A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

April 2001/May 2001

Millennium of Peace: The Tbilisi II International Conference

By Father Philip G. Salois, M.S.

The Second International Conference on PTSD for Veterans and Victims of War was held November 8-11, 2000, in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia. The purpose was to further the work of the July 1999 Tbilisi I Conference. The focus of the conference was to educate, exchange ideas, and establish strong relationships with the international community for mutual support and aid.

There were approximately 125 conference participants at Tbilisi II. Most were Georgian veterans and victims of the war in Afghanistan and the civil war with the breakaway province of Abkhasia. There are between 15 and 20 veterans organizations in Tbilisi; each sent a delegation to the conference.

Small delegations came from Azerbaijan, Armenia, Chechnya, Krasnodar (Russian Federation), Romania, and the United States.

The Chechen veterans have become refugees because of the war. They now make their home in Baku, Azerbaijan, and have started a veterans organization that coordinates communication with Chechens who have had to leave their homeland because of the war.

A delegation from Tuzla, Bosnia, was to participate but was unable to obtain the necessary visas in time. However, they did submit research papers for publication.

THE PRESENTATIONS

Every presenter submitted papers beforehand, which were translated into three languages: Russian, English, and Georgian. The lectures were conducted in Russian and Georgian with simultaneous translation provided.

The topics covered were: 1) the plight of disabled veterans; 2) the lack of compensation and pensions for war veterans and invalids; 3) the lack of adequate medical care and availability of prescription drugs for disabled veterans; 4) the lack of psychological treatment for war veterans and lack of credibility of PTSD as a diagnosable psychological disorder; 5) the care and support of war widows and orphans; 6) the rights and benefits due to citizen-soldiers (non-military) who fight in civil wars; 7) the role of government in providing adequate funding to care for the needs of veterans; and 8) the plight of refugees and internally displaced persons, their ability to find employment and adequate housing, and their desire to return to their homeland.

THE CONFERENCE

During the first two days of the conference, we heard formal presentations. Each presentation went into detail about the desperate need of people to find a better quality of life for their families and children. There is extreme poverty in the CIS nations. This became evident when the electricity was abruptly shut off by the government during the conference. It remained off for days because of the lack of adequate power sources. Much of the conference was conducted by candlelight, kerosene lamps, and heaters.

On the third day of the conference, a meeting was held that provided interaction between conference presenters and representatives of the Georgian veteran organizations. We listened intently to their problems and needs. In response, we offered suggestions on how to press their government officials to respond to their needs. We also offered models that have achieved success in other nations, including Azerbaijan, where veterans were able to get their government to respond after a peaceful public rally and hunger strike in front of the Parliament buildings.

Also on the third day, we invited the print and broadcast media to a press conference. We described the purpose and mission of the conference and the anticipated outcomes. The press conference went on for over two hours.

On the fourth day, a delegation of thirty internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Abkhasia shared some of their struggles and hopes. These IDPs were Georgian citizens who lived in Abkhasia prior to the civil war and were forced out of their homeland after Abkhasia broke off relations with Georgia. Their many problems include unemployment and inadequate housing.

VISIT TO BAKU, AZERBAIJAN

At the end of the conference, I accepted an invitation from the Azeri veterans to visit their country. My Georgian hosts accompanied me. I was particularly interested in visiting the Karabakh Society for the Veterans of Nagorno-Karabakh. The war Azerbaijan was involved in with Armenia was fought over the disputed land of Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region that is currently under Armenian control. Hundred of lives were lost in that war, which, unfortunately, is not over.

The ride from Tbilisi to Baku was an all-day endeavor. I only had enough time to spend one full day in Baku before returning to Tbilisi for my return flight home. I was given the Cook’s tour of the Karabakh Society and the work that they are involved in for veterans. I had the opportunity to meet many disabled veterans.

I was also given a tour of the veterans cemetery, a solemn place of repose for those who died in the Nagorno-Karabakh war with Armenia. It is on a hill overlooking Baku and the Caspian Sea. There is an eternal flame burning under a large, arch-like monument at one end of the cemetery. There is an impressive mosque immediately next to the cemetery, which I was privileged to visit and offer prayers.

Later in the day, I was brought to the government offices and spoke with some journalists and officials interested in veterans benefits. I also had the opportunity to speak at length with the president of the Karabakh Society. We pledged greater cooperation in our work for the advancement of veterans’ quality of life. The Azeri veterans have offered to host the next International Conference this year in Baku. The Georgian coordinating committee has offered to help the Azeris with planning and implementation.

This conference and the trip to Baku were powerful experiences. Still, there is much work to be done. The American experience in Vietnam has much to offer our younger veterans of more recent wars and conflicts who suffer from very similar consequences that transcend language, culture, and religion.

I close with words from Pope John Paul II’s 2001 World Day of Peace message, "Dialogue Between Cultures for a Civilization of Love and Peace."

In the past, cultural differences have often been a source of misunderstanding between peoples and the cause of conflicts and wars. Even now, sad to say, in different parts of the world, we are witnessing with growing alarm the aggressive claims of some cultures against others. In the long run, this situation can end in disastrous tensions and conflicts. At the very least, it can make more difficult the situation of those ethnic and cultural minorities living in a majority cultural context which is different from their own and prone to hostile and racist ways of thinking and acting.

Individuals come to maturity through receptive openness to others and through generous self-giving to them; so, too, do cultures. Created by people and at the service of people, they have to be perfected through dialogue and communion, on the basis of original and fundamental unity of the human family, as it came from the hands of God who ‘made from one stock every nation of mankind.’ (Acts of the Apostles 17:26)

At the beginning of the Third Millennium, it is urgent that the path of dialogue be proposed once again to a world marked by excessive conflict and violence, a world, at times, discouraged and incapable of seeing signs of hope and peace.

John Paul II’s message gives me the energy and impetus that the international outreach by the National Conference of Viet Nam Veteran Ministers is in sync with the important mission of promoting peace among nations and reconciliation with former enemies.

Father Phil Salois is VVA’s national chaplain and the president of the National Conference of Viet Nam Veteran Ministers.

   

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