Ludmila Salia, 61 years old, Khurvaleti, Gori municipality/ Sokhumi

“I’m from Abkhazia, Sokhumi; I’m an Abkhazian war veteran. I worked at the Agudzera military hospital. On September 28th, I left the fallen city and hiked through the Chuberi route. I have been through a lot and I’m still struggling.

It’s hard to remember the story of the Abkhazian war.  First of all, it’s because so many young people died. Young men, who really had their hearts burning and really believed they were fighting for Georgia and its independence. But in reality, we were sacrificed, left there by the government as a fodder. We stayed there until the last minute. Until they got to us and started killing us one by one, we stuck together as one.

On 28th September in the morning, we started walking the Tsebeldi road. We were on the road for 12 days and I got sick in Sakeni. I had a fever of 41 degrees from walking in the rain and snow. I developed pyelonephritis – a kidney infection. Spending those 12 days in Sakeni was terrible, nobody cared for us. Every three days a helicopter dropped bread from the air, but wherever the bread dropped people were fighting for it to the death.

All of our groups were camped. My relatives were coming with me, we were like a family. Once, because of the weather, the helicopter couldn’t fly for three days in a row. We were hungry for three days. Once, I was able to take 6 pieces of bread, ”bricks of bread”, as they were called. Three pieces in one hand and another three in another. 10 people were waiting for those bread… How bitterly I remember that day. Many were left without bread. While going back to my group, an old man I met told me he was hungry for days, asking for the bread; I gave one to another acquaintance of mine too. I got four left, walking back, and I saw an old man with two freezing, barefoot children. Seemed like they left only with their clothes on. He stood there, shaking the child back and forth, and told me the kid was hungry for 5 days. I gave him all four pieces of bread. I got back to my relatives without any bread, but I swear on my only child, I felt so full that day, I didn’t even get hungry. Such were the days I went through.

On this road, there was a 3-kilometer-long hole cut in the road, you’re walking in this hole and all you see is the sky. I told to my niece jokingly, when someone gets lost back in Samegrelo and people think she’s dead already, they mourn a prop instead of her body. So maybe if we didn’t return on time, we’d get mourned the same way too. My niece replied, maybe we’re dead already and we went to hell. We had the feeling we weren’t alive anymore.

Human psychology gets to a point when you think you may not be alive anymore, the horror goes on, you’re going down this alpine road, there’s a dead body and you can’t bury it — the ground’s frozen, and you have nothing to dig with. You pass the body coldheartedly, knowing full well that if you stay, the same fate awaits you, and some sort of a survival instinct helps you get through.

Somehow, I managed to arrive at Jvari, then from Jvari to Zugdidi, from where I wanted to go to Tbilisi, because my wounded sister was there in a hospital, she had been sent from Sokhumi to Tbilisi by an airplane. I wanted to go there and see her, but how would I? The roads were blocked. I went to Poti, from Poti to Batumi and hopped on a bus going from Batumi through the Goderdzi pass to Tbilisi. We had been robbed in Khashuri. The passengers were coming from Turkey, bringing back wares. Some brought shoes, some – dresses… I was already exhausted; not caring about anything anymore, I went down from the bus and asked the robbers what they were doing. They asked me who I was. Told them I was coming from the war, that I had worked in the military hospital; told them not to touch anything and asked where were they taking all this stuff. They told me they were going to bring it all to the homeless children’s shelter. “I saw you take four pairs of shoes; show me a kid with 42-size feet” – I told them. “You can take it only over my dead body”. They took only a few things and left. Now I think fighting for something always makes sense. On the way back everybody blessed me, asking for my address and I had nothing but my name left. I didn’t have a passport or an id card. Do you want to know what I was wearing? The military uniform, which I have retained til now; I had a white doctor’s coat over it. The women traveling with me got me to take them off; one gave me a sweater, and the other – a pair of pants.

“A Home Without Borders”

I’ve always wanted to open a shelter for the elderly. When I saw so many people in the gutter, so many people living in poverty, I knew I had to do something. I have chosen a very symbolic name for this shelter. I don’t recognize any borders — even though it is difficult to communicate with the Ossetian people, I’m there If they’ll need my help.

I got married while in exile and this house in Khurvaleti belonged to my mother-in-law, after her death my husband inherited it. The house was closed since 2008 and we lived in Tbilisi.

Until I opened the shelter, I went to the villages door-to-door, taking a group of volunteers and conducted a census – how many people were living alone, recorded their age, made a list of disabled people, a list of the socially vulnerable, etc. All of this was written down and we created a database. After that, I won a tender to get a social enterprise financed.

The success came after hard work, the project was partially financed by me, I put in material resources  – this huge house, also chairs, tables, beds, mattresses, etc. There were many things from my personal belongs. In addition – 17000 GEL. A funny thing – later, my project coordinator told me that when she read about this project, about the land, house, furniture, and thousands of Lari, she thought this woman was either crazy or a liar.

The shelter is designed for 13 people. Now I have 12 elderly. If someone dies, another one will be transferred.

I buried one old man by myself and it was very hard for me. He was from Gori, with cancer. He was transferred from another shelter, I prefer not to tell its name, they threw him out because of his diagnosis. I couldn’t directly ask him who to contact in case he died, so I asked about any of his relatives in case he fell ill, but he wouldn’t. He died and I was the one who put him in a casket. Then I went through his phone and called a number I found and told them Mr. Tamazi died. Someone answered and told me he didn’t know him. Then I saw a Russian number and I called there too, and that was his niece in Vladikavzkaz. When I informed her about his death, she gave me her mother’s number. And that was exactly the number of the person who told me she didn’t know Tamaz. I called there one more time, and told them Tamaz died and I already took care of everything. She asked if he was buried on a stretcher. I elaborated that he was buried in an appropriate, Christian way and that I have done everything properly, took his body to the church and buried him here, in Khurvaleti. After a number of days the lady came and reburied him in Gori, in their family cemetery.

The elderly arrive for different reasons. Some of them are victims of violence, some of them are homeless, some of them have been thrown out from their homes, some have been thrown out by in-laws; we have such people as well. I have one elder here since the day of establishment. Nobody has left here except by the way of nature.

In the future, I have a strong desire to open a new shelter for people with Alzheimer’s. I’ve already laid out the plans as well. “

Author: Nino Gamisonia

Photo: Nino Baidauri