The Dispatch

Dispatch, August 6: Don’t look up

Racha is Georgia’s humble beauty. Lying in the gorges of moody mountain waters and under the slopes of frosty Caucasus glaciers, Georgia’s north-western region may not be on everyone’s must-see list, but a single visit is enough to prove even the worst skeptic wrong. Everything one looks for in Georgia can be found in Racha: from the kindest people to the best wines, from pine forests to unique social interactions, from tranquil villages to culinary sorcery. Racha has everything to offer and offers it without asking for much attention.

Yet silent beauty has long meant silent turmoil: the turmoil of repeated seismic shocks from the underground, the turmoil of restless rivers over the ground, and the turmoil of reckless mountains pledging protection one day and cruelly breaking promises the next night. The silent turmoil, in turn, has meant silent battles of local men and women with the forces of nature, battles to save the lands that have raised and fed them, battles with the outside world not to be abandoned to their own devices in their struggles, and battles for the opposite – to be left alone – whenever these outsiders would finally arrive, but with their own interests and ignorance.

On August 3, Racha felt another shock, one so big that it would be shaking the rest of the country for God knows how long.

Here is Nini with the Dispatch to provide an overview of another disastrous and tragic week for Georgia.

From heaven to hell

“We were in heaven,” David Jeladze tells RFE/RL as he recounts his miraculous survival. “In exactly half an hour, we were in hell.” 

Jeladze, Racha’s young resident, recalls going to Shovi – the region’s small but popular resort – to spend one beautiful day with his big family on August 3. Soon, he would come into the spotlight through viral photos of a “boy carrying a little child on his back” through deep mud. The photos depict him trying to save his little niece from big masses of land unleashed on them through some inconceivable disaster, as the rest of the family also stands there petrified, hoping for survival. They survived – miraculously. Others were less lucky. 

The resort of Shovi, built and popularized during Soviet times, had evolved into a small alpine paradise that features the best that nature has to offer and is the favorite refuge of those wanting to flee summer heat and noise. But in the afternoon of August 3, something crashed high up, in the mountains, and reports started coming that a landslide hit the place, a not-too-rare occurrence in the region.

In the hours that followed, it became slowly clear that Georgia was facing the most devastating natural disaster in three decades: a large mudslide had broken through the mountain river basin and traveled several miles from glacier to Shovi, swallowing up the plateau that used to host the bulk of the resort site. Drone images showed harrowing devastation, and by the end of the day, the bodies of the first victims were found. At the same time, up to 50 people, including entire families with children, remain unaccounted for. As things stand, the bodies of 18 deceased were found, and 16 more remain missing.

“Shovi exists no more; it has been completely destroyed,” Kakha Kaladze, Tbilisi mayor, and Georgia’s ruling party secretary general, told reporters on August 6. Kaladze must be one of those who should have felt the gravity of the disaster most: his own family happened to spend their vacation at the resort and left the place only hours before the disaster hit. 

But the sense that it could have easily happened to him did not spare Kaladze and his party from public scrutiny. As more bodies were retrieved from the estimated 5 million cubic meters of deep mud that covered the area, some stinging questions started coming up.

Never get hurt too far away

Concerns about flailing response emerged from the first hours. The mountainous country constantly showing off its alpine tourism potential had met another season without rescue helicopters. The ones available, the Soviet-time Mi-8 helicopters employed by the border police and not meant for, but still used in rescue missions, took time to arrive. They were several hours late, according to the local reports. And when they finally reached the scene, their role was limited to daylight hours and rain-free conditions.

For many months now, the engagement of Georgia’s MI-8s has evoked a sense of doom rather than a sense of safety. Around this time last year, a risky rescue mission with one of those helicopters ended in a tragic crash, killing eight rescuers, doctors, and crew. The incident led to a backlash over the government’s continuous reluctance to solve the decades-long problem and buy proper mountain rescue helicopters. But instead of spending money to save human lives, officials preferred to waste years making the issue about local partisan squabbles.  

Faced with the pressure from the last year’s tragedy, the government finally purchased three rescue helicopters. But it will take months till they are delivered, and nature has (apparently) failed to mimic Georgian leaders’ recent dedication to the doctrine of strategic patience. In response to the criticism, the officials argued that a more effective involvement of proper helicopters would not have saved more lives. That may or may not be true, but at least there was no way of knowing that in the first hours of what the government claims was an unprecedented and unavoidable disaster. 

Birth of tragedy

Most questions, however, are directed at what happened before, not after the disaster. Shocked and angered by heartbreaking stories of desperate people looking for their missing families, many want to know if one could have prepared better to save more lives. Conflicting reports and claims circulate on how the horror unfolded, and accusations are traded as usual.

The government claims no one could have resisted the will of nature: in their preliminary findings on August 6, the authorities said the disaster was a “unique and unpredictable” product of multiple converging events. That included the instant collapse of cliff mass and glaciers, triggered by longer trends of heavy rains and intensely melting glaciers due to climate change, converging with bank erosion and landslide processes as the mass of debris traveled through the river basin. The heavy debris, gaining in mass and force, must have reached and covered the resort site in a matter of 8-10 minutes. 

Part of observers and experts are wary of that version. While many agree about the dangerous effects of climate change, some groups cited satellite images and reports of locals suggesting that the affected Buba River had stopped flowing and took time to accumulate, something that relevant authorities were supposed to notice in time to take preventive measures. The water concentration in the mudslide also added to these suspicions.  The environmental officials ruled out that version, citing water meters downstream that, they claimed, did not detect any drastic changes. Officials also dodged the responsibility for living facilities built in what used to be the river’s original bed: authorities say the direction of the river flow was changed and many affected facilities were erected in the 1960s and 1970s, not under the current government.

There is also an infuriating sense of repeatedly ignored warnings (For example, a video recording from a discussion earlier this year shows Shovi residents desperately warning local authorities against starting the construction of larger buildings. “You won’t find a village there anymore; you won’t find anyone to take out the bodies of the deceased there anymore,” a local warns the officials. The selfish business interests of wealthy men have long plagued Racha’s population.)

As for the public outrage about the lack of proper civil security, monitoring, and early warning systems, officials found excuses in the high number of similarly perilous areas throughout the country, pointing at the need for time and resources to build proper systems while claiming that some of the work in that direction is underway.

Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps

Over time, these versions are expected to remain merely versions: the well-known shortage of independent public agencies and the meek subservience of the existing ones (the National Environment Agency seemed to backtrack on its 2021 warnings) makes it hard to trust the official findings while corruption and a poor record of government accountability make it highly unlikely that the flaws will be mentioned even if they are found. As for the critics that pledge to remain vigilant – we have to wait and see how much this vigilance will survive the ever-distracting turbulence of Georgian political discourse. 

In the meantime, many Georgians will live in stress, expecting unknown dangers from every possible direction and finding fear where they used to seek calm.

Because of all the erosion processes, erosion of trust can be the deadliest.


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