The Russian intervention into Georgia over two breakaway regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia resulted in a five-day war in August. Global outcry against Russia was forthcoming, but American elections, the current fiscal crisis and other issues soon pushed the war off the front page. Juniata graduate Johanna Holtan, 2004, served in Georgia for the Peace Corps and was evacuated when the invasion started. Now back in Georgia helping with relief efforts, she took time to be interviewed about the global crisis.
How do the Georgian people feel about their own safety right now?
Despite the quite unpredictable Russians, I think that overall, Georgians feel safe right now depending on the area where they are. Things are quiet – I think that the action has moved more to the international stage as the world tries to deal with Russia.
The sense here is that other countries hardly sent any aid when Georgia was most in need
On the contrary, while military support wasn’t provided – many countries and international organizations did provide humanitarian aid. There are thousands of internally-displaced people throughout Georgia that have these groups to thank. In addition to immediate humanitarian aid – these groups are fixing collective centers (where these refugees are currently living) by providing windows, updated plumbing and overall, improving infrastructure. While there is always more to do — I wouldn’t say that outside sources have been completely idle.
Where were you in when the news arrived that Russia had invaded the country? What was your reaction? What was the reaction of the people nearby?
I live in the second city of Georgia, in Kutaisi. I was in Kutaisi when the Russians were bombing Gori and various military points across the country. We were evacuated to the mountains in Southern Georgia when the Russians crossed the border into Georgia. It was heartbreaking – my dearest Georgian friends were scared and unsure of what lay ahead. Rumors and sensationalized media reports didn’t help — people had no idea what was really happening. For me, I was nervous for my friends, my coworkers, and for Georgia all together. When I first arrived in Georgia, no one back home knew anything about this country and then in August — it was all over the news.
Were Georgians expecting this kind of action from Russia?
Relations with Russia have always been tense. Even since I have been here, there have been numerous incidents with Russia regarding the breakaway regions, plus the recognition of Kosovo and Georgia seeking to enter NATO. Since 2003, Georgia has increased its ties with the Western World, especially the relationship with America (on the way to Tbilisi’s airport, there is a Georgia W. Bush Avenue). In general, I don’t think anyone imagined it going as far as the Russians invading Georgia — but it’s always been tense.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili mentioned, “Remember Russia did not get two of its goals: destroy our government or to shut off the pipeline which is the main energy bloodline for Europe.” What is the reasoning behind Russia’s actions?
I think it’s tough to say — there is still speculation on how it started in South Ossetia. Saakashvili says the Russians and South Ossentians were attacking ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia and that they had to defend them.
“We can never outwit Russia with tanks,” President Saakashvili also mentioned, “but we can compete on principles.” What characteristics of resilience did you see the Georgian people demonstrate?
I think that is one of the hardest parts of returning to Georgia — they are a very proud people and were incredibly heartbroken over what happened. I spent last summer in Gori and my old host family was devastated. They still had their home but my host mother Manana’s school was hit hard by bombs and looting. Many Georgians have survived two wars and survived much political hardship in their lifetime. As one Georgian told me, she wants there to be a Georgia where her children won’t see war and won’t have to survive this violence. They have seen changes in government, political unrest and violence on their doorstep — I’m hopeful that their resilience is what will help Georgia move forward.
What part of your experience in Georgia left the biggest impression on you?
Georgians are a very warm, emotional and honest group of people. Professionally and socially — this has made my experience very rewarding. I started out my time in Georgia as a Peace Corps volunteer and it wasn’t until Peace Corps decided to let its volunteers go, did I realize the impact that the country had made on me. Then, of course, I had to go back.
What other efforts are you working on for Georgian relief?
A group of returned Peace Corps volunteers have created The Megobari Project (megobari means friend in Georgian) to fundraising and accept INKIND donations for displaced persons in Georgia. Please see www.themegobariproject.blogspot.com for more information
–Sara Hernandez ‘09, Juniata Online Journalist