It is a hot and sunny September afternoon in the republic of Georgia. My driver, Dato, is rummaging through a stack of cassette tapes, in search of Ray Charles' famous recording of "Georgia on my Mind." Zipping through the crowded streets of the capital city of Tbilisi, driving with one hand, Dato explains that Tbilisi, loosely translated, means "hot place." The city was named for its famed hot mineral waters, still available to bathers and health seekers in the Turkish baths in the old part of the city.
"And," he says with emphasis, cramming the cassette into the tape deck, "you are an American. Tell me, do you know what they call Atlanta? Hot-lanta! Ha! You see, Atlanta is in Georgia, and Tbilisi, the hot city, is in Georgia. We are sister cities!"
This is Dato's way of letting me know that I am welcome, an honored guest in his beloved city, in spite of the fact that I don't speak Georgian and I am perpetually lost. He sings along with Ray Charles, smiling, driving with one finger now, his left arm flung out the car window as cars and trucks zoom past, honking, belching black smoke, weaving and swerving along the unlined streets.
I have come to Georgia as a journalist, to learn about the situation of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) who have lived here for more than a decade, after being driven by war from their homelands, the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and Ossetia, following the breakup up the Soviet Union in the early '90s. I have learned that there are as many as 300,000 IDPs in Georgia, a country with a population of 5 million; half of them, instead of living with friends or relatives in private flats, live in large collective centers, revamped buildings or skeletons of buildings abandoned when the Soviet Union fell and Georgia gained its independence. I have learned that these people fled their homes in the midst of chaos and that many saw their homes blown up, their loved ones killed, their dreams of the future shattered.
I have learned that this fascinating country, with its ancient history, its rich culture and its vibrant people, is an enigma -- a place where beauty and destruction rub shoulders. It is a place on the verge of entering the modern commercial mainstream while still struggling with raging poverty and unemployment, government corruption, economic collapse and raw memories of blood in the streets.
On the main drag of Tbilisi, Rustaveli Avenue, a monumental McDonald's, with arched windows and minarets, stands near the stately old opera house. The street signs all along Rustaveli, paid for by the American corporation, are embellished with miniature golden arches.
Georgia had never crossed my mind before I met another journalist, a BBC reporter from Tbilisi a few years back, then received an invitation to go there and see the place for myself. Indeed, few Americans have given much thought to this scenic, mountainous land formerly of the Soviet Union but with a rich history of its own. When I told people I was going to Georgia, they inevitably looked at me and said, "It'll still be hot there this time of year," assuming I meant the southern American state.
Now, I find myself traversing Tbilisi's streets with Dato, in search of IDPs and those who help them. An American with no experience in this part of the world, I am quickly and unavoidably falling in love -- with this city, this country and its "old sweet song."
'We brought nothing'
I meet my friend Keti, the BBC reporter, on the gravel and dirt yard of a large, square concrete building with laundry hanging from the windows and balconies. Outside the main door, the smell of boiling cabbage seeps through.
This building was originally intended to be an eye clinic, financed by German investors, but was abandoned when the economy went bust. Now, it is home to around 700 IDPs, most of them from Abkhazia, the northern resort region formerly of Georgia, now fighting for autonomy, located on the Black Sea.
Much coveted for its natural beauty and caught in a tug of war between Russia and Georgia, Abkhazia remains defiantly independent, though its population was severely depleted when ethnic Georgians were killed or expelled in the war of 1992-1993. Now, it survives largely on black-market trade.
Inside the building, the hallways are unlighted, with bare concrete floors. Hotplates with steaming covered saucepans glow in dark shadows. Each door is different, as the apartments have been cobbled together piece by piece. When IDPs from Abkhazia first arrived here 12 years ago, the building was an incomplete shell with no electricity and no plumbing.
We enter an apartment and are greeted by Rapara Mirtskhulava, a 50-ish woman with hair dyed red but not recently; the gray roots have grown out several inches. She is expecting us and is dressed in a filmy green chemise. We are politely invited to her table, pushed against the front wall of her neat one-room apartment, and are offered a plate of plums and apples.
Rapara has lived here for eight years with her husband. He was injured in the Abkhazian war and still has shrapnel in his head.
