On 22 December, online discussion regarding issues related to the first mass grave of the victims of the Soviet regime in Adjara, organized by the Institute for Freedom of Information (IDFI) and Society “Memorial” and financially supported by the International Coalition -Sites of Conscience and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Sida, was held. The speakers’ list included: Executive Director of IDFI, Giorgi Kldiashvili; Chief specialist at the Legal Department of the Ministry of Health of Adjara, Davit Katamadze; Representative of Batumi and Lazeti Diocese of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Georgia, Metropolitan Dimitri (Sarjveladze); Imam of the Cheli Mosque, Chairperson of the Georgian Muslims Union, Jambul Abuladze.
The Executive Director of IDFI, Giorgi Kldiashvili opened the meeting and briefly described the situation surrounding the mass graves discovered in Adjara. He thanked the participants of the meeting as well as all of those persons who, together with IDFI, have been actively involved in researching the above-mentioned graves and repressions.
In 2019, the Batumi and Lazeti Diocese discovered a burial site of around 150 persons in Khelvachauri, near the city of Batumi. The items discovered at the site – the Soviet coins of the 1930s, bullets and a cross prove that these graves belong to the Soviet citizens, among which were the Christians. This claim is also supported by the fact that the discovered bodies had their hands tied behind their back and the penetrating wounds were identified on their skulls that were similar to the wounds of the victims of the Soviet repressions discovered in the other countries. While waiting for the government’s decision, following the separation of the bodies, the Diocese of Batumi and Lazeti ordered the preparation of the wooden coffins in which the bodies were placed and these coffins were located on the lower ground floor of Holy Mother Virgins Nativity Cathedral in Batumi. In the beginning, the government carried out some activities aimed at studying the graves but soon, the interest and attention toward this issue decreased and during a year after the discovery, there has been no significant progress achieved in this direction.
IDFI has been actively involved in the search for archival documents about the people repressed in Batumi and Adjara from the initial stage. Giorgi Kldiashvili presented the statistical data obtained as a result of IDFI’s archival research. According to IDFI’s data, 1050 people were executed in Batumi in 1937-1938. Out of these people, 464 had Muslim names or patronyms, 291 had Georgian surnames and were born outside Adjara, in the other regions of Georgia, 319 were the representatives of other ethnic groups or nationalities (Germans, Russian, Jews, etc.), 3 were Abkhazians and the ethnic origins of 19 individuals are unidentified. Also, it has been revealed that out of 1050 repressed, 151 were convicted through Stalin’s lists and their cases were considered by the Military Colleague.
Giorgi Kldiashvili also provided information about IDFI’s interview with the director of the research centre, Memorial of Saint Petersburg, Irina Flige. She talked about the Memorial Complex of the Tuskulenai Peace Park. Memorial Complex of the Tuskulenai Peace Park is a park located near the capital of Lithuania, Vilnius where the mass graves of the people executed in 1944-1947 were discovered. A few years ago, the park, Catholic church and memorial complex were constructed at this place, where the remains of 724 individuals repressed by the Soviet regime are buried. All of the bodies are placed in special, hermetically sealed boxes and anthropologists can open and study them any time. In Lithuania, there were no financial recourses available for studying the remains all at once and anthropologists needed time to preserve the bodies and have free access to them in the future. Therefore, this pantheon is simultaneously a memorial and mass grave. For some time, the relatives of the repressed made contact with the researchers and several bodies were identified. IDFI considers that the experience of Lithuania can be the best example for creating a memorial complex in Adjara.
Then the head of Memory and Disinformation Studies Direction at IDFI, Anton Vachardze addressed to the participants of the discussion and emphasized the issue of burying the discovered bodies with religious rituals, which is problematic because, as it has also been proved by IDFI’s data, Muslims, as well as Christians, are among the repressed in Adjara. One of the primary reasons for holding the discussion was the necessity to reach the agreement between the local Muslim and Christian communities. Anton Vacharadze emphasized the importance of the involvement of the state in this process, which should ensure the identification of the bodies as well as the proper commemoration of the repressed and the erection of the memorial complex.
The Chief specialist at the Legal Department of the Ministry of Health of Adjara, Davit Katamadze provided the discussants with the information about the work of the governmental commission for studying the graves. Since 2019, the representatives of state institutions and the civil sector, as well as clergy, have been involved in the work of the commission. During a year, the commission worked in several directions. First, 11,900 GEL has been allocated from the reserve fund of the Adjara budget, which was used for collecting samples from 150 bodies and preparing them for DNA analysis. According to Davit Katamadze, the samples have been collected from 119 bodies while the remaining ones still need to be studied. For now, the samples are kept at the Archeological Museum. Also, as mentioned by Katamadze, another grave has been discovered near the military base, which should be studied in the nearest future. According to him, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport of Adjara has been ordered to create a task force, which will continue the excavation as well as scientific-research activities as a result of which a scientific work about he discovered graves will be published. Moreover, as Katamadze mentioned, the Ministry of Defence of Adjara has studied the territory of the military base for the security objectives and confirmed that it is cleared of mines and the excavation can continue. Additionally, according to Katamadze, “Memorial” provided the commission with the information about another territory where the graves can be located. So, it is necessary to continue working in the direction. However, nowadays, this process has been suspended due to the pandemic.
