The tournament in the village of Vakhani on the edges of Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park, is a big affair, held every year at the end of August. At one end of the village football pitch, a young boy picks rocks and bits of turf out of a sand-filled wrestling ring, while a team of adjudicators weighs in competitors under the shade of an outdoor umbrella. A group of young men, warming-down their horses after the morning’s race, trot their mounts onto the pitch to get a closer look at proceedings before being chased away by an irate referee. Women and children claim their spaces around the edges of the sandpit ahead of the fight.
For one of the participants, taking part in this competition means something particularly special. Mindia, 18, is the second son of Merab Arevadze, a ranger of Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park who was fatally shot in 2012 after a confrontation with armed poachers. Since his death, the annual village tournament in his native village – which consists of horse-racing, arm-wrestling and free-style wrestling events – has been celebrated in his memory.
“The tournament has carried my father’s name for the last three years” Mindia explains. “So, for me, taking part in the tournament is like a double responsibility.” Despite looking older than his 18 years, Mindia is quiet and reserved, a characteristic he shares with his late father, co-workers tell me. “I’m glad that the tournament is named after my father because it carries on his name and future generations will get to know more about him” he says.
It’s seems like every young male in the village is taking part in the tournament, and many from neighbouring villages too. Horsemanship is especially valued in this mountainous part of Kharagauli and horses are a common means of transport along the rocky dirt tracks that run between villages. “I’ve been participating since I was 5 years old, namely in wrestling and arm-wrestling” Mindia says. “During this time I’ve participated in practically every weight category of Georgian wrestling.”
Watching him outside the ring, it’s hard to see much of a wrestler in this quiet teenager, but as the afternoon wears on and the wrestlers in the 70kg category take to the pit, Mindia’s calm and calculated manouevres win him round after round. He eventually walks away from the ring in first place. The spectators, some of them colleagues of Mindia’s late father who have come especially to watch him compete, erupt into hearty applause and cheers. Levan Tabunidze, Director of Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park, presents Mindia his prize money, with a little extra from the national park staff.
“When our administration gave some gifts to Mindia, it is meant to mean that he is not alone, and that his father’s friends remember him and his family” says Giorgi Mukhuradze of the Kharauguli division of the national park administration. “I think they need our support and we always try to help them as much as possible. They must know that we are with them all the time.”
Without life insurance, Merab Arevadze’s death left his widow Nona in a difficult position, with two teenage sons to look after and no source of income. After hearing the news, CNF made a lump sum donation to the family, matching that given by the government, to cover immediate expenses, and set about finding a donor willing to support the family. Since 2012, an Austrian foundation has been providing monthly stipends for each child, which will continue until the boys turn 22. For the family this help has been invaluable. “[The foundation’s] support for my family is really important” says Mindia, “since my brother and I don’t work yet and my family really needs this support at this stage.”
Since winning his title at the tournament, Mindia has moved to Tbilisi to study a BA in Tourism Management. “Getting into university wasn’t easy” he tells me, “because going to school and preparing for exams at the same time as having different family responsibilities is very difficult.”
For now, Mindia is focused on his studies in Tbilisi: “Despite everything, I managed to get into university to study the course I wanted. After finishing my studies I want to carry on working in the same professional field in my region.”
As for his wrestling, Mindia says he will definitely be back to take part in the tournament next year.