Georgia: the aftermath

As Russian forces begin to withdraw, we are learning more about the events of the short but brutal w

The air inside Tskhinvali General Hospital is damp and stale. The worn floors are empty. There is hardly a sound at all in-side the building where, a week ago, wounded civilians and bloody surgical gloves lay in heaps about the corridors.

Tinati Zakhorova, an exhausted doctor with kind eyes and a tangle of curly grey hair, is sitting alone in a small office, tallying up the dead and wounded in a faded old book. She knows what happened here in this tiny mountainous republic, she says, and who is responsible for it.

"This is the fourth genocide against the Ossetian people by the Georgians. How can we ever go back to living under them?" she asks, adding: "And may heaven open up and God strike the head of Condoleezza Rice."

It will be weeks, or even months, before any culpability can be assigned for this big war over a little country. We may never know the extent to which the Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili, informed his benefactors in Washington of his plans to retake the breakaway republic, or whether the Russians ordered South Ossetian militias to open fire on Georgian peacekeepers to goad them into a trap.

But amid the chaos of the war's aftermath, residents on both sides of the battlefield have already made up their minds. Zalina Ikoeva, 52, is lying in traction at a hospital in Vladikav kaz. Her leg was shattered by an explosion as she hid in her basement during the initial Georgian attack.

"I was lying there in the basement and I called my sister on my mobile," she said. "I asked her: 'Where are the Russians? They're going to kill us all.'"

On the shattered streets of Tskhinvali, where there is strong evidence that the Georgian military fired both tanks and artillery into civilian buildings, the Russians are viewed as liberators. Russian support over the past two decades is the only thing that has kept this isolated and resource-poor statelet from disappearing altogether.

It is Russian bottled water you see being handed out by the truckload and a brand new gas pipeline from Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia to Tskhinvali that you can see on the drive in. The Russian government has pledged $400m to rebuild the city, and the Moscow city government has promised another $100m. The Russian hearts-and-minds campaign trumps anything Georgia is putting out. The tactic is working.

As we roll through the city in a Russian armoured personnel carrier during one of the Kremlin's highly scripted tours, dozens of local residents, mostly elderly, flock to the soldiers to show their support. An elderly man stands and makes the sign of the cross as we drive by. Women blow kisses and shout their thanks as the Russians look down with benevolence.

The mood was summed up by a Kremlin official. "We are dealing with a psychotic dictator, an inadequate person whose actions cannot be foreseen whatsoever," he said. "It will take as many troops as possible for as long as possible to protect the citizens of South Ossetia."

Twenty kilometres across what used to be the southern border of South Ossetia, inside Georgia proper, the story changes. In the northern areas of Georgia now under the control of the Russian military, within the sights of Russian rockets aimed from the hills around Tskhinvali, the majority of the population believe that they are under occupation.

When the Russian aerial bombardment of Gori began, 80-year-old Sasha Berdize ran down to the river and hid along its banks. Walking back from a Russian-run food depot in the city centre, he stops to ask me where I'm from. I'm an American, I say. "Thank God you're here," he replies, his eyes filling with tears.

Gori, where Joseph Stalin was born, is now a ghost town. In the city centre, where block after block of High Stalinist architecture and a towering statue of the former leader dominate the skyline, there is hardly anyone on the street. It is likely, several residents said, that less than 1 per cent of the population is left here.

But Berdize thinks that these things happen. "Misha made a mistake," he says, using a popular diminutive form of Saakashvili's name. "People are allowed to make mistakes in this life." Many Georgians seem willing to cut their president a great deal of slack, even though his dangerous miscalculation and reckless personality have just cost them territory in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another disputed rebel enclave on the Black Sea.

Sitting around a picnic table behind an apartment building in the city centre, six friends pass around a plastic jug of home-made wine and a bag of halva. Although they don't understand why this whole mess started, they know how it will end.

"Everything was great with the Russians," says Soso Rusashvili, 57, "but now they've decided they want our land. What can we do about it? We're such a tiny country."

Rusashvili doesn't blame Saakashvili or George W Bush for his problems, but neither does he want to stay in a land under occupation. He makes me write his name in both Russian and English. Can I send him a letter of invitation so that he can move to America, he wants to know. He would work in construction or drive a taxi, he says - anything to get out of here.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to survive the recession

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood