from A Gift from the American People

Elizabeth Cullen Dunn

On the frosty January morning I first walked into Tsmindasqali settlement in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, Temo Javakhishvili was drunk and agitated. He had just moved into the new “cottage” given to him by the Georgian government, a small cinder-block bungalow built on a damp piece of swampland, furnished with twin beds, a table made of two-by-fours and a sheet of plywood, four small stools, and a television blaring away on top of a cardboard box used for a stand. He paced back and forth on the bare pine floorboards, muttering and sometimes yelling. His eldest son Zura and I tried to comfort him, but he grew more and more upset. Shouting in a slurred voice, he removed his thick glasses over and over to compulsively wipe the lenses. “Nothing! They gave us nothing!”

Temo’s distress was understandable. A victim of ethnic cleansing, Temo was one of  twenty-eight thousand people violently ejected from their villages in the breakaway province of South Ossetia during the war between Russia and Georgia in 2008. His house had been bombed by Russian aircraft, looted by Ossetian irregulars, and finally burned to ensure that he could never return. His younger son was killed during the bombing of Gori, and a photograph of his two sons, the eldest cradling the dead body of the youngest in front of a building in flames, had become the defining image of the war.

Temo’s losses were enormous, the grief and emptiness in his life only temporarily filled by becoming blind drunk, which he did often. Yet on that first day, it was not the destruction of his family or the loss of his home that seemed to bother him most. It was the food aid package that had been delivered to him in his new cottage. “It’s New Year’s! The most important day of the year, the day when we hold our biggest supra [ritual banquet]. But they just gave us some macaroni. That’s it! Macaroni, and beyond that, nothing!”

As an anthropologist, I had come to Tsmindatsqali to spend a year learning about humanitarian aid and, more importantly, about how people survived inside refugee camps and settlements. I arrived five months after the war, on the first day the “internally displaced people” (IDPs) moved from the schools and libraries where they had been camping out into the thirty-six new settlements built by the Georgian government and financed by the United Nations’ High Commission for Refugees and other international donors. Most of the settlements were exactly the same: hundreds of identical small white cottages lined up along gravel roads. They were heralded as a base from which the IDPs from South Ossetia could reintegrate into Georgian society and rebuild their lives, but on that freezing gray morning, they offered a bleak prospect. There were no trees, no schools, no churches, no restaurants or parks where people could gather, and no shops to buy anything. What people got to eat was what the World Food Program distributed: 1.5 kilograms of macaroni in a food package, along with other staples like beans, salt, and cooking oil, delivered every two weeks.

It was enough for every person to have macaroni every day. Yet in over a year in Tsmindatsqali—although I saw macaroni piled up under beds, stacked in boxes, and sold in black markets—I almost never saw anybody eating it. Given that IDPs had lost nearly everything, why wouldn’t they eat free macaroni? How is it that instead of being something, a gift from benevolent donors, macaroni came to symbolize nothing, the wrenching absence of all that had been lost in the war?

Problems with pasta came to represent a much more serious issue, one that affects over thirty-five million displaced people in the world: the fact that humanitarian aid, meant to help people rebuild their lives, instead often keeps them in limbo in camps and settlements for decades, dependent on donor handouts for their survival. In Georgia, there was no shortage of aid. In the wake of the war, over $3.7 billion in foreign aid poured into Georgia. Under the auspices of the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), more than ninety-six ngos began hastily providing relief to the displaced: cottages or apartments, furniture, food, water heaters, and more. Yet despite this outpouring of aid, nearly every person I interviewed in the IDP settlements echoed Temo’s words: “The government is not helping us; they do nothing for us. We are getting nothing from the NGOs, just little things that don’t help much. We’re not asking for handouts here. We want to work. Give me some land to work; give me a cow! But what do I have here? Nothing! We are alone, we are abandoned, nobody will help us, and we have nothing.”

