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Mountain Stories: Shining a Light on Georgia’s Troubled Corners An interview with Gela Mtivlishvili

“Mtis Ambebi” (which translates as “Mountain Stories”) is a media outlet which was founded six years ago by Gela Mtivlishvili, who is currently working as its chief journalist and editor. This organization manages and produces two online media platforms: “Sakartvelos Ambebi” (or “Georgian News”) available in in four languages: Georgian, Azerbaijani, Armenian and English, and the aforementioned “Mtis Ambebi”, available in Georgian and English. “Mtis Ambebi” focuses on covering the news from Georgia’s remote mountainous regions, specifically issues connected to ethnic minorities and conflict zones. “Mtis Ambebi” with its clear focus on Georgia’s mountains and the advocacy work it does for the inhabitants of these regions, is the only outlet of its kind in Georgia. Gela and his team not only film and write about specific problems faced by villagers, they also become actively involved in finding solutions, doing what they can to help resolve certain issues.

One of Mtis Ambebi’s longest-running projects has been the “martokatsi” (or “lonely man”)

rubric. In this rubric, Gela and his team identify, visit and take footage of single-resident

villages: villages where there is not one clan, not one family, but literally just one person left. Such places are mostly found in extremely high, mountainous areas, or near the Georgia-Russia border, and getting to these places is not an easy task. In fact, in the wintertime it is impossible to do so without access to a helicopter, as the roads are completely closed off due to the snow. So Gela and his team are only able to drive up the summertime – between April (or sometimes even May) and October – depending on how harsh the winter is and how many meters of snow must be cleared off the roads. This means that there are 6-7 month intervals between their visits to the lonely men, and usually they are the first ones to go up and see these people after winter, which brings extreme joy to the isolated villagers.

While recently Mtis Ambebi hasn’t been able to spend much time on the rubric, Gela believes that they have located and filmed every person who lives completely alone and is the only resident of their village, in every region of Georgia. According to Gela, these “lonely men” are extremely important for Georgia. They are the “weaponless protectors” of the country: “I truly believe that without these people, Georgia would have already lost many villages in Tusheti, Khevsureti, and other such borderline regions. While I’m not saying that these people scare anyone, per say, I do think that it is much easier to occupy absolutely abandoned territory, as opposed to territory where there are people, even if this is just one resident. Because whatever Georgian territories Russia has occupied, be it in Tusheti or Khevsureti, they did so after there were absolutely no more people living there.” This is why Gela’s team pays so much attention to them, making their voices heard, offering them company and moral support when needed. “These people were always exotic for us, their lives were romanticized, but an extremely large part of Georgia borders the Russian Federation, and to make sure our enemy doesn’t take away what's ours, we must not only hike in these beautiful areas, but talk to the people living there, learn about their lives and share their pain.”

Other projects implemented by Mtis Ambebi over the past few years have focused on increasing connectivity between remote mountainous areas in Georgia and the outside world. Apparently, there is a general lack of schools in Georgia’s high mountainous regions, so most children must move down to the valleys in order to get any sort of education. Therefore previously, if these lonely men wanted to get in touch with their children, for example, they would have to travel distances up to 25 kilometers through the snow in order to get to a larger village like Shatili and use the telephone. Gela and his team, with the help of other supportive international organizations, as well as with the aid of the government, have been able to set up wireless Wifi for every Georgian village in the eastern mountain areas: “As of now, this is their only means of communication with the rest of the world. If they need any medical help, for instance, they can at least get in touch with a doctor for some advice. Or if they want to call with their family members, such as their kids, now they can,” explains Gela. Despite this new connectivity, there is still quite a bit of

room left for the improvement of the lonely men’s lives, as most of these villagers don’t have

access to any basic first-aid medical care, electricity or, in some cases, even a walkable dirt road.

Gela grew up in a region himself, and therefore is familiar with all of the problems these

residents have to face. Gela points to the centralization of Georgia, how all important decisions are made in Tbilisi, and how it is virtually impossible to resolve an issue in a village without involving a higher authority. That’s why he is now working on using Mtis Ambebi to create a bridge between regional residents and the larger audience of the city. Most other media outlets focus on whatever is going on in the center, making Gela and his team's job of enhancing the voices of villagers even more important: “We believe and fully support the idea of a self-governed state, and while Georgia is officially self-governing, there are steps yet to be taken for improvement. Everything we do is an attempt to make regional citizens more active and involved in making decisions concerning the country.”

