Tags / Eastern Europe
Protest of opposition, members of NGO’s and residents in Skopje with requests to the government and Constitutional Court in Macedonia.
REPORT EXAMPLE: Chernobyl Safety Financial Challenges. Work continues to make the Chernobyl site safe. But the conflict in eastern Ukraine has created new financial challenges for the Ukrainian authorities. Austerity measures were introduced due to the conflict in the east.
Near Donetsk, Ukrainian fighters make their home among the wreckage of an old, abandoned home. Now the residential neighborhood had been reduced to frames of brick and rubble, pock marked by the impact of shrapnel. A child’s purple bike, an full-length brass mirror and a green-and-red sled are just some of the abandoned reminders of a life that existed here before the war came to their doorstep.
After a Grad rocket landed nearby, I took shelter in one of these abandoned mansions where the soldiers of the Pravy Sektor have made a home inside the basements. The Pravy Sektor, or the Right Sektor, is largely seen as an ultra-right wing nationalist organization, also having, some say, collaborated with the Nazi regime against the Soviets in WWII.
For security reasons, they requested that their names and identities be kept secret. “It is too dangerous to live on the first, second or third floors,” said a Crimean soldier in his 40’s, “We used to live across the street but that house is now destroyed. You can hear the grads landing all night.”
They have made a comfortable home, with improvised stoves whose pipes cut into the windows and are sealed air tight with silver electrical tape. An old, gas-powered stove sits in one corner, and they manually need to crank open a tank of gas in order to use it.
Along the wall are the flags of Ukraine, Pravy Sektor and the letters of support from young children. Because it is too dangerous to go outside to smoke, many of them huddle around a small garden table that was brought indoors and tap their ash into empty tin cans and ignore the chorus of artillery fire that is just outside.
When I asked if they were Nazis or Nazi sympathizers, a soldier from Crimea who had previously been a member of the Aidar battalion, laughed and screamed “Hitler kaput! Like Putin kaput!”
Many, it seems were apolitical, and their only uniting conviction was the need to stop Russia from turning the whole of Ukraine into Crimea.
A soldier in his fifties had once served in the Soviet Army. He was a painter, doing metalwork for a museum in Crimea. He studies and practices Zen Buddhism, dreams of being in a monastery in Thailand after the war is over, and says that though he is generally a pacifist, the events and the current state of Crimea convinced him that there was a need to fight.
“It is horrible in Crimea now,” he says, “The friends I left behind there tell me they are horrified.”
I asked them if they truly hated Russians, and a young man who looked to be in his late twenties laughed, “No we do not hate Russians. It is Russian policies we are against. I was born in Russian. I am Russian. There are others like me here.”
After I asked them my questions, one of their young team leaders in his late twenties looked at me and asked me, as an American, why my country did not help Ukraine against the Russian “terrorists”. I had no answer.
“Men are dying in this war, and still, no one helps,” he says, exacerbated.
Footage showing Donetsk residential districts allegedly shelled by pro-Russia rebels artillery on February 3, 2015.
During the war for the former Yugoslavia, the town of Vukovar was among the most devastated by fighting between Serbian and Croatian forces. Houses bear clear signs of the fierce shelling that took place, and the town’s now bullet hole-ridden water tower rests as a reminder of the siege and the cruel fate that befell the town and its citizens until now. The battle of Vukovar lasted for 87 days, during which many people were stuck in the town, finding refuge in cellars or public bomb shelters that also hosted makeshift hospitals. After entering the city, Serbian troops were alleged to have taken civilians and wounded soldiers from these hospitals into the Ovčara farm where they massacred them.
Today, Vukovar remains a divided town. War crimes committed there remain unsolved and the people who committed them, unpunished. Steve Gaunt, a former Croat mercenary who took part in the fight for Vukovar, now works as a historian and explorer for the local museum. He talks of his experience of the war, of Vukovar's troubled present, and of the struggle for normality faced by people who still live side-by-side with those they used to fight.
On February 4, 2015, the International Court of Justice dismissed claims of genocide committed by Serbia and Croatia during the Yugoslav war, that took hundreds of thousands of lives in the early-1990s. The court cited a lack of evidence that the massacres constituted genocide - a difficult claim to prove because the prosecution must be able to prove the intentions of the perpetrators.