"We have asked for money for an operation," says Rapara, explaining that the government is supposed to provide free care for such injuries. "But we have no money yet."
Rapara has two sons -- one "an invalid from the war" who lives in an institution and another who is married now and planning to leave Tbilisi soon. She cries easily at the mention of her sick son. He suffers from psychological trauma and has no passport, so he gets no pension. It is hard to get to the hospital to visit. Rapara and her husband each live on a government payment of 11 lari per month, roughly $6.
"Our house was blown up," she says of her escape to Georgia from her home in Abkhazia. "We brought nothing. We spent some days in another house, hiding, then came to Tbilisi with nothing but the clothes on our backs."
Rapara picks up a little money collecting dog mess in plastic bags at privately owned apartment buildings. Her son's new wife, she says, doesn't like for him to be here in his parents' apartment.
"We are always reminded that we are not part of Tbilisi," she says matter-of-factly. "Sometimes people say, 'We are fed up with these refugees; we don't want to deal with this problem any more.'"
She pulls out a big jug of homemade wine and asks if we will share a glass. It is barely 10 in the morning, so we decline, but hesitantly. Keti has explained to me that I must accept offerings of food and drink as a courtesy to my hosts. We stand up to leave, and I ask Rapara if, like some of the other IDPs from Abkhazia I've met, she hopes one day to return to her homeland.
"Nobody hopes that everything will be OK," she says. "We are afraid of the future. We are frightened to think about tomorrow."
We take our leave with hugs and many thanks and go on to meet others in the building -- a 70-year-old grandmother whose son froze and died escaping Abkhazia, a 30-year-old mother and her 10-year-old daughter with juvenile diabetes -- each offering her story with grace and dignity, and the offer of a cup of tea.
That night, I eat dinner in a nice restaurant on Rustaveli Avenue, watching fashionable young people speed walk by. On one meal, I spend 35 lari, a little more than the equivalent of three months' pension.
Trip to the countryside
One day, Keti announces that we will combine work with pleasure on a trip to the countryside. We will visit Borjomi, southwest of Tbilisi, famed for its mineral water springs, the place where the president keeps a summer palace and where a former Soviet sanitarium is now an IDP collective center. We will visit Akhaitz-ikhe, a village near the Turkish border where an archaeological dig has unearthed several ancient wineries, just next to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, a British Petroleum project serving American oil interests in the Caspian Sea (including, reportedly, the interests of the George H.W. Bush family).
The drive is harrowing, the road fraught with potholes and crumbling pavement; the scenery is exquisite. Castle ruins sit slumped on mountaintops. From roadside stands, farmers sell colorful buckets of plums, tomatoes, melons, persimmons, apples, peppers and eggplants. We pass acres of walnut trees, their limbs heavily weighted with nuts. We stop several times to allow a herd of sheep to cross the road.
In Borjomi, we drive past fashionable houses to a dirt road on the outskirts of town, past entrances to the national forest, past a summer camp for musicians. The road narrows and grows more pitted and littered with boulders. Finally, we pull up to the home of 400 IDPs, another concrete shell of a building decorated with fluttering laundry hung out to dry, with little children playing on the park-like expanse of the forested yard and pigs rooting around the bushes next to the front door.
We are greeted by a lively woman named Madonna who escorts us to the apartment of Eteri and Shota, an elderly refugee couple from Abkhazia. Joining us are several neighbors, including Gogutsa, the mother of four children, and Vera, a kindly white-haired widow.
The apartment is one room -- neatly made beds in the center, surrounded by chairs, a bookcase and a television stand and bordered by a porch turned into a kitchen, sunny with lace curtains on the large windows. We are told that in many apartments, as many as six people sleep in a room this size.
Our hosts insist that we have a cup of thick, sweetened Turkish coffee. It is served in delicate china cups -- one for Keti, one for me.
Eteri tells the harrowing story of her escape from Abkhazia over high mountains.
"It was very frozen part of this way," she says. "We walked for ten days."
Eventually Eteri, Shuta and six other family members settled in the city of Kutaisi, but were then sent by authorities to different regions. Eteri was happy to learn that she would come to Borjomi, where pensioners retired and where, she heard, there was "no unhappiness."
