Vamık D. Volkan, M.D., DLFAPA, FACPsa.

 
 
 
 
 
GEORGIA-SOUTH OSSETIA AGAIN, 2001
 
 
Tbilisi, Georgia 
March 11-12, 2001
 
 
 
Prepared by
 
 Vamık D. Volkan 
 
 
 
 
 
Center for the Study of Mind and Human Interaction (CSMHI)
University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA  22908
 
 
 
 
 
 
DAY ONE:
Sunday, March 11, 2001
ll:00am-ll:00pm
 
 
PARTICIPANTS:
 
Georgians: 6 persons: three psychologists, two psychiatrists, and a writer/filmmaker. They were all associated with the Foundation for the Development of Human Resources (FDHR) and some were also part of the newer Georgian Center for Psychosocial and Medical Rehabilitation of Torture Victims (GCRT) and its women's shelter, Saphari. A seventh Georgian served as interpreter for the facilitators.
 
South Ossetians: 4 persons: a lawyer, a psychologist, a journalist, and a TV news director, all from the NGO Tskhinvali Center for Human Rights. A fifth South Ossetian came for part of the workshop.
 
These same participants had taken part in previous workshops with CSMHI in October 2000. Some of them had also participated in earlier meetings in 1998-99.
 
 
FACILITATORS:
 
CSMHI Director Vamık D. Volkan (psychoanalyst/psychiatrist), assisted by CSMHI International Associate Işıl Vahip (psychiatrist).
 
The meeting took place in the offices of the Foundation for the Development of Human Resources (FDHR). It included lunch together in the same location and dinner at a nearby restaurant. During the meals, when there was no formal facilitation, conversation continued and facilitators observed the interaction.
 
All the South Ossetians sat side by side on a long sofa against a wall. In front of them was a low table, and the Georgians sat in chairs around it, facing the South Ossetians. Dr. Volkan sat between the two groups on one side of the circle; Dr. Vahip sat on the opposite side. The participants spoke Russian to each other, it being their common language, though not the mother tongue for any of them. There was one interpreter, who sat next to Dr. Volkan, and interpreted from Russian to English and English to Russian.
 
The facilitators sensed that the South Ossetians had deliberately chosen to sit together as a unit, separate from the Georgians. As the meeting started, the facilitator asked the South Ossetians to speak first. One South Ossetian recounted how they had had several conversations with the FDHR director on the phone since the last meeting. She said that in general South Ossetians' emotional attitudes toward Georgians are much better than they were, in spite of there being very little change in the official/legal negotiation between the two parties. Then she gave a summary of various international organizations' work in South Ossetia. There is a British-supported project on women's issues that has brought some South Ossetian and Georgian women together. There are some dialogues involving the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Russia, Georgia, and South Ossetia. As far as she knew, the parties have been blaming each other during these discussions but are now less aggressive toward one another. Meanwhile, the South Ossetian society is having a serious breakdown.
 
The South Ossetian participant described how child prostitution has reached terrifying levels. It costs 3-4 laris ($1.50-$2.00) for sex with girls as young as 13 years old. Drug use and rape are on the increase. Some men marry the women they rape and divorce them soon after. No statistics are available; not a single case of rape has been brought to the courts. The elderly have also suffered this winter. With Norwegian Refugee Council funds, a shelter was built for the elderly to use during the day, but due to corruption on the part of the builder, it was not built correctly. It is uninhabitable for the cold nights. Despite funds from several quarters, nothing is preventing the further collapse of society.
 
The morning was spent with the South Ossetians giving a detailed description of the situation in South Ossetia. The Georgians stayed silent and listened. At the end, one Georgian said that she was sorry that Georgian newspapers do not generally report what is going on in South Ossetia, and that she had therefore not been aware of the conditions there before.
 
