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In One Georgian Town, An Oasis For Refugees Fleeing War In Ukraine

The Hotel Pirosmani in Sighnaghi
The Hotel Pirosmani in Sighnaghi

SIGHNAGHI, Georgia -- It was from watching a video on YouTube that Tetyana learned her husband had been taken by the Russian Army.

Like many wives of missing Ukrainian soldiers and emergency-services personnel in Mariupol, Tetyana, a 49-year-old nurse, began monitoring the Telegram channel of the "Foreign Ministry" of territory controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists around Donetsk.

Several times a day, the feed is updated with photographs and videos of Ukrainians in captivity.

One afternoon, in a brightly lit hotel dining room, surrounded by playing children and with bags full of clothes lining the walls, Tetyana scrolls through dozens of posts -- forced confessions, mugshots, graphic photos of dead bodies -- and stops on an image of a young man's passport ID page. "When they post photos like this, it means that person is dead," she said.

Tetyana, who asks for her last name not to be included as her husband is still in captivity, is one of 30 people currently living in Hotel Pirosmani, a two-story red-brick building in the center of the town of Sighnaghi in Georgia's eastern region of Kakheti. Before March, the hotel had been full of visiting oenophiles and betrothed couples, who travel to this area for its natural wine production and the Sighnaghi wedding house, which marries people at any time of day.

Since Ukrainian refugees began arriving in Georgia in March, however, the hotel's owner decided to close the hotel to visitors and turn it into a shelter for Ukrainians fleeing the war.

A local priest and his wife, who previously worked as the hotel's receptionist, have become the informal caretakers of the hotel and its guests. The owner lives in Tbilisi and has said that the hotel will remain a shelter indefinitely. Only a battered, silver Mitsubishi with a Ukrainian license plate parked outside, the word "Children" spray-painted in Russian on the sides, offers a hint as to the hotel's new purpose.

"One of my colleagues told me about Georgia, about a place called Sighnaghi, the 'City of Love,' where they were taking in Ukrainians. I came straight here from the border," Tetyana says. An employee of a Mariupol hospital before the war started, Tetyana left her home city and made for Georgia with her two teenage children in April after spending nearly a month sheltering in a basement.

Before leaving, she registered her husband's capture with the Ukrainian military. "I have no idea where he is now," she said. First, Tetyana and her children traveled to Crimea on minibuses, spending a week in a rented apartment in Simferopol before advancing to the southern Russian city of Krasnodar. They crossed into Georgia through Verkhniy Lars in the Caucasus Mountains.

Tetyana is one of an estimated 20,000 Ukrainian refugees who have arrived in Georgia since the start of the war. Most are from devastated Ukrainian cities like Mariupol and Kherson.

Two common escape routes are emerging. Like Tetyana, many flee through Crimea and then on to Krasnodar before crossing into Georgia southward through the mountains. Others flee Mariupol through Novoazovsk before moving on to Taganrog and Rostov-on-Don. From there, they head south to the Russian border city of Vladikavkaz and onward to the Georgian border.

The so-called filtration camps are largely limited to the areas around Mariupol, and comparatively few Ukrainians who fled through Crimea report going through them. Established in cultural centers, police stations, and other public buildings, the camps document fleeing Ukrainians, detain Ukrainian soldiers, and sometimes forcibly deport Ukrainians to destinations in Russia to supposedly start a new life following their "liberation." Men are regularly ordered to strip at checkpoints, where Russian guards search their bodies for tattoos that could be suggestive of links with Ukrainian nationalist groups.

Nina and Yevhen Muravchenko with their daughter
Nina and Yevhen Muravchenko with their daughter

Nina and Yevhen Muravchenko spent a week living with their two children in the basement of Yevhen's brother's apartment block in Mariupol. The barrage of rockets and shelling outside was relentless.

"When there were still policemen around, we'd ask when the evacuation would happen," Yevhen said. "One told us that we'd know that they'd come through town with loudspeakers announcing it. But we never heard any loudspeakers. The evacuation never happened."

Like so many others living in besieged Mariupol, surviving required patience and enterprise. They took empty buckets and waited under rooftops for the snow to melt so they'd have water to drink. Food was scarce and often had to be bartered. Their home was lost to bombing raids. They drove directly to Sighnaghi from the Georgian border on April 21 and have been staying at the hotel ever since.

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Stories of thirst, hunger, and a pervasive sense of fear shroud almost every tale of survival and escape of those who take refuge at Hotel Pirosmani. Nevertheless, a cheerful, collegiate atmosphere prevails. Those who enjoy cooking often help the cook to prepare meals; many of the women care for each other's children while their mothers rest. When the Red Cross offered the refugees psychological help, they refused, saying they didn't need it.

"People come here and we help them try to get rid of their horrible thoughts with excursions, concerts, theater performances and things like that," said Irma, the wife of Father Isidore, who runs the center. "When they're ready, they move on."

For Father Isidore, a 35-year-old local Georgian Orthodox priest with a long auburn beard and clad in traditional black robes, helping these refugees is a matter of religious principle. "It's our Christian duty. You need to help those who need it," he said. They rely on donations for food and clothes, but three months into the war and Father Isidore notes that many of their usual donors have begun to lose interest. "While there is the means to help them, we'll do it, whether that's two months or two years."

Father Isidore, a 35-year-old local Georgian Orthodox priest, with his wife, Irma
Father Isidore, a 35-year-old local Georgian Orthodox priest, with his wife, Irma

The demographic of Ukrainian refugees in Georgia differs from that of Western European countries. Unlike in places like Poland and Moldova, where it is mainly women and children who have fled without their husbands or fathers, in Georgian refugee centers like Hotel Pirosmani, many of the families have both parents present, and occasionally men travelling alone. Without an official Ukrainian border to cross in the Russian-occupied parts of the east, Ukraine's martial law, which bans men between the ages of 18 and 60 without extenuating circumstances from leaving the country, does not apply.

Before the clatter of lunchtime began, 72-year-old former Soviet women's chess champion Nana Alexandria was paying a visit to one of the guests. She had been informed by the head of Sighnaghi's chess club that Polina, a 14-year-old junior chess champion from Kherson, a city in southern Ukraine that is under Russian control, was staying at the hotel.

Polina and her mother, Svitlana, who did not give their last names, had fled Kherson through Crimea and had heard about Hotel Pirosmani from acquaintances. They don't plan to stay in Georgia for long. "We're waiting for the end of the war so we can go home," Svitlana says. Both were delighted to have met Nana, who gave Polina a chess set. "And she told me I had to keep practicing!" Polina said.

Polina, a 14-year-old junior chess champion from Kherson, with her mother, Svitlana
Polina, a 14-year-old junior chess champion from Kherson, with her mother, Svitlana

By nightfall, Irma and Father Isidore usually return to their home in a nearby village with their five young children. They seldom stay the night at the hotel. "I was pleased when I heard a guest tell her daughter, 'It's time to go home,'" she said. "'Home' meant their room upstairs. It means they feel like they're at home here. This is Georgia. We don't want them to feel like guests."

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    Nadia Beard

    Nadia Beard is a journalist and critic. Her work has appeared in the Financial Times, National Geographic, The Guardian, and The Times Literary Supplement.

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