20 Years After the Outbreak of the Bosnian
The terrible effective power of prejudices came fully to the fore in the Bosnian War
The Caucasus has been splintered by war into Georgia, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia. Three women are harnessing words to counter barbed wire.
Dvani, a tiny village in the Caucasus nestled among vineyards and tangerine orchards, is little more than a few farmyards, a police station, and the main street where chickens peck for a meal secure in the knowledge that few cars will pass through to interrupt their foraging. Yet a faceoff between two superpowers is taking place here across a barbed wire fence that bisects the village like the Berlin Wall. Global politics has taken over this quiet hamlet.
In 2008, the long-standing conflict regarding South Ossetia’s status as either an independent republic or part of Georgia escalated. Georgian army factions battled South Ossetia separatist forces, and successfully captured the capital Tskhinvali. With the Russian support, the South Ossetians launched a counter-attack and pushed the Georgians back. Since then, South Ossetia has been in a suspended state of dependent independence backed by the power of Russia, while Georgia enjoys support from the West. Now Russian soldiers and Georgian police officers stand watch over Dvani to ensure that the village and its tangerines do not fall to one side or the other.
Then he turned on his heels and disappeared among the ruined houses on the other side.
Tinatin is forced to stop at the barbed wire. She would like to continue on, ever onwards. All the way to Tskhinvali, the capitol of South Ossetia, to visit friends who live there. A green sign reads “The Republic of South Ossetia” in Cyrillic letters. Tinatin’s eyes turn upwards, towards a hillside beyond the rolls of barbed wire where Russian fronteer guards equipped with field glasses are watching her every move. The young journalists ask her how this place makes her feel as a Georgian. They have come as part of a journalism seminar. Sad, she responds, it is a sad, sad sight, and for a moment she seems to retreat inside herself. But she rallies quickly: “I am an eternal optimist. And I know in my lifetime, we will be able to cross this border freely. Like we used to.”
The young reporters nod, but their follow-up questions have a sceptical aftertaste. They were teenagers during the war between Georgia and South Ossetia just five short years ago. Traumatic images of tanks, burning houses, and convoys of refugees have been burned into their minds. Peaceful coexistence? How would that even work? Even the imagination knows some bounds.
Yesterday, a police officer reports, his eyes behind sunglasses and a machine gun tucked in his arms, an old man appeared on the Ossetian side of the barbed wire. Suddenly, out of no man’s land. He walked up to the fence with tears running down his cheeks and began recounting stories from before the fence. Of his apple trees that were now lost to him on the Georgian side. Of his grandchildren, cut off from their former school in the village of Dvani by the fence. Of neighbours who trusted one another regardless of whether they were Ossetians or Georgians. Then he turned on his heels and disappeared among the ruined houses on the other side.
Tinatin turns to the young journalists who are here to learn about her method of non-violent conflict resolution: “You bear a great responsibility. If you are not careful, you can fan hatred on both sides with your articles. Or you can build bridges if you report fairly and show understanding for the Ossetian side as well.”
Tinatin speaks in a quiet voice. Just based on her appearance, short and slightly heavyset with dark rings under her eyes, it would be easy to underestimate her. But when she speaks, her determination and authority are clear. Outfitted with cameras and microphones, the young Georgians listen attentively to the 58-year-old. On the way back, one television reporter says, “You can really feel how serious she is.”
Overcoming divisions is Tinatin Asatiani’s mission, a mission she has pursued tirelessly for twenty years. She believes words can penetrate barbed wire, over the long-term at least. She has found women “on the other side” who want the same thing. Dina, an Ossetian who teaches young people constructive approaches to conflict. And Dalila in Abkhazia, who is working for reconciliation with Georgia following the bloody war in 1992. The three meet regularly, bring other countrymen and women interested in their cause, organise training seminars, and moderate dialogue. They work with young people who will later occupy influential positions as politicians and managers. You might say their shared objective is to speak peace into being. A year ago, the three met Guli Kichba, an Abkhazian who leads a group of mothers of fallen soldiers against war. She also views herself as a peace activist pushing for careful rapprochement.
The young reporters are moved by the stories; some begin to cry.
It will take time before a sense of unity returns to the Caucasus, time until everyone can profit from stability and peace. These four women are well aware of the long road ahead. But they are not discouraged, and continue to take determined, small steps forward. Today Tinatin is taking the young Georgian journalists on a tour. They are learning to conduct independent research, not necessarily a given in young Caucasus republics. The burgeoning reporters need to become more aware of how to avoid using pejorative language and labels that can raise the other side’s hackles. And they are here to experience first-hand what happens when countries approach a conflict with weapons and violence.
