Amid the bombs and bullets of a civil war, courageous devotees deliver Krsna's mercy in Sukhumi, Georgia, in the former Soviet Union.
April 16, 1993
AMBARISA DASA, president of the ISKCON temple in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, is a native of Georgia. Wearing an army uniform and handing out a few hot samosas,* he convinced the Tbilisi airport officials to get us on the next flight, me and Murari Krsna Dasa, my translator and traveling partner. The Aeroflot plane was packed, half with soldiers, half civilians. I noticed a strange silence on board and asked Murari why. He looked at me soberly and said, "Probably because there's a dead body in the front."
Thirty minutes later we stepped off the plane in Sukhumi, the capital of the province of Abkhazia. Once a popular tourist resort, Sukhumi was now the center of a civil war.
Parjanya Maharaja Dasa had arranged to pick us up at the stairs to the plane. Driving swiftly toward the temple, he pointed out some of the devastation from the last six months trees felled, shops abandoned, roads blown apart, blocks of flats destroyed, hotels burnt to the ground. Ours was the only civilian car on the street.
Parjanya suggested we stop at one of the distribution points for Hare Krishna Food for Life. "They're serving lunch right now." We drove past a military base and a line of tanks and then through a street blockade before arriving at a dingy storefront bearing a faded Russian sign: "Stalovar" (eating place). A crowd of old people had already gathered, and more were just arriving. Big overcoats, Russian hats, men with unshaven faces. The people looked depressed.
The room was dark, dirty, and bare. It had once been a cheap restaurant; now it was a place for serving Krsna's prasadam. Bhakta Marhas, holding incense sticks in his left hand, expertly served the long line of people. I didn't ask why he held onto the incense. It was obvious water was scarce, so many of these people hadn't bathed for days.
Suddenly an explosion shook the building. We raced out to see what was happening. A paint factory a hundred yards up the road had been hit by a shell. A crowd gathered to watch as the factory burned to the ground. To the local people it was a type of entertainment. They were used to this by now.
Murari gestured we should get out of there fast, before another shell hit, so we started moving. Marhas flung the pots into the trailer and followed in his tractor close behind us.
We arrived at a little white house in a back street of Sukhumi. It was the temple. Like all ISKCON temples, it was an embassy of Vaikuntha, the spiritual world.
That night while we took prasadam, shells hit just a few hundred yards away. Vakresvara Dasa, the Sukhumi temple president, said the devotees were expecting a major attack at any time. "It sounds like the bombs are getting closer," said Bhakta Marhas. "Tonight could be the beginning." We held a Bhagavad-gita class as shells exploded and machine guns rattled away in the background.
As I walked out of the temple room after the class, Bhakta Sergey, the fifteen-year-old pujari, came in carrying a candle, preparing to put the Deities to rest. He seemed indifferent to the gunshots, his face as serene as the full moon yet aglow with determination. Despite the difficulties, he was absorbed in caring for the Deities, Sri Sri Gaura Nitai. "Doesn't all this noise bother you, Sergey?" I asked. "No," he replied, "the soldiers are just playing."
As we prepared to rest for the night, shells kept raining down, seeming to get closer and closer. I winced at the sound of every shot and explosion. I lay in my sleeping bag and prayed to Krsna that since I might not live through the night, maybe He would be kind enough to allow me to remember Him in my dreams. I knew I was in the safest place in the city Krsna's temple.
Today I spoke with an army colonel. The colonel spoke Georgian, so Murari translated. I told the colonel that the Hare Krsna movement has the solutions to all the material and spiritual problems of the world. Handing him a book, I said, "All the problems of the world are the result of one thing forgetfulness of God. The Hare Krsna movement has come to teach people what they have forgotten. This book is about God. Please take it and read it."
Hints of tears appeared in the colonel's eyes. "I will definitely try to read it and explain it to my colleagues," he said. "I will remember your face and what you have told me. Thank you, thank you."
It was Easter, so Bhakta Marhas decided to prepare some sweet-bread sticks for the neighbors. Seeing Marhas at the door, a Christian man said, "Actually, you people are the true Christians, but somehow you prefer to call yourselves Krsnas."
The Sukhumi devotees were happy to have us with them. Practically no one had visited them for six months, and they were missing their leader, Mayuradhvaja Dasa, who was in Moscow undergoing a heart operation.
