Experiences of protracted displacement in narratives of Internally Displaced women from Abkhazia

Experiences of protracted displacement in narratives of Internally Displaced women from Abkhazia

 

Bitchvinta, Abkhazia. Creator: Anna Dziapshipa. All rights reserved.

The following paper is based on the narratives of internally displaced women who were forced to flee from Abkhazia within the territory of Georgia[1] in the beginning of nineties. It focuses on women’s experiences of forced displacement and is based on the preliminary results of a larger research project[2]Based on life history interviews with internally displaced women, my goal is to understand how displaced women remember, revisit and construct their past prior to the armed conflict and in relation to their present circumstances, how they experienced and describe violent events and the aftermath, how they reflect on and make sense of their lives in protracted displacement up to the present time.

Since gaining its independence in 1991, Georgia has experienced dramatic transformations, several waves of armed conflict and forced displacement. In 1991-1994, and later in 2008, thousands of ethnic Georgians were forced to flee their homes and relocate within the territory of Georgia, as a result of armed conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. According to some estimates, these conflicts resulted in the forced displacement of more than 370,000 people (IDMC/NRC 2012).  According to more recent figures there are approximately 232,000 conflict-induced IDPs in Georgia (IDMC 2014), amounting to 6 percent of the country’s population (Ferris, Mooney, and Stark 2011).

Both refugees and IDPs are forced to leave their homes, unexpectedly and in large numbers. Though, unlike refugees, IDPs do not cross the international border, they rather stay within the borders of their home country and remain under the protection of their own government. Both refugees and IDPs “begin from a position of loss, including the loss of assets, family and community, and often emotional and physical health’’ (Jacobsen 2014); the key difference lies in the fact that IDPs are citizens, while refugees are ‘foreigners’ in a hosting society. Although, despite living in their own country, IDPs have experienced isolation, stigma and marginalization and felt like outsiders in their own society (Mitchnek et al. 2009, Rekhviashvili 2015), which has also been voiced by women in this study.

Regardless of being the citizens of the same country within which they have been displaced, IDPs, as Lundgren puts it, are not in the ‘right’ place; they “both belong and do not belong; they are simultaneously insiders and outsiders’’(Lundgren 2016:19). Turner’s conceptualization of liminality and transitional beings can also be useful to describe the condition of limbo in which IDPs in Georgia have been trapped for over 2 decades; In Turner’s words “transitional beings, or liminal personae […] are neither here nor there, or maybe even nowhere […] and are at the very least ‘betwixt and between’ all the recognized fixed points in the space-time or cultural classification’’ (Turner 1967:236). Under the circumstances of prolonged displacement, IDPs feel caught up between their lost homes, present ‘temporary’ homes and imagined future homes. (Kabachnik et al.2010, Lundgren 2016)

Contributors in the volume The aftermath - Women in Post-conflict Transformation emphasize that challenges of rebuilding lives in war-torn societies are “much more complex and difficult than the task of putting an end to fighting’’. In individual chapters they illustrate that “there is no one aftermath because the scenarios following the war are as various as the conflicts themselves’’ (Meintjes et al. 2002) Furthermore, the conflict and its aftermath is experienced and remembered in different ways by men and women. The growing body of literature in feminist memory studies has emphasized “the ways in which the past shapes the present, and all of ‘us’ in the present, in multiple and deeply gendered ways’’ (Altinay and Peto 2016).  Women I interviewed do not belong to the single group, therefore “not only their experiences differ but also their connections to the conflict, and these experiences and connections determine their position in the aftermath’’ (Bop 2002). Nevertheless, there are certain similarities in their experiences of living in exile. For example, memories of their lost homes and recollections of their lives in pre-war, peaceful Abkhazia take up enormous space in stories they share. These memories are all positive and evoke nostalgic sentiments, which is in consistence with  similar  research that has emphasized that positive remembrance of the past and nostalgia as an emotional experience present in post-socialist, post-conflict countries like Georgia, is very strongly linked to the loss of the social trust, as well as the present social insecurity, which strengthen the feeling of longing for the past (Light and Young  2015, Petrović 2008, Palmberg  2013, Velikonja 2005, Kabachnik et al. 2013, Dunn 2014, Arjevanidze 2017). At the same time it can also be read as an expression of criticism of the present condition.  While in post-conflict settings, in recollections of IDPs, whose feeling of belonging to the lost home and the land is stronger, the normalcy, safety, security of the past is defined against the present situation, constructed in relation to the current harsh circumstances and continuous uncertainty (Toria 2015, Kabachnik et al. 2013, Lundgren 2016, Dunn 2014). 

As stated earlier, IDPs from Abkhazia have been trapped in uncertainty regarding the possibilities of return to their former homes in the situation of protracted displacement. The idea of the aftermath and the post-conflict stage becomes even more ambiguous and complex when they are stuck in the waiting that never ends, in the meantime living in the so-called ‘temporary’ accommodations for indefinite time.  Emotional distress and memories of the war, coupled with economic instability and harsh living conditions renders lives of most IDPs particularly vulnerable. Thus, living in uncertainty and open-endedness of protracted displacement has become a chronic condition for many IDPs in Georgia, which can be characterized as an experience of continuous crisis.  