Ruins line the high street in the village of Dvani. Sheep graze among rusted bed frames, wooden beams, a lone teakettle. “The Russian soldiers came and said ‘you have three days’,” farmer Leila Januashvili recounts into the microphones. Her house was on the other side of the barbed wire. Her family was forced to destroy it themselves and carry whatever could be salvaged over to the other side. Like tens of thousands of Georgians, the Januashvilis were forcibly driven out of Ossetia. And while the junk rots and rusts along the roadside, the pain and suffering is still quiet fresh. The young reporters are moved by the stories; some begin to cry.
“We can talk to one another,” Tinatin Asatiani says, “and learn to listen to each other. No matter how hard it is sometimes.” She has a degree in social psychology and is familiar with the inner dimensions of conflict. Such as the fact that all involved prefer to view themselves as victims of the opposing side and hold fast to this idea. Victims: a role of that engenders helplessness, where there is no need to take responsibility and you are one of the good guys from the outset. Perpetrators: these are the overpowering foes, the evildoers, or simply the other. Dialogue between members of opposing camps is often a tricky psychological tightrope walk.
Like in Yerevan at the moment. Tinatin is in the Armenian capitol where she has come to participate in talks between Georgians, Abkhazians and Ossetians. A group of 15 people willing to overcome mental barriers, to see the human being behind the demonised image of the enemy and the prejudices.
This kind of exchange would be impossible in their homelands. Meeting up at all would arouse suspicion, be sanctioned, and perhaps even spur attacks. Here on neutral territory is the only place security can be assured for everyone involved. At least from outside threats.
On the inside, the participants have to be willing to live with uncertainty, to take personal risks. They sit in a circle in a darkened room. Everyone is decked out in their best finery, as is the custom in the region for any official event. Images of war, death, and refugees from other countries flash on the wall before them. Israel and Palestine, Rwanda, Columbia. Although the moderator is actively drawing parallels to the Caucasus conflict, no one seems willing to acknowledge them. They begin to speak with the hesitation of people moving through a minefield, avoiding conflict at all cost. Tinatin is familiar with this part, the politeness phase. “Everyone wants the other to perceive them as the nice guy.”
Quarrels break out the next day. A young woman from Ossetia recounts how Georgian soldiers marched into her village. She and her family hid in fear in the cellar. “They dragged my father out into the street and beat him. And they threw my mother onto the ground and grabbed her breasts right in front of us.” An older woman from Tiflis has a hard time not jumping out of her chair in outrage. “And what about what you did to my people? They were forced out of their houses with no warning with nothing more than a suitcase. How was that right?” The listeners shift uncomfortably in their chairs. An icy silence falls over the room.
Talking about family is a way to connect.
Tinatin is also familiar with this next phase, the attack phase. “It is like an Olympic discipline to see who suffered the most. They tell their stories, trying to shift blame to the other side.” The focus is on what separates the two sides, and sometimes the dialogue has to be discontinued at this juncture.
Now it is essential to find commonalities, to identify possible points of unity. The moderator holds up a poster showing the nine steps in conflict escalation. People lose something at each step, she explains, on both sides of a conflict. Economic opportunities. Choices. Freedoms. Physical inviolability. It is downward spiral of mutual loss. A lose-lose situation, someone in the room calls out. A zero-sum game with no winners. The pain awakens something in everyone present. They experience themselves as people touched by grief, yearning, hope. As people. Suddenly ethnic groups recede into the background. A new phase has begun in which common ground becomes visible and mutual trust can be established. During lunch, the Ossetian sits down next to the Georgian. They talk about their children. The older woman gives the younger some childrearing tips. Talking about family is a way to connect.
Tinatin talks about the first meeting 16 years ago. It was the first time former enemies had sat down together since the devastating war between Georgia and Abkhazia in 1992. Losses were heavy on both sides. Abkhazia on the Black Sea had declared its independence. Georgia responded by launching a military attack. Backed by the Russians, the separatists met force with force in a counter-attack. 4,000 people died on each side and a total of 250,000 were forced to flee their homes.
