Article commissioned by Chai Khana
The Unusual Case of Vedzisi Cemetery
In 2006, Nino Guraspishvili bought 1500 square meters of land on a hillside that lay between the Nutsubidze and Vashlijvari neighborhoods in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. Nino, a mother of four, was living in a cramped apartment at the time and she intended to build a house for her family in the fast-developing neighborhood. Little did she expect that over 15 years later, she would remain locked in a protracted dispute over claims to the hillside. Nino continues to live in her original one-room apartment, while the plot of land she had hoped to inhabit has instead become home to the deceased relatives of internally displaced people (IDP). This unusual case raises questions about property rights in Tbilisi, and the fate of the hillside ultimately reflects Georgia’s unruly social and economic developments over the past three decades since the nation regained independence.
Nino claims the land was empty when she purchased it. The plot and surrounding area were officially zoned as recreational land, which meant no business — and certainly no cemetery — could be established there. It was only after she had purchased the property that she claims to have noticed a handful of gravesites on the plot directly below hers. As time went on, the problem got worse.
Nino recalls how the number of graves steadily increased and began to ascend up the hillside toward her property. Her first instinct was to build a concrete wall, but this action fell short. “When we returned a year later, the wall had been destroyed and there were around 30 new gravesites established on our territory,” she said.
Everyone she turned to advised her to take the matter to court, but she was unable to afford the legal fees. In a last-ditch effort, Nino attempted to register the land as a cemetery; by selling portions of it as commercial burial sites, she hoped she might recoup at least some fraction of her initial investment. Her request was flatly refused, as officials reminded her of the area’s recreational zone status. It was illegal for a cemetery to operate on her land, and yet a cemetery had taken shape.
According to Nino, no one — not the police, the state, or the gravediggers involved — has taken responsibility for the matter. Her case is all the more bizarre for the fact that surrounding portions of the hillside are now managed by the municipal government as a commercial cemetery.
“Everyone thinks that it isn’t their problem and that the case is closed. I think when it’s a citizen’s problem, the state should get involved,” she says. “I raised four children in one room. And why? For the sake of what? When I had the chance to give normal circumstances to my children and to build a normal house. They [the IDPs] didn’t give me the opportunity to do that, and I don’t see why I should be responsible for saving them.”
Over a dozen years have passed and yet the impasse persists: the city won’t recognize the cemetery, Nino cannot build her house, and the families who buried loved ones there live in uncertainty over their fate.
To understand the quandary that surfaced on this hillside, it’s necessary to return to the 1990s, Georgia’s first decade of independence from the Soviet Union. The decade was characterized by civil war and societal collapse, and saw a huge influx of people displaced by conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Social provisions were scarce, and many of the displaced, commonly referred to as IDPs, were forced to squat in repurposed buildings that were unsuitable for long-term housing. The government, wracked by conflict, lawlessness and corruption, had few resources with which to attend to the displaced. IDPs were largely on their own.
Often, those who fled their homes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia did so suddenly in the belief that they would return. In addition to losing their homes, land and possessions, they were forced to leave behind generations of their ancestors buried in family plots. IDPs, like most of the population of Georgia, typically follow the Georgian Orthodox faith, which considers soil to be sacred.
The religion ordains that the dead be returned to the soil, and significant events in the Orthodox calendar involve graveside visits. For instance, long Easter holidays are capped by visits to the cemetery to pay respects to one’s deceased.
“Graves are a means of being reunited with the soil,” social researcher Nana Chabukiani writes in her journal article, Ancestor Worship and Disrupted Continuity among IDPs in Georgia.
“Soil is crucial as it is a source of the future — people are created from soil — and it also represents the past — ancestors turn into soil after their burial. Through burial at the place where people lived, the continuity of a community can be sustained; but this continuity is disrupted by displacement, making it more difficult for IDPs to adjust to the new place of residence.”
Not only does out-of-placeness persist in the daily lives of many IDPs, but the inability to be buried in their native soil prolongs this sense of restlessness and indeterminancy after death. “In Georgia, most rituals are tied to the home and graveyard,” anthropologist Keti Gurchiani observes. “The body is the soul long after death. It should be brought home, where the soul will remain. Months, if not years after a burial, families attend to the deceased as a combination of body and a soul.”
When IDPs settled in Tbilisi, not only were they unable to fulfill obligations to their deceased family members — they struggled to find an accessible place to bury those who later passed away in the city. Plots of land in Tbilisi’s cemeteries were often prohibitively expensive, and IDPs were confronted by the problem of how and where to settle their deceased. “The 1990s was a period marked by chaos, corruption and the absence of the rule of law and public institutions,” urbanist Irakli Zhvania notes. “A lot of people did whatever they wanted to do by ignoring any kind of regulations or laws. Or maybe simply, such regulations did not exist.”
A former deaf-mute shelter sits at the base of the cemetery, and offers a clue to its origins: since 1993, the building has housed a community of internally displaced people. Oleg Khajomia was among the first few families to settle there. At the age of 21, he fled his hometown of Ochamchire on the last train out of Abkhazia, and eventually settled at the repurposed shelter with 10-20 other IDP families. The hillside was wild, and without access to electricity or heating, the IDPs scavenged for firewood in the nearby forests of Lisi Lake.
“There was nothing here. No beds, no cutlery, nothing at all. The army entered alongside us. Then the army left, and people began to be born here. The population grew increasingly large, and now there’s not enough space,” Oleg says.
Oleg rests on the front steps of the building’s entrance, which faces directly onto a view of the cemetery. Today, the former deaf-mute shelter is home to approximately 150 families. For the building’s residents, life and death exist in close proximity. Many of the graves, like houses, contain a social space — benches and chairs in which to receive guests — and offerings of food, flowers, and glasses of wine are left behind as gifts to the deceased.
