In a Georgian town, an oasis for refugees fleeing war in Ukraine

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SIGHNAGHI, Georgia — It was while watching a YouTube video that Tetyana learned that her husband had been abducted by the Russian military.

Like many wives of missing Ukrainian soldiers and emergency service personnel in Mariupol, Tetyana, a 49-year-old nurse, began monitoring the Telegram channel of the “Foreign Ministry” of the territory controlled by the separatists backed by the Kremlin around Donetsk.

Several times a day, the feed is updated with photos and videos of Ukrainians in captivity.

One afternoon, in a brightly lit hotel dining room, surrounded by children playing and bags full of clothes lining the walls, Tetyana scrolls through dozens of messages – forced confessions, clichés, graphic photos of corpses – and pauses on an image of the identification page of a young man’s passport. “When they post photos like this, it means that person is dead,” she said.

Tetyana, who asks that her last name not be included because her husband is still in captivity, is one of 30 people currently living in the Pirosmani Hotel, a two-storey red-brick building in the center of the city. of Sighnaghi, in eastern Georgia. Kakheti region. Before March, the hotel was full of oenophiles and visiting engaged couples, who travel to this region for its natural wine production and the Sighnaghi wedding house, which marries people at all hours of the day.

However, since Ukrainian refugees started arriving in Georgia in March, the hotel owner decided to close the hotel to visitors and turn it into a refuge for Ukrainians fleeing the war.

A local priest and his wife, who previously worked as the hotel’s receptionist, have become informal guardians of the hotel and its guests. The owner lives in Tbilisi and said the hotel will remain a haven indefinitely. Only a dented silver Mitsubishi with a Ukrainian license plate parked outside, the word “Children” spray-painted in Russian on the sides, offers any clue as to the hotel’s new purpose.

“One of my colleagues told me about Georgia, a place called Sighnaghi, the ‘city of love’, where they hosted Ukrainians. I came straight from the border,” says Tetyana. A hospital worker in Mariupol before the war began, Tetyana left her hometown and traveled to Georgia with her two teenage boys in April after spending nearly a month as a refugee in a basement.

Before leaving, she registered her husband’s capture with the Ukrainian army. “I have no idea where he is now,” she said. Tetyana and her children first traveled to Crimea by minibus, spending a week in a rented apartment in Simferopol before heading to the southern Russian city of Krasnodar. They entered Georgia through Verkhniy Lars in the Caucasus Mountains.

Tetyana is one of some 20,000 Ukrainian refugees who have arrived in Georgia since the start of the war. Most come from devastated Ukrainian cities like Mariupol and Kherson.

Two common escape routes emerge. Like Tetyana, many flee through Crimea and then to Krasnodar before crossing Georgia south through the mountains. Others fled Mariupol via Novoazovsk before heading towards Taganrog and Rostov-on-Don. From there they head south to the Russian border town of Vladikavkaz and to the Georgian border.

The so-called filtration camps are largely confined to areas around Mariupol, and relatively few Ukrainians who have fled Crimea say they have passed through them. Established in cultural centers, police stations and other public buildings, the camps document Ukrainians on the run, detain Ukrainian soldiers and sometimes forcibly deport Ukrainians to destinations in Russia to supposedly start a new life after their “liberation”. Men are routinely ordered to strip at checkpoints, where Russian guards search their bodies for tattoos that may suggest links to Ukrainian nationalist groups.

Nina and Yevhen Muravchenko with their daughter

Nina and Yevhen Muravchenko spent a week with their two children in the basement of Yevhen’s brother’s building in Mariupol. The barrage of rockets and shelling outside was relentless.

“When there were still police around, we would ask when the evacuation would take place,” Yevhen said. “One of them told us that we would know they would come through town with loudspeakers announcing it. But we never heard any loudspeakers. The evacuation never happened. “

Like so many others living in beleaguered Mariupol, surviving required patience and enterprise. They took empty buckets and waited under the roofs for the snow to melt for water to drink. Food was scarce and often had to be traded. Their house was destroyed by the bombardments. They traveled directly to Sighnaghi from the Georgian border on April 21 and have been staying at the hotel ever since.

Stories of thirst, hunger and a sense of fear pervade almost every tale of survival and escape from those who take refuge in the Pirosmani Hotel. Nevertheless, a joyful and collegial atmosphere prevails. Those who like to cook often help the cook prepare the meals; many women take care of each other’s children while their mothers rest. When the Red Cross offered psychological help to the refugees, they refused, saying they didn’t need it.

“People come here and we help them try to get rid of their horrible thoughts with excursions, concerts, theater performances and things like that,” said Irma, the wife of Father Isidore, who runs the center. . “When they’re ready, they move on.”

For Father Isidore, a 35-year-old local Georgian Orthodox priest with a long auburn beard and dressed in traditional black robes, helping these refugees is a matter of religious principle. “It is our Christian duty. You must help those in need,” he said. They rely on donations for food and clothing, but three months into the war and Father Isidore notes that many of their regular donors have begun to lose interest. “As long as there are ways to help them, we will, whether it’s two months or two years.”

Father Isidore, a 35-year-old local Georgian Orthodox priest, with his wife, Irma

Father Isidore, a 35-year-old local Georgian Orthodox priest, with his wife, Irma

The demographics of Ukrainian refugees in Georgia differ from those of Western European countries. Unlike places like Poland and Moldova, where it was mostly women and children who fled without their husbands or fathers, in Georgian refugee centers like the Pirosmani Hotel, many families have both parents present. , and sometimes men traveling alone. Without an official Ukrainian border to cross into the Russian-occupied eastern parts, Ukrainian martial law, which prohibits men between the ages of 18 and 60 without extenuating circumstances from leaving the country, does not apply.

Before the lunchtime roar began, 72-year-old former Soviet women’s chess champion Nana Alexandria was visiting one of the guests. She had been informed by the head of the Sighnaghi chess club that Polina, a 14-year-old junior chess champion from Kherson, a Russian-controlled city in southern Ukraine, was staying at the hotel.

Polina and her mother, Svitlana, who did not give their surname, had fled Kherson through the Crimea and had heard about the Pirosmani Hotel from acquaintances. They don’t plan to stay long in Georgia. “We are waiting for the end of the war so that we can return home,” says Svitlana. Both were delighted to have met Nana, who gave Polina a chess set. “And she told me that I had to keep training! Polina said.

Polina, a 14-year-old junior chess champion from Kherson, with her mother, Svitlana

Polina, a 14-year-old junior chess champion from Kherson, with her mother, Svitlana

At nightfall, Irma and Father Isidore usually return home to a nearby village with their five young children. They rarely spend the night at the hotel. “I was thrilled to hear a guest say to her daughter, ‘It’s time to go home,'” she said. “‘Home’ meant their upstairs bedroom. It means they feel at home here. This is Georgia. We don’t want them to feel like guests.”

Nadia Beard is a journalist and pianist living in Tbilisi. She has written for National Geographic, The Guardian, The Economist and The Times Literary Supplement. She graduated from UCL, LSE and Tbilisi Conservatory.

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