Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Under occupation

May 1st, 2010

"Georgia is one of the most invaded nations on earth" advises the Department of Tourism and Resorts. Most recently by Russian Federation forces in August 2008. The war was swift – just five days – before a ceasefire was agreed. Whilst the conflict no doubt helped make people more aware of Georgia, what is often not appreciated is that it remains an occupied nation, in part at least.

Russian forces control a swathe of land in central Georgia, north of the M27 east-west arterial road that links the Capital Tbilisi with Turkey and eastern Europe. South Ossetia. Travelling from Gori eastwards to the Capital, there are few clues as to the occupation, and of the recent conflict. No obvious fortifications on either side, no bomb damaged buildings, no menacing tanks. Just a European Union Monitoring Mission field office in Gori, part of the ceasefire arrangements.

Whatever the merits of the recent conflict, there is an inevitable human cost. Getting some measure of the impact on families – presumably some are split between the occupied and unoccupied territories – is difficult, my Georgian very limited at best. But what is certain is that there are quite a few people displaced by the war, obliged to live in newly built communities.

I’d found one of these settlements on the outskirts of Gori, and spotted others on my way towards Tbilisi. Hard to recognise as such, these are not tented encampments but neatly built single storey houses. Admittedly quite small, but, ironically, appearing far better than many of the other houses I’d seen.

Do I feel threatened, concerned the conflict may re-ignite, suddenly finding myself trapped? Not at all, the situation feels very stable, indeed, you have to look very carefully for clues as to the occupation. It’s certainly not a reason to not visit Georgia, and I wouldn’t hesitate to return. Far from it, plan to come back when my venture is complete.

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Reflections on Turkey

April 10th, 2010

I might have tired of Istanbul, but not of Turkey and its people. Waiting at the city’s airport for my flight east, my rudimentary Turkish still a bit rusty, an elderly chap, overhearing my efforts at ordering a coffee, helpfully explained that ’thank-you’ was in fact tesekkur ederim (pronounced teshekoor ederim), not merci. I thanked him, properly this time. My plane delayed into Istanbul by bad weather, it was late when I eventually reached my hotel in Trabzon. I was greeted at reception by Sena. She’d remembered me from my earlier stay with my Dad. This was much more like it.

The journey back east had given me plenty of opportunity to reflect on Turkey, and what it was to be Turkish. A strong national identity for a start. The military given equal prominence on television with the politicians. You sensed political satire was still in its infancy, and criticism of Ataturk, founding father of the modern Turkish nation, would be ill-advised. YouTube had apparently hosted a few offending clips and, despite their prompt removal, a court order blocked access to the entire site for a couple of weeks.

Authoritarian undertones? The male predilection for dark clothes certainly adds a Kafkaesque feel, but no, just different boundaries to our own, and certainly not oppressive. In fact the military would probably argue, with some justification, that they have only ever sought to protect the constitution from wayward governments attempting to undermine or erode its tenets.

But things are changing, the balance of power gently shifting towards the democratically elected administration, as tolerance by the Armed Forces of the recent arrests of senior military officers for their alleged part in an suspected coup plot would seem to demonstrate. Either way, a strong Turkey is no bad thing, providing a buffer between Europe and more turbulent nations further east. But I doubted if much of this ever had much of an impact on the lives of ordinary people. It just flickered by in the news bulletins.

Fact is I’d been made very welcome, from the moment I’d stopped to get my bearings in Edirne, my first day in Turkey. Back then, Nadir and Beckant had approached me, keen to show me their home city. They’d been Tugba in Istanbul, Zehra and her friends along the Black Sea coast, Yaren, Ali and Sena in Trabzon. And so many people in the villages who’d so often dragged me off the road, plying me with sweet, warm Turkish tea. Couldn’t ask for more. But now it was time to see what Georgia had to offer.

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