Gela is a lawyer by profession, but he started writing in printed published journals when he was a student in university and ever since, he has been working as a journalist: “I don’t know what to compare it to, but this field of work really sucks you in, and gets you obsessed once you start. I couldn’t get enough, and so I stayed in the field to this day, and will work as a journalist as long as I am able.” Gela has had a love for high peaks since he was young, and has been enjoying hiking in the mountains of Georgia for more than 20 years, which is why he eventually chose a focus on this area. Despite the peacefulness and beauty of pristine nature, the problems of villagers always made themselves visible even when Gela was exploring as a simple hiker and not as a journalist. He feels a duty to use the media to bring the struggles of these people and places to the attention of a wider audience because otherwise Georgia could lose them.

The job that Gela does is very demanding in many aspects, especially physically. Gela’s team

makes frequent visits to all parts of Georgia, which involves long-distance traveling, sometimes even on foot, covering many kilometers to get to a designated place. To work in Mtis Ambebi, one must truly love mountains, otherwise it would be extremely difficult to write about the place. Also you need to have the physical strength and desire to hike many kilometers over mountain passes that rise to over 3500m above sea level. For example, the team is now investigating a corruption case concerning a place where they have never been, which makes it really hard for them to visualize and understand what is going on,

which is why they are planning to physically go to the place, explore it, interview the locals and so on.

About a year ago, Gela and his team officially added investigative journalism to their list of

organizational goals. While in the past they had done investigative research, it was never an

official branch of their media outlet and it wasn’t done systematically. This pursuit has been an immediate success and, in the past year, Gela has won three awards for his investigation of the illegal occupation of forests in Racha: the “Shuki” award, the prize given by Europe Foundation for best investigation, and an honorable mention at the EU prize for best investigative story. This was a case Gela and his team investigated, where about a third of Racha had been leased to an affiliate of Putin’s inner circle, Davit Khidasheli, for half a century. This team has also intensely researched a case of unregulated manganese mining in Chiatura, which was carried out without following safety protocol and endangering the health and lives of local residents. Gela and his team are also the only journalists to have provided news coverage of the recent landslide tragedy in Shovi, and this is a third of their big-time investigations, that is still ongoing today: “In the case of Shovi, the situation is extremely severe, because there were 33 victims, and naturally nobody wants to take responsibility for this tragedy. That’s why, at this stage, we are not awaiting any major results,

but there are so many facts that at some point there will definitely be some sort of


Gela plans to continue in this field of investigative journalism, and is even awaiting more

upcoming prizes. According to him, it is crucial for an independent media to exist in this

country. Media should not be polarized or affected by politics, rather it should show the simple truth. In order to establish a proper democracy, and then maintain this state of freedom, it is critical that independent media exists, and Gela and his team feel this responsibility. They sometimes like to think of themselves as assuming the role of the “watch-dog”, where they pay attention to every detail and do everything they can to help if they see the country struggling, whether it be in aspects of corruption, inequality, lack of safety, the Russian occupation or whatever else that could hinder Georgia’s progress as a democratic country and civil society.

For Gela, the format in which he and his team work is very effective, because it ensures the trust of their audience. They document everything by video, so that the facts are extremely clear and cannot be denied. They also fact-check all of their gathered information three times over. For example, they are currently studying a single-paged document, and have been for four days straight. For a team of journalists to study one page for four days may seem absurd, but that is what helps them do in-depth research and recognize nothing less than the truth. That hard work is what gives them credibility and how they gain the trust of the people: “A journalist is nothing without trust. In our hardest times, the emotional support of our audience is what gave us major confidence boosts and kept us going. We really value their trust, it’s precious to us. Of course if we ever make a mistake and spread false information unintentionally, we are completely prepared to publicly admit our mistakes and even say sorry if it's necessary. But we have never had a case like this before.”

The job Gela and his team does comes with a lot of stress. Gela describes his feelings when he “unties a knot” in a case as joyous, satisfying and even ecstatic. However, he admits that the stress cannot even compare to this happiness-it is much bigger, harder to process. As they are a small online media outlet, one person will have to take on various tasks and responsibilities, which can be exhausting. Often they work overtime, during national holidays, weekends, or irregular hours. A few times he and his team have also been physically threatened. Of course these types of cases can be very scary and stressful, and Gela knows this. But stress is a part of all aspects of life and can be found in every workplace, you just need to learn to manage it. As for the fear, the longer Gela works in this field, the more experience he gathers, and the less fear he feels: “Now if I am threatened, I don’t feel as stressed and scared as the first time, I know how to deal with it, it doesn’t affect me as much.” Gela also stresses the importance of his team in cases of fear or sometimes danger: It is very important to know who is beside you, you must

never stay alone, and being with people who you know have your back is very helpful and

encouraging for him.

Why does Gela choose to continue doing what he does, one might ask, if it means putting his health, and in some cases life, in danger? “If it means that I am helping my people and my country, then all of this fear, stress, exhaustion, and hard work is worth it. It’s definitely worth it,” is what Gela would answer.

Edited By: Anthony Schierman

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