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Georgia: portraits from Tbilisi

26-09-2008 Feature

The elderly are amongst the greatest casualties of the recent war in Georgia and South Ossetia, particularly because of the manner in which it has changed their lives irrevocably. The ICRC’s Jessica Barry has been talking to some of them.


  Zhenia's story triggered memories in her listeners of their own escape.    

Imagine being 81 years old, having lived through a world war and then civil strife in the 1990s, and now, suddenly, quite without warning, having to flee from your village to escape yet more fighting.

Imagine living in a forest for several nights with your blind sis ter, trying to keep your spirits up for the two of you. Imagine encountering soldiers riding in a truck, who offer you water and say " don't worry we won’t kill you " . Imagine returning to your village and hiding there for several days until the Red Cross finds and rescues you. 

This is Zhenia's and her 88-year-old sister Natela's story. What happened to them lies at the heart of the tragedy that has befallen the elderly in all the villages affected by the war in South Ossetia and Georgia.

 A story of courage and dignity  

A tiny, birdlike woman with a pronounced stoop, Zhenia sits on a camp bed in a Tbilisi kindergarten that has been turned into a collective centre for the displaced. She is wearing an orange and black patterned dress and light coloured headscarf. Her blind sister is dressed more soberly in a grey woollen jumper and green skirt.

Also in the room – which is furnished with toddlers'chairs and bookshelves painted red, green and blue – are their other two sisters and Natela's daughter, Lali. An elderly couple, Shaliko and Makvala, who are their relatives, are also present. 

The family is lucky in that they have the room to themselves, a luxury which many displaced families living in collective centres do not have.

Even so, it is a strange scene and feels as if the traditional, slow-paced life of rural South Ossetia has been plucked from its roots, and dropped into a time warp.

For all her frailty, Zhenia's voice is unwavering. She looks at her visitors with a clear blue gaze. Over the next hour she recalls the hardships she and Natela went through after they were forced out of their home near Tskhinvali in the days following the outbreak of the war.

" I left Nate la at home and went to visit my niece, Lali, in another village, " Zhenia begins, her hand on her sister's knee. " But I couldn't find her anywhere. I returned home and discovered armed men in our house. "  

Unbeknown to the two women Lali had already fled, as had Zhenia and Natela's other two sisters, Lali's aunts.

Zhenia and Natela left, too, as quickly as they could and hid in another part of the village but were discovered and fled to the forest.

It was a nightmare journey, the frail leading the blind. At one point they stumbled into a river. They met Russian soldiers who offered them water and calmed their fears of getting killed. They spent the night in the open, and the following morning kept on the move.

" I had a notebook and pencil with me, " Zhenia recalls. " I wrote my name on scraps of paper and scattered them in the woods. "

They eventually returned home, sleeping in an abandoned village for two nights on the way.

  Zhenia (left) and her blind sister Natela in the collective centre that is now their home.    

 A family reunited  

Several days later they were found by delegates from the ICRC who came to the village and were led to their house by a stray dog.

ICRC field officers in Tskhinvali and Tbilisi began a hectic search for the rest of the family, eventually tracing Lali and her aunts to a collective centre in the Georgian capital.

Zhenia and Natela were reunited with them the following day.

As she finished her story, her elderly sisters began to stir. They had been so still throughout the tale, their lined faces reflecting their own raw memories of escape and fear.

Later that evening, thinking back over what happened, and about the impact such a tragedy had had on their lives, it was not only the sisters'courage that stood out. What Zhenia said also honoured the bravery of all the many elderly who remained in their villages – at enormous risk – after others left; and who are still there. It showed how quickly war and its aftermath tears people's lives apart, often for ever.