Auditor's Note: I had an opportunity of working in Tbilisi for nearly two years, coinciding with the period of the story. During my stay in the country, I moved around a great deal on personal and official business. I feel, there are not many communities in the world, that can match the Georgian cordiality and hospitality. This story is dedicated to the beautiful people and the place.
It was the month of November and the year 1991. There was chill in the air but it was not unbearable. People in the small town of Mtskheta were enjoying the Sun and beer. Natia Peradze having lost her parents in a road accident lived with her uncle who was the priest of the Mtskheta Church.
Father Peradze was an anxious man. He had received a message that his mother living in Sukhumi was not keeping well. Since he could not leave the church, he told his niece Natia to go to Sukhumi, a small beach town on a short vacation and bring the old lady to Mtskheta. He wanted to send his mother to Tbilisi for proper treatment.
The old lady was living in Sukhumi, a part of Abkhazia region, which was a part of Republic of Georgia in the former Soviet Union. Abkhazia has pretty beaches of Gagra and Sukhumi and it was considered a privilege to have a vacation in any one of these beaches. The Soviet Union leadership ruled its republics with iron hand and no one had the temerity of raising demur of any kind. But soon after the disintegration of USSR, dissent of all sorts raised its head. It is an irony that the mighty Soviet Union disintegrated without a drop of blood while smaller regions are shedding blood to enforce further disintegration.
Liberty with its union with multitude some times breeds dissent. Abkhazia is one such example. Problem started after Georgia became an independent nation. Abkhazians, a community of less than three hundred thousand heads whose history dates back to Turkish occupation of Georgia want a sovereign status outside Georgia. The inevitable has been a bloody conflict, gruelling battles resulting in loss of life.
The Abkhazians proudly call it a War of Independence. There has been mindless massacre of affluent Georgians by the Abkhazians who envied their ostentatious opulent life style. Once considered as most beautiful beach resorts of Soviet Union, Sukhumi and Gagra beaches today are desecrated and deserted.
Thousands have been killed in the civil strife, majority of them being the young Georgians. Unlike Abkhazians who are ferocious stay all time war pitched, the Georgians are soft, friendly and easy going, happy to stretch their dinners over local wines through whole nights.
It was this time that Miss Suzan Brown, a doctor by profession had come to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia as UNHCR volunteer after a temporary truce was called between Abkhazians and Georgians to take care of the casualties. She was to head a team of four volunteers: the other three; Dr. Arnold Gustafsson, a local doctor and a male nurse were to join her at Tbilisi.
The team remained busy in briefing sessions on local conditions in Tbilisi for two days apart from collecting medicines/ equipment etc. and left on the third day for Kuthaisi.
Kuthaisi is four hours drive from Tbilisi. The highway was deserted, road-side kiosks were mostly closed and from the withered looks of their hearths, one could make out that they were closed since long. After an hour’s drive from Tbilisi, they reached Gori, the birth place of Joseph Stalin.
The civil strife in Abkhazia in a way can be attributed in some way to this iron man of Russian history.
Joseph Stalin had inducted Georgians during his time in to Abkhazia to create demographic balance in favour of the Georgian Christians over Abkhazian Muslims and handled the rebels with an iron fist. But the disintegration of Soviet Russia rekindled the aspiration of the Abkhazians to have a nation of their own and to achieve it, they revolted and revolted with ferocity.
The Georgians, easy going by nature were not prepared for the onslaught. The Abkhazians didn’t even give them time to flee with their wealth and assets. Fleeing Georgians were chased and if caught, robbed and done to death.
It was with this background that UNHCR had stepped in and established a refugee camp at Gali region, the neutral land mass between Georgia and Abkhazia.
Suzan and her team had a brief halt at Kuthaisi. They met the local health authorities and took the road to Gagra. The road from there on to Gagra is through waste land and forests. The region is infested with Abkhazian marauders who prey on travellers with impunity. The vehicular movement was therefore made under escort of UN troops.
The condition of the refugee camp was awful. There were men women and children in nearly half dead condition. Their wounds were festered and stinking and several showed the sign of gangrene. Several of them were lying on the floor for want of beds.
Dr. Suzan and Dr. Arnold had worked in refugee camps for over fifteen years in Cambodia and Sri Lanka and were witness to atrocities perpetuated by warring groups on each other. The situation in Gali camp was no different. They saw children with twisted and hacked limbs and they saw young women and even tiny girls raped and mutilated. And they realized that the life saving drugs they needed badly were not available and even other medicines were in short supply.
Suzan and Arnold knew the first thing was to clean and dress the wounds to stop further infection. The team of four worked non stop whole night before they could think of a break. There were nearly two hundred victims of the satanic barbarism in the Gali camp.