In general, people in Slovakia are not used to eating fish, but around the winter holidays, Slovakians and other eastern Europeans enjoy a local specialty: fried horse-shoe shaped slices of carp served with a mayonnaise potato salad. The horse-shoe shape is viewed as a sign of good luck. The carp are bred in special ponds and then are distributed to specialist shops in all the towns and villages before the holidays. Many Slovakians keep the fish alive in their bath tubs before preparing the traditional meal.
This winter not every Ukrainian child will be waking up in his own bed, in his own home, or in his own city on the morning of St. Nicholas. The war in Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts has caused the displacement of more than 500 thousand Ukrainians. Thousands of families have fled eastern Ukraine to save their lives. Government agencies are unprepared to handle such great numbers of internal refugees requiring social services that include housing aid, food aid, and psychological therapy plus incorporating those people into the job market. Volunteer and civic organizations as well as the organized initiatives of the refugees themselves are most effective in solving the above mentioned problems.
On December 17th, 19 volunteers from Kyiv with the support and assistance of concerned Europeans and members of the German Lutheran Church, arranged a St. Nicholas Day celebration for more than 100 children from Eastern Ukraine.
St. Nicholas Day is a holiday the whole world knows. Like children everywhere, children in Ukraine wait for it impatiently every year. The way the holiday is celebrated in Ukraine can differ from region to region and from family to family. It can include going to church for a prayer service. It can include kids painstakingly writing perfectly formulated letters that include a catalog of flawless behavior in the past year and requests for desired gifts.
The story of the Black Tulips has almost unknown outside Ukraine. This group of volunteers search the battlefields around Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, to find and bury the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers killed in battle. Since the territory is under control of separatists, Kiev's forces cannot access the area, and the sad and hard job is left to a small group of men, under the severe control of militiamen.
Bus no. 6 runs everyday from Donetsk train station and the suburbs of Pesky. The area is dotted with shrapnel holes, a bust stop has been hit a few days ago and many buildings are destroyed. Its driver, Aleksander, risks his life to bring people back home. He tells of how he is scared of this job, and how absurd is to keep on riding a bus under the bombs. Bus no. 6 was hit by shrapnel splinters a few days after this report. Two people died and Aleksander was wounded.
Buses are often caught in the crossfire, struck by stray artillery or rockets, causing civilian casualties. After the ceasefire between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists was breached in September, 2014, fighting has continued to escalate. The latest escalation in fighting in Donetsk left several dead when their bus was hit by a shell.
According to Kiev, over 5,000 have died so far in the conflict.
Despite the civil war currently devastating Ukraine this year, an estimated thirty-thousand Hasidic Jews gathered in Uman, a small city at banks of the Umanka River, paying little attention to the worldly, bloody political struggle surrounding the site of their spiritual leader's tomb.
Since 1811, Jewish followers of the Breslov Hasidic movement make an annual pilgrimage to visit the grave of their founder, Rabbi Nachman (1772-1810) of Uman, in central Ukraine. The gathering, permeated by the rhythm of prayer and teaching, joy and remembrance is a central part of this religious group's devotional practice.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the city of Uman had a large Jewish population. In 1941, when the Germans invaded Ukraine, some seventeen-thousand Jews were murdered and the rest were deported - tragically wiping out the entire Jewish community of Uman.
Despite the Nazi occupation and Communist regimes, Jews continued to make the pilgrimage to Rabbi Nachman's grave even though in some years less than a dozen completed the journey.
Since the fall of Communism, a small but growing Jewish population has re-established itself in Uman in close proximity to the grave of Rabbi Nachman. Despite Uman's remote location, people travel from all over the world for just one week out of the year.
Uman is typical of a small Eastern European city. However, Rabbi Nachman’s grave is protected inside a collection of buildings and sanctuaries situated in something more reminiscent of an old Jewish Ghetto.
Crooked streets and congested buildings rest haphazardly on top of each other and harken back to a place frozen in time. Instead of Cyrillic, signs are in Hebrew. Instead of people dressed in shirts and slacks, the streets are filled with men and women, often separated by gender, and dressed much like those who lived in Uman In the 18th century.
Today, the pilgrimage is undertaken by individuals driven by faith and obligation. A sea of white shirts or black suits and hats, large groups of men and, separately, large groups of women, focus on prayer - blind to the chaos and bloodshed that grips Ukraine.
