It’s my job to shove my camera in people’s faces. Though I’m usually more tactful and delicate than that, it sometimes feels like I’m intruding beyond my bounds – at times being insensitive. Today was one of those days. I’m in Georgia (the Republic) and I’ve spent the day photographing some of those displaced by the recent war between Georgia and Russia.
It can be distressing to be in the same room with the victims, hearing their stories of how their homes were destroyed, fields burnt, loved ones killed, while I am forced to walk a thin line between having a sympathetic ear and getting the job done.
These people have lost virtually (or almost) everything except their lives. Even if they had homes to which they could return, the political situation in South Ossetia, where most refugees shown here are from, is not welcome to ethnic Georgians and is still occupied today by Russian troops.
“Its very difficult for a Georgian living in Tskhinvali (South Ossetia’s capital); they kill Georgians there,” says Natia Bdziharashvili, 25 (shown above in black). “So why do you want to return?” I ask through my interpreter. “Because I was born there. Every blade of grass and every stone is ours. It is my motherland.”
These photos were taken in the town of Gori, the nearest Georgian town outside of the separatist province of South Ossetia. It is the hometown of Joseph Stalin. Oddly enough, he’s still admired here despite the recent display of Soviet-era aggression by Vladymir Putin. Above, a statue of Stalin stands in Gori’s main square. These days, the Red Cross uses its spacious tarmac to park their distribution trucks.
The Gori area experienced casualties and heavy damage when Russia invaded Georgia proper after pushing the Georgian army out of South Ossetia. Above, a government contractor works to repair the bomb-damaged home of Larama Tlashadze in central Gori.
The small country of Georgia is providing shelter for about 90,000 people left homeless as a result of the recent conflict with Russia and the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Many are living in the Gori area. The Georgian government, in conjunction with NGOs like the Red Cross, has moved efficiently to provide food and shelter for the refugees and to restore damaged homes when possible. Some live in refugee camps like the one shown above located in Gori’s central park. Others live in schools. Below, Valia Baryachvili is an ethnic Russian whose home in a border village was destroyed by Russian troops.
Fearing that most would not be able to return to their homes, the Georgian government immediately began constructing homes outside of South Ossetia for the war-torn region’s former residents. Residents in the refugee camps complain that such housing is sparse compared to the large farm estates where many lived before the war. It is the goal of Heifer International, with whom I am now on assignment, to begin agricultural and sustainable farming projects with refugees once they move out of temporary housing.
These projects will help the refugees establish themselves in the area and begin earning an income. Below, a woman shows me an image captured on her mobile phone of the shell of her war-damaged home.
The compensation for my discomfort regarding these photographs came from the subjects themselves. Many were eager to tell their story. Many welcomed me into their quarters with whatever they could offer: a chair, some chocolate, a cup of coffee. I hope in turn I will have had some small part in the process of returning their lives to a state of normalcy.