I arrived in Georgia via airplane, which was the first difference from my last trip a month earlier. In August, I arrived by car from Armenia after flying in from Beirut along with a few other colleagues based in Lebanon. The story in August was the Russian invasion and it was very much a 'news' story. This time around, rather than trekking across Armenia, I was able to fly into Tbilisi on assignment for the United Nations to document the internally displaced people (IDP) situation in the country for two weeks. The project consisted of covering new and old caseload IDPs, those from the conflict in Abkhazia in the 1990s and the recent Russian invasion.
© Paul Taggart/WpN
Rusudani, 27, stands with her children in one of the dark rooms at the Khobi Swimming Complex on Sept. 29, 2008, in Khobi, Georgia. Rusudani and her children along with nine other families live in the Khobi Swimming Complex which has been a Collective Center (CC) for IDPs from Abkhazia since the conflict in the 1990s. The building is structurally unsound, has no running water, and no functioning heating during the winter.
Rather than covering the conflict and the Russian invasion, I traveled around the country documenting families displaced by both the recent fighting and those who fled Abkhazia in the '90s but have still not been able to return.
The Georgian IDPs from Abkhazia whom I photographed were not living in tent cities or well organized housing but rather squatting in empty buildings throughout the country. Many of them have been living like this for nearly 15 years. My first stop was in Khobi, in the west of Georgia. The collective center that the IDPs were living in was an old run-down public pool. The 40-some people who were living in the structures surrounding the Olympic-size pool had been squatting there since the '90s when they fled the fighting in Abkhazia.
The entire place was surreal: a makeshift apartment complex surrounded by an enormous swimming pool, empty except for one meter of water and a nice florescent green covering of moss and algae, a large wrap-around patio, an intricate self-made piping system for drain water and a sauna room filled with years of trash. The structure was crumbling and, from the outside, seemed uninhabitable. Once you were inside the structure was full of life. The building was still a failing structure but the people had created their own vibrant community packed full of eccentric characters.
© Paul Taggart/WpN
Gela, 10, stands at the window in his kitchen at the Khobi Swimming Complex on Sept. 29, 2008, in Khobi, Georgia. Gela's family along with nine others live in the Khobi Swimming Complex which has been a Collective Center (CC) for IDPs from Abkhazia since the conflict in the 1990s. The building is structurally unsound, has no running water and no functioning heating during the winter.
I traveled from room to room with a translator discovering new people with amazing stories and vibrant traits at each step along the way: A husband and wife whose two children were raised in the Khobi pool complex but were now away at university while they remained in this IDP center with their collection of dogs; a man, fixated with his garden from back home in Abkhazia, who was growing a new garden next to the pool with all the same fruits as his home village and had titled it "little Abkhazia," and children running and playing around the pool, including a young girl tormented by pre-teen boys (as per usual) while she fished in the algae-infested florescent pool in the complex's center. From floor to floor each layer of people was more interesting. I finally reached the basement level where the in-house brewer who was making vats of red wine in the dark bowels of the complex greeted the interpreter and me. The wine was horrid, more like hooch than vino, but the surroundings and people made it a fabulous event.
© Paul Taggart/WpN
Radion, 60, stands in front of his grape vines at the Khobi Swimming Complex on Sept. 29, 2008, in Khobi, Georgia. Radion, along with nine other families, live in the Khobi Swimming Complex which has been a Collective Center (CC) for IDPs from Abkhazia since the conflict in the 1990s. The building is structurally unsound, has no running water, and no functioning heating during the winter. Raidon, who used to have a farm back in his home village in Abkhazia, has been growing produce in the empty lot next to the CC for the last 15 years. He calls his garden of wine grapes, limes, and oranges "my Abkhazia" in remembrance of his land back home.
I have been photographing refugees in some capacity or another for a few years now. I remember the first camp I ever visited was in Tanzania and it was a sprawling site of the gigantic Lugufu #1 and #2 refugee camp. That was in 2003 and it would seem that every story I have covered since has, in some way, an element of the refuge to it. Every famine, war and natural disaster has its displaced. What was different this time around was that the displaced populations were not just part of an "aftermath" story but WERE the story. Working for a client whose sole purpose is to document the displaced made this possible.
In between covering the Russian invasion and returning to Georgia with the U.N. I was in the States. While back home I ended up in Louisiana trying to cover the hurricane. I spent a few nights in hotels off the highways leading to Baton Rouge filled with displaced families from New Orleans and other areas. It would seem as reporters we can't escape the fact that many of our larger stories somehow include the element of the displaced whether it's a conflict in a far-off country or at home.
© Paul Taggart/WpN
Revaz, 73, stands in the basement of the Khobi Swimming Complex, where he makes his wine, on Sept. 29, 2008, in Khobi, Georgia. Revaz and nine other refugee families have lived in the Khobi Swimming Complex since the 1990s.
While in Georgia the second time around, I had the opportunity to visit a dozen other centers with both new and old displaced peoples. Each family had its own unique story of terror and desperation but each family also told a story of how even in the throes of confusion people make life work, make their families grow and find ways to raise children. Adolescent boys still find a way to torment the girls and vice versa. In short, life goes on. This is not to say that complacency to their situation is acceptable but rather maybe it's time that we try our hardest as storytellers not to tell the tale of a refugee but rather the stories of people in the throes of what life offers them… the eccentric winemaker living in the basement or the kid on Facebook using the computer run by solar panels in a refugee camp in Lugufu.
As I write this I'm working on a story about refugees in DR Congo and I find myself taking many of the same pictures one would expect from such a story – time to find the characters and the people rather than the title that we give them in our captions: refugee.
Time to find the family at the Holiday Inn outside Baton Rouge who the media dare not define as "refugee."