Meet Tamar Mearakishvili – a trailblazing civic activist from de facto South Ossetia8 min read
More than 12 years have passed since the August War, where Georgia lost administrative control over Akhalgori, a municipality in northern Georgia (South Ossetia). Even after a decade, people from both sides of the re-marked border are experiencing the painful legacy of this five-day armed conflict. While the majority of people who fled Akhalgori in 2008 were regularly returning back to check on their houses or work for a few days at a local hospital or a school, since September 2019 crossing points with the rest of Georgia were permanently closed, making life for these people even more difficult than before.
Authorities on both sides are failing to protect basic human rights. Due to its isolated position, a lack of access to medical care has claimed the lives of dozens of individuals. Families have been divided, and the remaining dreams of having a better life after the war and living peacefully together have faded. In this context, Tamar Mearakishvili, the only remaining civic activist in Akhalgori, struggles to voice the concerns of the people who have been cut off from Georgia and the rest of the world.
The authors of this article conducted an interview with her to celebrate the fearless journey of a woman who is not afraid to investigate insufficient human rights protections and criticize authorities on either side of the fence. In a lengthy conversation, Tamar walked us through her personal life story, its ups and downs, and shared her experience as a female activist from a conflict area that is rarely mentioned in the news and overlooked by the majority of conflict researchers in Georgia.
For the last couple of years, she has been a critical source of information on the situation in Akhalgori for Georgians, foreign experts and even Russians interested in the South Ossetian conflict. She has been persecuted due to her critical public social media posts and independent journalistic pieces that uncover human rights violations, corruption and rule of law infringements. “I started speaking out loud about the people of my region and their problems; this way, with time, I learnt what true activism was.”
Despite the trouble, she admits she enjoys the thrill. “I cannot stop moving forward. Only a constant motion can bring change. Here, once you stop, you will be easily broken by uncertainty.”
How it all started
After the Russo-Georgian war in 2008, Tamar decided to stay in Akhalgori for her family and to keep the local youth centre functioning, where she was the director. It was the only place where local young people could gather to do crafts, chat, or organise events. Later she was removed from her position and deprived of her job after she had spoken up about corruption in the South Ossetian regime. For allegedly being late to work, Tamar is facing an ongoing administrative case in the South Ossetian court that has dragged on for years.
“They expected to pressure and silence me this way, but I came out of this battle much louder, stronger and more confident.” She says, “I might not manage to prove that I am right and receive my job back, but at least I will show them that somebody will always stand up for their rights.”
Tamar explains that her work is tiring, requiring a level of attentiveness to avoid “more problems.” While demanding, she never finds her activism tedious. “Being a civic activist in South Ossetia means that you are dependent on your sole habits and flexibility, on which your survival depends on the other hand. It’s crucial to remain objective. Even one slight mistake can make everything end.”
Battles of a woman
Over the years, Tamar’s personal life has become more difficult. In 2017, she was arrested for defamation charging her with “violating the dignity and honor” of the ruling United Ossetia party after her interview with Ekho Kavkaza. In 2019, the district court dropped the charges against her, but the prosecution appealed the verdict to the regional court in Tskhinvali. Since then, three criminal cases have been opened against her. Currently, Tamar is deprived of her right to leave Akhalgori.
She says being a woman helps her in this battle. “If I was a man, I would have been dead a long time ago.” She recalls a discussion between prison guards about how lucky she was to be a woman, otherwise, they would break her bones so she would admit to these false accusations. “They wanted to put emotional pressure to scare me.”
Tamar describes herself as strong but does not like when people, especially men, tell her that she is as strong as a man. “Men let us fight in the first line here. When someone from the authorities comes, they expect us to speak up, but they don’t want to admit that we women are strong as well.”
Education and way to civic activism
Tamar studied at the Shota Rustaveli Theatre and Film Georgian State University. Throughout her life, she has worked as a postwoman, a craftswoman, and currently as a baker. All this in order to be self-reliant and most importantly, to never stop doing a thing. “I like movement – when you don’t stay in one place.”
When asked about the happiest period of her life, Tamar referred to her 16 years of experience as Director at the Akhalgori Youth Centre. Despite all the hardship, she hopes to be able to continue contributing to the well-being of young people in her town. “Young people have lost interest in everything. It’s so easy to find money here, nobody wants to learn and start anything. Even the hairdresser comes from Tskhinvali once a week. I don’t understand how people can just go with a flow without even trying to change things.” When she is able to travel again, she wants to attend a training course in Vladikavkaz (North Ossetia-Alania, Russia) to become a nail technician.
Alone in her journey
For an external eye, it might appear that Tamar is alone in her activism, and she indeed confirms that she feels mostly unrecognized by the authorities on both sides yet at the same time, she feels constant observation from them. However, she feels an interest from the Georgian, Russian or international human rights organisations and missions and independent media representatives. Mearakishvili’s name was brought up by the representative of the International Crisis Group before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs in 2020. Her cases have been referenced in the reports of the UN High Commissioner and those of the Public Defender of Georgia. She has also received several prizes for her activism. The Embassy of the Netherlands to Georgia awarded her with the Human Rights Tulip for raising awareness and reporting on the conditions in Akhalgori. She also received the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize in 2018 for her “outstanding contribution to defending the rights of a conflict-affected population.” The Georgian Public Defender Nino Lomjaria also nominated her for the United Nations Human Rights Prize in 2018.
Despite the accolades and recognition, Tamar is viewed with suspicion and distrust in South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia.
“The reason for this can be that the Georgian society got used to it: if you are alive, it means that you have no hardships. Adding to this is my positive attitude to everything: I sing and dance when I feel like it. This is part of my way of fighting, too. Moreover, my daughter and my parents observe me and it is crucial for me to take care of their mental health and emotions.”
Tamar’s biggest post-war obstacle has been finding herself on the other side of barbed wires both in physical and metaphorical terms. Many of her friends and colleagues did not agree with Mearakishvili’s decision to stay in the occupied territory and thus cut ties with her. However, she stayed in Akhalgori out of a sense of duty, because she did not want her town to be completely deserted.
In her free time, Tamar has mastered crafting. What first started as a hobby three years ago soon became a moderate source of income through activity on a social media platform. Through making her handmade products, Tamar finds consolation in this work. “When I work, I cannot think of anything else. I do not remember what I am going through.”
One day Tamar wishes to publish a book, describing her life behind an occupation line. “I want to tell everyone who looks at me with suspicion about how I survived all this time.” For now, though, the priority remains the presumption of Tamar’s innocence at the local court.
In March, the month dedicated to women’s rights, Tamar’s life will proceed as usual. She has not planned to join what she refers to as “usual celebrations” where women receive cliché gifts from men. She will continue her activism, crafting and visiting her family. This is one of the ways in which Tamar wants to yet again demonstrate that life still goes on.