The girl is Silvinya Katcarska and I found her in her apartment in the center of Sofia, where she often spends a lot of time working in front of the computer. She lives with her friend who had a bandaged arm because of an injury during the clash. Silvinya is an assistant producer at a production company. “My daily life consists of working all day and going to these protests at night”, she said. Her motives to go every day to the protests are the brutal appointments. In her words, the government has shown abuse of power. In the night of 23rd July she accuses the MI because of their decision to try and take the deputies away with a bus. She describes the action as insane and thinks that it was bound to lead to conflicts. “Actually, the only thing we did was to stand there refusing to let the deputies leave, and even though it was clear as day that we would block them, they still tried to pass by us, through us, that’s how the conflict started.” Of the frame of that night she said, “You can see that we’ve been pushed back by the policemen, we are just trying to stand our ground and our being there shows our opinions that we are not satisfied, that we want to be heard, that we want a resignation, that we want early elections. Unfortunately, there has been no attempt at communication with the protesters and that makes people angry and prone to more radical means in the form of the blockades, but no one has called for violence, we were just there, standing our ground.
This is a scene from one of the first moments the policemen started making way through the blockade of protesters for the bus filled with deputies, on the night of the 40th protest. I chose to find the man who seemed to be shouting at the policemen, because of the strength of his expression.
That is Borislav Popov- manager of a company dealing with intelligent search and text analysis software, mainly for the Medias abroad, such as BBC, Oxford University Press etc. He is interested in Buddhism, before that he was involved in parachutism, he was a bungee instructor, and is a father of one. He said that he’s always had the opportunity to live abroad but that he decided that he had to live in Bulgaria. “It was actually a ‘sitting’ protest; there were many other people around me. When the policemen came, they directly jumped me with their shields”, relates Borislav in regards to the photo from the night of the blockade. “It wasn’t a gradual pushing aside of a crowd, it was jumping on sitting people with shields.” As he sees himself on the photo he adds “I was shouting at the policemen that there are women and children there. I’ve always been for the peaceful carrying out of the protests, therefore what was happening was unique.If we resort to violence these protests will not be legitimate. The whole event is also unique with the fact that if we compare it to other protests in Bulgaria, and even in Europe and the world, there is a difference in the demands. They aren’t so economical as they simply for more moral governing.” Borislav also said why he’s protesting. “What really bothers me is my daughter and how she would grow in such an environment. The people I work with and I live in a pink bubble, more or less, we have a good job, good relationships, and our friends are a specific type of people, so the loss of priorities we see doesn’t really concern us. I will quote my grandfather, who is a very strong person and in such cases he says this: “Bulgaria, Bulgaria, for you they died and only when your name they muttered, countless died”, shares Borislav and continues. “Actually we want to have not politicians, but statesmen and for those statesmen to have values that we ourselves can see as higher than our own; to be able to look at those people and think: ‘Wow, this person really has high values and I would like to be like him/her.’” According to him there is a “natural disgust towards artificial authorities” in Bulgaria. “We have to learn that we are the ones that are responsible for our lives and we can’t keep complaining that communism, our parents, or our employers are at fault; we have to take responsibility for our actions.” In his words steps towards direct democracy should be made, but they have to be careful. “What made me proud of the people from the protest is that the majority of them very busy people, but they take the time to protest. For first time I went to one of these protests I felt like a citizen of this country and I was proud of it. It is all because of the people I met there”, shares Borislav.
This is Ivan Dimitrov climbing over the fence surrounding the National assembly. He decided to jump with the others to symbolically show that no one could take away their freedom because, according to him, these fences are illegal.
In his opinion, the problem is that the majority of the political class does whatever it wants, and the politicians think that the people are too desperate and helpless to do anything about it.
The night of July 23, on the 40th day of the protests in Sofia, Bulgaria. A little after ten o’clock when a bus with deputies and members of parliament tried to get through the live blockade around the parliament, clashes occurred. This girl was trying to stop the policemen that pushed the gathered protesters aside.
On the 30th June it was raining cats and dogs but again thousands gathered to protest. This couple was hugging and standing unmoving under a large black umbrella for a long time.
