It’s a long way from the Eurasian state of Georgia to Carrick-on-Suir but that is the journey 57 year-old political activist, journalist and teacher Nora (Natela) Madebadze has made due to her outspoken opposition to her country’s president and his government.
Nora and her husband Vazha Khutsishvili fled Georgia three years ago following the former Soviet state’s brief war with Russia and came to Ireland seeking political asylum.
The couple’s home in the Georgian capital of Tblisi was bombed and destroyed during the war but Nora says their reason for leaving was the harrassment and threats they were enduring from the governing regime of president Mikhail Saakashvili.
Months before the war, Nora was a prominent figure in the presidential election campaign of Georgian opposition leader and billionaire, Arkady Patarkatsishvili, who died suddenly in exile in London a month after the election.
On top of this, Nora’s articles about Saakashvili’s leadership and, in particular, a critical piece she wrote about the war put her under further threat.
Nora says she was also under threat from the Saakashvili regime for another reason, which she is too afraid to speak about in public.
The couple decided to flee the country in September, 2008 leaving behind their two adult sons and seven grandchildren in Georgia as well as Vazha’s business.
They have been living at Bridgewater House Centre for Asylum Seekers in Carrick-on-Suir for the past six months after spent the previous two and a half years in Dublin as they awaited the outcome of their political asylum application.
Nora is a regular visitor to Carrick-on-Suir Library where she searches on the Internet for news about her native country.
She has very little English, but with the help of an interpreter, the freelance journalist, who is also a teacher of Georgia’s native language, spoke of how the persecution of journalists and political opponents of the governing regime is continuing in Georgia.
Nora, who was a member of the Writers’ Union of Georgia, claims there is no freedom of expression in Georgia and the government is not democratic. She showed press cuttings of opposition demonstrations in the capital Tiblisi in the week leading up to Independence Day, May 26 last, which were repressed by riot police. She claimed two journalists were shot at these demonstrations and many protesters were beaten and jailed and showed photos of beaten demonstrators that were posted on the Internet. She also claims that some people, who took part in the protests, were killed and some are still in prison.
Her claims are borne out by the reports of BBC correspondent Damien McGuinness, who witnessed journalists and peaceful demonstrators being beaten by police during one of the demonstrations.
Nora was initially an active supporter of Saakashvili, when the New York education lawyer ousted Georgia’s former president Eduard Shevardnadze in the bloodless Rose Revolution in 2003. She showed The Nationalist a photo of her pictured with the leader that year.
But once in power, she says Saakashvili changed. He didn’t fulfill the promises he made and opposition politically and in the media was not tolerated.
Disillusioned, she became an outspoken opponent and was the county head of the presidential election staff in Tblisi for opposition candidate Arkadi “Badri” Patarkatsishvili in Georgia’s snap presidential election of January 2008.
Patarkatsisvili was Georgia’s richest man and a flamboyant figure. He was one of the “oligarchs” who made a fortune from the privatisation of state-owned industries during the break up of the Soviet Union.
He was seen as a driving force behind anti-government protests in Tblisi in November 2008 that were violently suppressed with Saakashvili declaring a state of emergency and issuing a warrant for his arrest. He fled to Britain and was subsequently reported to be under investigation in Georgia for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government.
Shortly before his death, Patarkatsisvili claimed that his political opponents were involved in a plot to assasinate him. When the 52 year-old collapsed and died suddenly at his mansion in Surrey, a police investigation was launched to establish if his fears had been true. The investigation, however, concluded that he died of natural causes- a heart attack.
Back in Georgia, Nora and her husband were involved in political protests against Saakashvili’s re-election as president.
After Patarkatsishvili’s death, the persecution of his supporters like Nora and Vazha, increased. Nora described receiving threatening phone calls. One of the last straws for the couple was the threats Nora received after an article she wrote critical of the government’s role in the war that was published in a newspaper, she contributed to.
She said their decision to flee Georgia was heartbreaking. Her husband left a good business in Tblisi and it was very hard living so far away from their sons and grandchildren (Their eight grandchild is due to be born soon). However, if she goes back to Georgia while the current regime is in place, she believes she will be jailed or killed.
She says she likes Carrick-on-Suir very much and has made many friends at Bridgewater House Centre but she feels her life has been in limbo for the past three years as she cannot do anything in this country without being granted political asylum.
She is very anxious during her time in Ireland to highlight the persecution that journalists and political opponents of the governing regime are suffering in her native land. She is very impressed with Ireland’s democracy and also with the standard of its health and social welfare systems.
The couple’s application for political asylum was rejected about a month ago, which has deeply disappointed and surprised Nora, whose application has been supported by the All Georgain Association of Human Rights.
The couple have decided to appeal and plan to engage a Carrick-on-Suir based solicitor to help them fight their case before the asylum application appeal tribunal, a date for which has yet to be set.