The first inept attempts to reach reconciliation followed in Yerevan just four years after the end of the war. She recalls the feeling of her pulse thrumming in her body as she entered the room to meet with the waiting Abkhazians. “I remember thinking, ‘they probably see me as one of those Georgian Rambos’. After all, my country attacked them.” She listened as the Abkhazian participants described all Georgians as weapon-mad monsters who didn’t think twice about even shooting at children. Her insides began churning and she felt her anger rise. On the outside did her best to maintain a facade of open goodwill: “The Abkhazians had two advantages: they could present themselves as victims, and they were also the victors.” Ironically they demanded, ‘what are you doing here anyway, what do you want? Surely you don’t expect us to apologize to you?’
For around ten years now, the Berlin Berghof Foundation has supported dialogue in the Caucasus.
As the meeting drew to a close, the Abkhazians told her how nice it had been to meet her and discover there were some decent Georgians after all. New people attended the next meeting, “and again I felt pressure to prove that I was a good person. It got really annoying.” But as trust grew, so did her understanding “that I had to be myself, to show who I really was. Honesty is important. We cannot trivialize the situation in the dialogues, that would come back to bite us in the end.” The Caucasus dialogue is not a sprint; it is a long-distance event.
Today Tinatin Asatiani is a very busy peace worker for the International Center for Conflict and Negotiation, a Georgian NGO. She flies so often to organize dialogue between the parties to the Caucasus conflict that she refers to a café in the Istanbul airport as her “Turkish office”. Most meetings take place a neutral territory, in Moldova or Kosovo for example. At home in Tilflis, her garden is running to seed, and fat, red pomegranates litter the ground. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to pick them. She has to take comfort in the fact that “my work is bearing enough fruit.”
For around ten years now, the Berlin Berghof Foundation has supported dialogue in the Caucasus. They fund travel for participants to the meetings abroad, and supply moderators skilled at creating a dialogue space in which trust and mutual respect can grow. Oliver Wolleh heads up the project and insists on the strictest neutrality. “It takes a great deal of sensitivity. Even things that seem utterly banal, like how to pronounce the capitol of Abkhazia. Sukhumi, like the Georgians say. Or Sukhum in Abkhazian. We prefer to put in the extra effort to use both forms rather than opening ourselves to criticism that we are backing one side or the other.” Huge vulnerability sometimes makes itself known in small ways.
Peace? Not yet. Violence is still widespread.
Both sides welcome this German support, though it sometimes seemed based on slightly skewed reasoning. “The Georgians see us as a European country and close ally of America. Abkhazians and Ossetians mention the close friendship between Merkel and Putin going back to the German Democratic Republic.” It hardly matters though as long as it serves the ultimate objectives of breaking down political borders and overcoming mental hurdles. The Berghof Foundation has brought a wide range of people to the table: high-ranking politicians, young managers just starting to climb the career ladder, representatives of private organizations. Wolleh explains the strategy: “Mutual trust and understanding is key. It paves the way for political solutions to the conflicts.” Civil society is also playing an increasingly important role as civilians come together and found associations not under government control.
Tinatin catches up with Dina at a seminar in Yerevan. Their first glimpse of each other was back in 1996 when both worked for the same Norwegian refugee organisation. They have met up with increasingly frequency ever since, often at events mediated by the Berghof Foundation. Their friendship survived even when they suddenly found themselves in two opposing camps when war broke out five years ago.
As part of the Caucasus dialogues, 42-year-old Dina is viewed as a quick-thinking analyst with a razor-sharp intellect. About South Ossetia she says, “Peace? Not yet. Violence is still widespread and many people have been traumatized. Not just by the war, but also by poverty, unemployment, a lack of perspectives.” Gender roles have shifted. Many men can no longer fulfil their traditional role as family provider and protector. They feel helpless, powerless, seek comfort in alcohol, and express their frustrations with their fists. Domestic violence has surged since the war, as has the divorce rate.
Women are stepping in and taking the reins. Dina is a perfect example. Her husband, an economist, lost his job. Now Dina earns the money to support him and their two small children. She founded an “agency for social, economic and cultural development” and the family lives off the proceeds from her work as a seminar leader and moderator.
But because the border is nearly impassable, every Caucasus dialogue takes on the feel of an adventure.
She sees herself as a peacemaker and works primarily with young adults. “This generation sees violence as completely normal. They have grown up seeing the other as the enemy. I teach them that nothing good can ever come from hate.” To really understand her message, her young participants have to be able to look at themselves from the outside, think independently, and develop their own goals. In traditional South Ossetian society though, parents expect to plan out their children’s lives, and often object to the mindset Dina encourages. Asked about her success rate, she answers: “Some of our program alumni have gone on to become trainers or educators. Social change can only come from small steps taken by many people interested in growing and changing. Helping young people do so gives me a sense of joy.”