They are Rumyana Tconeva and Manol Glishev. They got to know each other and started dating during the protests. We met as they were going together to the square. Rumyana is a second-year university student in History and she stands against the current government and their “insolent decisions, to put it mildly”. After this Manol heatedly adds, “In my opinion, this government is good for nothing!” He works in an IT firm and in his words his salary directly suffers ever since this government came to power. “Besides, personally, I don’t want to pay for the Belene Nuclear Power Plant. I don’t even need the Belene Nuclear Power Plant and not only that but there is no need for a loan from Russia, and I don’t need this incompetent economist to pose as a prime minister and promise to give money to the poor with borrowed money”, said Manol. “I was and I might soon be poor again if this continues. It’s a bad deal to give money borrowed money to the poor.” Afterwards, Manol shared with me that Rumiana is always very nervous in front of cameras but is otherwise very active in the protests. “It’s the opposite with some people. They talk a lot in front of the camera and act little” he added.
We arranged to meet at the park she likes to take walks in. Her name is Vasilena Radeva, she loves mountaineering and extreme experiences, but as she is 9 months pregnant she can only allow herself walks in the park. She is a theatre director. The reason to participate in the procession is, in her words, for a better life and a just cause. She said. “We all went out 46 days ago because of sheer indignation, but now our cause is a lot bigger, it’s about the fact that we care, that we don’t want people with lower mental capacity than the people that chose them to rule over us.” “The other reason is for the future I carry inside me”, she touched her stomach tenderly. “I chose to live in Bulgaria despite my husband and future son being American. It is very important for me to have a family in a good environment. Because of the long duration of the protests a lot of our time goes by, and not just time for ‘drinking beer’ and time for work but also time for personal enrichment in knowledge. I chose to be a little to the side of this protest so that I could read a book. It’s entitled ‘Theory of Theatre’. That way, I decided, I could combine my civil stand with the work I have, and also show that the protesters out here aren’t just some young, unemployed people that look for a place to drink beer. No, we try to both work and create, whilst protesting and we want a better life.”
Many parents bring their children to the protests. I chose to find the person from this frame because I liked their fighting spirit- the combination of the father with the vuvuzela and his son with a toy pistol and a cute beret on his head.
This is Nikolay Iliev, he works as a taxi driver at the moment. Before I took the shot at his workplace we talked for a long time about the political situation in our country and why foreigners abroad find it hard to understand the protests in Bulgaria. He said that there is no way to explain that the government is purposely pointing the ‘ship’ to a clash. I asked him to summarize why he participates in the campaigns against the government with a few sentences. “Because of the back-stage puppeteering in politics in Bulgaria” he said confidently and continued “It’s preposterous for a prime minister not to remember the names of the people in his team as he introduces them because he was told those names not ten minutes prior to the preconference. This cabinet has to resign immediately because to a demand to Oresharski to tell the truth about the appointment of Delyan Peevski he answered with “You want me to lie to you.” A Bulgarian Prime Minister that answers that he has to lie to me when I want the truth from him, won’t have my support for a hundred minutes, let alone days regardless of which political party he is” said Nikolay. He shared that he goes to the protests very often with his son. The latter is three years old. On the photo he is on his father’s shoulders and carries a toy-gun in response to the head of “Ataka”, Volen Siderov, who goes into the parliament with a gun, yet his is no toy, and “threatens the citizens with prison just because they have a different point of view.” “This is nonsense that needs to end.” Nikolay doesn’t want his son to protest again after fifteen or twenty years for the same reason as today. He adds “The leader of PES with his incompetence to go against the back-stage maneuvers is discredited and I believe that in Europe, he would’ve been replaced from the post he is at in PES. The European Socialists doubtlessly don’t imagine such a model of governing their own countries.” Nikolay thinks that the protests aren’t going well. He dreads that while the Bulgarian protests from home or after working hours in front of an empty building there won’t be a lot of development. “Because how indignant is a person who shouts ‘resignation, now’ when he is ready to do it only at a convenient time after working hours. We can’t only be rebels and patriots just after 7 p.m.”
On the 11th of July during “Coffee in the parliament,” an anti-government campaign organized by a group of young writers and artists, some young people started running and climbing over the fence surrounding the National Assembly. All those who managed to get to the other side were held by the police for a short time.
Thousands of mainly younger, well-educated Bulgarians have been rallying in Sofia and other cities since June 14 to demand the resignation of the Socialist-led cabinet.
What sparked the unrest originally was the appointment of the representative of DPS (Movement of rights and freedom) Delyan Peevski as the head of the State Agency of National Security. Demonstrators then rallied against Plamen Oresharski’s cabinet, protesting openly against his media, which have been accused by the majority of the public of presenting the procession in his benefit. Because of the scandal involving the appointment of Peevski, President Rosen Plevneliev announced that he no longer trusts the Oresharski cabinet. Even after the removal of Delyan Peevski, the protests continued, still demanding the government’s resignation. Unprecedented in duration, people have now been in protesting for three consecutive months. The protests have been relatively peaceful, the activists by in large have been avoiding provocation and clashes with the police.