Having nothing in the IDP camp was different from regular poverty. It was the nostalgia for things once possessed and now lost, things whose presence lingered on, even though they were long gone. One day, sitting in the tiny kitchen of her cottage, Tamuna Gelashvili, a dark-haired young woman with dramatic make-up, started to make coffee for me. Unthinkingly, she reached into a cabinet, and her hand closed on nothing. “Vai me!” she said, obviously startled. “I was reaching for the green coffeepot. But of course it’s gone now.” Tamuna described the green pot and the cheerful polka-dotted porcelain cups that went with it in loving detail. She was not the only person longing for the small details of her old life: once I began staying overnight at Tamuna’s cottage, I spent hours listening to her and her neighbors in the settlement describing their former homes, as much to each other as to me. Over long nights with nothing to do but talk, the exact number of peach trees in the orchard and the names of the cattle, the brands of the television and the refrigerator, and the number of books on the shelves all fused together into a collective ethnography of a lost world.

If the problem of nothing was the fact that the IDPs used to have things and now they didn’t, it would follow that getting new things—including food—would mean that they no longer had nothing. But as humanitarian agencies rushed to give new things, all the aid that was given seemed only to point out how much had been lost. The settlements were full of houses, but the grids of white, identical cottages seemed stark and bare. For Tamuna’s neighbor, Sopo Tsuladze, the plastic wash-buckets given out by World Vision were a constant reminder of her washing machine, now looted by the Ossetians. The shapeless, secondhand orange dress she had been given by the Red Cross made her think of her own clothes, destroyed in the closet where they hung. The cottage’s backless stools called up images of her ornately carved dining chairs gone up in smoke as houses burned. The things given out by the humanitarians were nothing, markers that constantly pointed out what wasn’t there, and therefore made it impossible for Sopo to feel she had anything, regardless of how much was given out.

Macaroni soon became the quintessential form of nothing. As part of humanitarian food packages offered by the World Food Program, the macaroni was not intended to provide essential nutrients but to ensure that each IDP received 2,240 calories per day, thought to be the minimum for sustaining life. But in the context of Georgian cuisine, which is full of spices, walnuts, pomegranates, fresh vegetables, and meats, macaroni is hardly food at all. It is not a staple starch, as bread or corn is, and it isn’t served in the beautiful and complex dishes that typify Georgian cuisine. It’s usually just boiled or fried, served in soup or sprinkled with sugar. Macaroni is just calories, something that only the poorest of the poor eat. “Look, it’s UN help, it’s to keep you alive,” said Tamuna’s mother, Manana Gelashvili. “But there’s no comfort in it.” As food that would have been humiliating to serve to guests, much less at a ritual supra banquet, the fact that families often had only macaroni made it difficult for them to invite friends and relatives to meals and to restore the ties of kinship and neighborliness blown apart along with the villages. Humanitarian macaroni existed, materially—it supported the essential functions of physical life—but it actively destroyed what was left of village society.

Everything about the donated macaroni made it symbolize the nothingness of displacement. In the first place, it was food that came from nowhere. As Mariam Sabashvili, a teacher from Disevi village, explained to me, food usually came with a tie to a distinct landscape. Like the French, Georgians have a concept of terroir. The specific environment where a food is grown—the slope of the land, the amount of rainfall, the way the sunshine falls on a particular segment of mountain or gorge, and particularly the unique taste of the water—all endow foods with unique tastes. Mariam and her neighbors extolled the virtues of their home villages: water that was particularly sweet, or even, according to legend, miraculously healing; soil that gave grapes a pleasant mineral taste. As we sat poking through noodles in thin broth, Mariam even told me about the food from particular fields in Disevi, her home village: the apples from her orchard tasted different than those from Sopo’s; Dito’s tkemali (sour plum) trees gave fruit with an aroma distinct from her own, which were in a garden further down the mountain. Macaroni was the absolute antithesis of this deeply place-linked food. It came with only the barest of labels: “Made in Turkey,” “World Food Program,” or sometimes “A Gift from the American People.” The labels were written in Latin letters, which most people could not read, and in English, which nobody spoke. Arriving in big, plastic bags in unmarked trucks, the macaroni seemed as if it came from nowhere at all. It was displaced food for displaced people.


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ELIZABETH CULLEN DUNN is an anthropologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder. In 2009, she spent a year as a Fulbright Scholar, working with victims of ethnic cleansing in a camp for displaced people in the Republic of Georgia. She is currently writing a book about life in the humanitarian condition.