I’ve gotta demolish that wall

6 Apr, 2020

Nukri Tabidze                                                                                                                                    Graphics: Davit Kukhalashvili

Grandma wanted to demolish the wall in their living room. She kept insisting that when she died there had to be enough space for the guests to go around the coffin. She still cannot forgive herself that there was no way to circle grandpa’s coffin. “We should have demolished that wall when we painted the living room”, – she used to say regretfully. How to get ready for dying? It has become a new puzzle for my family. In the past it was more about turning the gas office building and the last floor of the hospital into a livable space. When everyone lost hope of going back home, the problem of living turned into the problem of death.

We had to hold my grandma’s funerals at the polyclinic building as well. The first thing we did was to make marble gravestones and fences for both grandpa’s and grandma’s graves.  My father and aunt even planted flowers on grandma’s grave. We could not make a nice house for her, at least we made a nice grave, – they said. My grandma spent most of her life renovating the house in Ochamchire. She spent her last 26 years living in one room with my aunt on the last floor of the hospital building. It turns out where you die matters almost as much as where you live.

“Next year in Sokhumi”. “The next birthday in Ochamchire”. “The next Easter at home”. During my childhood we hoped to go back someday. Since the war in the 1990s we lived in so many buildings (not suitable for living) that my dad jokingly made a list: “We lived in the hospital, hotel, kindergarten, the only building left is the police. And yet, it seemed like the country was going forward. I can’t exactly tell when my family stopped hoping to go back. My parents bought a little house with the help of the relatives and friends and I guess that was the first sign of giving up. This time they had to turn this mudbrick house full of mold and fungi into a home. I was happy anyways. But my parents kept saying that me and my younger brother were happy because we had never lived in a proper house and did not know what it means to have a home of one’s own. We understood what “home” meant, but for me and my brother it still went down to the 4 walls and the ceiling, which here, unlike previous places did not leak. There were no scorpions to fear here and my mom did not have to clean the communal toilet after neighbors. It was a win for us.

This is how after 12 years of going here and there we finally settled down. But our elders stayed in the refugee settlements. As the time passed death slowly creeped into these places as an unwelcome tenant. Year after year we had to attend more and more funerals. The generation that needed and wanted to go back most started to die out. Now we hoped for the government to provide new houses to live in. However, to our disappointment the only way to get a place was through nepotism and bribes. “But how long are we going to be like this? They will provide housing for sure!” – says my mom whenever we speak about the fate of my brother, his wife and soon to be born child.

“Refugee” as a child, I became a “tenant” as an adult. My displacement reminded my neighbors of the injustice of war. Their attitude ranged between disgust and pity. I was invader in their space, but they had no other alternative to suggest either. The tenant was a lot more hateful to them. The tenant is a reminder of poverty and of the attempt to break the cycle of deprivation at the same time. Even for the Tbilisi dwellers with private homes this attempt had not been very successful. A lot of people were turned into tenants because of the bank loans. As a constant reminder of that threat tenant disturbs the sleep of the owner. And yet, unlike refugees’ tenants are thought to have a choice. And there is a “simple” solution as well – stay wherever you were born!

As antithesis of ownership, refugees and tenants are easy targets to blame all troubles on. The more deprived you are the more is the chance you become responsible for all the pollution, broken doors, dead rats, neighbor’s sick child, stuck elevator, noise, violation of the public morality. If you are a woman then you must be a whore as well. Why would you otherwise be renting alone? If you are a man your manhood has to be questioned. You are reminded you are a loser every time you are compared to the ones who own! Having a house not only entitles you to economic advantage but the social hierarchy around it decides your right to the space and the city as well. Since the 1990s a lot of people lost their houses to dishonest developers who never finished constructions. Later, during the last 20 years even more people were evicted from their homes by commercial banks. It would seem like we are on the same boat of the dispossessed, aren’t we? And yet, in different ways.

I’ve often thought about finding the best solution for my family. Getting compensative housing requires social networks that I do not have. If I had, I probably would not be writing this blog today and like others would try to get a place to live through contacts and bribes. It is hard for me to judge those people. In this unjust system with no actual desire and politics of redistribution it is almost impossible to unite and fight against governmental corruption. Especially, when as a refugee you cannot really count on the support from society. The lack of empathy, police brutality and aggression from neighbors is not an uncommon experience for us. The negative reactions from the society to displaced people squatting the Dirsi apartments is a vivid illustration of it.  Despite all these, I tried many times to find people who would speak about corruption or thought of investigating myself. Zero result. Everyone knows everything, but without relevant resources it is impossible to expose the system.

The problem does not only arise from the state’s obscure and corrupt criteria for housing provision, but it is rooted in the dependence on business interests of the investors as well. People living in strategically important buildings have to get lucky and businesspeople get interested in investing in the building. As a result, we get the negotiation table with one side motivated to profit and invest, while on the other side stands people’s possibility of getting decent housing.

Eventually, the people who live in refugee communes, especially the elderly, are left at mercy of their extended families. Such coexistence has made them dependent on each other in a way that makes mechanical eviction-house provision impossible. After the war displaced people resorted to communal survival which turned these squats into family like collectives and entwined their lives emotionally and physically. By giving up privacy and autonomy such settlements somehow made it to this time and point. This struggle has its own heroes, like my grandmother and aunt who made huge sacrifices for me and my brother to have the opportunities to study. It is no coincidence that most of these heroes are women. Or that their existence in the families is often underappreciated either. Complexity of such social factors calls for a broader perspective on the rights of housing for the elderly.

“Integration of the displaced people” – this phrase has flicked through many discussions I’ve attended. It usually is followed by the criticism of the state that did properly implement this promised integration. Then the displaced communities are also criticized for their reluctance to magically integrate in what is seen as the “host” society. The authors of this criticism usually see the refugee settlements only on the photos or during NGO visits. Displacement for them is associated with Mengrelian language, the war trauma and some exotic ethnicized bodies that need to be integrated. The right for housing and related social and emotional injustice goes far beyond the integration problem. Displaced people need no integration! We already are more than familiar with the cultural codes and norms of the center. This is why we are often asked with surprise: Are you a refugee? Wow, I could never tell! You cannot tell because it is the disrupted lives and following struggle for the housing that makes us different. Some of us will win in this struggle, but many will fall defeated. Therefore, in case anyone want to play a puzzle with sentimental words like “the war”, “the beach”, “Abkhazia”, “occupation”, “territories”, “refugees”, etc., you should join in our struggle for decent housing.

Before that, I hope I will be able to demolish that damn wall that annoys and embarrasses my grandmother

  Nukri Tabidze, Master of Gender Research