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Georgia: Refugees From Abkhazia Linger In Limbo

  • Michael Gallant

The separatist conflict in Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia has displaced some 200,000 civilians. RFE/RL's Michael Gallant speaks to some of the displaced, who have been living in Tbilisi with no idea when they can return home.

Tbilisi, 22 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The rooms in the Hotel Iveria in central Tbilisi are free, but the guests did not choose to stay there.

Men who cannot find jobs stand idly around the lobby. They gather in front of the elevators that work only during the five or six hours a day when there is electricity. Women set up tiny makeshift fruit stands on some of the floors, but the potential customers have little money.

Laundry drapes over balconies, and plaster peels from walls in dimly lit corridors in what was once one of the better hotels in the Georgian capital. Now, the Iveria, like some two dozen other hotels in Tbilisi, is home to hundreds of families who fled Abkhazia when fighting broke out there in 1992.

Koba, a 25-year-old economics student, lives with his parents and his brother in an approximately 15-square-meter room in the Iveria. For seven years, they have been here, sharing a tiny bathroom that has no hot water. It is very different from the two-story house they left behind in Gagra.

The days for Koba and his family pass slowly. No one works, and it is nearly impossible to afford any type of entertainment on the meager 11 lari (about $2) a month per person they end up with after the government deducts one or two lari for electricity. The money is often late, and some times does not arrive at all. Koba says his family spends their days playing cards, and wondering if they will ever be able to return home.

"The government is doing nothing. Everything is in the hands of the mafia. The help that is arriving doesn't reach us. The people who have access to humanitarian aid are selling everything."

The government says the official number of Abkhaz refugees in Georgia is about 280,000, with 92,000 in Tbilisi. In this fiscal year, the government says it is spending 60 million lari on the refugees, approximately 5 to 6 percent of the overall budget.

Sadako Ogata, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, said recently that the UNHCR has provided about $21 million in aid to the displaced Georgians since 1993. She said the UNHCR planned to provide $10 million in assistance this year, but donor countries only came up with half that sum. She said donor countries have become more cautious since the fighting in Abkhazia briefly renewed last year. Until Georgian and Abkhaz officials strike a final peace deal and begin to repatriate the displaced, Ogata says, it will be more and more difficult to muster aid.

Koba is not optimistic that he and his family will be able to return to Abkhazia any time soon. He says there are still Russian military forces there. In his words, "The only way to go back there is to start another war."

Dali lives with five members of her brother's family in Hotel Adjara, another hotel that commanded prestige in Soviet times. Now, it is filled with crumbling plaster, and the broken dreams of about 200 families.

Dali said she used to live in the region of Gali in a "big house with a garden and everything in it." After the fighting, began, she fled what she called a "perfect life" and arrived in Tbilisi.

Life in the hotel, Dali says, is "colorless." She and the five others live in cramped conditions with little money or electricity. Only the hope that she will be able to return someday makes life bearable. Dali says she believes that she and the rest of the ethnic Georgians were driven out of Gali in a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

"It was definitely ethnic cleansing. It cannot be anything other than that. But what the reasons were is a matter of politicians."

She says she and her family carry a sadness with them like "an open wound."

"There is no anger, but a deep sorrow which will accompany us to the grave if we do not return [home] before we are dead. Nothing will relieve the grief but to return to our homeland."

Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba had said that the ethnic Georgians could return beginning last spring, but only a few hundred have done so.