The journalist photographed people protesting, then in their every day life, to give a more in-depth look at the people behind the Bulgarian unrest. Borislav Popov, who decided to stay in Bulgaria rather than live abroad, believes that "we have to learn that we are the ones that are responsible for our lives and we can’t keep complaining that communism, our parents, or our employers are at fault; we have to take responsibility for our actions."
The former Soviet Union use old-fashioned Army UAZ jeeps in the Azerbaijani army. These are best suited for off-road conditions in the desert. Many of the soldiers who know how to drive cars tend to become jeep commanders, benefiting from a lighter schedule of services in Agdam, Azerbaijan, June, 2013.
A group of soldiers build bypass trenches on the border conjoining them with the Armenian armed forces. The Azerbaijani army celebrates the 95th anniversary of the formation of the National Army of Azerbaijan in the Karabakh region of Agdam, Azerbaijan, June, 2013.
A telephone apparatus in the military field. The Azerbaijani army celebrates the 95th anniversary of the formation of the National Army of Azerbaijan in the Karabakh region of Agdam. The National Army of Azerbaijan
was formed on June 26, 1918. Agdam, Azerbaijan, June, 2013.
The Azerbaijani army celebrates the 95th anniversary of the formation of the National Army of Azerbaijan in the Karabakh region of Agdam. The National Army of Azerbaijan
was formed on June 26, 1918. Agdam, Azerbaijan, June, 2013.
Young soldiers take their position in the military foothold. The Azerbaijani army celebrates the 95th anniversary of the formation of the National Army of Azerbaijan in the Karabakh region of Agdam. The National Army of Azerbaijan
was formed on June 26, 1918. Agdam, Azerbaijan, June, 2013.
Young graduate of Higher Military School, Lieutenant Anar Karimov, in line preparing for duty, beside his soldiers dressed in helmets and bulletproof vests in Agdam, Azerbaijan, June, 2013.
A soldier resting on vacation before heading to battle or post in Agdam, Azerbaijan, June, 2013.
The Azerbaijani army celebrates the 95th anniversary of the formation of the National Army of Azerbaijan in the Karabakh region of Agdam, Azerbaijan, June, 2013.
The army takes its position in Karabakh, 200 meters away from the position of the Armenians in Agdam, Azerbaijan, June, 2013.
The trench on the front lines of the military foothold in Agdam, Azerbaijan, June, 2013.
A guard dog, of the breed "Caucasian Shepherd", named Basar. The dog smells the scent of saboteurs approaching the post and immediately starts barking, alarming the soldiers in Agdam, Azerbaijan, June, 2013.
Soldiers gather to eat their rations together in Agdam, Azerbaijan, June, 2013.
A group of soldiers build bypass trenches on the front lines facing the Armenian armed forces in Agdam, Azerbaijan, June, 2013.
A minefield in front the Armenian military foothold in Karabakh, Azerbaijan, June, 2013.
A minefield in front of the Armenian military foothold in Karabakh, Azerbaijan, June 2013.
Chechen Refugees in Warsaw
Every day dozens of Chechens try to escape the Putin-proclaimed happy paradise in Chechnya by entering the European Union illegally via the border with Ukraine or Belarus. Despite the news of general peace and prosperity widely circulated by the news media in the Chechen Republic, more and more people dream of leaving the allegedly problem-free Chechnya.
Each time I returned to the rundown refugee centre on the edge of Warsaw that house nearly 300 mainly Chechen refugees to Poland, I found it harder and harder to get a grip both ethically and photographically on their situation.
Some of the residents had moved out into Warsaw apartments, some had been repatriated home; others had just disappeared into the E.U, especially if their asylum claims had been rejected. Some may have even returned to Chechnya voluntary, even perhaps to fight in the insurgence. Often if they had been refused status to stay in Poland or elsewhere the militant young felt they were left with little choice, but to return back to Chechnya to face violent reprisals or join the Islamic insurgence in the Caucasus Mountains.
It became a confusing place but with so many kind and courageous people letting me into their lives to photograph them I felt I needed to continue document the transient and desperate nature of their existence on the four floors of Bielany, the reasons they fled their homeland, in an original way at least.