Tinatin has been listening. She nods. The two women share more than a similar profession. They also share a passion: helping people who want to grow. The two friends decide to take a break and wander through the Yerevan flea market in search of souvenirs for their loved ones at home. They join forces and barter with a stallholder over the price of a drum. Watching them, it is impossible to imagine that they are from opposing camps.
The two only live a one-hour drive apart, not an insurmountable distance to cover for an occasional chat between neighbours. One would think. But because the border is nearly impassable, every Caucasus dialogue takes on the feel of an adventure. To meet with other participants in Armenia, the South Ossetian representatives have to set out in the middle of the night. Four hours for a taxi ride to North Ossetia, where they catch a flight to Moscow, from where they take another plane to Yerevan. This would roughly be like a person from Hamburg and a person from Bremen having to fly through Cairo just to meet up in Lübeck.
As a German, Oliver Wolleh enjoys the distinct advantage that he can travel with relative ease. Even to Abkhazia, where he plans to meet up with Dina. He takes a taxi for the five-hour journey to the Iguri River along the border. Time is running out. The gates in the fence on the other side shut at 7 pm sharp. Luckily he meets some men unloading heavy sacks from a horse-drawn cart. Trade across the border is officially forbidden. There is a quiet clunking sound as the contents of the sacks shift. The men smuggle hazelnuts into Georgia. They gesture to Wolleh, urging him to climb onto the cart, then heave his suitcase up after him. The bridge that spans the Iguri is in no man’s land. The cart groans and creaks as it rocks from one deep pothole to the next. “The dialogues sometimes remind me of this bridge,” Wolleh says holding fast to his suitcase. “We try to span chasms. It works. But it can make for a very bumpy ride.” He reaches the opposite bank just before the border closes. Georgians are not allowed through here. The guard who stamps his passport sends him on his way with an “auf wiedersehen!” in a thick Russian accent.
Dina and Dalila meet again. In Sukhumi (also known as Sukhum), Abkhazia’s capital on the Black Sea. It has taken Dina 25 hours in a train to reach the city from South Ossetia. She is here to attend a dialogue seminar organised by Oliver Wolleh. She hugs Dalila Pillai with delight. They have not seen either other in a while. Dina tells Dalila about the dialogue in Yerevan, the meeting with Tinatin and other Georgians, and of the growing trust they are establishing. Dalila was not able to come, since a speeding car hit her in front of her house in January and put her on crutches. “The aggression is palpable everywhere, including on the streets,” the 64-year-old says. Dalila, an educator, blames it on a growing sense of frustration in a society with too little space. The burgeoning conflict with Georgia has limited the Abkhazians’ freedom of movement. They need Russian passports to travel at all. The residents of Sukhumi feel locked in an enclave, and subject to strict social monitoring. A young woman who meets the same young man in a café a second time has to reckon that both his and her parents will begin haggling over the dowry. Hermetically sealed borders, even between the sexes.
Word has spread through Abkhazian’s political elite.
Dalila is the founder of the “World without Violence” organisation. She works for a more open society and promotes the same broad-minded approach in the political arena. She trains young politicians in non-violent conflict resolution, the bearers of hope who might make it to the very top of the political heap.
Independent thought, the ability to form and defend one’s opinion in public, listening to others with an open mind: these virtues were little valued in the “really existing socialism” of the Soviet Union. Dalila is a pioneer. She points to the large meeting room: “This is place anyone can talk about anything without having to worry about being judged or threatened.” Word has spread through Abkhazian’s political elite. The current president even took part in one of her seminars. Like her friends Tinatin and Dina, she explains, “it gives me joy to help young people realize their potential.”
This isn’t an easy in Sukhumi, once a vibrant seaside resort on the Black Sea. But that was long ago in the days when Russian cruise liners docked in the port and the Shah of Persia held court on his luxury yacht. Today half the lights that line the white-paved, kilometre-long seafront are dark in the evening. A shabby fishing barge is tied up along the boardwalk. The name on the bow is the “Caucasus”, a symbol of decline. The city attracts few tourists today, mostly Russians drawn by the Mediterranean climate, the palm trees and golden October days. Grapes grow in every garden and climb the walls of every house. The trees are full of plump, ripe tangerines almost ready for picking. Guests spend the night in shabby hotels where the famous Soviet service wasteland has managed to outlive the Soviet Union itself. Russia is one of the few countries that officially recognises Abkhazia.
