Encouraging dialogue across a conflict divide
Two young women are sitting in a London room bathed in brilliant winter sunshine. Esma, 25, is Georgian; Anzhela, 23, is from Abkhazia. They have travelled to London to take part in internships with Conciliation Resources and share their experiences as participants on the Youth Dialogue project.
As the two girls chat happily about their trip it is hard to imagine that they come from opposite sides of a bitter conflict divide which has split Georgians and Abkhazians since the early 1990s.
Over the last four years Esma and Anzhela have transformed their lives and their view of the world by taking part in workshops organised by Conciliation Resources. This work is aimed at bringing young people from the South Caucasus together to discuss the challenges facing their region and the role of young people in finding ways forward. In the process they have become friends.
But their laughter conceals a darker story: both girls have experienced the trauma of growing up amidst the distrust, fears and ruins of conflict. War between Georgians and Abkhaz broke out in 1992 following the disintegration of the Soviet Union; the lives of these two young women were turned upside down as a result.
The impact of war
Esma was a seven-year-old Georgian girl living in Gal/i, a Georgian-populated region of Abkhazia. Conditions deteriorated drastically and Esma’s village was blockaded for four days. She recalls how twenty to thirty Georgians were squeezed into each house as the men found a way to escape to another village.
Forced to flee, Esma and her mother made a hazardous journey to safety. For two days they fled across fields and hard terrain to evade Abkhaz troops. They arrived exhausted at a coastal port from where they travelled by boat and train to reach the Georgian town Kutaisi.
Initially they were able to stay with relatives. But before long they were forced to live with other internally displaced persons (IDPs), in a succession of collective centres.
In the meantime her father had stayed in Abkhazia and it was a year before he was able to re-join the family. The sense of dislocation was overwhelming.
We had no money at all. We could only afford half a loaf of bread a day. You can’t imagine what life is like as an IDP. You are in your own society and surrounded by your own people but people’s perceptions of you are very bad. It’s like having a huge tattoo on your shoulder that everyone can see
The impact of war was just as life-changing for Anzhela. Aged just five when fighting broke out, her childhood was scarred by war and the resulting desperation of her family’s situation. With Abkhazia ravaged by conflict, the only opportunity of making money was through trading in basic household commodities across the border with Russia.
Even after the official ceasefire, the war continued to cast a long and painful shadow over Anzhela, her family and Abkhazia more generally.
Men were not allowed to cross the border to trade and there were no opportunities for them to work. So they just stayed at home. My father was desperate. To help the family I would go with my mother to try and make a little money by selling some basic goods over the border. It was very frightening crossing the border and seeing so many armed soldiers… You could feel the hatred everywhere. I don’t know a family who did not lose at least one close relative or family member
Connecting young Georgians and Abkhaz
Conciliation Resources has been working since the mid-1990s on initiatives to establish connections between Georgians and Abkhaz and to lessen mutual distrust. Located outside the region, workshops and study visits are a forum in which young people can meet in a safe and neutral environment. Here, they can listen to, and try to understand, each other’s views and perspectives and explore areas of potential commonality, in spite of apparently irreconcilable standpoints.
On a number of occasions Georgians and Abkhaz have actually concurred in their analysis, while in other cases they have at least managed to constructively debate difficult issues and accept that they do not agree.
Until they came to London for the first time in December 2008, Anzhela and her fellow Abkhaz had not been exposed to ‘the Georgian view of things’. It was only after a few days that they could hear each other out on certain topics without feeling bitter and exasperated. Anzhela admits that she had arrived wanting to tell Georgians that ‘they were wrong and she was right’.
I came with no intention of making friends with Georgians but I was lucky and did. I enjoyed the conversations and had fun. In the evenings we were able to get together and tell jokes and laugh and this was really important in helping bring us together. We could discuss things which we couldn’t during the workshops
Esma agreed that the London meeting had been successful in truly enhancing understanding among participants.
The sessions were well structured and facilitated. [The facilitator] stressed to us that when we wanted to say something we should try and think first about the words, and what effect they would have and whether they would hurt people. Step by step, this gave us the confidence to move on and talk about history and politics
The atmosphere in the room has noticeably lightened since reminiscing about their trip and moving on from discussion of each girl’s traumatic, war-torn upbringings.
Continuing to build peace
These two courageous young women have used the experiences gained from their visit to continue activities aimed at breaking down stereotypes of ‘the other side’ and contribute to fostering relations.
Since Esma returned from London the ‘Youth Initiative Group’ has been established. This informal network is made up of young Georgians involved in dialogue with their Abkhaz counterparts. The network actively encourages others to join and has given presentations all over Georgia.
On a personal level Esma’s life has also changed. Instead of feeling stigmatised and powerless as someone that experienced displacement, she has been empowered by her experiences and thinks about her role as a citizen and leader within her community. She has learned how to listen to those with whom she disagrees and now recognises her potential and how to use it.
War killed people’s spirit in Georgia but I have been able to rebuild my confidence through my experience of conflict resolution
Meanwhile, Anzhela has worked within an organisation called ‘World Without Violence’. The group has shared its experiences of dialogue with officials and also on Abkhaz TV. She admits that the reaction to their work has been hostile at times and that many Abkhaz feel that, at best, the group is wasting its time and, at worse, is perceived as traitors trying to lead Abkhazia back to Georgian rule. But she remains undaunted.
I am doing something good for my country by gaining insights which one will never get from watching TV. Our work allows Abkhaz to learn more about Georgians and our work with local communities has helped some Abkhaz to learn more about the process of dialogue and reconciliation. Relationships need to be built with our neighbours, but that doesn’t mean we’re compromising our position in regard to Abkhazia’s status
As with Esma, the experience has opened up Anzhela’s view of the world more generally.She now wants to use her experience of resolving conflict in other conflict regions such as in Palestine.
However, both women are also realistic. They realise that their individual positive stories do not necessarily reflect an improvement more generally in relations between Georgians and Abkhaz. And they are both quick to remind me that there is still a long way to go before their respective communities abandon their prejudices and come to see that ongoing conflict and isolation makes it impossible to plan for the future.