Mayuradhvaja Dasa had begun the Sukhumi program in August 1992, at the beginning of the fighting. Since then, without fail the Sukhumi devotees had been stoking up the fires of their cherished wood-fueled pressure cooker, donated by the Georgian army. The cooker, with its green paint peeling off and its black chimney, is a wonderful sight for any seasoned cook.
At 7:30 sharp every morning, Bhakta Vilodya, wearing a saffron beret, sorts out the pots and water barrels while another devotee gathers the rice, oats, and millet and begins washing them under the tap on the front lawn. The Sukhumi Food for Life kitchen is set up in the temple's front driveway. Spoons and ladles hang from trees.
I went out in the trailer with Marhas. His brother, Krsna Dasa, maneuvered the tractor through the vacant streets, dodging potholes and keeping an eye out for danger. The streets were quiet. Most people stayed inside. Murari laughed and said, "Only madmen and Hare Krsnas would dare drive down the streets like this." I agreed. Shots and shells fired only half a mile away. An occasional bullet sailed twenty feet above our heads.
After twenty minutes we arrived at the first distribution point, located behind a block of flats in the orchard-laden mountains of North Sukhumi. This was a short stop, only a hundred elderly people. But many of them collected rations for their families, so they eagerly packed prasadam into their little aluminum pots and plastic jars.
Our next stop was the most dangerous of all the west side. At times the fighting comes within a hundred yards of where the devotees give out free porridge. I was apprehensive, so Marhas encouraged me with the promise of some sweet-bread sticks and milk when we returned to the temple. "What if we don't return?" I said with half a smile. He replied, "We'll just keep chanting all the way."
We neared the west side. Worse devastation. Many houses ruined from bombs. Everywhere buildings and shops riddled with bullets. Again, except for an occasional army jeep, we were the only ones on the road.
Stopping at a bombed building, we jumped out of the trailer and were greeted by a small dark-skinned Russian woman named Mara. She wore a colorful headband. Half her teeth were missing. As soon as she saw us she chanted, "Hari bol! Hare Krsna! Krsna! Krsna!" and then she began blowing a whistle and calling out to the local residents hiding in the buildings. Suddenly, crowds of old people and children appeared, carrying pots, jugs, plates, and thermoses, and began converging on our tractor, all of them chanting, "Hare Krsna! Hare Krsna!"
Mara grabbed the handle of a fifty-liter pot of porridge and led us into a building while all her friends followed. The people quickly assembled into a long line and waited for Bhakta Marhas to dish out the mercy.
"We were all respectable people before this war," one woman told me. "I always had money, enough food, a nice house. Now I have nothing, absolutely nothing, except the clothes I wear. All my belongings have been pillaged by the enemy soldiers."
Marhas is a lively fellow, with a cheeky smile and a strong, youthful body. He encourages everyone to chant louder and then leads a short kirtana. They all respond.
Many of these people are grandmothers and children. When the war broke out, most of the young men and women either fled the city or were drafted into the Georgian army.
One woman, her voiced choked, told me, "If it wasn't for you boys we would all be dead."
All the shops are empty, and all the incoming roads are blocked. There is no food in Sukhumi. Practically speaking, these people exist on whatever they receive from the devotees.
"I think you boys must be saints," a bearded man said. "How is it possible that in the middle of war we are receiving such nice food as this? You must be sent by God. I'm convinced."
I looked over at Marhas. He was calling out "Hare Krsna! Hare Krsna! Gauranga!" Everyone responded excitedly while he filled their pots.
After an hour we served the last people and then got set to go home. Mara was washing the pots, easily maneuvering them under the tap. With a toothless grin, she looked up and said, "Nyet problem. Nyet problem."
When we returned to the temple, as promised I was treated to a plate full of hot sweet-bread and a cup of warm milk. It had been a long and eventful day for me, just one of many for the Sukhumi devotees.
Samosa: a kind of vegetable pastry.
Prasadam: food first offered to Krsna and then distributed. (literally, "mercy")
Pujari: a devotee who tends to the worship of the temple Deities. The Deities are respected as being forms of Krsna Himself.
Sri Sri Gaura Nitai: Lord Krsna's forms as Lord Caitanya and Lord Nityananda, who appeared on earth to spread the chanting of Hare Krsna.
Haribol: "Chant Hare Krsna!" (a commonly used greeting)
Gauranga: a name of Lord Caitanya.
