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Peace Corps volunteer Lindsey Harris '08 reflects on fleeing the fighting in Republic of Georgia

Lindsey Harris '08 escaped the fighting in the Republic of Georgia in August and is awaiting her next assignment with the Peace Corps. She chronicles her experience in an essay titled "Goodbye Georgia."

Harris went to the Republic of Georgia in June to begin her work teaching English classes. On August 8, Russia began militaryaction against the country, bombing several areas, then sending troopsin a massive ground invasion. 

By Lindsey Harris ’08

Goodbye Georgia

Some avid E-net readers may have seen a post about my “escape from Georgia” two months ago. I was a Peace Corps trainee, about to become a full-fledged volunteer in the Republic of Georgia, when the fighting and tensions in the breakaway regions of the country escalated into war. The story of my and my fellow Peace Corps volunteers’ evacuation from the country that we were beginning to think of as a second home is not nearly as dramatic as people may expect.

The volatile atmosphere within the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia has been the norm in Georgia for the past 15 years. When the escalated conflict unfolded on Aug. 5 and 6, every Georgian seemed to assume that this, too, would calm down within a couple days. On these evenings, rather than keeping up with the news reports of the fighting, my host family was much more interested in tuning into their Spanish soap operas dubbed in Georgian. This is not because my host family was insensitive or politically apathetic, but it speaks to their country’s history and the sad fact that they expect a certain level of instability and violence within these breakaway regions.

In fact, when the Peace Corps staff decided to consolidate all volunteers in a hotel up in the mountains of Georgia, we were told to pack a small bag for two days because we intended to stay only until the fighting died down. We trainees even continued our Georgian language training at the hotel; however, it became clear that we wouldn’t be going back to our host families within a few days.

The television in the hotel lobby was tuned to the news all day and we would stand along with the other hotel guests, watching the terrifying aftermath of bombings in the streets of Gori. In one of the most heart-wrenching moments, one of our Georgian language teachers recognized her apartment on the TV screen. A bomb had been dropped on her neighborhood and the apartment next door to her family’s apartment was in flames. The many Georgian Peace Corps staff members that were dedicated to making sure that we were safe and well were under tremendous stress themselves and were no doubt feeling terribly helpless and afraid for the families that they left behind.

We were safe in a ski resort town in Georgia, but when Russian ground troops crossed the boundaries of the conflict zones, we were all quickly evacuated from Georgia to Armenia. Of course, “quickly” is a relative term as we left on buses and traveled on back roads through the mountains. You can imagine the ordeal of getting two busloads of Americans through a tiny Armenian border control. Still, after about 12 hours of travel, we made it to a hotel in the mountains of Armenia without incident.

The Peace Corps Armenia staff and volunteers took good care of us for three weeks as we waited for officials at the Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C., to decide what to do with us. We were resourceful, and in true Peace Corps fashion, developed our own “Fun Committee” to keep ourselves occupied. Eventually, we were told that the Peace Corps Georgia program would be suspended indefinitely. 

None of us Peace Corps volunteers were hurt and only a small fraction of us heard or saw any bombs in Georgia. I think that for many of us the most traumatic parts of the “fleeing” process were the phone calls to friends, co-workers and host families in Georgia. We worried about their safety and the safety of their families, and we feel guilty running out on them in their time of need. Georgians are by far some of the warmest and most hospitable people that I have ever met, and Georgia is a unique and independent country that had a bright future ahead. Georgians have proven that they are a tough and resilient people, but this war has undoubtedly set this fragile country back tremendously. 

Some of the Peace Corps volunteers who had lived and worked in Georgia for a year before the recent conflict did return to the country and have started a non-profit called The Megobari Project (or The “Friend” Project) to help with relief efforts. However, those of us who had been in Georgia for only a few months did not have the language skills or contacts to make it feasible for us to return and be of any real help. Many of us will go on to another Peace Corps post in another country before the end of the year, but the fact that we did not get to properly say goodbye to our Georgian friends and family is what haunts us all. 

To find out more about what returned Peace Corps volunteers and other groups are doing to provide humanitarian aid within Georgia, and to learn about how you can help, please take a look at the link to the right.

Jaleh Hagigh,
Staff
10/1/2008 11:03 AM