Georgia’s Jews face wartime dilemmas

Bella Pshavtoshvili, 18, fled the Russia-Georgia fighting in her hometown in South Ossetia. (Grant Slater)

Bella Pshavtoshvili, 18, fled the Russia-Georgia fighting in her hometown in South Ossetia. (Grant Slater)

TBILISI, Georgia (JTA) – Tina Pshavtoshvili is a refugee, living in a borrowed room in a strange city and facing an uncertain future – again.

Last time she was forced to flee a war zone she was running from Tskhinvali, capital of the breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia. Her daughter was a baby, along for the escape during the first war for Ossetian independence in the early 1990s.

Now Bella Pshavtoshvili is 18 and in her second year at a local college, and the mother and daughter are refugees again, this time from the Georgian city of Gori.

Tina wants to go to Israel, where her brothers live, but Bella wants to stay in Georgia, the only country she knows. Tina is afraid that she won’t be able to afford to give Bella the opportunities she wants in either Georgia or Israel.

Tina and her husband have no work; they rely on $182 in monthly handouts from the Georgian government and the local Chesed welfare center. Her secret desire is to find someone to take Bella in and send her to a good college so she can become a lawyer.

But their home in Gori is under the thumb of the Russian army in a city at the center of a once-frozen, now-simmering conflict.

Tina’s husband stayed behind to protect the family home against looting in the lawless zones where the Russian army now patrols Georgian territory.

Of the more than 200 Jews who have fled the conflict zone since war broke out about a week ago, more than half find themselves without any means to escape or rebuild their lives.

The refugees here in Tbilisi didn’t know war was upon them until bombs started falling last Friday. Then the mad scramble for safety began.

Jews, luckier than most, found representatives from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency had driven to Gori, a Georgian city near South Ossetia that has come under Russian attack, to find them and arrange their transport out of the war zone.

Tina and Bella Pshavtoshvili spent Saturday night in the basement of their apartment block with no electricity and no contact with the outside world. When they emerged, they found a JDC representative to take them from Gori, and they fled.

Tina said she knew that the fighting in Tskhinvali would spread soon to Gori. She had seen it before.

“I was not surprised, but frightened,” she told JTA in a barely furnished apartment around the corner from Tbilisi’s historic synagogue.

 

Vissarion Manasherov, head of the Jewish community of Gori, said that what little Gori’s Jews had, they left behind when they fled the city.

The Georgian government ministries responsible for recording and aiding refugees have buckled under the weight of more than 50,000 people fleeing the conflict zone.

Jewish organizations have set up their own systems of spreadsheets and phone lists to keep track of the scattered mass.

The refugees from Gori can’t return to their city, which is guarded and patrolled by Russian tanks. There are reports of Ossetian irregular military forces threatening the local population and perpetrating ethnically motivated violence.

Delegations from the JDC who tried to reach the embattled city in recent days were turned back by hostile Russian and paramilitary forces. One JDC worker trying to deliver food to Jews in the area turned back when he was confronted by Russian soldiers who fired into the air and at the ground.

Gregory Brodsky, the Jewish Agency’s local representative, said it was much more difficult to convince the elderly and infirm to uproot from the only place they know and run from a conflict zone.

Miriam and Zina Jinjikhashvili, 60 and 68, decided to leave Gori only when a Russian bomb struck part of their apartment building and set it ablaze. The two sisters live with a third sister in a small apartment.

They had been in contact with JDC staff members throughout the weekend who tried to convince them to leave the city but they had refused. For two days, the sisters argued among themselves.

On Monday, the JDC crew made it to the outskirts of Gori when the sisters called them to say their home was on fire. When JDC staff showed up, the sisters were in a full-on shouting match, replete with tears as their building burned behind them, said Amir Ben Zvi, a JDC staff member at the scene.

“This was the kind of war that is only in cinemas,” said Zina Jinjikhashvili. “The bombs were huge.”

In the end, the two younger sisters decided to leave. On Thursday, they fretted over the fate of their older sister in a dimly lit apartment in central Tbilisi.

“Every second, I’m thinking about my sister. I’m ready to leave Tbilisi and go home to Gori,” Miriam Jinjikhashvili said.

They have heard that four fire trucks on the scene managed to put out the flames at their building, but the third sister has not been back to check on the condition of their apartment.

The aid organizations have relied on the closeness of the Jewish community in Gori to account for its members in the aftermath of the conflict. Cell phone numbers and word of mouth are like manna to a community that was once so close and is now scattered about.

More than 40 refugees have immigrated to Israel on flights packed with Israeli citizens fleeing Gori. El Al Airlines is one of the few companies flying to Tbilisi. The most recent flight left Friday afternoon for Tel Aviv with a mix of Georgians and Israelis.

At the Jewish Agency office on Friday afternoon, staff members rushed between rooms with stacks of passports and spreadsheets full of names in a mad dash to get ready for the plane.

Jews from Gori crowded in one room and shuffled through stacks of documents that could send them to Israel if everything was in order.

Some already had intended to move to Israel and were taking advantage of the expedited process to make the trip now, while others were fleeing to Israel primarily because of the conflict, Brodsky said.

The yard of the Israeli Embassy in Georgia had been packed for days with would-be immigrants and people seeking assistance, and the embassy only returned to normal hours on Friday.

NEXT STORY