According to Oleg, the first person to bury their dead on the hillside was a resident of the shelter. These days, acquiring a burial site requires proof of death from an authorized agency, typically the ambulance services. In the mid-1990s, when the state struggled to provide the most basic services for the living, the provision of death certificates was overlooked. Like every other aspect of their preliminary experience in displacement, the matter of burial was self-directed and organized informally.
At the time, IDPs lived in a state of suspended hope for their return. “We thought that today, or tomorrow, we would take them back out,” Oleg says. Initial burial sites were shallow, and the burials were performed in such a way that — should the path to Abkhazia reopen — the bodies could be easily exhumed for their return.
Three decades on from his displacement, Oleg continues to hold hope for a way home. Sympathetic Abkhazians send him photos and videos of his native town. “Time has stopped there,” he reflects. Nonetheless, if given the chance, he would venture to move his ancestors buried in Abkhazia to Tbilisi — after 30 years, the ability to access their gravesites and perform religious duties has taken precedence over their burial location.
The exhumation and evacuation of ancestors in occupied regions presents a formidable logistical challenge. However, it appears that a few have found a way; Oleg says he knows at least one individual who, with great difficulty, managed to smuggle his parents’ bones in a small box from Abkhazia to Vedzisi Cemetery a handful of years ago.
After the first person was buried, news of the hillside’s availability for burials began to spread among neighboring IDPs. When Fatema Darsalia’s father-in-law died, she laid him to rest there.
‘In 1999, the land was free: they said just bring your dead here. It was a dreadful neighborhood with tall grass, languishing in rubbish. Now it’s like a miracle — it’s the most prestigious neighborhood,” she says.
Fatema, an IDP from Abkhazia who lived in the Nutsubidze area for 15 years, has buried several of her relatives there. Today, she lives in a small, private house where she raises farm animals near the town of Rustavi. She acquired this home after a convoluted struggle with the state ministry for IDPs; in 2010, she and 14 other IDP families were left on the street for 197 days after their homes in Nutsubidze flooded following nearby construction. Her mother died during that period of homelessness, and she was also laid to rest in the hillside cemetery. A few years later, her deceased mother was once again threatened by the prospect of displacement.
"In 2010, I buried my mother. In 2014, my brother. And soon after that, a letter appeared from that woman, stating that that land was hers. There’s a line there, and above that line there’s a commercial cemetery. Down below, it’s ours. They showed us the line then: you don’t have the right to go beyond here, they’ve bought the land. But below that it was ours, wasn’t it? So why did they sell it? They thought no more IDPs would die?”
Fatema contends that the hillside was originally granted to a resident of the former deaf mute shelter by Tbilisi’s City Hall. She draws on the logic of cemetery planning in Georgia, which holds that a burial site can be used for burials again after a period of 15 years: “I know that it’s acceptable to build a new cemetery on an older one, and since there was already a prior cemetery there, that was why they gave us this one.”
Both Oleg and Fatema mention the existence of this older cemetery on the hillside. Sure enough, two graves still stand at the far end — at the base of what is now a car wash facility —with dates of death from the 1940s to the 50s. The rest are no longer visible, as Fatema claims that a nearby, half-developed housing block has been built directly over them. "A cemetery, 50 years old, I asked them…is this acceptable? You wouldn’t step on top of a cemetery, would you? This is the same thing. There were a lot of them, fenced off,” she recalls.
Today, the cemetery is almost out of space. Nino Guraspishvili has finally acquired a team of lawyers and is preparing to take the land dispute to court. She is requesting that either the authorities grant her another, similar piece of land; that they compensate her with the land’s current worth; or otherwise, that the dead be exhumed from her property.
“The state has resorted to all kinds of hand-grinding to avoid conceding the illegality that has taken place,” Nino’s lawyer, Mamuka Qavlashvili, comments. They have applied to court to resolve the case; by law, there should be a maximum two-month duration to process and deliver a result for such claims, but his legal team have been waiting for well over a year.
There are various reasons why authorities may be reluctant to process the case. According to Mamuka, one might be a reaction to the sensitivity around burial sites in Georgian culture; whilst Tbilisi’s municipal government have been unrestrained in their evictions of IDPs from territories that could be put to more lucrative ends, interfering with a burial site for the dead could provoke a stronger public backlash — a place of residence may be liable to change, but a gravesite is intended to be the body’s final resting place. “Ultimately, the state doesn’t want another noisy media event, because the great majority of those gravesites belong to IDPs,” Mamuka says. “You can imagine what a sensitive issue it is, the matter of exhuming dead bodies and moving them elsewhere. That’s why the state is avoiding the performance of its duty.”
Chai Khana tried repeatedly to reach Tbilisi City Hall for comment to no avail.
For the IDPs, Vedzisi cemetery holds space for the expression of grief, and provides a community in exile. In burying their relatives there, the IDPs have begun to tentatively engender a bond with this once-unfamiliar soil. When asked whether he would consider moving to a different neighborhood, Oleg shakes his head. “I’d prefer to stay here, because all of my people are buried here. Where should I go? I have no interest in partying and having fun. If I go, I go up there [to the cemetery].”
“When you haven’t seen a person for so long and you go there and you cry, it relieves your heart a little,” Fatema explains. “When I would return home from funerals, I would say I took pleasure in my day. My husband makes fun of me — he says 'woman, what are you saying? You were at a funeral.’ But I saw my people, and I cried! It relieved my heart a little, that we sat together, and we cried. That is my pleasure; I’m not pleased that they died.”