Telling Places with Georgian IDPs

Photograph of Georgian IDP camp, copyright Hannah Mintek, 2010.

Telling Places with Georgian IDPs

Although it created new opportunities for many Soviet peoples, the end of Soviet rule also left many wounds unhealed, while creating new traumas. In the Caucasus, the post-Soviet decades were marked by frequent bloody conflict, from Chechnya to Nagorno-Karabakh to Abkhazia. Wars raged among Georgians, Russians, Ossetians, Chechens, Ingush, and Abkhazians over borders that had been contested since the advent of Soviet rule, if not earlier.

In the Republic of Georgia, one upshot of over two decades of violence is the nearly 300,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) who now reside a country with a total population of 4.6 million. How can these IDPs be integrated into Georgian society, and move on with their lives, given all the damage that has been inflicted by war and the fact that many of them still lack permanent homes? How, in short, do people build new lives after catastrophe?

A new project I am organizing with geographer Elizabeth Dunn of Indiana University, “Telling Places: Forced Migration and Spatial Memory in the Caucasus,” seeks a partial resolution to the emotional upheavals of the 2008 Georgian-Russian war. In partnership with Georgian NGOs and Georgian scholars, we will use digital mapping technologies (GIS) to create a resource that will be eventually managed by IDPs. This resource will provide a transferable technology usable by IDP communities around the world seeking to reconstruct their lives.

We are calling this resource a ‘convening point’ rather than a website, given the degree of interactivity we envision. The Telling Places convening point will interactively map the villages from which IDPs were ethnically cleansed, and keep the pasts these villages represent for IDPs alive in digital form. As a spatially-organized multi-media repository, Telling Places will gather interviews, video, and writings by IDPs with the family documents and maps that IDPs have preserved during their displacement. This resource will help IDPs rebuild their attachments to their home villages and preserve their memories for future generations.



Over the course of the next two years, we plan to offer a series of workshops in IDP camps during which IDPs will be trained in digitizing artefacts from the villages they were forced to leave behind, recording stories about these villages, and in creating other audio-visual means of linking their past, from which they are separated from by war, with their present. Once they have acquired sufficient technical expertise, IDPs will interactively engage with the Telling Place convening point and modify it to suit their needs, creating different stories for different generations and different narratives for different villages.

Older refugees (most knowledgeable about local history) will be paired with younger ones (more adept at technology), so that links will be created across generations and the sense of community will be kept alive amid their displacement. The technology and web interface we will develop is intended to be transferable to other IDP communities, including Syrians, Somalis, Palestinians, and Iraqis. Each of these communities can use the tools developed by the Telling Places project to resist and overcome the emotional distress of their long-term forced displacement.

Dunn has written about the challenges faced by Georgian IDPs for the Boston Review and the Iowa Review (and you can learn more about her work at her website). Georgian IDPs are also the subject of her forthcoming book, Unsettled: Displacement, Aid and the Problem of Existence in Postwar Georgia, which is destined to become a classic in the fields of international development and refugee studies (I was privileged to read a draft of the manuscript). IDP research is newer to me, but I have long been preoccupied with the intersection between forced migration and memory, which was the focus of my Harry Frank Guggenheim-funded project, as well as of an article on the 1944 Chechen deportation, as experienced and remembered by Daghestanis now residing in Georgia. In short, we are embarked on an exciting multidisciplinary collaboration!

Please get in touch (by email at if you are working with IDPs and would like to share your expertise, your ideas for designing this resource, or learn more about the Telling Places project.


Photograph of Georgian IDP camp, copyright Hannah Mintek, 2010.



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