Natia’s vacation turned out to be a nightmare. The atmosphere was tense and she was advised not to go to the beaches. A day after her arrival in Sukhumi, the Abkhazians declared Abkhazia as an independent country and waged a war on the State of Georgia. Suddenly, everything changed for the comfort loving Georgians. They lived in fear. As evenings approached, the Georgian families huddled together in groups in one house, changing the house every evening, fearing Abkhazian raid. Homes were looted and burnt, women dragged out and raped and men young and old massacred. It was a religious divide between the one time friends and neighbours, which had taken a brutal, horrendous shape.
The bus service between Sukhumi and Kuthaisi had been suspended. Passage by private means was highly unsafe.
Georgians were advised to stay in close groups. On that fateful night several families had gathered in Natia’s grandmother’s place. The Abkhazian soldiers had come to know of it and at the dead of night, they raided the place.
It was mayhem. Unarmed Georgian men and boys were separated and hacked to death. The women were then raped and molested. The old woman while trying to save her grand daughter was attacked and hit with the butt of a rifle and when she threw herself over the poor little girl, two soldiers tore her dress and raped her while others took turn with the young Natia who by then lay unconscious.
The Abkhazian soldiers were still not satisfied. They jabbed their victims by their bayonets before leaving. Natia and her grand mother and many other victims were found unconsciousness in their cottage the next day by the rescue team.
Among the wounded and mutilated victims lying before Dr. Suzan and her team were young Natia and her grand mother, both in severely critical condition. Suzan knew that only chance of their survival lay in evacuating them to Kuthaisi or Tbilisi for want of better facilities.
At the day break, Suzan asked the camp commander to arrange for an escort team to take the patients to Kuthaisi. She asked Dr. Arnold to take care of the camp and asked the local doctor to accompany her.
“I want to leave early in the morning and after handing over the patients to Kuthaisi hospital, collect medicines and other supplies and return by late afternoon.”
Dr. Arnold knew Suzan had worked the whole night and it was tough on her to undertake the mission but he realized that that was the only chance of saving the lives of the two patients.
Dr. Suzan and the local doctor started for Kuthaisi in the wee hours. It was a tough going on the rough road. Condition of the old woman was deteriorating by the minute. There was nothing much they could do but to put her on oxygen. They couldn’t even think of stopping en-route for fear of the Abkhazians guerrillas.
On reaching Kuthaisi Hospital, Dr. Suzan asked for immediate attention to the two patients. She knew Natia and her grandmother needed blood transfusion if they were to be saved. Unfortunately, there was no blood available in Kuthaisi Hospital. It was frustrating to be helpless. The only possibility that remained to save their life was to take them to Tbilisi.
The condition of the old woman deteriorated in the night. She was breathless and perhaps wanted to convey some thing for she was making some gestures. Suzan asked the local doctor to find out what the old woman wanted to say.
“She wants us not to bother for her life for she says she has already lived a long life. She is pleading for saving the life of her grand daughter, the only member left in her family.” The doctor interpreted the essence of his talk with the old lady to Suzan.
Suzan knew the condition of both of them was equally precarious and there was nothing much that she could have done. She assured the old lady that she will do her best to save the life of both of them.
“I know I will not live for long. But you must save Natia, this grand daughter of mine. Her uncle is the priest of Mtskheta Church. Please contact him when you pass through the Church and tell him that I failed to take care of his niece. She had come to me on vacation and was to return to him before Christmas. But for this war, she would have been dancing in the streets of Mtskheta.”
Suzan could bear no more. She took the hand of the old lady and pressed it softly.
“Promise me that you will take her to her uncle so that I can die peacefully.” The old lady conveyed her last wish through the local doctor and a little later succumbed to the beastly torture inflicted on her.
Dr. Suzan left for Tbilisi next morning with Natia and the local doctor. Natia was in the state of delirium. Suzan had put her on sedative and oxygen. She kept on asking her Georgian colleague as to how far they were from Mtskheta Church.
They had reached the outskirts of the Mtskheta town, the ancient capital of Georgia. She could see the steeple of the eleventh century church. The Georgian doctor told Suzan that the Mtskheta church was known for it unique architecture in the entire region and attracted large number of tourists.
They entered the church lawns. Suddenly, Natia had a severe bout of hiccups and then everything subsided.
Suzan asked for Father Peradze who was preparing for the evening service. She told him the story in brief and asked him to take over the body of his niece.
“My niece loved this Church immensely and she helped me in Christmas preparations. She had promised to return from my mother’s place before Christmas to help me this year too.”
Suzan expressed her condolences to the priest and told him that she wanted to return to Kuthaisi.
“Didi Madlova - I am very grateful to you, doctor. You brought my niece back to me,” and then pausing for a few seconds he added, “She has kept her promise to return in time for Christmas. It will be of great help to feel her presence around.”