A Safe Haven for Children in Sakasheti
By Pamela Renner
Traces of the war are visible and invisible at once in the village lanes of Sakasheti, though months have elapsed since Russian soldiers fled back north. It is winter now, so the orchards of Sakasheti are not in fruit; many will not be again. Apple trees and fields were burned by the occupying troops. Militias occupied the houses. Families fled. By summer’s end, only a few elderly people remained behind, in hiding, to look after their neighbors’ houses. The Georgian villagers who evacuated in August have returned now, a few at a time, to reclaim their homes. They have brought back the children of the town, to a world irrevocably altered by war.
Many Georgians suffered temporary or permanent displacement as a result of the August conflict. During the initial weeks of occupation, 128,500 people fled their homes in Georgia. Forty-thousand were children. By now, experts estimate that some 30,000 people remain internally displaced, mostly originating from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Approximately 12,000 are children.
“The conflict has shattered the lives of children and we are concerned about the impact that the fighting and displacement has on their lives…both for short and for the long term,” said Giovanna Barberis, UNICEF Representative in Georgia.
“The conflict has shattered the lives of children and we are concerned about the impact that the fighting and displacement has on their lives…both for short and for the long term,” said Giovanna Barberis, UNICEF Representative in Georgia. “This is why it is essential to ensure resumption of normal childhood activities. Creation of child-friendly spaces provides children affected by the conflict with a wide range of psycho-social and education interventions that are essential for their rehabilitation and recovery.”
In the postwar months of 2008, UNICEF and its partner organizations -- World Vision, Every Child, and Elisabeth Gast Foundation -- established 60 child-friendly centres in collective shelters in Tbilisi and Gori; in war-torn villages of Shida Kartli region, and in the kindergartens and primary schools serving the newly constructed IDP settlements. The centres serve young people, ages 3¬ to 17. In addition to the recent population of newly displaced refugees, approximately 220,000 internally displaced Georgians remain from previous conflicts of the 1990s.
In Sakasheti village UNICEF moved in rapidly after the Russian soldiers left the occupied community to create this child-friendly learning center. World Vision helped train a new corps of teachers from the community. Speed was of the essence so the kids would have somewhere to call their own, a chance to talk about their war experiences and resume their interrupted childhoods.
In the child-friendly centre, the village’s most precious harvest —its kids—are sitting at round, cozy tables where they paint and chat, supervised by their teacher, Tamriko Gelatashvili, 33. They are the only ones in this otherwise empty schoolhouse. Their corridor of classrooms is airy and newly renovated. The walls are mint-green, freshly painted, a contrast to the rest of the dilapidated schoolhouse.
Gvantsa, age 9, is seated at the table among her friends, a golden-haired child with a warm smile. She was an eyewitness to Russian occupation this August. “I saw soldiers and tanks coming. Three bombs fell nearby. Shrapnel hit my house. Everyone was afraid and we went to hide.” In a cellar, Gvantsa and her family waited for safety—and then fled. Yet in spite of the recent turmoil, the 9-year-old seems calm and resilient today.
“I saw soldiers and tanks coming. Three bombs fell nearby. Shrapnel hit my house. Everyone was afraid and we went to hide.”
Gvantsa is grateful to have an appealing place to learn and play, where she and her classmates can overcome the stress of the summer and early fall. Each centre includes recreational space, toys, games and educational materials for kids to use. Daily, from morning to evening, Sakasheti’s children gather in this new suite of classrooms to hear stories, play sports, enjoy team work and socializing, and engage in arts and cultural activities. They learn in a structured setting and through many informal activities. Opportunities exist for reading new books, acquiring computer skills, health education, psycho-social counseling, and literacy and numeric preparations. Older children participate in debates and discussions. The emphasis is on learning, playing, socializing and expressing feelings and thoughts – crucial for restoring children’s trust.
At home, with money tight, toys and books are rare. Parents are preoccupied with rebuilding their homes and farms. The child-friendly centres allow parents and caregivers to attend to their daily activities without worry for their children’s safety and well-being.
“Our children have fears at night; it’s a rehabilitation for them to be here,” says early-childhood educator Gelatashvili, the parent of two young children in the group. “Many witnessed war up close. They were evacuated on truck beds. We parents had only one thought—to get our children out safely. As adults, we were also affected. For us it’s also a rehabilitation to work with children.”
Before she was specially trained for her new career, Gelatashvili had no experience working outside the home. “In October, the people returned slowly. Our village was damaged, but what was most striking was how empty it felt.”
It’s been three months since the center opened. Gelatashvili moves gracefully among the seated children. Their voices rise as they sing a song of thanks before they eat their lunch of homemade tomato soup. Polite and patient, they sit at small tables and pass bread. In their quiet bearing, one sees something precociously adult. They have learned to share.
The same group of roughly two dozen kids also shares their excitement in learning.
Tea, a ten-year-old, is seated at a round table. She raises her eyes to look directly into those of an adult visitor, “When I left I thought I was never coming back. To return and see my house—not destroyed—and see my friends alive made me happy.”
A girl in a red chimes in, “At night, I have the feeling that I might wake up and start to cry.” By day, though, the children gather with their teacher to play. The physical environment is deliberately attractive and neutral: a space the children can fill with color and motion. Small carpets and pillows line the floors—comfortable nooks to sit, while a story is read aloud. During cold months, the area is well-heated, stocked with books, dolls houses and train sets, a low basketball hoop and foam-ball. “The parents are so grateful to have this,” says Ia Mgebrishvili, the school nurse, “there’s no kindergarten in our village. This is the only place they can come.”
This whole environment has been created carefully, so that the psychological aftermath of wartime -- the midnight memories -- can recede. Says Khatia, 10, “At the end of the day, I don’t want to leave my classroom and go home.”