Malo Kotua, 27 years old, Gali district, Saberio/Zugdidi
”I lived in Abkhazia until I was 13 years old. My parents are still in Saberio. My siblings finished school there. When I turned 13, my mother vehemently insisted for me to move to my grandmother, in Zugdidi. Grandma was living there alone and needed some help. Since I was the oldest child in the family, I couldn’t refuse, but it was hard to get away from my family. Moreover, I knew I would not be able to see them often, since at that time it meant crossing the border illegally, without documents. But anyway, I was forced to move to Zugdidi for 5-6 years now. Every Friday was special for me since I could return to Otobaia and spend my weekends there. Instead I hated Sundays because that’s when I had to leave my family again for the whole week.
Actually, my home is just a few kilometers away from Zugdidi. The distance is small, but the road is so difficult and risky you never knew if you could make it alive.
As I mentioned, we didn’t have any documents to cross the border legally. That’s why we were choosing the trail through the forest. My aunt lived near the borderline; she was called ”the conductor”. She knew all the trails of the forest and helped Georgians cross the border. She’s been in danger countless times and has even been arrested by the Russians.
Once I looked death in the eyes. It was the 14th of October, 2009. My grandmother, my aunt, my mother, my mother’s friend and I had to go to Zugdidi. I don’t know how Russian border control got the information, but suddenly gunfire has emerged between the Georgians and Russians. We ran back home and hid in the basement. The shooting didn’t stop. In our yard, we had laurel trees and bullets were tearing their leaves apart. The air smelled like laurels. We realized that the gunfire was approaching the house and my aunt warned us there was no point in staying, so we better head to the forest to hide. We ran, but they caught up to us soon. The soldiers were wearing masks; I still remember the feeling to have a gun to my head. It scared me so much that my blood ran cold. I thought it was the end. They didn’t kill us, probably because I was still a kid, but they took us back to Saberio. Every time I go to that place, I feel the bullet in my back and the smell of death – the scent of laurels. Such were the days we, the Georgians living there, went through.
People from Gali are often blamed for not leaving our homes. I don’t think that leaving is the answer. On the contrary, considering what living there on both side of the border costs us, living there, speaking Georgian, it’s our way of protesting. We risked life and limb to stay there. When my classmates gather, we remember what we got through… My father prefers to live in fear and poverty than to leave his home. Aside from that, we have nowhere to go, we don’t even own anything.
My heart breaks when I hear saying, Galians are not Georgians. In this winter when we were in Gali, my grandfather died. During the funeral, borders were closed due to swine flu. We were isolated for a month, our jobs and all of our resources in Zugdidi, we had nothing to eat and nothing to buy food or medicine with. I remember how we Georgians celebrated when they opened up the borders. To understand what we felt, you have to know how it feels to live between two borders. During this period, I was following people’s reactions on social media and we didn’t feel any compassion. Contrarily, they criticized us, telling us – you reap what you sow. But they don’t know how we struggled to protect our homes. You walk down the street and Russian soldiers are following you everywhere. Even if they put a gun to my forehead nine times, I would still cross the border for the 10th. I love being there, even for a week, breathing that air gives me strength. If we leave those houses, it will be destroyed like the others already are.
For me as a young adult, it was probably a better decision to move to Zugdidi. I advanced my career. I do polymer pottery, make some bags, jewelry, often participate in different projects, teach the craftsmanship to socially vulnerable women and refugees. I won some grants, among them in ”Enterprise Georgia” and now I have my own workshop. My main source of income is selling the items I make here. Sometimes I get big orders, my husband lends a hand and we together help out parents in Abkhazia.
Usually, we send goods with the bus to the border and they meet it there. Our parents don’t have a farm. Farming is not developed in there, except for hazelnut picking, but in recent years the yields decreased from 3-4 tones to 150 kg. And even that was useless, they weren’t able to sell it.
The youth is in a hard situation. There is no work for them, boys can still find work in brick factories or dams, but there is nothing for girls. I want to teach my handwork to women living in Abkhazia for them to have an additional source of income. However, this idea requires financing, because the materials are costly and they can’t afford that. They can’t move here either since they don’t have any possessions or connections.
It is hard to live between two different places.
The world is cheerful on this side and black and white on the other. People are different too, aged by a hard life. The roads are damaged and the food is twice as expensive. Here, you can do whatever you want. But there, you do as you’re told. Freedom – it’s the word that draws the dividing line between the two worlds.
Author: Maiko Chitaia
Photo: Salome Sagaradze