Although Georgia was not the first country in the South Caucasus where the U.S. Peace Corps started working after the collapse of the former Soviet Union, it was until recently the most active in terms of blogs. Although 255 Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) have been stationed in Georgia since 2002, as opposed to 583 in Armenia since 1992 and 195 in Azerbaijan since 2002, blogging has been more active there since volunteers were allowed to post about their experiences from 2006 onwards.
In part, this is perhaps because of all the republics which make up the South Caucasus, Georgia is arguably the most open and Western-leaning. Indeed, since the 2003 Rose Revolution, ties between the country and the United States have strengthened considerably as The Georgian Life explained upon stepping foot in the country this summer.
In an age where being an American abroad is a liability and safety hazard, and where it is in your best interest to not speak in English and to lie and say you’re Canadian, living in Georgia is absolutely refreshing. America is generally loved here by many Georgians. We constantly hear about how great of friends America and Georgia are. President Bush has a higher approval rating here than he does in America. The main road from the airport going into Tbilisi is even named “George Bush Avenue” and has a giant mural dedicated to him and to America. […]
But the fact that we’re American isn’t the reason for their hospitality, they are just famously and genuinely nice and accommodating people.
Since that post made in July, however, the situation in Georgia for the Peace Corps has changed considerably. During the short-lived war with Russia over South Ossetia, PCVs were evacuated to Armenia with no prospect for return in the near future. As with other PCVs, Gretchen's Great Adventure used her blog to let family and friends know that she was safe.
For a person that loves to travel and wants to see the world…I am pretty sad to be in Armenia. Peace Corps Armenia has been incredibly kind to us. The country is pretty and we are staying in a safe place.
I am at a loss for words right now, so I apologize if this is boring in comparison to older posts. The news leaves our ability to re-enter completely up in the air. Basically we are all sitting ducks, hoping that Washington D.C. will tell us what our options are soon. We are all really safe.
My heart hurts for the people of Georgia right now. Our staff is absolutely amazing and I am beyond grateful. There is not much more to say right now. There are about 80 volunteers hanging out in this random hotel in Armenia…but we're safe. :(
Others such as Its All In The Journey wrote accounts of the outbreak of war prior to their evacuation.
Thursday, August 7, 2008
The day started like any other – I got up around 7:00, used the outhouse, had porridge and tea for breakfast, and brushed my teeth at the well. […] That morning I heard that some fighting had broken out in South Ossetia but I was not too surprised or concerned as current volunteers had warned us that this often happens, especially in August. […] We heard from host families and Georgian friends that the Ossetia’s had pushed the Georgians back and were invading Georgian towns in South Ossetia. Around 5:00pm we got a text from Peace Corps telling us that there was an emergency meeting in Khashuri – the home base for Peace Corps training this year. As we drove the 30 minutes from Gori to Khashuri we passed convoy after convoy of Georgian soldiers and equipment – hundreds and hundreds of soldiers, tanks, and field artillery.
I went back to Agara not too concerned about the situation. […]
Friday, August 8, 2008
Around 2:00am I went outside to use the bathroom and I could hear the boom, boom shelling and the sharp bangs of gunfire in the distance. Friends of mine in villages closer to the conflict later reported that the shelling and fierce fighting started around 11:30 and that their houses were shaking from the blasts. […] I checked my phone but there was no word from Peace Corps so I went back to sleep. […] Phil, a friend of mine, lived so close to the conflict that he went up on the hill behind his house and watched the Georgian troops move into South Ossetia.
This attack and the upcoming invasion has shaken my view of the world, like 9/11 – you just don't think something like this should happen to a beautiful, hospitable nation who wanted nothing more than to be a part of Western society and who's location made it ideal for a gas pipeline which would bypass Russia.
One PCV who had just finished his service in Georgia a week prior to the start of hostilities was not of the same opinion, however. Cuttino's Georgian Life blamed both sides.
A few people have asked about my opinion of this situation, and I can give it now that I am a private citizen. As I see it, no side is innocent in this conflict. The Georgians were reckless to initiate the conflict in South Ossetia. The siege of Tskhinvali (the South Ossetian capital) was brutal and probably unnecessary. If the Russian statistics are true, the death toll of the battle will be around 2,000. Of course, the Russian response has been totally disproportionate and totally out of line with any international norms. The Russian regime has proven itself to be a brutal, oppressive 19th century-style power. The West owes it to Georgia and all emerging democracies to stand up to Putin and Medvedev.
In the meantime, the innocent civilians of Ossetia and Georgia are caught up in the crossfire. These people have been my friends and family for two years and it is heartbreaking to see what is happening to them. Fifteen years of progress is in jeopardy. […]
Following their departure from Georgia, The Georgian Life details how difficult it was to leave and especially when it came to informing his host family that he would not be returning.
The hardest part for all of us are the phone calls we receive from our Georgian families and co-workers asking us when we are returning. “The Russians have left our village, the bombings have stopped,” they explain to us, pleading with us that it is safe to return. How do I explain to them, in my limited language abilities, that it isn't my decision to return, and that the situation still isn't very safe or stable?
However, while one representative of the Peace Corps in Georgia confirmed to Global Voices Online that it is uncertain when PCVs will return, the blog also notes that some have decided to continue to be involved with the country as private citizens. Working under the auspices of The Megobari Project, a blog has already been established to detail the post-conflict work they hope to undertake in the country.
Johanna Holtan spoke to Global Voices Online about the project.
The Megobari Project, working on establishing The Megobari Foundation in America, is run by returned PCVs who are now working seperately of the Peace Corps. I work for the same organization, doing the same thing. Rumors are flying about when the new PCVs will come to Georgia, but I can't be sure. Maybe the spring? Of course it all has to be approved so we can't be sure as of yet.
Until then, there is a list of past PCV blogs from Georgia at http://www.peacecorpsjournals.com/gg.html. The blog of The Megobari Project is here.