The facilitator intervened very little during the morning. When it was time for lunch, he suggested that during lunch the Georgians examine their reactions to what they had heard and begin the afternoon session with their response to it. Lunch took place in another part of the room and in the adjoining kitchen. During the lunch, nervous, forced laughter dominated the conversation, and no one referred to what they had heard during the morning. The facilitator felt that having heard details of such a horrible situation made them all anxious and they were defending themselves against this anxiety through laughter.
 
After lunch, everyone returned to the same seating as in the morning.
 
One Georgian began the afternoon session by giving a "lecture" on frozen or protracted conflicts and stated that Georgia/South Ossetia is an example of such a frozen conflict. He noted that he understood such conflicts because he had studied these kinds of situations. The facilitator recognized that this was a defensive response on the part of the Georgians—that they could not allow themselves to have empathy for the South Ossetian situation, and that it was easier to speak in more academic, intellectual terms. Another Georgian joined in, this time a woman, and she too gave an intellectualized response, with statements to the South Ossetians such as: "Your problem is ours too. We also have trauma and internally displaced persons..." (A typical competition of grievances.)
 
In response, the South Ossetians also became intellectual, and one began talking about the need for conducting "research" on the extent of the trauma, to document what people need and want, how many were raped, etc. After a bit, the facilitator was about to interfere to point out what was happening, but, as is often the case, something else broke the intellectual atmosphere.
 
The first Georgian who had expounded upon frozen conflict brought up the analogy of a sore throat that keeps a person from eating. When the conflict is frozen, nothing can come in. Upon hearing this, one of the South Ossetians put her hand around her throat as if she were choking herself and said out loud "Ouch!" The intellectual atmosphere disappeared. Now one could hear statements such as "We are not decision-makers (and stuck in the conflict). We can have a dialogue and even collaborate or do business together." Another countered that "joint business" between South Ossetians and Georgians was illegal. Upon this, another participant shouted, "Engaging in humanitarian dialogue is not illegal!"
 
The facilitator thought this would be a good moment to offer a summary of what had been happening. He noted how hearing about rape, divorce, and other disturbances in the family was unpleasant and caused the group to step back and look at these issues intellectually, in terms of research projects. While research might be very useful, since the South Ossetians in the room live with these issues in their society, the facilitator turned to them and asked them to tell the group more about what they really know. He asked them to think of stories of real people, asked them to humanize the situation in South Ossetia even if it was painful.
 
One South Ossetian began telling the story of a Russian woman who is married to a South Ossetian in Tskhinvali and has three children. They live with her husband's family, and after the conflict they had no means of survival. The husband went to Russia to work and earn some money, and those who were left behind had to try to survive. The wife went to work in a small shop, but this went against cultural norms, and her mother-in-law and sisters-in-law perceived her as a loose woman. When the husband returned, he had to reject and leave his wife. The participant telling the story noted that she knows that he did not really want to do this, but under cultural pressure he had to. Now this woman is forced to live in the countryside, and she comes to see her children in secret. She has no legal protection.
 
The participant described how this woman and many like her call her day and night. She listens to them, but says she does not have the training to help them. Very seldom do they come in person. Mostly they call on the phone. She has developed her own technique. First she listens, then she puts their story into her own words and tells it back to them. She hopes that if they hear what the conflict is, coming from someone else's mouth, then it may be easier for them to cope with it. There are no formal telephone hotlines in South Ossetia for persons in need of counseling.
 

Another South Ossetian told stories of little girls who become prostitutes and how they cannot even talk to their own mothers. Again she emphasized that there are no trained professional in South Ossetia to help these girls. The participant also spoke of cases of men who feel extremely hurt and humiliated. She thought that because of this they rape and reject women whom they think have been raped by others.

 
Then a Georgian spoke up, the first to respond emotionally to the South Ossetians. She asked, "What can we, Georgians, do to help you?" But the element of competition of grievances was still there. The Georgian proceeded to give examples from Georgia—an uncle having sex with a little girl; a young man age 20 raping his mother repeatedly. Then she spoke of Georgians' recent attempts to deal with these kinds of issues. She gave credit to CSMHI's last visit when CSMHI team members gave presentations on family violence. She described her new evolving NGO, the Georgian Center for Psychosocial and Medical Rehabilitation of Torture Victims, which is creating the first shelter for abused women in Tbilisi. Another Georgian described how they were gaining experience with this, and asked how they could work with the South Ossetians.
 
