If you drive through the Georgian Caucasus in winter, you might be stopped by men in the road. Armed with stick or a plastic sword, they waylay your car and ask for money, cigarettes or alcohol.
They are called the Berikas
From poor backgrounds in rural areas, they adopt elements of a pagan Georgian ritual, berikaoba, to earn a living. Every year, from early January to mid-March, they take to the roads and block the traffic to ask for money. The proceeds, shared out equally, are used to buy seeds, land, farming equipment, a car…
A Berika can make up to 1,500 euros in a month – three times the entry-level salary of an IT worker in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital. This figure is falling yearly, say the Berikas. Some drivers give them booze, apples, chocolate, cigarettes and even hens.
For the rest of the year, the Berikas work as farmers, bricklayers, painters… Most have children. The oldest is 68, the youngest 24. One has been a Berika for 40 years, and his father was a Berika before him.
In the Soviet era, a group could consist of up to 20 people, compared to five or six nowadays. The Berikas used to travel with a donkey from village to village, celebrating springtime and the coming harvests. They used to be given a police escort, but now the police move them on, due to complaints from drivers in a hurry.
They dart constantly between the cars and, although some of them have been knocked over, casualties are rare. Some Georgians take a poor view of these traffic-stopping berikas, considering them to be good-for-nothings.