New possibilities across barbed wires, divided rivers and lives

Author: Lasha Shakulashvili,

Illustrator: Tina Chertova

Topic: Conflict

Late last year, I worked with Chai Khana on an Israeli Embassy-supported project showcasing Georgia’s Jewish heritage. 

For three months, I worked with Jewish communities that had fled pre/during the 1993 conflict from Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The work coincided with the height of the pandemic so most communication had moved online. In my research, the internet seemed to break down even more barriers—we were not just safely social distancing by using zoom, we were overcoming huge distances and political obstacles. 

As I learned more about the tight knit community these emigres had created over the past 28 years, several other things became clear. For one, they were eager to learn more about the neighbors and friends they had left behind in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Some had even found a way to maintain ties, using internet forms and social media. Second, language played a crucial role. For many, Russian remained their lingua franca, a holdover from their Soviet upbringing.  

When I wrote Lost voices of the Georgian Jewish communities in Sokhumi and Tskhinvali,  they encouraged me to translate it into Russian in addition to Georgian and English. Chai Khana publishes some articles in Russian, and we added this one to the list. I thought it might attract a bit of attention—perhaps allow the inspiring people I had met and grown to respect over the past few months share their stories more widely. 

I did not anticipate, however, that the Russian version of the text would impact me. As an established blogger, the power of the internet is not a surprise, especially after the past year. But my audience, even when I write in Russian, is usually limited to the people in my community who follow my work in Georgian and English. This time, the Russian version managed to slip out of the confines of my social circles, sliding past political barriers and into Abkhazia.  

In the days that followed the project’s online launch, I received several messages from ethnic Abkhaz and Ossetians who were impressed with the story and wanted to hear more. It became clear that some topics and opportunities spread across barbed wires and the divided rivers and lives, opening up new possibilities.

One comment was from an individual who runs a media organization in Abkhazia. They were interested in the Jewish community that fled during the war. When I followed up, we ended up speaking for over an hour. We agreed to keep in touch about future articles and perhaps even use each other’s work in our efforts to increase communication between our communities. 

The conversation with someone from the other side of the conflict, a person who was a stranger and yet seemed so familiar, inspired me to explore more opportunities to contribute to online peace-building efforts. 

And, as I soon learned, I was not the only one experiencing this sea change. 

For decades, TV reports or articles about modern life in Sokhumi or elsewhere in Abkhazia have been rare in Georgian media. Life in the breakaway regions is a mystery for people living in Georgian-controlled territory. 

But during the pandemic, things began to change. Social media has created new channels for communication between the two sides of the conflict—if they are interested.

Due to Covid, this trend accelerated. With international travel all but impossible, international and local organizations began holding peace and confidence building meetings between ethnic Abkhaz, Ossetians and Georgians online. 

These meetings deploy various methodologies, which aspire to cultivate dialogue between attendees from different sides of the conflict. Most frequently, moderators record an audio interview with a person who speaks about their life before, during and after the conflict. These interviews are discussed by ethnic Abkhaz and Georgians, allowing them to scrutinize their viewpoints on the same story. Most importantly, these recordings allow people who are too young to remember the war—or life before the war—to learn more about the period of recent history. 

In March 2021, I organized a closed digital discussion, which was attended by both ethnic Abkhaz and Georgian attendees. I aired 14 minutes of an interview recorded with someone who used to live in Sukhumi and now resides in Israel. I divided the recording in two parts, with discussions in between. It was emotional to watch how many things in common the participants had with the interviewee’s story. 

As a rule, attendees have been positive about using digital formats to communicate with each other.  I discovered several challenges that should be addressed to make digital tools even more useful in peacekeeping efforts. 

First, despite the fact that the internet is a public space and people are willing to share their personal materials and information online, people are reluctant to have their voices shared via digital peace-building platforms. Trust plays a crucial role in handling digital meetings as most of the interviewees' struggle with the fear that their messages might be misinterpreted in the breakaway regions or someone could recognize their voice, creating problems for them in the future.  Like anyone else displaced by the conflict, members of the émigré community in Israel hope to return home one day.

Another challenge is language.  Organizing meetings digitally has enabled people of all ages and ethnic/religious groups to join the platform. Initially, the interviews were recorded in Russian because that is more accessible to ethnic Abkhazians. But that has been a barrier for ethnic Georgians, many of whom do not speak Russian or do not feel comfortable communicating in the language.  

Some solutions have already been developed, however: organizers are experimenting with simultaneous Georgian translation for the stories.

Finally, while the digital format allows peacebuilders and moderators to reach a wider audience, it is more difficult for us to understand how they experience the discussions and what they are getting out of them. For instance, some may find the stories and discussions too emotional, and, without the support that can be provided at in-person events, they may give up and stop participating. 

Despite these issues, one thing is certain: the pandemic has shown us that the future of peace-building relies on digital resources. It is up to us to find the best way to actively use, transform and humanize them so they become a true bridge to peace.

Published with the support of COBERM, a joint initiative of the European Union (EU) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of the organization Chai Khana and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of either the EU or UNDP.

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