Aftermath: Tbilisi & Marneuli


What else COULD I write about this week but the deaths, increasingly certainly by murder, of my friends Ryan and Lora Smith and their 4-year-old boy Caleb, while on holiday in Dusheti? Yes, but I’m trying not to rush in “where angels fear to tread”. The story is certainly fraught with emotion, and also laden with agendas. So, I’m not going to give news or even “versions” of it here.

Dennis Holt is another American with dual Georgian citizenship who has been living here with his family for more than 13 years now. He runs an NGO called Purposful Youth and was also good friends with the Smith family. I asked him some questions in relation to them recently.

How long did you know the Smiths and what was your connection?

We knew the Ryan and Lora for around eight years. Even before they came to Georgia, we met with them. They were asking us lots of questions about life in Georgia and the opportunities here. We were really excited about their desire to come here and we encouraged them in it all we could!

My wife and I started an NGO here back in 2006, I believe it was. We had first visited Georgia in 2004 and really fallen in love with it, so in 2005 we moved our family of five here to Tbilisi and have been here ever since. Ryan and Lora got in touch with us through mutual friends we had from Azerbaijan. Ryan had spent a couple years there before he was married to his lovely wife Lora. So by the time we met them, he already had extensive experience in the Caucasus region and like us had really fallen in love with the area, and especially the Azerbaijani people. Ryan, a real artist in many ways, was so interested in reviving the ancient art of rug weaving. Honestly, I had no idea of the full extent of it, but we said, "That sounds great!". So, from then on we considered ourselves partners in this great Georgian adventure.

How did you get news of their deaths?

We were actually in Ukraine when we heard from our mutual friends about the tragic death of Ryan, Lora and their adorable 4-year-old, Caleb. We just sat there in shock! Then we almost immediately bought tickets back to Tbilisi. When we arrived we immediately went to Marneuli to meet with and comfort our friends there.

What has it been like dealing with everything that has followed since?

Traumatic. Especially as the news unfolded and it went from an accident to a terrible murder scene in just days. Our hearts were already hurting and then the pain only got worse knowing that they suffered (we hope not long) and that their lives were stolen away by an unthinking young man, no doubt in an emotional, horrible decision to take their lives. We are all struggling with these thoughts. We see our friends in our minds, we remember the good times, I see Caleb running through my house with a look of glee on his face.

Sometimes, looking into the eyes of some of the people that Ryan and Lora worked with is even worse, seeing their looks of pain. One dear Azerbaijani woman just clung to me and wept for quite some time and then said, "Lora was my dearest friend, she cared so much for me, every day she asked me how I was doing."

What do you say to that? We search for the right words, words that will bring comfort and healing, but sometimes they just don't come. So, we hug people, we pray for people, and search for words that will bring healing. Phone calls, e mails, Facebook posts, etc., all coming at us from all over the world wanting to know what happened, offering condolences, offering prayers. The positive response has been overwhelming. Even media outlets wanting stories, wanting the inside story, even some looking for controversy, I have not given any—except this one, because Tony, you are my trusted friend and I know you also knew Ryan, Lora and Caleb.

How would you sum up the family in tribute?

Wow, how can you some up someone’s life, especially the Smiths’, in just words or a few lines? I would say they were models to us all of service, love and compassion. They loved the people of Marneuli and beyond, not just in words but in their lives and actions. They gave up a life they could have had in California, USA, to come to a country that most of their friends in the USA had never heard of. They really lived life to the full! If you look at Ryan's Facebook page you will see a story of joy, adventure, and love for people and life. I don't even have time to go into the deep impact in people's lives that the ReWoven project had; it touched the poorest of the poor in Georgia and brought hope and life into the lives of the weavers and their families. Lora's work in education and also with women stands as a model to all who would come after them.

We mourn their loss and we struggle with the thought of "How do we move forward?" But I know this is what Ryan and Lora would want.

It reminds me of the words of Christ from the Gospels, "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." This was their desire and passion to give all they could—even their lives, to those they loved.

Tony Hanmer has lived in Georgia since 1999, in Svaneti since 2007, and been a weekly writer for GT since early 2011. He runs the “Svaneti Renaissance” Facebook group, now with nearly 1900 members, at

He and his wife also run their own guest house in Etseri:

By Tony Hanmer

12 July 2018 20:54