But the former sanitarium, now abandoned and stripped of all amenities, was far from civilization. The couple soon found that there were no medical doctors to see to their many ailments. The water came out of the faucets brown and rank. There was no electricity from autumn to spring.
"Did you see the summer composers' house on the way up?" Eteri asks. "There is electricity in the summer when the musicians are there, but not when they go."
A grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), recently approved, will pay for 100 kilowatts of power per month. Everyone is grateful for that. But winters are long and cold. The building is not insulated because it was intended only for summer residence.
"There are many wolves here in the winter," Vera adds quietly. "We can see them in the yard. There is snow from October through May. It is dangerous with no electric."
Shuta leans on a crutch and proudly remembers his service in World War II. He was a decorated veteran, disabled by a work injury, drawing a pension of 61 lari in Abkhazia. When he came to Georgia, his pension dropped to 18 lari or a little over $9 per month. He names all the medicines he needs and shows me the empty bottles. He and the others agree that they are grateful for a new elected assemblyman, Nodari Grigalachvili, who represents Borjomi in Parliament now, and is working to get doctors to the collective; clothes and shoes for the kids; and transportation to town and to Tbilisi for medical care. Many of the children here have asthma, problems with adenoids and tonsils, chronic bronchitis. Thyroid deficiency is common among the residents.
Worst of all, they agree, is the cemetery problem. The ground is rocky and frozen half the year. They cannot afford a cemetery plot in town. They can't bury their dead.
When we leave, Keti promises to box up her children's old textbooks and send them to Gogutsa's children. I think of the closets full of neglected or outgrown sweaters and coats in my house in Colorado Springs, the boxes of blankets and sheets never unpacked the last time my family moved.
We drive on to Akhaitz-ikhe where we meet the dashing Tbilisi State University archaeologist Vakhtang Licheli, suntanned, with a neat white mustache, dressed in light safari clothes. He takes us directly to the site of the archaeological dig where the remains of three wineries -- from the 15th, 13th and 11th centuries -- lie just below ground level. Less than 10 feet away, a deep ditch stands waiting to bury pipe 6 feet wide that will carry up to 1 million barrels of oil a day from oil fields in the Caspian Sea to Black Sea ports in Turkey, for export to Europe and the Americas, starting early next year if all goes well. Dr. Licheli says that British Petroleum helped finance his project and was careful not to disturb the sites as the pipeline was put in place in the past few months.
At sunset, we visit the ruins of the 11th-century Cathedral of the Virgin Mary, destroyed by an earthquake in 1283. Inside, there are faint traces of wall paintings. One small room, next to the altar, has been restored, its walls covered with icons, a confessional with gauzy blue curtains standing in the corner. Hundreds of candle stubs stand at odd angles on the wooden altar. A window frames the bucolic scene of a young boy, bouncing down the hill beyond the cathedral, surrounded by a flock of sheep. Above them, atop the next hill, stands the town fortress, an inhabited castle from the fourth century through the 18th century. It is a holy site, says Dr. Licheli, visited by St. Andrew who brought Christianity to Georgia.
That night, Dr. Licheli shows us the treasures he has unearthed at Akhaitz-ikhe. Kept in an old windowless barn, they are covered by canvas cloth, stored in plastic zip-lock bags -- skulls, bracelets, pottery, silver head ornaments, wine vessels, all perfectly preserved in their burial vaults. The lights are not working, so we view them by flashlight beams. Outside, the night sky is perfectly black with stars so dense they appear to jostle for position.
'We all share trauma'
While in Georgia, I meet many people dedicated to helping the refugees from Abkhazia and Ossetia. I meet Manana Gabashvili of the Norwegian Refugee Council, widely considered the most effective of the nongovernmental agencies (NGOs) helping IDPs, working toward permanent housing solutions, employment and self-sufficiency. I meet Veta Lazarashvili, an elegant psychiatrist whose agency Ndoba (Trust) offers free psychological counseling to anyone who has experienced trauma during wartime, by natural causes, from domestic abuse or at the hands of police, and who runs a 24-hour-a-day suicide hotline.
