down the road, we notice occasional excavators and trucks with workers heading home after a day of work, a sign that the road construction still continues.

Then we notice, in the bushes next to the road, a heavy tank flying the Russian flag surrounded by soldiers. At this point, I am unsure on which side of what checkpoint or territory we are, so I get a bit apprehensive. The TV crew decides to stop the Niva and get out to talk to the tank commander, a red-faced Russian soldier. The talk is short and quite calm, which can only be a good thing. Surprisingly, shortly after, the tank revves the engine and storms out of the site, down on the road. Apparently our presence was enough to scare off the Russians. Maybe we could end the conflict and still make it back to Tbilisi in time for drinks?

Following the road, we reach a group of Georgian villagers working on the field. They seem quite happy to talk to us, and complain that they haven’t been able to get to the field in days. They are unhappy about the road construction being stopped and avow having attended the protests against the Russians. When asking them about their view of the Ossetians, they tell us they grew up together with them, have relatives who are Ossetians. The older generation of Ossetians speaks Georgian, they say, but the youth only speak Russian. When asking them what is the main cause of the conflict, they reply without hesitation that it is the Russians. The head of the family seems confident that the departure of the Russian troops would solve the conflict, whereas the wife seems less convinced and adds that the situation will take time to solve.

Following the road, we finally reach ‘ground zero’, where road building seems to end. This is the site of protests yesterday. The importance of the spot is marked by the presence of three Russian tanks and – surprise – a massive war machine flying the flag of St. George (in case you were wondering, it wasn’t the English!).

The Georgians come speak to us. We ask them what they are doing there. They reply that they are criminal police. I then ask them if they are chasing criminals around the hills of South Ossetia (to my defense, I had heard complaints on the Georgian side of criminals seeking haven in Ossetian-controlled territory). Unsurprisingly, the ‘policeman’ doesn’t find my remark funny and retorts that, since this is Georgian territory, they can do whatever the hell they please.

We are told that if we follow the ‘non-road’ down the hill, we will reach a Georgian village. The valley is full of patrols, on foot or tucked in vans, old ladas or red BMW’s with tinted windows (I must point out that the latter were the local police – not to be confused with the criminal police, which uses T72 tanks instead of the more flimsy BMW).

The main street is full of villagers. We approach a middle-aged woman who is filling a water bucket. She is half Ossetian and gives us the same story of people living together. Although Ossetian and Georgian traditions vary, she says, they become more alike when people live together. David and the crew then talk to a group of men, camera off. The men, I later find out , fought in the 1990s and now are very adamant about claiming the land as their own. They want to fight again and don’t seem very open to compromise. There seems to be a marked difference in people’s statements when they are filmed.

Night is falling and we are running out of time. The Niva is again on the road, trying to reach a part of the village inhabited by Ossetians. A group of policemen give us directions and tell us to watch out for Ossetians. We follow an unlit road some hundred meters. Everybody falls silent, and tension is almost palpable.

After a brisk exchange of words among the crew, the Niva comes to a sudden halt. The driver then makes a sudden U-turn and starts driving back. “What happened?” I ask. “We could see Ossetian militiamen down the road. It is not so safe now, because they may take us to Tskhinvali…” His smile is somewhat forced and, for the first time, I start realizing that the area is somewhat more than a military parade grounds.

Ossetia Pictures

I have finally been able - courtesy of Kathleen - to get my hands on some pictures taken during the trip to South Ossetia. For the more intrepid surfers who have figured out how to see my photo sets on Flickr, you can find them there. The rest of you click here.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Ossetia Safari III

The time was 1600 hours. The green Niva was huffing and puffing its way out of Tbilisi, recklessly overtaking black BMW’s and swerving from one side of the highway to the other. The driver was a genial looking man in his early 60s, who chain smoked cigarettes the smell of which reminded me of Carpati. The passenger’s seat was taken up by our cameraman, a lanky guy in his mid 30s holding the camera on his knees while joyously smoking his Winston. Being in the back seat, I was engulfed in a host mix of dust, smog, and cigarette smoke, looked mesmerized at the erratic rattling of the steering wheel. When the Niva reached the highly unlikely speed of 120 km/h, the deafening sounds and the vibrations reached alarming levels, suggesting that the Soviet SUV was on the verge of disintegration.

Instead, it smoothly pulled over in a ditch-like alley, for us to stretch our legs, buy ice cream and, of course, for the driver to smoke. We were about 5 kilometres from Gori, the birth place of Stalin.

As we got closer to the South Ossetian border, the road became almost eerily empty, save for an occasional minibus with tinted windows. David gets a phone call from the Rustavi 2 studio, with the news that Kokoity's press secretary is not picking up the phone. That means that we don’t have the clearance to go to the other side.

The road finally reaches a small river guarded with concertina barbed wire and several soldiers in full combat gear. Their small post flies the Russian flag. We have reached the first checkpoint manned by CIS peace-keepers.

After a short discussion between the driver and the soldiers, we are turned back with the interdiction to film within a 50 meter range of the checkpoint. The cameraman takes some panoramic shots of the area and David walks around nervously, obviously disappointed.

In the meantime, several vehicles – military, OSCE and civilians – pass through the checkpoint, no questions asked. We decide we should also give it a try - this time as 'civilians'. The cameraman tucks the camera in the trunk and we slowly drive toward the checkpoint. The driver negotiates through the barbed wire as the soldiers look at us slightly bored. We are on the other side of the checkpoint, theoretically in no man’s land!

Theory of course doesn’t apply to a conflict such as South Ossetia, where realities are often times more messy and complicated. After a few kilometres of driving through a desolate landscape of destroyed buildings on a potholed road, we reach another roadblock. Large concrete blocks topped with sandbags, and to the left a derelict gas station, now filled with buff soldiers hanging out and smoking cigarettes. “Who are they?” I ask, almost not wanting to hear the answer. “It’s ok, they are Georgian,” David replies reassuringly.

The crew talk to the Georgian troops while we try to peak beyond the roadblock into the breakaway region of South Ossetia. Several minibuses filled with men and women carrying huge suitcases pour into the roadblock. The soldiers, acting as informal customs officers, rummage through the suitcases, pulling out Chinese-made toy keyboards, opening boxes of medicine and shuffling through piles of cheap clothes. I am told these people come from Russia and sell their stuff into Georgia. Suitcase trading is only the tip of an iceberg of illegal smuggling that uses South Ossetia as a trading hub.

The casual exchange of words between the soldiers and the crew turns into high-pitched sounds and angry shoutings when the cameraman focuses his camera on one of them. I see David is starting to get worried and motions at me to get into the vehicle. The cameraman stays behind, hurling insults at the soldiers, and being answered in kind. It is time for us to leave: the driver drags the cameraman into the Niva and slams the gas pedal.

“What was that all about?” I ask. David tells me the military people got irritated when the camera was filming their faces. He gives me a strange look and adds, “you know, they are not regular soldiers.” “What do you mean, like special troops or something?” I ask, not knowing exactly what that means. David nods softly, looking as if he doesn’t want to continue the conversation.

Our first attempt to break into the breakaway region ended in failure. David is not about to give up though. We are now taking a different route, and trying to get to the road building site that was the scene of protests from villagers and, also, of mutual allegations of attacks from both Georgians and Ossetians.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Musical Interlude - Part II

Arash - Temptation (Swedo/Perso/Russo Kitsch-Pop)

Musical Interlude - Part I

Zdob si Zdub - Videli Noch(Moldo Ethno Rock - pa Russkyi)