THE NIGHT THAT CHANGED TBILISI - “THE CITY THAT LOVES YOU...”
By Nino Kajaia, UNHCR External Relations Associate
Tuesday, June 23
UNHCR TBILISI, 19 JUNE 2015
Of the 45 years Tamar Khurtsilava has lived in the small village Akhaldaba, the night of 14 June 2015 was the scariest. She and her neighbours were fighting the natural disaster, it was a life and death struggle. The village Akhaldaba was the first place hit by the landslide caused by heavy rainfall, which dammed up the Vere River, then burst sending torrents of water down towards the capital city. Devastating floods in central parts of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, claimed the lives of at least 19 people, completely destroyed 336 houses, left dozens of families homeless, inundated road networks, power lines, and isolated remote villages. Damage from the flooding is estimated at US 50 million. The Vere River rushed through the city, sweeping away cars and buildings and completely flooding the zoo. Lions, bears, tigers and wolves were among the many animals that escaped and were roaming the streets. On Sunday morning Tbilisi woke up to a surreal picture: on a washed-out road a hippopotamus grazing from a tree, a bear perched on a second-story windowsill, cars in the capital’s central swimming pool.
“I cannot even describe what we went through: trees, stones, mud, water, houses were coming at us. Where we are standing now in this mud, was my neighbor’s house, among the ruins of the collapsed house she was screaming and crying for help. Most of the houses and roads in the village are destroyed, we are left without electricity, gas, food, and totally isolated from the entire world”- tells Tamar Khurcilava to the UNHCR representatives, who flew by helicopter to her village to deliver generators, water and first humanitarian aid with the volunteers from the Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Accommodation and Refugees of Georgia who also helped clean the houses in a flood-ravaged area of the village.
UNHCR was the first agency to respond, offering support to the Government of Georgia in the early morning hours of Sunday, 14 June. Food was procured and non-food items loaded from warehouse stores to trucks on stand-by and by mid-afternoon, UNHCR staff were delivering food and water to city residents. A few hours later, the Government provided UNHCR access to MI-36 helicopter flights for aid delivery, in the absence of alternative means to access the affected population, in cooperation with the Georgian Red Cross, UNHCR provided the first emergency clean water and food aid via helicopter to villagers in Betania, whose resources were washed away and assisted in the helicopter relocation of 50 persons, mostly children, from remote locations to Tbilisi. Happy to be alive, most of these children and their parents were telling the incredible stories of their survival, the stories of their lives. During the past five days assisting the flood affected population, UNHCR staff in Georgia heard a lot of those testimonies.
One of them is a story of the 62 years old Venera Meparidze, IDP from Abkhazia and her family. It is the second time that Venera Meparidze lost her home. First it happened 23 years ago, when, because of the war she was forced to flee from Abkhazia, with her children in her arms. She left behind her daughter’s grave, her house, relatives, friends and a decent life. She and her family started a new life in Tbilisi from scratch. They were living on the second floor of a tiny house at Svanidze Street. It took them years to convert the carcass on the hilly ground into a house, until now Venera was paying her mortgage with her IDP allowances and teacher’s salary.
When on Saturday night Venera was at her home with her daughter-in- law and three grandchildren, Svanidze Street, which is crossed by Vere River, within minutes became the worst hit area, an epicenter of the natural disaster. The stream Vere River turned into a raging river. Water was rising with extreme speed, breaking into the homes of the sleeping residents. Electricity went off making escape for the people even more difficult. Some were trying to climb their roofs for survival. As the waters rose, residents from nearby high-rises posted pictures on social media and said that people trapped in the flood area were using flashlights to signal for help. Venera Meparidze, her three grandchildren and daughter- in- law, 29 years old Keti Begiashvili, tried to swim from their house to the street, but suddenly Keti and her two years old son Luka Mushkudiani were swept back to their house by the water wave. Keti was trapped in her own home.
Water was coming from everywhere. In one hand she was holding her shocked, crying son, shivering from the cold and with the other hand trying to call her husband Zurab Mushkudiani, professional rescuer, who was not at home at the beginning of the tragedy. “ It was a real disaster, water was coming, I was trapped, first I climbed on the table, when the water rose, I scrambled to the children’s two-story bed, it was dark, I hit the chandelier, it crashed on my head, cut my hands. Luka was screaming “Mummy I’m freezing”. He had just diapers on him, I found the plastic bag in the attic and wrapped him. When the water came up to my throat, I thought we were dying, but even that moment I was flashing the light from my phone, hoping that we will be rescued. And suddenly my husband came from the attic and saved us. I still can’t believe that we survived that disaster.”- said Keti in tears.
Keti’s husband, Venera’s son was trying to get home through the flooding, when he received his wife’s 911 call. He did the impossible, swimming through the mud and debris in the dark towards the flickering light of his wife’s phone. After rescuing his family, Zurab passed his youngest son Luka to a policeman and went to help neighbors. The picture of the policeman holding two years old Luka was all over the media and became a symbol of hope in this tragedy. Zurab together with his colleagues managed to save a lot of his neighbors, but other of people was not as lucky and died that night on Svanidze Street.
Five days after this devastating flood Zurab Mushkudiani, his colleagues, policemen, the Georgian Army and hundreds of volunteers began cleaning the streets, houses, digging the city out from under the mud and debris left by the flood. Response from civil society was huge, like never seen before. Students, parents with their children, the elderly population, went to the destroyed streets to help: some with their own hands, some collecting food and clothing, some providing free transportation, farmers were sending products from different regions of Georgia, companies were donating money for the victims.
Meanwhile, Venera, Keti and their children are trying to overcome the shock and horror, now temporarily living in a one bedroom flat, rented by the Government, where UNHCR recently met with them, bringing first aid assistance including beds, blankets, linens, kitchen sets, cash assistance. Also clothing donated by the UN agencies; including UNDP, UN Women, the family of UN Resident Coordinator and the Ambassador of Estonia. Luka was playing with his brother and sister, periodically helping to unpack presents and finding time for the photo shooting.
The Government of Georgia promised to pay rent for the victims of the flood, until a durable housing solution is found. Now two years old Luka Mushkudiani’s family has to find a flat which suits them. Second time displaced from her home, Venera and her family have to start their life from scratch yet again. “Sometimes these days I’m thinking how will I find the strenght to start everything over again, after what I went through once? But thanks God that my children and grandchildren are alive and this is the most important. We will start over once again”- said Venera.
Like Venera Meparidze, all of Tbilisi is starting over. First of all starting over to believe, that despite this tragedy and damages, the city will be restored and be the one as advertised in the travel guides and tourist brochures: “Tbilisi-the city that loves you”.
During these difficult days the UNHCR supports and stands next to the Tbilisi and the Georgian people, as always for the past 23 years.
In view of the devastating flood in Georgia, which cost the lives of dozens of citizens, the UNHCR Regional office in the South Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia) decided not to commemorate World Refugee Day 2015, which takes place every year on 20 June. All the events scheduled to take plac through the month are canceled, while funds allocated for this event were spent on assisting the victims of the flood.
The UNHCR Regional Office in the South Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia) expresses sincere condolences to the people and the Government of Georgia and stands ready to provide further assistance to the persons of concern to UNHCR in Georgia.