Basilaia serving up hope in war-torn Kyiv
Rugby is often referred to as a battlefield, with players waging war in 80 minutes of conflict on any given Saturday.
For former Edinburgh Rugby and Georgia back-row, Dimitri Basilaia, the skirmishes of rugby are now an all too familiar reality as he resides in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine and focal point of the ongoing Russian invasion.
With over 63,000 deaths and further 17 million Ukrainians displaced because of the war, it’s a tragedy that continues to ruin innocent lives as the conflict spreads across the European nation, having begun in February 2022.
Basilaia has remained resolute throughout the entirety of war, with the former back-row – who made 18 appearances for the capital club between 2012 to 2014 – now a restaurant owner in Kyiv where he serves Georgian cuisine to the residents that have bravely remained in the war-stricken city.
While the bruising back-row also played his rugby at Perpignan and Clermont in the French Top 14 – alongside winning 38 caps for Georgia and earning a trip to Rugby World Cup 2011 – it is in Basilaia’s current role, coaching rugby in Kyiv, that brings him the most pride.
Combining culinary skills with coaching in a city that continues to be peppered by Russian missiles, Basilaia is the current Head Coach of the ‘Kyiv International Team’ having earned his stripes as assistant coach at the nearby Rugby Club Polytechnic Kyiv.
From Georgia to Ukraine, via the Scottish capital, this incredible journey was kickstarted in France, where his passion for cooking came to light.
“I have been in Ukraine for three years now. I originally came here with friends to start a logistics business,” said Basilaia.
“When I was in France playing rugby, I realised my love of cooking. I finished up rugby and enrolled in a culinary school where I was able to learn from one of the most famous bakers in the country.
“I passed all my culinary tests and exams, and then began work in a boulangerie in France. When I moved to Ukraine to start the logistics business with friends, I realised I wanted to bring Georgia cuisine to Kyiv and so I opened my first restaurant.
“Georgian food is so delicious and really popular here in Ukraine, so I set my goal to be the best Georgian chef in the country.
“While working as a chef was obviously my passion, I still loved my rugby and I became a coach here in Ukraine. I was doing two things I love, and then suddenly the war began in February 2022.”
For many, the sound of air raid sirens and deafening explosions caused by Russian shelling would be a clear sign to escape the city and head for peaceful bordering countries – like so many Ukrainians have rightfully done.
But not for Basilaia, who decided that his journey and life should remain in Kyiv, where he could continue to stay strong for his team and staff in his restaurant.
“I stay in Kyiv because of rugby and because of the pride I have in my team. Half of my team rushed to defend the country and most of them had never touched a gun before in their lives. Just young kids, 19 or 20 years old.
“These kids dream is to play rugby. They play it because they love the game. I didn’t play at a top club for 20 years, but I played for Edinburgh, I played in France, and I played at a Rugby World Cup. I can see how much passion they have for the game.
“But every week, I also hear that one of my Ukrainian players has died in the war – every week. And that is why I stay in Kyiv, to be here for my team and to make sure Ukrainian rugby comes back stronger when this war is won.”
Alongside remaining a rock for his team, Basilaia’s own restaurant – situated in the heart of Kyiv – has become a centre for providing aid and free meals to the city’s freedom fighters.
With donations and funds provided regularly from friends in the rugby world – including former Edinburgh stand-off Piers Francis – Basilaia has been able to regularly cook over 400 meals daily, as well as provide weapons to those defending the city.
He continued: “With half of my team heading into the war, the other half came to my restaurant to help deliver humanitarian aid.
“Me and my friends here at the restaurant cooked for 400 people every day and these were the freedom fighters defending Kyiv.
“And because of rugby I’ve received a lot of help in delivering this food to the people who need it the most in Kyiv. Guys who I played with have sent me aid which has helped so much.
“Eighty per cent of people left Kyiv when the war started, so it’s just people here that want to defend the city. It’s not only food that we help with, we have also been able to provide weapons, such as Molotov cocktails.
“It was pretty scary to begin with. We waited every day for Russians to come to the restaurant and there is also a lot of fear about spies in the city.
“At one point, I was mistaken for a spy. I was walking home and then next thing you know, I had an AK-47 rifle against my head. I had to plead to say ‘no, no’ I’m here helping defend the city!
“It’s not just in my restaurant that I work. We cook all around the city to help provide aid to those who need it most, including the Ukrainian soldiers.
“It hasn’t been easy cooking however. All the supermarkets were bombed, while the Russians also targeted food stockpiles throughout the country – every day is a struggle.”
Despite spending just two seasons in the Scottish capital, Basilaia remains a popular figure at the club, regularly chatting online to Edinburgh Rugby Player Development Manager, Ben Atiga, who he played alongside in 2012.
Basilaia keeps a Georgian international jersey hanging on the wall of his restaurant, and will soon look to hang up an Edinburgh Rugby shirt – signed by former fellow player, Hamish Watson – to keep alive his memories of playing in Scotland.
“I really miss Edinburgh and Scotland. I made some brilliant friends during my time there. I’m still very good friends with Ben Atiga, Netani Telai and Piers Francis – they are my international friends!
“Scottish guys have very similar characteristics to Georgian people. They are very welcoming and warm,” Basilaia continued.
“I spoke a lot to Greig Laidlaw when I first arrived – even though my English wasn’t great – while the likes of Ross Ford, Stuart McInally, Matt Scott, David Denton and Hamish Watson were all great guys.
“For me, it was a great experience. I’ve always dreamed of living in the UK, so when the opportunity to join Edinburgh Rugby came about, I jumped at it.
“It was an incredible experience, while Edinburgh is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
“I just felt really appreciated while I was there and what I miss the most are the Scottish breakfasts! The haggis and the bacon was incredible.
“Scottish people are just incredibly warm and one day, after this war is over, I hope to be able to come back to Scotland.”
For now, Basilaia remains in Kyiv where his passions for coaching and cooking gives him a clear focus and drive as war rages all around him.
This weekend, when Scotland host Georgia in their final Rugby World Cup warm-up Test, Basilaia will be able to take his mind of the hardships of war, and enjoy a game involving two sides close to his heart.
The former internationalist believes Georgian rugby is in a great place and that last year’s Test win against Wales in Cardiff shows that the ‘Lelos’ are on the rise.
He continued: “This Georgian team is no longer a joke, people can’t laugh when they take us on. I think Saturday’s game is going to be a strong test for Scotland.
“A decade ago, Georgian rugby was so fully focussed on the forwards, but now we have a really strong backline, with players that play for big clubs across Europe.
“For example, Giorgi Kveseladze signed for Gloucester, while you only had to watch last year’s Test win against Wales to see that progress.”
Like the feeling around Georgian rugby, Basilaia is filled with hope – hope that better times are just around the corner.
Basilaia – who grew up in a war-torn Georgia – remains incredibly positive despite the desperate situation he finds himself in.
“Right now, we’re doing OK. At night, rockets still attack the city. However, Ukrainian people are incredibly brave and they have adapted to this new life during the war.
“Everyone that has stayed in the country, and in the cities like here in Kyiv, is sticking together and taking the war to the Russians to defend the country.
“For me, war is something that I’m also used to. Growing up, I think I experienced three wars in Georgia. A lot of the things that happened during the wars with Russia are unspeakable.
“I’m sure the war will be done very soon and I’m 100% certain the Ukrainian people will win.”
With an attitude like Basilaia’s, no one could doubt that the Ukrainian people will soon prevail.