Little boxes, little boxes, Little boxes all the same There’s the green one and the pink one And the blue one and the yellow one And they’re all made outta ticky-tacky And they all look just the same… Malvina Reynolds (sung by Pete Seeger, 1963)
TBILISI, Georgia It all started out with the best of intentions. A local non governmental organization had purchased scores of native saplings to plant in a settlement for people displaced in the August war. Around 160,000 people fled their homes last summer during Georgia’s disastrous tangle with Russia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia.That added thousands of displaced families to the more than 200,000 internally displaced people from the wars of the early 1990s.
The latest wave has beenresettled by the government in sprawling grids of concrete huts, many of which lacked even basic sanitation and are below international standards for housing refugees.
Erected on a floodplain off a major highway, Tserovani is more than 2,000 small structures that stands as a damning indictment for a failed policy toward the two breakaway regions. Painted in garish pastels, it’s nightmarish version of Levittown; it resembles an American suburb from a distance, but a closer look reveals something even worse. The roads are unpaved. There is little space between each house for a vegetable garden or anything useful. Many of these people had been rich farmers but now they are squeezed into a space without arable land and far from an urban center where they might find work.
I asked a Georgian architect for his opinion on this type of urban planning. It’s a disaster, he said. It’s nothing but a show. To make it look like they are doing something.
Our plan was to plant trees around some of these homes in what at best would be a beautification project. As a journalist, it would give me a chance to meet some of these people and I hoped conduct some interviews that I would be able to weave into my reporting.
Enter the government and their minions.
The day before our outing, two top apparatchiks Environment Minister Goga Khachidze and Minister for Refugees and Accomodation Koba Subeliani got wind of the day-out and decided it would be the perfect PR stunt. When we arrived the two men were surrounded by local camera crews as they drilled holes in the earth along a river bank planting conifers underneath power lines.
Our contact with the NGO was furious. We had meant to be helping the refugees beautify a kindergarten. But when the government showed up with their legions of young helpers, machinery and a media circus, most of the local people understandably hid in their homes. They wanted no part of an exercise that would suggest their government cared for their welfare. This was the same government that had tried to convince a German housing agency to provide fewer amenities like running water and flush toilets lest is would raise the expectations in settlements elsewhere.
We stood to the side drinking homemade wine from the hood of the truck while the environmental volunteers vainly pleaded with the government workers not to plant the trees beneath powerlines and in a grid that would resemble less of a park and more of a Christmas tree farm.
I feel like I am part of some show, one Georgian volunteer remarked bitterly as he swallowed a mouthful of his homemade wine.
A gaggle of refugees stood at the side watching the pageant. Their impressions filtered back to our group. This is a flood plain where cattle graze; the saplings won’t stand a chance.
After the ministers and their legions of green-vested helpers and television reporters who had enough tape to beam back to Tbilisi in time for the evening news we went to work uprooting the poorly laid conifers and lending volunteers to refugees who were now venturing out of their huts and accepting help tilling their garden.
To our delight we discovered that some of the more enterprising refugees had stolen the better trees for their own use near the huts, so it wasn’t a total waste.
As a journalist the day was a bust. The presence of higher-ups and television cameras had ruined any chance for speaking to these people in a frank manner. But in the end we got plants in the ground and polished off a few liters of wine which I consider a qualified success.