Here the facilitator observed an interesting, but no longer surprising, phenomenon. On the surface, and logically, the South Ossetians needed and wanted to receive help. Georgians were offering to help, but there were underlying emotions that would not allow the collaboration to occur without being understood and worked through. As soon as the Georgians offered to help, at the peak of the collaborative feeling between the two groups, conversation quickly changed and focused on how each side had dehumanized and hurt the other during the conflict. The wounds have not been worked through and South Ossetians cannot receive help form the Georgians unless and until the hurts have been acknowledged. The Georgians correspondingly did not really want to give help without having their own hurts recognized. The two sides came too quickly together, understood each other and wanted to help and collaborate, but it was too fast, injuries had not been acknowledged, and they moved apart again (the accordion phenomenon.)
 
A South Ossetian continued the discussion noting that Georgians call South Ossetians lice. One Georgian responded quickly countering that Georgians had been called pigs. The accordion played for a while. Then laughter broke out. Anxiety was discharged and once more they came closer, but in a more realistic way. A South Ossetian remarked that now you can hear Georgian spoken in the streets of Tskhinvali. During and right after the conflict, no one could speak Georgian for fear of being attacked. Most Georgians had left, even those married to South Ossetians, but some had remained and they now feel more comfortable speaking Georgian sometimes. More importantly, more Georgians are coming from outside of South Ossetia for trade and business.
 
After the accordion played for a while, the participants began earnestly to discuss a plan for Georgians training South Ossetians, exchanging experiences and opening a phone line between them so psychologists from both sides could consult between themselves. They would also like to have joint seminars with outside experts and hope that CSMHI will continue coming to Georgia periodically to conduct seminars for both groups together. They spoke of developing a traditional collaboration, and suddenly reality hit: all of these ideas require funding, and they know of no organization who will finance them. The Norwegian Refugee Council is not interested, nor is the World Health Organization. Pervasive helplessness settled onto the room, to the degree that the facilitator felt it was interfering with creative thinking, so he suggested a coffee break.
 
After the break, the facilitator made a summary of his observations, noting the participants' feeling of helplessness based on reality constraints. He suggested that they leave the reality aside for the moment and discuss further how they could collaborate. The South Ossetians began giving more details about their situation. They were very much aware of how the conflict had changed psychosocial processes and that new norms and new social problems had evolved. One example: in the past, women with high education were seen to make a good bride. Now men seek to marry 15-17-year-old girls, just out of high school. The reason is that the post-conflict culture greatly emphasizes virginity. If a man marries a young teenager, the possibility of her still being a virgin is high. Widespread promiscuity, rape, and prostitution have made virginity among older women rarer than in the past.
 
One South Ossetian gave details of a 50-year-old man marrying a 35-year-old woman whom he thought was a virgin. She was not, and divorce followed. (The facilitator wondered whether the preoccupation with virginity and the actuality of rape might have other meanings. They are sexualizing the aggression. They feel raped. No one can be a virgin. Everyone feels raped. The whole society was raped.) A Georgian made a playful comment. She said, "Men are still idiots." There was laughter and the tension lessened. A South Ossetian spoke of going to church and how the priests are trying to convince the community to shield children from becoming drug addicts and prostitutes. There was a TV show about child prostitution but it backfired because the program showed actual child prostitutes, and this was horrible. It produced more horror and denial than ideas to help. Children in school have two fears: fear of earthquake (there was one in Tskhinvali in 1991) and fear of a new war (the first was in 1991-92.) Children are afraid of massive disasters from which their parents cannot protect them.
 