Priyavrata Dasa, an Australian, joined the Krsna consciousness movement in 1983. For the last four years he has run a Hare Krishna Food for Life program from New Gokula, a Krsna conscious farm in New South Wales. He recently accepted the position of global coordinator for Hare Krishna Food for Life.
Note: Since this article was written Bhakta Marhas, Bhakta Sergey, and Bhakta Vilodya have received spiritual initiation. Marhas is now Marhasvan Dasa, Sergey is Sikhamani Dasa, and Vilodya is Vrsakapi Dasa.
Sukhumi Food for Life An Update
In September, Abkhazian forces broke a truce with the Georgian army and took over Sukhumi. The devotees couldn't leave the temple without risk of being shot. And even if they'd wanted to keep passing out food, they couldn't the Abkhazians had captured the boat carrying all their food supplies. The program had to stop for the first time in a year.
Mayuradhvaja Dasa, the director of the program and a Georgian tried to secure food by fearlessly driving around the city as soldiers shot at his car. He had just returned from open-heart surgery in Moscow. The doctors had told him to relax.
Food Supplies Recovered
Mayuradhvaja then heard that Raghava Pandita Dasa, who had been running the Food for Life program in Gudauta, Georgia, had received the shipment of food stolen on its way to Sukhumi. Abkhazian soldiers had appreciated Raghava Pandita's efforts to save the local people and decided to hand the shipment over to him.
In Sukhumi, some of the old people the devotees had been feeding died after five days without food. The devotees waited in expectation as the Abkhazian soldiers blasted the city, killing every Georgian in sight. Fortunately many of the Sukhumi devotees were Russian by birth, which meant they were a little safe. Of course, in war no one is safe. Some of the devotees decided to leave. Mayurdhvaja encouraged the rest. "I'm sure Krsna will protect us," he told them.
He was right; the Abkhazian soldiers spared the devotees' lives. They avoided shooting at the devotees or their temple, even though many houses on the same street were blasted. The devotees stayed inside chanting, while Bhakta Sergey, now Sikhamani Dasa, continued his worship of Sri Sri Gaura Nitai.
Bullets crisscrossed the sky. No one could leave or enter the city. Within a week, three Aeroflot planes were shot down, killing hundreds of civilians. Another plane was blown up as it prepared to leave the Sukhumi airport carrying two hundred Georgian citizens trying to escape.
Eventually the fighting subsided, and Raghava Pandita arrived in town from Gudauta with his Food for Life team and began arranging for food distribution. He had supplies and was full of enthusiasm. The Sukhumi devotees could get back to work. Soldiers even began coming to the temple to take prasadam. Before the seige Georgian soldiers would sometimes come; now the native Abkhazian soldiers came. It seemed the devotees were transcendental to politics and foolish nationalism, and the soldiers on both sides unconsciously knew it. The devotees were not on anyone's side. They were here to help.
In Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, a television news reporter commented that practically everyone and everything in Sukhumi was being shot at, except a group of brahmanas who were feeding the people.
Mayurdhvaja eventually had to leave Sukhumi to organize Food for Life in Tbilisi, where many Georgians from Sukhumi had fled. But all routes to Tbilisi were blocked, with check points everywhere. It would be dangerous trying to get out. Mayurdhvaja decided to try something even the Georgian soldiers wouldn't dare drive cross-country.
Mayuradvaja and three other devotees passed through many check points, finally arriving at the last one on the border between Abkhazia and Georgia. There was a line of cars a mile long. Everyone was being checked: if you were Georgian, you'd be shot. Two of the devotees were Georgian.
After waiting for some time, Mayurdhvaja got out of the car and walked to the front to speak with the Abkhazian soldiers. He told them about the Food for Life mission. One of the soldiers recognized him; another had heard something about Hare Krishna Food for Life. They told him to return to his car and drive up to the front. After passing the long line of cars, Mayurdhvaja and the devotees passed through the border without inspection. They made it out. Krsna had protected them once again.
The Program Continues
Mayurdhvaja is now organizing for food supplies to be sent to Tbilisi, where thousands of Georgian citizens struggle to survive, having fled Sukhumi. He wants to return to Sukhumi, despite the danger.
"I have a taste," he explains. "I want to help these people. Someone has to do it, and it may as well be us. There is nothing more beneficial than Krsna prasadam. This is the real welfare work we're saving people's souls."