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Life in a Protest Camp

Visiting the small city of Kutaisi...

...and mostly a protestors camp near a fortified police line.

Nothing too unusual (and nothing illegal I promise).

Or alternatively, "Life in a Hippie Camp."

For most of my journalistic work, I focus on national defense and regional security matters. Riveting, I know.

Things like local protests and environmentalism rarely, if ever, cross my desk. However, something about the issue, and the opportunity to travel again, struck me.

After doing some contact hopping in Facebook, I found a young couple living in the Northwest Georgian city of Kutaisi that were involved in the resistance.

A simple Facebook message started what became a quickly organized weekend excursion to the region. Immediately, I grabbed some quick essentials and shoved them in my old military backpack somehow held together with only some hope and crossed fingers (and some duct tape).

After preparing some weekend rations and water bowl for my new kitten (more on him in another article), I was out the door and on the metro to the intercity bus station.

This "intercity bus station," as it should be in quotes I suppose, more resembles Mos Eisley (of Star Wars fame) than a transportation hub. A maze of bartering street vendors selling everything from fresh meat to used home appliances spreads in all directions. In the center, there is a fleet of varying sizes and models of minibuses.

This type of intercity transportation is known locally as a Marshutka (Mar-shoot-ka).

Some are new, having air conditioner units, TVs, and comfortable seating with realistic leg room. Others are older and, well, not so much in the way of comfort.

Yours truly was (un)lucky enough to score a seat on one of the latter.

Thankfully, the marshutka wasn't too terribly overcrowded, as they are known to get at times. In addition, the drivers and passengers windows being open allowed for moderate air flow. Not too bad so far.

However, due to the aforementioned lack of leg room, combined with the fact that my corn-fed size doesn't fit the stereotypical Georgian frame, forced me to sit in a corkscrew fashion.

For virtually the entirety of the voyage, my spine screamed for alleviation but to no avail. Despite this discomfort, the view along the way often emulated pastoral paintings and mountain masterpieces. Serene villages peppered with livestock and the occasional rusting tractor provided much needed relief from the bustle of life in the capital city.

Approaching Kutaisi, the Caucasus mountains become the dominant feature on the horizon in the most beautiful way. In late April, their snow-capped majesty seized the attention of every viewer.

Kutaisi is an ancient city; over 4,000 years in the making. Like much of Georgia's old cities, the juxtaposition of brick structures likely dating from the late 19th century, the Soviet-era housing blocks complete with banners of laundry, and modern steel and glass office and shopping buildings complete the scene. Palm trees continually remind you of the more western location.

Upon landing in the city and finding my quick bearings, I set out to make contact with my contact. With only some Facebook profile pictures to confirm identity, I found them at last near the center of the city and was invited in to make myself at home.

While the wife spoke good English, the husband spoke very little and offered a chance at testing my atrophied Georgian skills. Over a bountiful dinner of pelmeni, various breads, and coffee, I was able to get some details about the situation with the dam construction.

Closing the night with tea and good conversation, I settled into a comfortable sleep, trying to map out the next day.

Rising to another bountiful fest of sausage and eggs, supplemented with strong coffee, the husband, Tamaz, and I set out towards a bus station that would take us north into the mountain villages. With my broken Georgian, I shared basic conversation and some scattered laughs along the way out of the historic district of the city.

We arrived in the village of Gumati, a small and primitive village that seemed very quiet despite the spring vegetation cloaking the area in a bright green warmth. As we walked up a grade, the sound of rushing water greeted us in a growing roar. We could begin to see a long line of parked cars of all makes and models along the narrow road.

Gradually, small and mid-size tents came into view, as well as Georgian flags affixed to trees and telephone polls. At the end, a mixture of steel wall and metal fencing with a small group of generously portly police officers sat across the road near a dilapidated roadside building. In the foreground, a larger group of protestors gathered in various circles, talking and laughing, walking her and there or simply sitting and smoking.

In the main center of the camp, there sat two old soviet-era army tents and a open-faced shelter that clearly served as a de facto mess hall, all centered around a fire pit with wooden benches.

I was shortly introduced to one of the leaders of the protest, and had a chance to ask a few initial questions about the situation. However, I spend most of my time for the first few hours walking around and observing the mannerisms of both the protesters and police.

For hours, very little happened, until around 4 pm when a rally was held along the police fence, with active response from both sides. After a lively interaction, they shifted their protest to the city center. Here, they made their long march down one of the main thoroughfares of Kutaisi complete with flags, chants, and songs being sung.

Upon the completion of this demonstration, many returned to the camp, at which time the sun had begun to wane. The fire had begun to grow at the camp center and people had gathered, wrapped in various coats to shield from the dropping mountain temperatures.

One of the interesting observations made during this gathering was the sharing of traditional Georgian poems, most of which were recited from memory. While most of the content is lost to me, much of it surrounds family life in villages, crops yields, and Georgian history. This tradition struck me as uniquely enchanting, as men young and old shared poems around a campfire with the roaring of the river water in the background and snap of the fire in front of us.

The crowd around the fire finally dispersed around midnight, and everyone beelined to their tent, car, or other arranged sleeping platform as the mountain air cooled and hushed conversation carried in the air.

The next day roughly reminded me of a morning in the field during training. People still bundled in coats and old army jackets, cigarette smoke rising from small groups of people producing light conversation, and small cups of coffee grasped in hands.

After a quick cup of the strong field coffee, I was off back to the village, a taxi back to Kutaisi, and a short walk with Tamaz to the barely-open McDonalds in the city square for a morning burger, fries, and small cola to wake us up. There's something quite bonding about being sharing a small meal on the steps to a church with packs on and clearly still tired from the day before.

With the completion of our morning meal, we were off to the marshutka station. In short time he found me a proper ride back to Tbilisi. We exchanged our farewells and I was loaded aboard for the 3 hour ride back.

As the marshutka made the journey home, I couldn't help but reflect that while it was quite the lifestyle to be out there on the protest line for a day. However, many of those there that day are there for the long haul. That was their way of life.

I maintain a keen level of respect for those out there on that line. I am just an outsider, a tourist in their life, but that struggle is their entire existence. At least for the time being.

Ultimately, I support their cause, and encourage their heartfelt fight towards their goal although I cannot be sure it will end in their favor. I can only hope that my path will cross theirs in the future, and share those experiences yet again.

Such is life in a protest camp; simple, engaging, passionate, and bonding. Something of a commune mixed with a military unit in the field, and a bit of summer camp from my past sprinkled in for good measure and nostalgia.

Until next time, "Guardians of the Rioni Valley."


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