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Guram Odisharia: “Georgian and Abkhazian Society is Feed by the False Stereotypes”

May 17, 2011

Malkhaz Chkadua, “interpressnews”

What kind of perspectives public diplomacy has towards the resolution of Georgian-Abkhazian conflict, what is the attitude of Abkhazian society towards Georgia, are they afraid of assimilation with Russians and how correct is the politics of Georgian government towards the conflict, the writer Guram Odisharia spoke with the interpressnews about these issues.

- Mr. Guram, we know that you came back from Baku several days ago where you met with Abkhazian and Ossetian writers. Can you tell us about the project which envisages the joint activity of South Caucasian writers?

- My partner Batal Kobakhi and I visited Baku. By our initiative, the book “time to live” was published in 2003 which united the novels of Georgian and Abkhazian writers written on war theme.

Obviously, we could not include all submitted stories: we selected the ones which did not convey the aggression and reflected the war witnessed by different sides of war: this way Abkhazians and Georgians saw the conflict through each other’s eyes.

The literature of South Caucasia consists of literature of five nations. Thus, we did not have right not to include Azari, Armenian and Ossetian writers in the project: we cannot turn backs on each other. In this way the neighboring nations can communicate their hurts, pains and desires to each other…

This undertaking created room for a dialogue. When the dialogue stopped in Abkhazia, the first bullet was shot and people died. This is how it happens everywhere: when people do not talk to each other, bullets substitute. We should start peace-building process by a dialogue. Working on this collection has turned into the peace-building process: Abkhazian and Ossetian writers came to Georgia twice in 2003. Abkhazian TV dedicated a wonderful reportage to this book, free of politics that emphasized one of the main missions of literature – protecting people from danger, war and conflict. The journalists from Baku and Yerevan prepared the same kind of reportages. This undertaking found its way in Tbilisi: the novels of Abkhazian writers were translated in Georgian and edited by Malkhaz Kharbedia. However, a lot of work proceeded this moment: nobody will let you translate and publish his/her novel if you do not attain his/her trust. We discussed the book “time to live” in Belgium when the representatives of South Caucasia gathered there on the issues of conflict. Famous Armenian journalist Davit Petrosiani stated at the meeting that his son was a sniper in Karabakh at the border. The son of famous Azari professor happened to be a sniper as well who stood on Azari side at the conflict zone. They both had read the book. They said that these kinds of publications should be printed on a bigger scale. Everybody shared this idea. That is why we decided to publish this collection twice a year and publish poems, stories, art works and the reviews of cultural life of different nations…

Has your friendship with Batal Kobakhia from Abkhazia become an example for the writers of the conflicted nations?

- Indeed so. They were always asking – why are you working together, aren’t you fighting?!... It is obvious that it was hard to involve Azari and Armenian artists in this project, but the trust and a desire for warming the relations has been given birth and we are already receiving the material by e-mail. We chose the special editing council, hired the professional editor and are working slowly. The first edition of the collection will be published in two months.

- Who finances the project?

- The organization International Alert is helping us. It has been operating in Georgia for 18 years now. It is the union of conflict scientists which is financed by European Union (EU). Practically, the “time to live” is published by the financial support of EU.

Mr. Guram, as I know the last time you went to Sokhumi was in 2009. Before the 2008 war you noted that the peace process between Abkhazians and Georgians was deepening and at the expense of public diplomacy the restoration of relations was taking place intensively in both societies. What was changed by the August war, what kind of response it evoked in your Abkhazian friends, what was the situation in Sokhumi when you went there two years ago?

- I went to Sokhumi in 2004. I cannot say that they were aggressive towards me, but I remember there was a big fear in Abkhaz and Ossetian society that the armed conflict was going to erupt again. This conflict called “Georgian-Abkhazian” in our society, has become periodically explosive. This is very bad – if the conflict ended by 1992-1993ies, it would have been easier to calm the situation, but in 1998 and in 2001 the conflicts re-erupted that cancelled the results attained by the public diplomacy, the year of 2008 changed a lot of things: new reality was established – there are Russian soldiers at the border, Russia officially recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. As a result, when I went there in 2009, Abkhazians told me that they were no longer afraid of the armed conflict with Georgia as the Russian armament protected them. However, fortunately, I felt the attitude was a lot better two years ago: I asked a friend to walk with me to the market and I heard a lot of people speaking Georgian there along with Abkhazian and Russian dialogues. There are more Georgians in Sokhumi than I thought. They would come up to me and tell me that they had Georgian wife, relative, friend and etc. I am not talking about Gali where about 40 thousand people live and the rest move through Gali and Zugdidi and the rest of Georgia. It is sad that our societies know each other from afar, basically by media sources. Often media assists the popularization of stereotypes: they always state that the Abkhazians face the danger of evaporation. This problem really exists but not as severely as the media covers it. Another side does the same: Abkhazia always covers negative stories about Georgia – government uses the media as ideological dynamite and Georgia is pictured as a dangerous country in the eyes of Abkhazians. Thus, Georgian and Abkhazian societies are floating in the ocean of stereotypes as there is no alternative source for transportation and communication.

- So Georgian media does not seek ways of public diplomacy towards Abkhazia?

- There are publications which cover the processes of Abkhazia and in general Georgian-Abkhazian relations in more or less balanced way. However, the television and printed media take wrong direction. I remember one such fact: an Abkhazian family brought their child to Tbilisi for surgery. The patient was given surgery for free. One journalist covered this story this way: Georgian side treated the child of Abkhazian hero for free and this is the man who killed 400 Georgians. When the journalist was asked how she knew that this person killed 400 Georgians, he stated that he read on one of the sites that the person is called a hero if he has killed more than 400 Georgians. When the society is feed by such unprofessional sites and reportages, it is hard to find the common language with them. I asked one of my friends not to emphasize on certain facts while making reportage or else that man would have problems when he went back. My friend considered this request. It is obvious that the media needs to cover these topics, but if certain issues are kept secret, it would help public diplomacy. They often show how they help children of IDPs for instance. They show them movies, give sweets and then the whole day long we see it on TV. The Minister of IDPs and Accommodation states on TV that they showed movie to ten children of IDPs. They should do it secretly. Are not we Christians?