Then the representative of Batumi and Lazeti Diocese of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Georgia, Metropolitan Dimitri (Sarjveladze) addressed to the participants of the discussion. He emphasized the importance of the proper commemoration of the repressed. According to the Metropolitan, each body should be buried separately and a public ceremony for their commemoration should be held. He expressed his hope that the government will engage in solving the economic and legal issues that may become contentious. The Metropolitan also mentioned that building a museum and a common historical grave at the place of the discovery is important.
After Metropolitan Dimitri, Imam of the Cheli Mosque, Chairperson of the Georgian Muslims Union, Jambul Abuladze made a speech. He emphasized that it was incorrect from the very beginning that the Orthodox Church took the responsibility of transferring the bodies of the repressed. According to him, the state should play a leading role in this process in order to ensure the proper commemoration of the repressed. He said that the creation of common grave might be a good idea but there can be no guarantee that the Patriarchy of Georgia will not violate the agreement and organize Christian rituals at the place. For this, according to him, the only solution to this problem would be the identification of the bodies and their transfer to their descendants with the support of the state. Also, he said that it is important for the descendants of the repressed to be involved in the work of the commission and the discussions. As for the site of the mass graves, Jambul Abuladze mentioned that he sees no problem in creating a memorial on which the names and surname of the repressed, dates and other relevant information will be provided. In a response to Abuladze, Metropolitan Dimitri said that the involvement of the state was agreed with all of the interested parties.
Following Jambul Abuladze, Anton Vacharadze provided the participant with additional information about the interview with Irina Flige. According to Flige, if the descendants want to transfer the body of an identified person, they should have a right to do so. However, they should be informed that more people will be able to commemorate the repressed individuals at the common grave. Also, should know that there is a possibility of making a mistake during the identification and after burying a person, the return of his/her body to the common grave will be impossible. Also, according to Flige, in case of transferring a body, it would better to leave a free space at which the information about the particular person will be provided.
The speeches of the panellists were followed by the Questions and Answers session. The majority of the participants mentioned that it is of utmost importance for the state to become more active in this direction and pay appropriate attention to the identification of the bodies and the proper commemoration of the repressed. Anthropologist and archaeologist, the Director of the National Museum of Georgia, Davit Lortkiphanidze talked about the creation of the memorial at the place of the discovery of mass graves and expressed his readiness to engage in the elaboration of the concept of the memorial. However, he also mentioned that there is a high probability to make a mistake during the identification. Also, he said that the implementation of the practice similar to Lithuania, which encompasses the continuous research on each body, is not realistic for Georgia because the country is not technologically ready for this. The Deputy Director of the National Museum, Mikheil Tsereteli talked about the involvement of the museum in an educational program aimed at increasing the awareness about repressions among students.
The Director of the MIA Archives, Omar Tushurashvili mentioned that if other mass graves are discovered in the future, foreign experts together with the local professionals should be involved in the studies in order to say for sure that particular grave belongs to the period of 19371938 repressions. He said that, at the Archives, the archival basis is already prepared, which enables the researchers to obtain information about the repressions quickly.
The head of the News Service at the Rustavi 2, Irakli Imnaishvili expressed readiness to report about the issues related to the mass graves in the future and create digital products that will be accessible for the other information platforms as well.
Paata Devdariani, Deputy Chief of Administrative Unit of the General Staff of the Defense Forces, expressed the readiness of the Ministry of Defense to transfer the burial site to the local government in Adjara for starting the construction of a memorial and organization of a mass grave.
Anthropologist Meri Gonashvili talked about Irina Flige’s opinion to create a 3D photo of a person instead of taking DNA analysis, which will then become a part of a memorial. First of all, she mentioned that the identification process is very complex and encompasses sociological activities as well as scientific research. According to her, in the case of the graves in Adjara, only one body was studied but the identification is not complete. She said that the involvement of international experts and the usage of modern methods and technologies is important. She also talked about the 3D scanners will be used for reconstructing the skulls. However, according to Gonashvili, the creation of a photo portrait is another field of science and requires the involvement of other experts.
At the end of the discussion, the participants once again mentioned that discovery of the mass graves, the study of the stories of the repressed persons, their proper commemoration and immortalization are very important issues for Georgia. It is important for the government to take responsibility, create a memorial complex, support the commemoration of the repressed, hold educational and the other types of events and enhance the research in this direction. All of these have a key role in the formation of Georgia’s collective memory and the rethinking of the totalitarian past. Also, it is important such discussions to be held regularly to enhance dialogue, reach an agreement between the interested parties and make a final decision about the remains, graves and memorial.
The discussion was held with the financial support of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Sida.
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