Hence, the concept of crisis as an experiential domain conceptualized by Vigh (2008) as a chronicity, is key to my research in terms of theory. Crisis, in case of protracted displacement is understood as the open-ended rupture of the everyday and abnormality in contrast to normalcy of past times. By drawing on the quote[3] by Walter Benjamin on the ‘state of emergency’, Vigh views crisis that is either social, political or existential, as a chronic and constant condition of the lives of increasingly many people in the world. He suggests to understand crisis not as a temporary experience of abnormality and rupture caused by a wide array of traumatic events at a definite period of time, but rather as a constant state of affairs and the situation of abnormality in which “the chronically ill, the structurally violated, socially marginalized and poor'' continue to live and try to manage their lives (Vigh 2008:7).

Apart from chronic uncertainty and instability, trauma and memories of violent events have to be given due consideration when we speak about individuals living in the aftermath of the war.  As Rydrstrom notes, it is important to consider the ways in which the ‘memories about war […] are engraved in the social and individual body’ and the ways in which individuals witnessing violent events try to “come to terms with the pain caused by war, heal their wounds and move forward'' (Rydstrom 2009).  Trauma of war in war-affected societies in Hirsh’s words is experienced as “a sense of inexorable repetition of the past in the present and future in which injury cannot be healed or repaired, but lives on, shattering worlds in its wake'' (Hirsch 2016).  Women in my study[4], revisit the war memories in distance to the violent event, rather than in proximity, nonetheless these  memories do not cease to be experienced as an anthropologist Veena Das puts it, as a kind of an embodied ‘poisonous knowledge’, the knowledge that cannot easily be erased (Das 2000,  Rydstrom 2009).  

As noted by Vigh, living under extreme circumstances for increasingly many people around the world is ‘unpleasant but not impossible’, which is true for displaced women in this study.  Experience of fragmentation or disruption of unity in times of crisis has not necessarily led them to human passivity. (Vigh 2008)  To follow Das, individuals have managed to recover from extreme violence through a ‘descent into the ordinary’ and not by the escape from it.  In her words “there is a mutual absorption of the violent and the ordinary […] and the event as always attached to the ordinary and the everyday and anchor the event to it in some specific ways“ (Das 2006).  In the similar vein, women in this study, after witnessing armed conflict, experiencing extreme emotional damage, loss and trauma, have not only survived but strived, to develop what anthropologist Nancy Shepherd-Hughes calls ‘the talent for live’ (Scheper-Hughes 2008). And through this very descent into the ordinary life of new, previously unimaginable realities, through increased everyday responsibilities as caretakers, some of them as sole breadwinners in their households, after losing their husbands to the war, these women have manifested incredible strength, resilience and various tactics of dealing with the post-war realities.  

In their recollections of war and reflections on their post-displacement lives, women  I interviewed shared stories which revealed their extraordinary strength and ‘human hardiness’, in  the form of everyday tactics of resilience that “allow individuals and communities to cope with and survive traumatic conditions’’ (Scheper-Hughes 2008). At the same time their stories are filled with pain and emotions such as regret and shame: they feel regretful for wasting and losing  their most valuable years to the war; they feel regretful and sad for not being able to adequately provide for their children, for being unable to pay for their proper education, they feel  unhappy for having the status of an IDP for more than 2 decades, they feel  miserable for living in the same ‘temporary’ accommodation provided for IDPs almost 26 years ago, which, in the words of one of interlocutors in this study 'persists as a constant reminder of being a refugee in your own country, and a reminder of  horrible years in the immediate aftermath of the war’.  

To sum up, we need to consider the ways in which to approach the lives of thousands of individuals living and striving in war-torn societies; insistence on their resilience in times of chronic crises should not disregard their vulnerability, which would mean dismissing severe circumstances under which lives of socially disadvantaged groups become livable. At the same time admission of vulnerability for these women should not be read as “a plea for protection that potentially signals weakness and the perpetuation of disempowerment'' (Hirsch 2016:82). Instead, as proposed by Scheper-Hughes, on the one hand we should not “underestimate the human capacity not only to survive, but to thrive, during and following states of emergency, extreme adversity, and every day as well as extraordinary violence’’ (Scheper-Hughes 2008:42), and on the other hand we need to consider the ways in which individuals can be both ‘resilient and frail’ and acknowledge the human vulnerability in this very manifestation of extraordinary human resilience.  

 

Notes:

[1] The route of their journey was not linear:  most interlocutors in this study had to relocate from one destination to another multiple times in order to escape from war and survive.  Some of them spent first days after the flight in neighboring Russia and then returned back to Georgia, where eventually they were provided with the ‘temporary’ shelter/accommodation either by the state, or by their relatives.

[2] Between December 2015 and February 2017 I conducted in-depth interviews and follow-up conversations with 14 women from Abkhazia for my PhD research. The women ranged in age from fifty-five to seventy years old. Empirical data gathered in 2015 and 2016 was analyzed and incorporated as a book chapter in a volume Gender in Georgia to be published by Berghahn Books in Autumn, 2017. 

[3] ‘’The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that ‘the state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but  the rule’’ (Benjamin 1999 : 248 cited in Vigh, 2008) 

[4]   I conduct this research as a native participant observer and draw on intimate ethnography and life story in oral history as approaches to data gathering and interpretation. Anthropologists Alisse Waterston and Barbara Rylko-Bauer developed intimate ethnography to “enter a deeply private and interior place as ethnographers” (Waterston and Rylko-Bauer 2006:405). Waterston and Rylko-Bauer had close connections with their informants, likewise, my informants are people with whom I have close relations (Arjevanidze 2017)

 

References:

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