"We all share trauma," says Veta, explaining that she has lost family members to war, a 16-year-old son to a brain aneurysm, and a dear friend to suicide. "Life is difficult; life is beautiful. When a person overcomes trauma, even a person with no money or no job, that person can become self-realized. It's very important."
I meet Nino Mahashvili, a woman in her 40s who runs the Georgia Center for the Rehabilitation of Torture Victims, many of them IDPs who were captured and tortured before they escaped to Georgia. She is particularly concerned with refugees from Chechnya and the cross-generational transmission of trauma, born of losses, visible in vengeful attitudes, in children and young people raised as fighters, "full of enmity and mistrust."
I meet Tamar Pataridze, Lia Sanikidze and Mari Meshki of Women for the Future, working to spread the word about human trafficking, to help young people who feel they have no future to avoid falling into the hands of profiteers who take them to foreign countries, steal their passports and sell them into various forms of slavery. These women are smart, articulate and brave, willing to demand that the Georgian government do its part to protect victims and prosecute traffickers. They are quick to acknowledge the universality of the problem, including the rampant sex trade of illegal immigrants in the United States.
I meet Sopho, 16, and Hatuna, beautiful black-eyed young women from South Ossetia, displaced to Gori, birthplace of Joseph Stalin, where they run an after-school program for Ossetian children and an Ossetian-language radio station from one of the outbuildings of the collective center where they live, formerly the summer dormitory of a Soviet sports training camp. They introduce me to Larisa, mother of four accomplished children, also an IDP from Ossetia, who serves me delicious honey ginger cake and Georgian green tea.
They tell me that there are people in their collective center with relatives in Beslan, the North Ossetian town where Chechnyan fighters took a school full of children hostage just a few weeks before. Their neighbors had close relatives in the school and waited three long days to find out if they were dead or alive after Russian troops stormed the school and hundreds died. Sopho and Hatuna care for the collective's children in the afternoons, teaching them art, dancing, singing, acting, photography and knitting.
I meet people who invite me to the fabled Georgian table, offering toasts with homemade plum brandy late into the night and course after course of marvelously seasoned dishes, redolent with dill and cilantro.
One day in Tbilisi, Dato drops me off at an address where I am to meet with a relief worker. I jump out of the car and walk into a gated yard, then walk to the back as I have been instructed. A huge yellow dog lunges at me, snarling and biting at my ankles as I retreat into the house and quickly realize I am in the wrong place.
The house is a palace with high ceilings and huge rooms, stripped of all furniture and light fixtures, empty except for a couch in a room that looks as if it once was a pantry. The light of a television screen glows as I call out for help. An elderly man, frightened, steps out of the shadows and speaks to me in Georgian. I point at his front door, asking in English if he will let me back onto the sidewalk, as I am afraid to face the dog, still snarling in the back yard. I imitate the dog. He doesn't understand me and I don't understand him. He reaches for my purse and I pull it close. His bent-over old wife kindly tries to intervene. I explain that I am an American. She smiles. He frowns.
Finally he lets me out the door and follows me down the street to my appointment. The Georgian woman who greets me there explains to him that I was lost and went into the wrong door accidentally. She calms him and he leaves. She tells me that he thought I was a spy and asked if I had taken any documents from his house.
In Georgia, I am a stranger in a strange land.
When Dato drives me back to the airport, he asks if I will return to Georgia. Yes, I hope so, I tell him. He smiles broadly with the knowledge that I like, maybe even love a little, his precious homeland. He tells me about his parents, who struggle on a pension, and how blessed he is to have a job that puts him in contact with people from all over the world, that pays well enough to allow him to help his mother and father.
As we approach the airport at 3 a.m., the only time international flights take off from Tbilisi, he offers me his secret wish for his own life -- to be a stand-up comedian.
In three years, he maintains, he will have enough money to take his show on the road. When I return to Georgia, he will be onstage, making people laugh. He names the American comedians he admires most -- Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Richard Pryor.
"Laughter," he says, "is healing."
Georgia, I realize, looking into the laughing eyes of this singing cab driver, in all its beauty and humanity, its poverty and struggle, its drama and mystery, will always be on my mind.