So how could I transpose these notes and photographs into a viable project? The stories they told me ranged from horrific tales of torture to ones of simply trying to rejoin family members who had left Chechnya years before, during the two wars.
So I began to present the images with my written notes, thoughts and also the pictures the children made for me whilst wandering the cold corridors waiting to interview and photograph their parents.
I often felt like a useless recorder of tragedy and after one visit I felt despair at being only able being able to record these courageous peoples images and voices with a view to just using the work for my MA and not to implement any real change for their situation in Poland. I destroyed my first notebook in a Warsaw youth hostel in anger one night but later I fished its torn remains back from the kitchen bin.
A Bielany resident who I had spoken to about my frustrations had told me the next day even though it may sound clichéd that “It didn’t matter, at least you are listening to us, at least you are here trying to understand us, to document us” this helped waive my doubts about continuing the project, but I still feel that a photojournalist without empathy or ethics is only taking, often not helping; I hope I can give something back even if its only a testament to the fact that the Chechen people were here, in a small part of Warsaw waiting in a bureaucratic limbo as to whether they could continue there journey or travel back to a bleeding homeland.
I plan to make this project into a multimedia piece including all the notebooks, text and audio as well as a finished book and exhibition
While the rest of Georgia was celebrating Easter around dinner table on May 5th, one village in western Georgia marked the occasion with a rugby-like scramble that effectively blocked traffic for hours on the country's East-West national highway.
The traditional Georgian sport known as lelo ("goal" or "try" in Georgian), has no rules, no time-outs, and no limit to the number of people (men only) who can play. The "field" is the entire village of Shukhuti, a hamlet of about 2,000 in the western region of Guria. Two creeks, about 150 meters apart, mark the goal lines for two teams. The teams are made up of residents from the upper and lower halves of the village. The aim is simple: whichever side is the first to carry a 16-kilogram leather ball back to their creek wins the game.
Victory means dedicating the leather ball to a deceased villager and placing it on his grave after the match -- a reflection of Georgian Orthodox Church traditions of visiting cemeteries on Easter to commemorate loved ones. Lelo balls in various stages of decomposition can be seen on graves in both of Shukhuti's cemeteries.
In a Georgian village, Easter is celebrated with a Lelo fight When most of the Orthodox Christians join their families at the Easter table, one Georgian village celebrates the holiday in a cloud of dust raised by a crowd of fighting men. Shukhuti village is an inconspicuous location in Guria, a poor region in Western Georgia famous for its cultural heritage. The village is notable for two things – a highway running across the settlement and one day in a year when the road is closed. On Easter Sunday, all traffic here halts to give way to the ancient traditional game called Lelo. Predecessor of rugby Lelo (meaning “throw, try” in Georgian) has no referee. The reason is very plain – the game has no rules, time limits or player restrictions to enforce. The ritual match takes place on the field in central part of Shukhuti village between two brooks. On Easter Sunday, men from the upper and the lower village fight for a 16 kilogram ball called Burti. The goal of the game is to carry the honourable leather ball to the corresponding side of the village. The ball is thrown to the crowd by a priest in the carefully measured centre between the two brooks, and for several hours the approximately 150 metre field becomes a Lelobattlefield. The highway that runs across the field is closed and nothing can stop the fighting press – neither fences, nor gardens or road signs. The victory brings honour to the winning part of the village, while the ball is solemnly carried by the champions across the village and put on the grave of the last deceased player. Nobody knows the exact time when people began playing Lelo. There are many versions based on different sources, but a number of pagan rituals involved in the game suggest that it was played in Georgia long before the coming of Christianity. Lelo is believed to be the predecessor of the rugby, a sport now popular across the modern world. 16 kilograms of honour On the Easter Sunday morning, Shukhuti village is the calm before the storm. Men from both parts of the village are in their camps discussing strategies of the upcoming battle or spending their last quite hours of the day with their families. But soon the silence is broken as the solemn and heady ceremony of stuffing the leather ball begins. The Burti ball is made on the eve of the Lelo. The honour is bestowed on the single local family, which has stayed true to the trade of shoemaking from the ancestral times. On the festive morning, the empty ball is welcomed with toasts in the yard of the shoemaker and the ceremony of stuffing the ball with earth, sand and wine begins. It will continue well into the afternoon, but first the crowd of neighbours and priests drink toasts from the still empty leather ball