Following the Georgian-Abkhaz war two decades ago, the city is still marked by the destruction wrought by the hostilities. There is no money for repairs. Fearing reprisals, tens of thousands of Georgians fled at the end of the war. The former magistracy soars twelve stories above the city, visible for miles around like a monument to the folly of war. Its interior is completely burnt out, so it stares at the city through black holes where windows used to be, decorated with banners commemorating the victory of 1993. A casualty of war complete with medals of honour.
Dalila meets up with Guli. After a warm hug, the two sit on the sofa in Dalila’s office to talk about their work. They call themselves soul mates based on the yearning they share for a future without war. The two women went to university together, and Guli also heads up an organisation that promotes peace. The “Mothers of Abkhazia” was founded in 1994. The war with Georgia had ended and women were mourning their fallen sons and husbands. Guli Kichba, 64 years old today, became their leader. A tall woman who loves vintage jewellery, she cuts a confident figure. She often bemoans her “Greek nose” when photos are being taken, claiming it is too large for her face. In such moments, you catch a glimpse of her as an innocent young girl.
They were not ready to go home just yet.
4,000 Abkhazians died in the war 20 years ago, and 160 men are still missing. No one knows where they died. “The war will not truly be over until the last soldier has been properly buried,” Guli says. She accepts company on a walk to Victory Park at the centre of Sukhumi. The war monument is a giant, stylised knife sticking up out of the earth and surrounded by slabs of black marble engraved with long rows of the names of the dead and missing. Guli picked a few pansies along the way and lays them in the same spot she always does. Next to her son’s name. She knows he is dead. But she does not know where his remains are. “It broke my husband’s heart not to be able to bury his son,” she says on the way back home. Her husband died of a heart attack.
She wore black for a very long time. One year of mourning is traditional in Abkhazia. Women withdraw from public life. Going out to a café is taboo, as is any form of enjoyment or entertainment. That is tradition. But following the war, politics invaded the private. Politicians made political hay out of the mourning for fallen soldiers. Pictures of “our heroes” were put on display, flanked by their mothers and wives in black. An image of victory and victimhood in one.
One year after the war, a commemoration event was held in same square where Guli has just laid down her flowers. Many women stayed behind after it was over. They were not ready to go home just yet. Guli was among them. “We felt a need to talk with one another. Just among ourselves with no cameras rolling. With just our own tears.” Someone suggested going to the Russian theatre. “It will be just us there. Let us cry together.” The mother organisation was founded on that very night.
Ten years after the war, another meeting of mourning women took place. 600 attended. Guli took the podium, looked out into the room and saw a great sea of black. She said, “There is a dark hole in our hearts. We need to join together to escape.” After her speech, struck by sudden inspiration, she untied the strings on her mourning veil and laid it to one side. At first, just a few women hesitantly followed her example. More and more joined in, until hundreds were removing their veils in a freeing violation of tradition. And Guli had found her calling: to help traumatised women overcome their sense of isolation. “We cannot allow the feelings of women to be exploited by politicians,” Guli says in her office. The walls are covered with pictures of her with powerful people like Vladimir Putin. She maintains her distance though. “Grief is the psyche’s healthy reaction to loss. But artificially extending it to suit political machinations limits women’s freedom. The veil becomes a prison. We want to free and empower women.” Her organisation offers women a chance to heal at resorts along the beautiful Black Sea coast. “We want to get them out of the house so they can reintegrate into social life.” The volunteers also help women correspond with the authorities. The mothers around Guli assist women in filing claims for pensions and finding childcare, and they offer sewing courses and psychological counselling.
To Guli, the political message is most important of all. “Because we have felt the pain of losing a loved one, we never miss an opportunity to say that there must never be another war. Not between Abkhazia and Georgia, not anywhere in the Caucasus. We are watchful. We will not allow our grief to be misappropriated for cheap propaganda and campaigns of vengeance.”
The dialogues in the Caucasus are mostly attended by women. Few moderators or participants are men. Perhaps because the feminine is associated with the peaceful? “Not at all,” Tinatin says. “But women are often victims of violence. So they have more of a stake in seeking non-violent solutions.” “In the Caucasus, women find it easier to express their feelings than men,” Guli says. “In our dialogues, everyone needs to be willing to show weakness and be vulnerable.” “Men seek spaces that can promote their careers and provide positions of power, like politics and business,” Dalila says. “It’s simple really. You don’t earn a lot in organisations like our,” Dina says. Four women who believe that what connects us is ultimately stronger than what divides us. In the long-term at least.
Photo by Michael Gleich