Waiting for Christmas in Ergneti



From Georgia

By Guy Edmunds

It is that time of year again, and like children all over the world, Lana, an 8 year old girl in the central Georgian village of Ergneti, is excited by the prospect of Christmas.

“Last year I asked Santa Claus to bring a little car for my brother”, she says. “I’ve not written a letter to him this year yet.”

As a predominantly Orthodox Christian country, Georgia doesn’t officially celebrate Christmas until 6th January. But that is very much a religious celebration. Georgia’s version of Santa Claus – known as Tovlis Babua, which literally means “Snow Grandfather” - visits children on New Year’s Eve. That means Lana still has plenty of time to write.

We meet at the Ergneti School on 10th December, during a special event to celebrate International Human Rights Day and the upcoming holidays. Students from Tbilisi join DRC staff to help run an art competition for the children. Some pupils paint their dreams; others portray the seasons. The best 12 will be included in a special DRC calendar for 2014. Lana’s painting, called “Waiting for Christmas”, will represent December.

For a small village with less than 220 families, Ergneti has played a surprisingly large part in Georgia’s relationship with the breakaway region of South Ossetia. Years ago, it hosted one of the largest markets in the Caucasus, which brought together thousands of Ossetians and Georgian everyday to sell wheat, petrol, cigarettes, consumer goods and agricultural produce.

But none of the goods were taxed, which led the Georgian government to close it down in 2004. That proved to be a mixed blessing. Tax revenues increased, but personal contacts between Ossetians and Georgians declined, and South Ossetia turned towards Russia to sustain its economy.

The war in 2008 between Russia and Georgia followed by Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia as an independent state, polarised matters further. Roughly half of the houses in Ergneti were destroyed during the conflict. The Administrative Boundary Line (ABL) between South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia cuts through the village. With Russian troops guarding the South Ossetian side, travel across the ABL is almost non-existent.

The impact on ordinary people is considerable. A number of villagers cannot access their homes. Some farmers can no longer work their land. Others rely on water from South Ossetia to irrigate their fields, but they have no control over when it is switched off. In the past, Ergneti depended on economic ties with Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital. Now, farmers and traders are trying to build links with the rest of Georgia.

DRC is working in Ergneti with the support of the Swiss Agency for Development and Co-operation (SDC), building houses, repairing infrastructure and supporting people’s livelihoods. That has obvious benefits for the families involved. But to DRC’s surprise, the number of weddings in the village has also increased. Reconstructed homes give families the extra space that their sons need to accommodate new brides.

Much of the technical work for the reconstruction falls to Giga Nodia, an engineer who works for DRC in its nearby field office in Gori. But today Giga’s job involves dressing up Santa and carrying a sack full of candies. This is the first time he has played Father Christmas, and he is quickly swamped by children.

Yet Lana, displaying an unusual level of concentration for a girl her age, doesn’t move until she has finished her painting. What will she ask Santa for this year? “A doll”, she smiles.