Then the South Ossetians began talking about South Ossetian adults' fears. They are afraid that another Gamsakhurdia may become the leader of Georgia. (Zviad Gamsakhurdia was the a nationalist President of Georgia who promoted "Georgia for Georgians" and thus heightened nationalism and tensions between Georgians and other ethnic groups within Georgia's territory.)
 
One South Ossetian told her own story. Twice during the siege of Tskhinvali she was under sniper fire. She had no money, and for six months she lived in a room with no heat, waiting for her body to warm up and fearing that warmth would never come. She described how to this day her kidneys do not function properly as a result. (This participant told her story without presenting herself as a victim—she was very matter of fact, moving, and poetic.) The South Ossetians told the Georgians how they were afraid of Shevardnadze leaving the presidency and of what would happen if a nationalist gained power. At this remark, the tension in the room was palpable. The facilitators could sense the fear, certainly on the part of the South Ossetians, but from the Georgians too.
 
There was another break and the facilitator suggested that afterwards each side should respond to what they had heard from the other.
 
After the break, one Georgian declared, "This meeting is so different from any other I've been to. Each side wants cooperation." Then she added, "This is so interesting." The facilitator suggested that the group stay with the word "interesting." Why is cooperation so interesting? A South Ossetian responded, "Because it is so rare." Another said cooperation was interesting because it entailed a fear of being reprimanded by other South Ossetians. A third South Ossetian added that she would only tell her closest friends about this meeting. The facilitator explained to the South Ossetians that the Georgians had expressed similar feelings at a previous meeting—that it was not so unusual to feel isolated and afraid of being criticized by friends and peers. The Georgians nodded in agreement.
 
After a longer break, participants and facilitators went together to dinner at a fancy restaurant. It was near a park with an enormous, grandiose Soviet-era waterfall structure (now dry and in ruins) built to celebrate Brezhnev's visit to Tbilisi. Popular Georgian music was playing in the restaurant and the food was excellent. It occurred to the facilitator that at some level the Georgians wanted to show off by coming to this restaurant. There are none even remotely comparable to it in Tskhinvali. After dinner there was singing and dancing. Conversations were mostly on a superficial level, but in a private conversation with the facilitator, one South Ossetian spoke of a particular cemetery next to a school in Tskhinvali and a monument that had been constructed in the schoolyard, to memorialize heroes from the recent war. The facilitator suggested that she speak about it the next morning at the meeting if she thought it would help the Georgians understand the South Ossetians better.
 
 
DAY TWO:
Monday, March 12
Same place, same people
9:00am - 4:30pm
 
 
A South Ossetian begins by describing school #5 on Lenin street in Tskhinvali (the one that had been referred to privately the night before.) The facilitator sensed that the South Ossetians had talked among themselves after dinner about how they would present this to the Georgians, because as one person talked, others joined in to fill out the story.
 
During the siege of Tskhinvali in 1991-92, when three young South Ossetian combatants died at about the same time, they were buried in the schoolyard of high school #5. The idea was that this was a safe place to bury them. Besides, one of the victims had attended this school. Then, more and more dead defenders were buried there, including 30 who apparently were killed on the same day. Now the graves there number more than 100. No natural death cases were buried in the schoolyard except a few from a shelter for the elderly. During the first month of the siege, these elderly were cold and hungry so they used their energy to make coffins for their friends and themselves as they waited to die (in a sense, they were a different kind of hero.) After the war, there continued to be burials in the schoolyard of others who had participated in the conflict.
 
Slowly, the place became a holy place. First, grieving relatives visited the graves, then they built a chapel and a statue there called the Crying Father. An iron fence separates the cemetery from the rest of the schoolyard, but as one enters the statue is visible over the fence. From all three floors of the school, schoolchildren can look out over the cemetery. On anniversaries and religious holidays there are ceremonies there, and the school children used to read poems on revenge and aggression. As years passed, the poems became tamer. The focus was on The Crying Father sculpture which depicts a father with a sheepskin hat looking at the graves and wearing a burka, a traditional garment with long sleeves.
 

