Student gains more than knowledge in Georgia

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By Robin Bass

War stories from the country of Georgia may have been moved from the front pages, but memories of the friends Katie Hesselbrock made this summer are still first in her thoughts each morning.

“That was my home for two and a half months,” said Katie, a recent college graduate. “It’s unbelievable they have to go through something like this.”

Submitted to The Spencer Magnet Katie Hesselbrock poses with some new Georgian friends, Giorgi and Niko (right), during her recent internship to the country now feeling pressure from Russian military forces.

Katie spent 10 weeks in Georgia as part of a University of Kentucky internship funded by the United States Department of Agriculture. She had only been back in Spencer County for two weeks when the conflict between separatists in South Ossetia and the Democratic Republic of Georgia escalated into warfare. Katie said that she was fortunate her agribusiness internship ended when it did - two weeks later and she would have been unable to leave due to the country’s emergency travel restrictions. Some of the Peace Corps members she met were not so lucky. Their two-year stint ends later this month.

“I’m glad to have her home,” said her mother, Lynn Hesselbrock, of the Little Union community.

Katie said that she watched television news clips with concern as fighters of the fragmented section of Georgia, aided by Russian forces, inched closer to the capital of Tiblisi. Two months ago, Tiblisi was a place where she and fellow interns met each weekend to explore the city and its culture. It was a break from their week of introducing westernized-farming techniques to Georgian villagers. Sometimes the interns would meet in the capital city and then take day trips to the Black Sea or visit each other’s host families. Katie’s host family lived about an hour from Tiblisi in the small village of Katchreti.

“It was a little shocking at first,” said Katie of the Georgian culture, “but we dealt with it. When I came

back home, I felt that everything was a luxury.”

Luxuries like washing machines, showers with water pressure, and dependable electricity that didn’t shut off at random times.

Since the conflict began, Katie said she has been scared for the safety of her host family because of their proximity to what could become a military target. Language barriers and a lack of Internet access have made communication with Netela Deda, known in English as mother Netela, non-existent. Yet, Katie has made contact with some of her younger Georgian friends that possess computer savvy.

Through the pages of Facebook, Katie has kept in touch with Giga, a twenty-something young man who lives in the region of Senaki, and Anna, an equally youthful woman who works for the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs.

“Giga is in one of the regions that is getting hit pretty hard. He said 17 people have died there so far,” said Katie, while Anna “talked about the bombing, but said she was fine. All the responses I’ve had are negative. Everybody has been affected because it’s such a small country.”

Katie said that she wishes there was something she could do.

“Georgia is just trying to grow. They have only been their own country for like 15 years. I feel like this is making them take a step backwards,” said Hesselbrock.

Georgia re-gained their independence April 9, 1991 following six decades under Communist rule by the Soviet Union. The country, about the size of South Carolina, has a long history of imperialistic domination by the Turks, Persians and Russians from the 14th through the 19th century - briefly existing as an independent state from 1918 to 1921.

Since the brief war that occurred earlier this month, Russia’s parliament has voted to recognize the separatist region of South Ossetia, and the like-minded region of Abkhazia, as independent from Georgia. Many believe this move will only continue the conflict.

“I know from speaking to a lot of Georgians that they don’t have much respect for Russians,” said Katie. “But (Russians) know they can take over because Georgia is so much smaller.”

Katie said that perhaps Russia is using the separatists as a means to obtain access to oil in the southern part of Georgia.

The country, which boarders Turkey and Armenia to the south, has known oil deposits near the Black Sea towns of Bat’umi and Pot’i. There are also known coal deposits in the interior of Georgia and in the town of Tqvarch’eli, located in the separatist region of Abkhazia. Georgia also has several hydroelectric plants.

Regardless of what the reason is behind Russia’s exhibition of military force, Katie said that her experience has helped her think differently about a country, about a group of people most often seen in pictures or on the nightly news.

“I think Georgians are some of the most hospitable people I’ve ever met. I think that’s why it hurts more to see what’s going on over there. They don’t deserve this. They are just trying to live and grow.”