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Russia-Georgia conflict hits close to home for Perham family

"So, what do you think about the Russia-Georgia conflict?"

It's a question that, when posed to many locals, first brought about a bewildered look... and then a pause...

The question most were afraid to ask, but, to be totally honest, more than just a handful of people thought, was: What type of a bone would the Russians have to pick with one of our southernmost states?

Thanks to our global news coverage, it wasn't long until information about Russia's military encroachment on Georgian territory reached the homes of those in the East Otter Tail lake country. And, as a bonus, most of the reports included a detailed map of the disputed land... giving many both a sigh of relief and a brief geography lesson on the country of Georgia.

As the majority of locals distantly contemplated the dispute unfolding on the opposite side of the world, one Perham couple found the conflict so close to home it had become a family affair.

Pastor Phil Holtan and his wife Merrie Sue, although not entirely surprised by news of the Georgian conflict, found themselves concerned about the welfare of not just one, but two of their children working in Georgia.

Their 25-year-old daughter Johanna has been volunteering in Georgia with the Peace Corps for over a year now. Her older sister, Elise is working for the United States Army on business -- and her job has recently led her to the Georgia area.

Phil and Merrie Sue got their own taste of the Georgian landscape and culture when they traveled to the country earlier this summer to visit Johanna. Although there was no Russian military advance at that time, they said they could sense the tension.

"The Georgians talked matter-of-factly about a potential Russian invasion," recalls Merrie Sue. "Not in terms of when [the Russians invade], but if." She noted how Georgian businesses had plans in place for what they would do if such an invasion took place.

The Holtans repeatedly mention how impressed they are with the Peace Corps' evacuation plan for its Georgia-based volunteers. According to Merrie Sue, the 85 volunteers in the country were evacuated to the neighboring country of Armenia.

Yet, their daughter has no intention of abandoning the work she has started through the Peace Corps in Georgia. Her work in the country centers on women's health issues, and Johanna's biggest project has not yet come to fruition.

To date, she has raised over $250,000 for a breast cancer walk that will be held in Tbilisi, the capital city of Georgia. This will be the first walk of its kind in Tbilisi. According to her parents, Johanna already has the country's first lady involved in the walk, along with many of the ambassadors who have agreed to walk for the cause.

"Women really want a voice," Merrie Sue said of her observations of the Georgian women. "This walk gives them a voice."

As Johanna plans to continue to carry out her work, the Holtans feel the hardest thing for Johanna is a fear not for her own safety, but for those around her.

"She was tearful when she called us," said Johanna's father Phil, a pastor at Calvary Lutheran Church in Perham. "She was tearful not because she was afraid, but because it was hard to leave her friends behind."

"We're probably more nervous about Jo's friends than Jo," he continued.

The Holtans explained how when the Peace Corps volunteers in Georgia were evacuated, many of the native Georgian Peace Corps workers left their homes and families behind in order to secure the safety of the other volunteers.

Yet, it is exactly this level of dedicated service that has given Phil and Merrie Sue confidence that Johanna will be just fine. When there were riots awhile back in the capital city, the Peace Corps kept Johanna out of Tbilisi and in another Georgian city where she was safe.

Georgia: a conflict in itself

One of the most striking observations the Holtans made during their trip to Georgia was the complex co-existence of what once was and what the future is bringing.

"There is such a contrast between the ancient and the modern," Phil says of the country. He elaborated on some of the modern technology the country is embracing, but then quickly contrasted this with the old practice of "bride stealing" which is still present in some parts of Georgia.

It is a country the Holtans describe as being filled with natural beauty, where the green landscape gives way to mountains and many historic wonders. "In the Soviet Union, Georgia was like the pearl," says Phil. The Holtans depict the country's coastal region by the Black Sea as having a sort of tropical appeal.

In the capital city, the Holtans encountered lots of new industry. Western design is influencing architecture and many of the city's bleak and numerous gray buildings are being given a fresh coat of paint- often in vibrant colors.

"It's kind of like they're skipping a stage and going right to these ultra modern places," said Phil.

Perhaps one of the most interesting contrasts can be found in the relationship between the country of Georgia, with all of its ancient practices and traditions, and the United States. With Georgia looking to the U.S. for help during this conflict, the world is watching to see what actions, if any, the United States will take on behalf of an unlikely ally.

And then there's our country's complex relationship with Russia to consider. "All of the countries around Georgia are just waiting to see what the relationship is between Russia and the United States," says Phil.

Adding her personal experience to the assertion that the Georgian people are strong U.S. supporters, Merrie Sue mentions a specific road she traveled down during her overseas adventure. It's the road to the airport in Georgia's capital city of Tbilisi -- George Bush Avenue.

"They really like Americans there," Merrie Sue says with a smile.