Looking Back, Decades 1 & 2

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Of course, one’s 20 years in this country would bring a variety of meetings with interesting people and situations. For example:

Running a medical aid program for Chechen refugee children in Tbilisi, 2000-2001. An NGO had been given $100k by a single anonymous donor, who requested the program. I worked with a surgeon from the Iashvili Children’s Hospital, who happened to be a Svan, from… Etseri. THAT’S why we live here. Amazing surgery, tuberculosis treatment for whole families, lives transformed. All this before the Rose Revolution brought light and infrastructure to a crumbling country.

Groping through Tbilisi’s night darkness at the end of Shevardnadze’s era; getting mugged, robbed and knocked out in it; stitching up, learning my lesson about street smarts, moving on, not giving up.

Seeing the Rose Revolution in Tbilisi as Shevardnadze gave way to Saakashvili, late 2003. Such euphoria you could hardly imagine as that time of corruption and backwardness turned a corner into… what? Now, after huge moves forward, we seem to be stuck again, though somewhere else.

Several times crossing paths with the notorious Aprasidze clan of Etseri, while they were the main Godfathers of Svaneti and my protectors. Then having to go to their funeral, with 600 places and vastly much too much food in February’s snow, outdoors, in 2004.

Helping organize a week of trauma counselling training targeted at Christian counsellors, to which members of the Patriarch’s office came along with Protestants, in the early 2000s.

One sitting president, Mikeil Saakashvili, on two occasions. He invited the first two groups of TLG (Teach and Learn with Georgia) to Batumi for lunch as the program started in 2010; I was in Group 1. Then he was handing out medals for Civic Sacrifice to all the subjects of the weekly Imedi TV show, Heroes of Hope, in 2013 at the Presidential Palace in Tbilisi. He’s a big man, with a lot of languages in him. Then he was gone.

I met his wife, too, Sandra Roelofs, much later, at the 20th anniversary party of Prospero’s Books in Tbilisi, my favorite shop in the country. Among other things, she is currently with the World Health Organization, and I am thinking of ways we might work on health issues in Svaneti.

Only shaking hands with a current Minister of Science and Education, who later became president, Giorgi Margvelashvili, at TLG’s 2011 closing ceremony. Plus, meeting his predecessor, and two who came after him, at various times in connection with TLG volunteering. Will we ever see the Svan language offered as an optional subject in local schools? Stay tuned.

Living in Ushguli for the winters of 2007-9, just before getting married. I had wanted to see how the Svans get through the hardest season in the highest place. Weekly baths in a little galvanized metal tub; walks up mountains through hip-deep snow for photos; teaching English to the entire school population of 51 at their parents’ request; staying with the Ratiani-Chelidze family when their guest house was a fraction of the size it is now. Unforgettable times, the first year shooting 35mm film, the second having switched to digital and never looked back. Getting my avalanche-road-closure photos and phone interview on morning TV news, which led to a Rustavi 2 film crew coming up for a week to film a 6.5-minute segment on me; watching this with the power out in the village and its only generator running, 30 of us and 10 charging cellphones crammed into 1 room. That segment being chosen as one of that channel’s best 10 of the year… back on TV for a gift basket, along with my new wife.

And so it goes, rarely dull. Nowhere has inspired me as an artist, photographer and writer like Georgia. 42 countries later, still true.

Tony Hanmer has lived in Georgia since 1999, in Svaneti since 2007, and been a weekly writer for GT since early 2011. He runs the “Svaneti Renaissance” Facebook group, now with nearly 2000 members, at www.facebook.com/groups/SvanetiRenaissance/

He and his wife also run their own guest house in Etseri:

www.facebook.com/hanmer.house.svaneti

By Tony Hanmer

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