Tamila is an endocrinologist from Tbilisi and Jilda is a teacher from Bershueti village. Fate brought these women together when their husbands ended up in the shared cell of Tskhinvali prison.
Barbed wire, which has become a symbol of isolation of South Ossetia, divides not only the territory, but also people. After the Georgian-Russian war of 2008, the barbed fences started to appear all over the region. Tbilisi and international community denounce the process calling it illegitimate. However, crossing an illegitimate and non-existent border appeared to be very dangerous.
Vazha Gaprindashvili and Shota Bidzinashvili are among the many citizens of Georgia who were separated from their relatives by the dividing line. But the stories of two men are also the stories of their wives – the women, who fought for their husbands in their own ways.
“You must not show weakness”
Everything that happened to Tamila Lapanashvili was very unusual for her: cameras, meetings with ministers, negotiations at the State Security Service and an audience with Cardinal of Vatican. But the most unusual thing was to manage, as she calls it, a campaign for her husband’s release from detention.
The famous Georgian doctor Vazha Gaprindashvili was detained in South Ossetia on November 9, 2019. The last thing he told his wife on the phone was: “The Russian militaries are taking me somewhere”. She did not cry. She began to think what to do next.
“I consider myself a strong person. In extreme situations, I immediately begin to think what I can do to help. This approach helps a lot. The first thing that came to my mind was to call Vazha’s friend and colleague Levan Nachkebia and his wife Maka Asatiani.”
Together they analyzed the situation and developed a plan. Both daughters were engaged as well. Tamila started to search for informal means – she phoned everyone who could be somehow connected with Tskhinvali region. When the doctor’s detention was officially confirmed, the Georgian State Security Service told Tamila that he would be released after the trial. It was required to pay a fine. Tamila was relieved by the news. She recalls how she was instructed: “Do not let this case go public, journalists and publicity might aggravate the situation.”
Tamila said, that at first she communicated with government agencies via phone calls. It was until November 13, when Gaprindashvili’s court hearing was postponed. After that, Tamila was told that the time had come to get acquainted with the Security Service officials in person.
The court decision on two-month pre-trial detention came as a complete shock to Tamila.
“You shouldn’t be weak at such moments. On the contrary, you must get a grip: you have a task – to free a person from captivity. Your motivation is to show everyone, including the state and the international community, that all you need is to stand together. ”
On the day of the ruling, Tamila and her colleagues spontaneously organized a protest in the courtyard of the medical institute in Tbilisi. The participants carried posters saying: “Freedom to Vazha Gaprindashvili.”
“I felt enormous power. I saw that we were not alone. ”
Tamila believes that the response of international community to doctor’s detention saved his life. She herself wrote letters to various international organizations and personally to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Tamila felt herself helpless only when she was faced with disinformation. South Ossetian media wrote that Vazha Gaprindashvili was a military doctor in 2008. But, she decided not to prove the opposite, as she thought that “hanging on every word is pointless.” The case of two rescued Russian pilots during the August war, she said, showed the whole world that “everything they say is a lie.”
In the meantime, the case of Vazha Gaprindashvili was included in agendas of all international meetings in which Georgia participated. As Tamila said, all formal and informal parties, international organisations, as well as athletes, doctors and artists were actively involved in the campaign. On social networks, users installed avatars demanding the release of the doctor.
“Diplomats invited me to meetings. Everyone said that it was a shameful precedent to detain a doctor, and first of all for Russia,” Tamila said.
Even unfamiliar people from North Ossetia and other regions of Russia called her telling this on the phone. This strengthened Tamila and she felt that the power was in unity.
“My two daughters stood next to me on the front line. We were women fighting for the freedom of a man, for Vazha. We fought together, with others supporting us. At the same time, everyone was looking at me, even my children, which are already adults. You take responsibility for what is happening. Despite the struggle, you need to be peaceful. At the last rally, I addressed Ossetians. There should be no conflicts between us, we have lived peacefully for centuries and must continue our peaceful life as brothers. Under this sky, I said. I didn’t mention “land”, because there are no borders in the sky.”
In late December, the so-called court sentenced Vazha Gaprindashvil to 21months imprisonment for “illegally crossing the state border”. But, on New Year’s Eve, the doctor was released.
“The first thing my husband told me when there were no cameras around was: what a noise you have made here?” Tamila recalls with a smile.
The detention of Vazha Gaprindashvili indeed caused a huge public outcry. But thanks to him, the problem of detentions along the line of occupation attracted wide public attention in Georgia as well as overseas. Before this incident, such detentions seemed to be a part of the daily life of the people living along the dividing line.
Face to Face with Fear
On November 7, two men were detained in the village of Bershueti, near the occupation line of South Ossetia. One of them was Shota Bidzinashvili. Two days later, doctor Vazha became his cellmate.
For Jilda Chaduneli, that ordinary November day was a nightmare. Witnesses saw that her husband had a verbal skirmish with a Russia military near the dividing line.
“My oldest son is 16 years old. He told me that he was going to look for his father with friends. I freaked out by the thought that I might lose him as well”.
The Georgian State Security Service, along with local authorities, immediately became involved in the process of Shota’s liberation. Jilda said that she felt support, but was still afraid to lose her husband.
Shota Bidzinashvili spent nine days in the Tskhinvali detention center. A fine in the amount of 2,500 Russian rubles was requested for his release.
“I wondered why they kept him there for so long. We knew that three days after the fine was paid people were released. I have already collected the money, Shota’s friends found a person in Moscow who was ready to help us in making the payment in South Ossetia. I would have got this money anyway, even if I had to beg for it.”
As Jilda learned later, her husband was severely beaten, which she suspected from the beginning. The military simply “waited for him to recover, when bruises in his face were healed. Only after that he was released.”
The court was constantly postponed, so Jilda lost track of time. Those nine days seemed like an eternity.
She fought for her husband’s liberation without attention of media and support of international community; she was alone with her fears. It was very difficult mentally, Jilda recalls.
“I don’t remember how I went to work or how I cooked food … They told me – call this person, call that person. And, I called. All of this put a lot of pressure on me. Perhaps if someone were in my position, I would also try to help with advice. But then, everything irritated me. It was a big stress”.
Jilda admits that she is a very emotional person and if something happens she immediately begins to cry. But her husband’s arrest changed this belief. There were no tears.
“I started to think how to overcome this situation. To be honest, I was a little bit angry with my husband: what was he doing there [at the occupation line]?! ” [she laughs]
When Shota returned home in his native village he told her: “I did not think that I would return home and see you,” adding that he asked doctor Vazha to look after the family.