The Georgians wondered about the choice of a crying father for the monument, since it is more often crying mothers who come to cemeteries. In South Ossetian culture, fathers do not usually cry. If they do, it reflects extreme, ceaseless pain. The South Ossetians thought this idea had something to do with folklore, but no one really knew the details. During the workshop, they told a folk tale of someone crying in extreme pain, but in this story it was a woman who was crying, not a man. A visitor arrives to visit a family. The husband is away. Custom dictates that one must take care of the guest first. The wife prepares food and sends her oldest son to fetch her husband who is hunting. Somehow the child dies (the South Ossetians were vague on the details.) The wife puts the dead child somewhere and stays busy taking care of the guest, without showing her grief. Then she sends the second son to find her husband, and later the third son, and the same thing happens to each of them. After this, the women feels extreme grief, breaks with custom, and cries in front of the guest. In the story, the guest turns out to be St. George who has pity on the woman and brings the children back to life again.
 

The South Ossetians became more animated speaking about their national character, how historically they have never had a specific ethnic enemy group in their minds. They spoke of another piece of folklore where their ancestors, the Narts, were without rage. They went to war for food only, for survival. They were trying to say that they are not a warring people by nature. The Georgians responded that if you go to war even if it's just out of hunger, you are still aggressive. The South Ossetians insisted that they do not consider any ethnic group to be their enemy. One participant gave an example. A Georgian woman living in South Ossetia was a follower of Georgian President Gamsakhurdia (Gamsakhurdia was a strong nationalist and perceived by South Ossetians and many Georgians as well as the instigator of the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict of 1991-92.) When the conflict started, she left her South Ossetian husband and went to Georgia and appeared on Georgian television saying bad things about South Ossetia. Her husband died in 1994 from a heart attack. In 1996 this woman returned to South Ossetia and all her old friends and neighbors turned out to help her. This is the national character of South Ossetia.
 

After lunch, the South Ossetians wanted to talk more about the cemetery. It has become a very holy place. They described how they are aware of the fact that because the monument is in the schoolyard, it serves as a daily reminder of the war to the children at that school. It promotes the transgenerational transmission of the hatred and trauma of the war. They cannot move the cemetery anywhere else—it would be easier to transfer the school to another building.
 

During lunch the facilitator had heard from one Georgian that she did not want to talk to the South Ossetians during the meeting because she thought the facilitators could tell what she was thinking (i.e., that she had negative thoughts about the South Ossetians). She did not like it when the South Ossetians said they were peaceful and Georgians were aggressive. Because of this, the facilitator intervened after lunch and suggested to the Georgians that the South Ossetians were telling them who they were. They were presenting to the Georgians the South Ossetian group identity as they sense it and as it is reflected in the cemetery. The facilitator urged the Georgians to think of the South Ossetians' focus on the cemetery from this perspective: as an introduction of themselves. At this point, one of the Georgians gave a very empathic response. She said to the South Ossetians, "As you were talking, I was asking myself whether I could pay my respects to the dead at school #5.1 think I could. Yes, I could. Thank you for sharing this with us." A silence fell upon the group.
 

After the silence, the South Ossetians talked about the visa issue. (Russia now requires that Georgians obtain a visa to enter Russia, but South Ossetians do not need one.) They knew it represented Russian interference, but it also reinforced their feeling of being different from the Georgians, that they would like two separate states. On the other hand, the South Ossetians would like a "good neighborhood" and wanted to discuss how they could collaborate with the Georgians. In fact, an example of such collaboration had occurred recently when there was a fire in Tskhinvali and the South Ossetian fire officials could not put it out. The (Georgian) Gori fire department came to help.
 