- Does government try to use public diplomacy to solve this problem?

- Their comments are rarely directed to Abkhazia. I do not even remember who made the last comment regarding Abkhazia. The main emphasis is put on the criticism of Russia: it is obvious that Russia could play the biggest role in the conflict resolution, but warming relations with Russia will not automatically solve the problem with Abkhazia – starting Georgian-Abkhazian dialogue is the main thing.

- Many write that after the 2008 August war Georgian government declined the responsibility to return the territories of Abkhazia and Ossetia and instead of establishing relations with people living there, started criticism of Russia; the war gave a chance to the team of government to say that they are trying to connect with Abkhazians and Ossetians but Russia hinders their efforts by taking over Georgian territory. Do you share this opinion?

- There are certain departments and organizations where people take some steps. But does this bring real outcome?! We should consider that this is not the same conflict as 5, 10 or 15 years ago. More, it would have been possible to avoid 1992-1993 conflict if there were reasonable men in our societies. There were conflicts and misunderstandings in the past in the feudal times as well, but the negotiations and dialogues solved them sometimes. This conflict resembles a fire that started as a bonfire and then turned into the conflagration and spread in the whole forest. Our conflict passed the scopes of small conflict and has reached tremendous scale. Many concepts have been worked out. A lot of time, money and resources are spent on them but none of them work as there is no trust between the sides… Unfortunately, nobody leaves room for dialogue. It is possible that big states establish profitable conditions for both sides after negotiating with Georgia and Abkhazia. The document can be drawn which can give basis for eradication of conflict but if people look at one another with fear and hate, then these documents will be just the scraps of paper. I do not see the room that can ease the situation and help people find ways to reach each other…

- However, there are many such ways described in your books: Abkhaz and Georgian heroes easily find common language. In the story “Son-in-law” you write: “nobody will be happy after this war…” “The war tested each one of us… As always and everywhere, the war was defeated in Abkhazia as well…”

- Abkhazia war did not have right to exist. However, history does not like lyrics… From the very moment the tanks appeared I felt that we were facing biggest catastrophe, but the fear and danger existed before. After passing through the miseries of war we were all hurt and angry. I passed my pain on the papers. Earlier I wrote just poems and published them in Sokhumi. I conveyed my experience in the book published in 1993 “Path of IDPs.” Then the IDPs would come and tell their stories. Once some ladies from Sokhumi told me about the death of my younger friend Tengo Vadakaria. Tengo was an exceptional boy. He was a fantastic artist. He could not leave his paintings during the war. He protected his Abkhazian friend Vova from Georgian looters. (Unfortunately, they were many…) He did not let them kill Vova. After the fall of Sokhumi Vova had told Tengo that he was going to protect him now. Vova told Abkhazian warriors that Tengo had rescued him and told them not to harm him. They did not touch Tengo, but warned them that the killers were going to come in about 3-4 days and they would kill Tengo. Unfortunately it came true. The killers came. I do not want to say their names. The whole Georgia hates them. They put Tengo on the wall. Vova covered him and yelled that he was a good Georgian and they should not kill him. The killers said that it is exactly good Georgians they need to kill as they were needed. They could not persuade Vova. Vova would not leave Tengo. Finally Vova asked them to kill him first. They fired at Vova first and then at Tengo. The ladies who were hiding in the cellar witnessed this tragedy and then they told me. Tengo was buried in the yard of his house. This story radically changed my attitude towards the tragedy of Abkhazia. I realized that the war has not just the killers but the rescuers as well, the heroes who sacrifice their lives for other people. This was turning-point for my work – for many years I have been investigating such facts, people tell me the stories of heroism… That is why I think that the war defeated itself in Abkhazia.

- Many write that Abkhazian society is afraid of assimilation with Russia? How well-grounded are these statements?

- This fear really exists. The number of Russians who spend their holidays in Abkhazia increases year by year. There is splendid nature and sea in Abkhazia. Many buy lands registered under Abkhazian name. Older Abkhazians are afraid. Young people do not read much in their native language. They cannot get acquainted with the art of Abkhazian writers. That is why they somehow try to hinder the process of assimilation: they pass laws and decrees according to which you cannot work in the state agency unless you read and write in Abkhazia… So I can tell you that Abkhazians are really afraid of assimilation.

- In the “Pass of IDP” it is written that you took this pass a lot earlier…

- Of course, we are talking about the spiritual pass in here. For years, the fear of big danger would not leave me. After passing through the bullets we were met by darkness, hunger, emptiness and poverty in Tbilisi. The miseries did not stop. For some reason I think that we are still taking the way of death…

And still do you think Georgian can go back to the land of Abkhazia?

- Not in the way as it is pictured in the popular Georgian video-clip: IDPs with old cars carrying the suitcases of the world war II… Many famous TV persons on motorcycles, high brand cars. You probably remember when I wrote in “return to Sokhumi” that we will go back by car, ships, and planes and so on. After seeing this video-clip many got mad at me. They thought I helped them with making this video-clip. They would call me and tell me if I helped them with the video where the IDPs were made fun of?! But, nobody told me that they were going to make video-clip on Abkhazia. I had no part in it. And I would like to emphasize on one more things: they should not grant the medals of dignity to the singers for one or two phrases in the clip…