Mariam had to flee her hometown
My life as a displaced person
We’ll be back home soon.
This single thought keeps running through my mother’s head as she boards an escape helicopter, her four-year-old sister in tow.
Russians and Chechens had just invaded her hometown, Gudauta. It was no longer safe for Georgians, especially women and young girls.
Separatists in Georgia
When Georgia was still part of the Soviet Union, Abkhazia was an autonomous republic within the country. When the Union disintegrated in 1991, Abkhazia, with the support of Russia, declared its independence. South Ossetia, with its capital of Tshkinvali, did the same. Escalating tensions at the border of South Ossetia in 2008 led to the Russian invasion of Georgia. Later that year, Russia recognised both republics as legitimate.
The road to the airfield was unforgiving. Targeted attacks were expected at every corner as they heard shells passing over their heads. Fortunately, my family’s Abkhazian friends accompanied them the whole way, ensuring their safety on land. Their safety in the air would never be guaranteed.
In the helicopter, my mother clutches her little sister to her chest. ‘We’ll be back home soon’, she says as they fly away from Abkhazia, leaving their belongings, their home, and their father, never to return.
War in Abkhazia
The war in Abkhazia started in August 1992. It lasted for thirteen months and thirteen days. International relations professor and post-Soviet politics specialist Adrian Rogstad reflects on Russia’s role in this conflict. ‘After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia had their military infrastructure in various locations, including Abkhazia’, he says. ‘This made it easy for them to intervene in 1992.’ Russia’s intervention ultimately led to the occupation of Abkhazia.
Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Georgians were displaced
Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Georgians were displaced. Ukraine evacuated countless refugees via their navy and air force. Those who braved the trek through the snow-capped mountains of Svaneti were not as fortunate. Freezing temperatures meant babies were carried to safety only to be buried upon arrival. Adults who died of hypothermia were buried on the spot.
In the helicopter, my mother, only sixteen years old, is torn. As she looks ahead, anxious to reunite with her two older sisters and her mother in Tbilisi, she thinks back to her father, who stayed behind to look after their home.
Life in Abkhazia was easy before the occupation. My mom and her sisters would come home from school and rush to finish their homework. What they really wanted to do was put on puppet shows with the neighbourhood children. The whole neighbourhood watched these shows in their backyards, ate ice cream and khachapuri (Georgian cheese bread), and listened to the waves of the Black Sea washing over the coast.
During the war, these backyards were turned into execution sites. Houses were broken into and Georgian citizens were taken outside and shot dead.
Propaganda of the time may have encouraged this escalation. Separatist regions aided by Russia are more receptive to propaganda against their home countries.
According to Rogstad, ‘media narratives within these more isolated regions are heavily influenced by Russian narratives’. Today, for example, there are countless attempts at changing the narrative in Ukraine. But, says Rogstad: ‘Propaganda does not work in Ukraine. What we are seeing reports of now are crude attempts by Russian soldiers handing out flyers saying they bring peace against the fascists in Kyiv.’
But in regions where this kind of narrative is regularly spread, disinformation can have disastrous outcomes.
Loss of agency
My grandfather held his ground at home for six months. He spent those six months in terror.
Rebel groups would frequent his house and threaten to kill him if he didn’t leave. They would often carry weapons. This was a nightly occurrence. Yet, he was unshaken; determined that the war would be over soon, and his wife and daughters would return home.
During this time, he was shielded by his Abkhazian neighbours. If it were not for them, he would be dead. However, this protection was running thin and when the death threats became more violent, he too was forced to flee.
If it weren’t for his Abkhazian neighbours, my grandfather would be dead
Jannis Kreienkamp, a psychology PhD student at the UG, gives insight into refugees and the effects of displacement. According to him, my grandfather’s refusal to leave is a common response.
‘There are huge disparities amongst displaced people’, he says, ‘but there is one experience that many share: loss of agency.’ They lose control of their daily life and their haven.
‘After displacement, your identity narrative, who you are and what is central to you as a person, often stops.’ This affects our sense of meaning in life, often erasing it.
For my grandfather, there was nothing to do but stand his ground. He was protecting his identity and that of his family. He knew that if he left, there would be no likelihood of returning. And the ‘trauma of displacement’ would be passed down to his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
Meanwhile, in Tbilisi, my grandmother was frantic to find shelter for her daughters. Two of them were with her at a relative’s house. The other two, my mother and her little sister, had landed in Kutaisi.
For months, my grandmother cleaned hotels and hospitals, baked pies in a bakery, and scraped up enough money to buy bread for her children. Most days, they lived off food stamps and coupons.
Most days, my grandmother and her daughters lived off food stamps
Mid-November, the government gave her a single room in which the four sisters were reunited. A momentary relief. At that moment, they could not imagine the pains they would experience to rebuild their lives.
Ever since I was a child, my grandmother always said to me: ‘Soon we will get an apartment from the government and we can all gather and feast, and the grandchildren can run around.’ My grandfather would be silent. He was always silent. He was a pillar, standing his ground and quietly observing the love that kept my family afloat in that twenty square meter room.
My grandmother got her apartment twenty-six years after the war; three years after my grandfather had passed away. She lives in this apartment alone, listening to the traffic outside her window while the Black Sea trembles and waves for no one to hear.
Many refugees experience a period called liminality, Jannis Kreienkamp explains: a transitional period in which ‘you don’t quite belong to one place or the other.’ This is common amongst refugees who cannot return from where they fled, but also don’t feel welcome where they arrive.
‘We need to understand that refugees are a part of our society’, says Kreienkamp. Instead, what we often see are tactics of active deterrence of forced migrants. ‘We used to hand out food stamps or food packages instead of money, so they would have a miserable experience as migrants.’
It is crucial to support those who have lost all their social capital in a genuine and sustainable way. ‘The first family to come over is always a novelty, but their friends and family arrive later and also need support’, says Kreienkamp.
My mother’s lip is quivering, she’s been here before
As we weep for our Ukrainian sisters and brothers today, we must reflect on the past to guide our support.
Kreienkamp believes that we are seeing positive patterns in the treatment of Ukrainian refugees, but there is more to be done. We can only learn from past experiences and by asking forced migrants what they need. ‘It’s not a black box mystery’, he says. ‘Asking actual people who have gone through the process how we can support them can better equip us in helping.’
Both Kreienkamp and Rogstad hope that the EU’s positive reaction towards Ukrainian refugees applies to other refugees in the future.
The trauma of displacement does not go away with time. It seeps into the next generation; especially when we are forced to relive it.
On August 5, 2008, Russian troops invaded Georgia once more. This time they came through the Tskhinvali region, an occupied territory my dad is from. They advanced into Gori. My family and I were to the west of Gori and had to evacuate to Tbilisi, which was to the east.
Our car slowly creeps through the line of fire. Buildings are ablaze and smoke clouds rise in the distance.
I look at my mother and her jaw is clenched, her lip quivering. She’s been here before. She looks back at me, not allowing herself to cry. ‘We’ll be back home soon.’