using it as a vessel. Everyone in the yard must drink from the Lelo burti ball wishing victory to the players and strength to ball. Pope Saba is at the centre of the ceremony. For 13 years, the former Greco-Roman wrestler, who has fought for the Lelo honour for three decades himself, has been endowed with the upstanding privilege to bless the ball and throw it to the players. One of the old-timers of the game, the taxi driver Robinson Kobalava lifts a wine bowl and urges to drink for the tradition of Lelo: “Our village is in no way exceptional. Vehicles pass through here at high speed. But today we are the centre of the entire Georgia. The tradition of our ancestors to fight for the honour of Lelo still lives and we have to respect this heritage.” After a couple of hours of toasts, jokes and funny acquaintances, the ritual of stuffing the ball – as well as the 50 litre wine bottle sitting nearby – comes to an end. Once the ball is stuffed, it undergoes yet another weighing. An archaic scale shows almost 18 kilograms, but Kobalava assures that “once the wine evaporates, it will be exactly 16 kilograms”. A crowd of participants and spectators walk from the house of the shoemaker down the highway to the church where the ball will be consecrated. It is carried by pope Saba, but he is willing to give everyone a feel of what it’s like to catch such a ball. The ones who do catch it are hailed with applause, while the ones who trip or drop the ball are showered with laughter. The drivers stuck on the road are not mad – they also get an opportunity to touch and lift the heavy ball. The noisy crowd finally reaches the church where the ball is sanctified and left to rest for a couple of hours. Gamishvit ar vtamashob Georgy from the upper Shukhuti invites us to the yard of his house near the church to explain the history and tradition of Lelo. Once we settle in the shade, a Georgian table appears in front of us covered with food and carafes of wine. According to Georgy, wine is obligatory before the game. Toasts are said to the luck and health of the players, and to the continuing ancestral tradition. Georgy, 35, first played the game as a teenager, and assures that he is not afraid of the contest. But he persistently recommends us to memorise one Georgian phrase – Gamishvit ar vtamashob (“Let me go, I am not playing”). According to him, these words are our only escape once we are caught in the middle of the game. Escorting the ball with a shotgun The men from the lower and upper village begin flocking to the field some time before the game to chat and share their memories of the past games. According to Kobalava, the men are rivals only during the game of Lelo. He also stresses one rigorous rule of honour – no hitting. The ones who get too excited and go too far are promptly separated and placated. Each year, the match begins exactly at 5 pm. There are no limits to the length of the match – it can range from two to eight hours. Soon applause and shouting signal the appearance of pope Saba with the Burti ball accompanied by several men and a guide armed with a hunting rifle. The crowd comes to the boiling point and the gunshots announce the beginning of the match. The Burti is thrown to the players. A desperate fight Once the Burti ball is in the game, the force of several hundred people explodes. Like a whirlwind, the players move in unpredictable directions destroying everything in their path. Lelo is a masculine game, but women also get to play their part. They do not fight for the ball, but try to help their teams by pinching and distracting men from the opposing part of the village. Some men ruthlessly fight for the ball, and some watch the situation from a higher ground to prevent the opposing team from secretly smuggling the ball out of the field. One of the players wearing a T-shirt saying “Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, Russia” is lumbered with patriotic ridicule. But he promptly retorts that he is only “wearing the tee so it gets torn”. Indeed, clothes of men soon turn to rags, and footwear is sent flying over the crowd. The cloud of dust keeps moving back and forth between the two brooks for a couple of hours.If anyone falls on the ground, the nearby players put their hands in the air – a signal for the game to slow down. But from the outside, the rhythm of the match is relentless, while the injured are carried to the safety beyond the chaos. Honour after death Two hours later the Lelo burti finally makes its way across the brook of the lower village. With fight still raging on, cheers and salutes start filling the air. The ball is carried to the place where it was born – the shoemaker’s porch – to be displayed to the crowd. It had been four years since the lower village last secured the Lelo victory therefore the atmosphere here is extremely jubilant. Young players proudly carry the ball down the streets towards the cemetery shouting “Long live Lower Shukhuti! Long live Lelo!” Once in the cemetery, the ball is placed on the grave of the player who had died in the game of 2008. Toasts are said and several hundred litres of wine begin to evaporate in the crowd. Many older balls can be seen on other graves – some had been placed there quite recently and still bear wine stains, some are almost rotten, but continue to sit honourably atop the graves. There is a saying that better to see once than to hear a hundred times. Lelo is hard to understand until you see it with your own eyes.