Close to the frontier, the battle for a better future
Life near the occupied territories of Georgia has been unsettling ever since the war 14 years ago , when Russia invaded and occupied yet another portion of its territory, the South Ossetia region. Kidnappings, illegal detentions and discrimination against ethnic Georgian citizens is a daily phenomenal and ongoing conflict as Russia-backed militants annex hectares of lands encroaching on Georgian controlled territory, daily.
“I get chills remembering the war in 2008. My village was bombed heavily when Russia invaded. We ran to Gori, but returned the same year. People died and houses were shelled,” recalls Mariam Lomsadze, 23, a graduate student living in Upper Nikozi, a village 67 kilometers from Tbilisi—and directly next to a Russian-backed military checkpoint.
Mari Meladze,18, and her mother live in Odzisi village, located next to Georgia’s occupied South Ossetia region.
“All around the village you have to watch where you go, so you won’t be kidnapped by the Russia-backed militants, in some places the occupied borderlines are visible and in some places we, the villagers know where it’s forbidden to cross,” says Mari.
Mari Meladze, 18, wearing her high school graduation shirt as she sits on a small bridge in Odzisi, Georgia, not far from territory that was invaded by Russia during the 2008 war.
“I sit on this bridge, but, if I take 20 more steps it is dangerous because after that point it is controlled by the Russian-backed militants,”says Mari.
The situation has a paralyzing effect on the young generation living there. Poverty and unemployment are pervasive, opportunities are limited: even for those who overcome the challenges and secure a place at a university, the lack of money and support means they end up spending hours at menial jobs that could be better spent studying.
In Odzisi village school, graduation was cheerful and full of hopes that the generation will be able to pursue their dream careers and pass the exams at the universities in the city. But if one wants to be a student, working is not an option, rather a mandatory one if your family is unable to support you. After finishing school kids search jobs in the city, working in supermarkets, malls or drive thru coffee stands.
Nineteen-year-old Diana Gogoladze, native from Chiatura, rushes to work after law class at Ilia State University in Tbilisi. She does not receive any financial support from her family, being completely dependent on herself. “I sleep two to three hours in 24 hours. From work I run home, freshen up, and study. Then run to classes then straight to work. I am used to this routine, but it becomes difficult with time. Two hours on the road, six hours in the class, 12 hours of work,” she says. “The toughest time is during exams. Because most of us work. We hardly sleep. Being sleepless really affects my studies. That’s what I worry about the most.”
Diana Gogoladze, 19, a law student at Ilia State University, sits in her home in her rented apartment in Tbilisi, Georgia. “I am in the law faculty, in my third year, so I read 500-600 pages a week. I read everywhere, on the bus, at work, in the subway, and walking home. And if I pick up my phone, I get angry, thinking I have scrolled on the phone too long, losing time out of reading. So I put the phone down,” Diana says.
“Don't wait for life to change for the better, because you have to do it yourself, through study and hard work”.
Students’ struggles to survive in the city got harder after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The waves of Russians arriving in Georgia supercharged rent prices in the capital Tbilisi, effectively pricing students out of the market. Over the past eight months, they have wrestled with the increasing need to work more, spend more time on longer commutes–and still strive for good grades and a brighter future.
“I will study hard this year and fulfill my dreams. I will become a psychologist, study in Tbilisi and work as a tattoo artist,” says Mari.
Graduate student Mariam is also confident her work and sacrifice today will help her build a better future for her and her son.
“Dachi is already four years old and he knows that I go to university and that at the end of the day I will definitely return to him,” she says.
Diana is equally determined to build a life for herself. She is a member of the student union at her university, an EU-supported, student-led effort to improve the quality of higher education in the country.
“We students feel alone! We are on the verge of perishing… You finish education at the university and then there is no place where you can establish yourself, work or develop,” Diana says.
“Young people have bachelor’s degrees and the only work they get is at the supermarket. This is not only an education fault, but a system's fault. We all come to this earth once, and we want to have a good life full of opportunities. That is why so many people are immigrating. You can’t tell young people to not leave this country, when you are not giving them any opportunities. I don't wait for life to change for the better, I will make the changes myself, through study and hard work.”
This photo story is a part of a project developed by Kulbroan and Chai Khana with support from the New Democracy Fund.