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Remembering the peace train, by Stephen Shenfield

On International Women’s Day let us remember the women who traveled on the “peace train” – organized by the women’s antiwar movement “White Scarf” -- to try to stop the war in Abkhazia in summer 1993.

According to an Interpressnews release dated 2009.04.07 that appeared in The Georgian Times, the “White Scarf” movement is now active in 38 countries.

Below is an article of mine on this episode, first published in May 2004 in issue No. 24 of the Research and Analytical Supplement to Johnson’s Russia List (http://www.cdi.org/russia/johnson/8226.cfm#6).

THE PEACE TRAIN

On a visit to Georgia in March 1995, I learned about a remarkable episode in the Georgian-Abkhaz war that is not mentioned in any historical account of which I am aware: the women's "peace train" that set out for Abkhazia from Tbilisi in the summer of 1993. (1) There can be few precedents of such direct action against war in the history of war resistance. My account here is based mainly on an interview with one of the organizers of the peace train, the Georgian actress Guranda Gabunia, who at that time was vice-chair of the "White Scarf" movement. (2)

I should first explain the "white scarf" concept. I was told of an ancient Georgian custom according to which a woman could oblige two fighting men to desist by throwing her white headscarf on the ground between them. This custom had fallen into disuse but its memory was preserved in folklore. The "White Scarf" movement was an attempt to revive the custom and use it to stop the war in Abkhazia.

Later inquiry showed that the custom is by no means limited to Georgia. It is widespread among peoples of the Caucasus and Central Asia. In the Chechen war there were women who threw white scarves in the path of Russian soldiers, who did not however understand the meaning of the gesture. My colleague Irina Isakova told me that she had met a woman who claimed to have averted a pogrom in Kyrgyzstan's Osh province at the time of the Kyrgyz-Uzbek clashes of 1990 by kneeling on the road before an advancing mob and throwing down her headscarf. The custom may have its origin in the belief that a woman's uncovered hair possesses magical powers.

It was the cinematographer Keti Dolidze who first had the idea of hiring a train to take women in white headscarves to Sukhum(i). Many women felt that traditional charitable activities like collecting money to aid war victims were not enough and support for the project grew rapidly. The organizers hoped that the venture would not prove too dangerous: there was a lull in the fighting at the time the project was launched -- and who would shoot at unarmed women? But if necessary they intended to "stand between the brothers" and throw down their scarves in accordance with custom. 

The peace train had the support not only of "White Scarf" but also of members of the more "respectable" Women's Society of the City of Tbilisi, which unlike "White Scarf" had the blessing of the Patriarch of the Georgian Church. They sought the Patriarch's blessing for the peace train and were upset not to get it, although this did not lead them to withdraw their support.

30,000 women gathered at the station in Tbilisi to see off the peace train, which was packed full of women in white headscarves. They also took with them provisions, medical supplies, and money.

"Women of all ethnic origins signed up for the journey: Georgians and Mingrelians, Russians and Ukrainians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, Jews and Kurds, Ossets and Abkhaz. There were many members of the intelligentsia, many ordinary women too. There were women of all ages: mothers went to find and bring home their sons, (3) sisters their brothers, daughters their fathers, even grandmothers their grandsons. At every station along the way, more women joined us or handed us money, gold, jewelry, food, and letters for their menfolk. Never have I experienced such a feeling of unity. It will remain with me my whole life."

But as the train proceeded on its way the fighting in Abkhazia resumed. The final Abkhaz offensive was now underway. Sukhum(i) came under heavy bombardment and changed hands for the last time. When the peace train reached Ochamchira, its passengers found the town in flames and a tank and artillery battle in progress.

"We swore at the soldiers, (4) but there was nothing we could do except leave the money and supplies we had brought at the local hospital. After half an hour those of us who were still alive and able to walk headed back for the train. I recall old women going tranquilly to their deaths, clutching letters for their grandsons."

The train retreated, keeping just ahead of the advancing front. We passed through Gal(i) district and entered Mingrelia. There the train was held hostage for 14 hours by Zviadistas (armed supporters of ex-president Zviad Gamsakhurdia --SS). They had positioned two trains to block our way. They wanted to kill us and blow up the train. We sent representatives to talk with them. We said that we were not politicians, we were just women and did not mean any harm. It would shame them to kill us. Finally they relented and let us return to Tbilisi.

We were very moved to receive a letter from Shevardnadze. He had written it while in hiding in Sukhum(i). (5)

For two months after my return, I just sat at home staring at the floor, barely able to speak, sunk deep in depression."

Notes

(1) On my return to the US, I tried to get an article about the peace train published. "Progressive" magazine expressed interest but was not willing to publish an article without accompanying photographs. Unfortunately I had none to offer.

(2) I also met some other women who had been involved. Their accounts were consistent with Gabunia's, although they added certain details.

(3) Like the mothers' movement in the first Chechen war.

(4) This appears to have been a modern innovation rather than part of the original custom.

(5) Before Sukhum(i) fell in September 1993, Shevardnadze and prominent officials of the Georgian administration in the city, including Marshania, were evacuated on board a Russian ship.

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