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Last Updated: Monday, 19 September 2005, 15:40 GMT 16:40 UK
Patriot games for young Georgians
By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Georgia

President Mikhail Saakashvili with Patriots
President Mikhail Saakashvili is a great supporter of the camps
Seventeen-year-old Nino drops herself into a deep trench, clutches her Kalashnikov and squints against the bright mid-afternoon sun.

"Attention! Fire!" the instructor's voice barks into the loudspeaker behind her, and Nino's fragile figure shudders as she empties the magazine into the air.

"That was so cool," she laughs as she jogs away from the trench, handing the gun to the next girl in line.

Amid breathtaking mountains and pine forests at the Bakuriani resort, hundreds of other young men and women, dressed in a bright orange-and-blue uniforms, load their guns and wait their turn to shoot.

These are the Patriots - Georgia's answer to the former Soviet Pioneers.

They are aged 15 to 20, come from poor backgrounds and do well in school. And their prize is 10 days at a camp, all expenses paid by the Georgian government.

Presidential visits

By the end of September, 15,000 young men and women will have graduated from four camps across Georgia. For Maka Chichilashvili, like many here, it has been a summer like no other.

"Georgian women are really tough, it's in our nature to be real fighters," Maka says. "So it's always been my dream to learn how to fire a gun. But the best here is that I've made so many friends. It's the best way to spend the holiday."

Irakli Khachidze
It's not about war at all. We are meeting people, we are making friends. It's about peace more then anything else
Irakli Khachidze

The idea came from Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili - part of his effort to rebuild Georgia after the peaceful revolution he led two years ago.

On his frequent visits to the camps, he proudly wears the bright orange uniform, plays football with the Patriots and checks on quality of the canteen food.

As a former Soviet Pioneer himself, President Saakashvili says this is as different as it can get.

"These camps are about people taking ownership of their country. They are not run by an occupying force like the Soviet camps were. It's theirs, and it teaches them that their country is theirs too," he says.

"Two years ago, no one in Georgia liked the national flag, or knew the lyrics of the national anthem. Revolution, and the fact that people changed the government, also changed that."

In Bakuriani, every day starts and ends with the new national anthem. In between, it is guns, sports, leadership training and even safe sex education.

But in Georgia - situated in the volatile Caucasus, with two unresolved conflicts in the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia - the military instruction has raised hackles among the president's critics.

Camp leader
Football and firearms are on the agenda for the young Patriots

"It's all part of the militaristic rhetoric of this government," says Tinatin Khidasheli, member of the opposition Republican party. "I would rather see the kids getting a proper education than learning how to fire guns."

But the Patriots say they have not come to the camps to learn how to fight.

"Knowing how to fire a gun is useful, no question," says 19-year-old Irakli Khachidze. "But it's not about war at all. We are meeting people, we are making friends. It's about peace more then anything else."

Gela Onaidze, who runs this camp, says the point is to create a new kind of national pride, free of the heavy ideology of the USSR, or the ethnic tensions that followed its collapse.

Camp romance

That is why the young Patriots come from all ethnic backgrounds and are free to choose many of their activities.

"We have ethnic Armenians, Russians, even Ossetians and Abkhaz," Gela says. "And this is the first time in the history of independent Georgia that young people have come together from all over the country and been taught how to get along."

And some, he says, get along almost too well, bringing unexpected outcomes.

"I've already got six weddings to go to in September," laughs Gela.

Around him, the Patriots are preparing for an evening of fun after a long day at the shooting range. As a silver moon climbs over the tents, figures in orange and blue dart about the camp. Some are playing sports, others are preparing for dinner.

And on a wooden bench next to a tent a group of young men, arm in arm, break into song. It is a traditional Georgian song - a patriotic one, of course.

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