Kodori Valley: assistance for those who stayed behind
The ICRC distributes humanitarian assistance to people living high in the mountains of Georgia, in the picturesque but isolated Kodori Valley, which most of the population fled during the conflict of 2008. In the longer term, these few hardy people must become self-sufficient - can it be done?
Svaneti is one of the most picturesque parts of Georgia. Surrounded by mountain peaks rising to an altitude of 3,000–5,000 metres, it is the highest inhabited area in the Caucasus.
In remote areas there are still bears and wolves, which sometimes approach traditional wooden farmhouses and even attack people or cattle. However, far more dangerous than the wild animals are the conflicts that have ravaged this region over the past few years, especially the latest conflict of August 2008. These conflicts have put the region through many trials.
After the conflict of August 2008, Svaneti was divided by an administrative boundary line (ABL), as was the case for a number of other districts in Georgia. In Svaneti, this caused additional problems for local residents, whose lives were already none too easy, due to the location of the area and unusual weather patterns that affect their daily lives and create difficult conditions for farming, on which they depend for subsistence.
The ICRC has provided assistance in this region both during and since the conflict of August 2008. Initially it made food distributions to the most vulnerable members of the community, who constituted at least half the population. Later it changed the type of assistance provided and put greater emphasis on micro-economic initiatives aimed at making the population self-sufficient, rather than dependent on external humanitarian aid. For example, in 2010 over 1,000 of the most vulnerable families living below the poverty line in 18 villages in Svaneti received agricultural assistance from the ICRC.
Kodori gorge (or Kodori Valley), which for no particular reason is on the other side of the ABL, is an ecological gem situated in an isolated location far away from urban life. Locals call it Dali Valley - after the mythological goddess of hunting, who - they believe - was as beautiful as this valley. Kodori Valley can only be reached after many hours' travel along a virtually impassable road (unless you travel in an off-road vehicle).
Kodori Valley was particularly affected by the conflict. Out of 2,000 local people, some 1,800 had to flee their homes. They have not made it back, but found shelter with relatives or in temporary community lodgings. The 200 people who stayed are on the whole individuals who live in virtual isolation, due to their age and the inaccessible location of this gorge.
Humanitarian needs are wide-ranging, as the locals have no access to markets and can neither sell their own goods nor purchase those they do not produce. The ICRC is the only organization to provide assistance to local residents by distributing foodstuffs, such as flour, vegetable oil and beans, as well as washing powder and hygiene products, such as toothpaste and soap.
In 2010, the ICRC distributed food and hygiene items to the residents of Kodori Valley. The rations were intended to cover basic needs during the spring-to-summer and winter seasons.
In 2011, another such distribution took place in the beginning of March, when a team from the ICRC office in Sukhumi distributed food and hygiene materials to people living in the valley.
Every distribution is preceded by an assessment of needs, and ICRC staff know all the recipients by name. Each distribution is an important event for the inhabitants of this isolated gorge, whose quiet lifestyle is rarely disturbed by visitors.
According to Lika Avidzba, who has been working for the ICRC for 18 years, "This is the only aid Kodori inhabitants receive – but it's also their opportunity to speak to people from the outside world, and to get some news, as even cell phones don't work here."
Local people are very hospitable and enjoy chatting to us about what is happening outside their area. For instance, Annetta from the village of Ptysh/Ptyshi (photo) lives alone in an isolated house in the middle of a forest and can go for days or even weeks without meeting anyone, not even Kodori inhabitants, let alone anyone from "the outside world".
When the ICRC's trucks and white Land Cruisers arrive, and the organization's staff wearing Red Cross emblems bustle about unloading sacks with humanitarian aid, some outlying farms turn into centres for aid distribution to other farms, located even higher up the valley. From there, people make their way down to pick up the aid, sometimes on horseback.
However, these distributions are not to continue for long, at least not in their present form.
Ynske Vandormael, head of the ICRC office in Sukhumi, explains, "Since the end of 2008, the ICRC has been helping these vulnerable people, providing them with goods which they cannot purchase. This approach needs to be reconsidered, so that aid enables these people to provide for their own needs in a sustainable way. Perhaps, the way to achieve this is to support micro-economic projects geared to producing high-quality goods 'Made in Kodori'."
In the meantime, until the next distribution in July, the valley will be slowly shaking off the shackles of winter and returning, for better or worse, to its unhurried pace of life, far, far away from civilization.