One South Ossetian stated that they were waiting for the Georgians to publicly acknowledge their mistake (the war.) Shevardnadze has done this privately, but South Ossetians want to hear it publicly. A Georgian joined in at this point to say that what happened between Georgians and South Ossetians was really a civil war. He went on to say that there were definitely problems and Georgia needs to state things publicly, it was also two-sided. There needs to be an evaluation before going to the public (if this were a longer dialogue series, this would be on of the group's tasks.) A South Ossetian noted that if the Georgians admitted that they had tried to commit genocide and made compensations, then things would work out.
 

At this point, another Georgian spoke of his own son who wanted him to apologize for participating in the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict. He (the father) had struggled with this, thinking that if he apologized, he would lose his paternal authority over his son. After today's discussion, he decided to go home and apologize (later, this Georgian, a writer, told the facilitator that ever since the war he had been unable to write, but since CSMHI's previous visit and workshops, his inability to write had disappeared—he could now write again.) This Georgian remarked further, however, that the word genocide should not be used so loosely. There is no evidence that the Georgians intended genocide. This needs further examination.
 

A South Ossetian described how when Shevardnadze became president there was euphoria in South Ossetia. It was when Gamsakhurdia was in power that the war had occurred. Five million Georgians fought against 60,000 South Ossetians; ninety South Ossetian villages were destroyed, but not a single Georgian village. This was direct discrimination and ethnic cleansing. Once more, a Georgian responded that there was no evidence of ethnic cleansing, and this led to a rather heated discussion between both groups of participants over what to call what happened.


At this point, the facilitator told them about the dream of a psychoanalytic patient he knew who used to play football. In the first part of the dream, he goes to the stadium to play a game. The next thing he knows he is being lifted up on the shoulders of his teammates for having scored the winning goal. What was by passed in the dream was the actual game itself, the struggle. The facilitator suggested to the group that they were like this patient. Without going through the process of struggling and examining things, they wanted to name what happened. He invited them to go back to the process of knowing each other. They seemed to understand. One Georgian stated that Georgians in general feel responsible for many things, but there are many issues to be looked at. One way of looking at what happened was to consider it a Georgian-Russian war, not a Georgian-South Ossetian war.
 

Another Georgian noted that during the past two days he had observed a most unusual dialogue. On the first day, the South Ossetians described their societal breakdown, and he really sensed how they wanted to find a solution and how important it was for them to deal with the prostitution and other problems. He continued, "Today, they were able to tell us that they want to be separate, and this is hurtful to some of us. But we can start somewhere and make some plans for further discussion and collaborative action. One plan would be to create a link between the South Ossetian NGO, FDHR, and the new GCRT so that cases can be discussed and we can share insights on how to look after people." (In fact, the first such consultation took place by phone a few days later, in the presence of CSMHI facilitators. A South Ossetian called the Georgians and discussed a particular case for over half an hour.)
 
 

Final note:
When the facilitator was talking to one of the South Ossetians at dinner that night, she revealed some additional information about the school that had become the defenders' burial ground. On this same location, there had previously been a Jewish cemetery, but it had been "erased" during Soviet times in order to build the school. In a sense, what the Georgians did to the South Ossetians was similar to what the South Ossetians/Communists had done to the Jews many years before. This could only heighten the guilt feelings associated with the place. However, the facilitator could not confirm this, and without a longer series of meetings, it was not wise to open it up further.
 
Note (2009): The story of the “Crying Father Monument” can be found in: 
1- Volkan, V.D. (2006.) Killing in the Name of Identity: Stories of Bloody Conflicts. Charlottesville, VA: Pitchstone Publishing.

2- Volkan, V.D. (2006.) What Some Monuments Tell Us About Mourning and Forgiveness. (Eds.), Elazar Barkan, and Alexander Karn,
In Taking Wrongs Seriously: Apologies and Reconciliation, pp.115-131. Stanford, CA: Stanford University 
 
 
  
 
 
                            
 
 
 
   
 
 
     
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
    
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
         
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
                                                                             
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
 
  
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
 
 
Copyright © Vamık D. Volkan and Özler Aykan 2007.
 
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