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Despair, Grief After Suspected Suicide At Tbilisi's Crumbling 'Titanic' For Displaced Georgians

The sprawling Kartli sanatorium in Tbilisi is a dilapidated facility that houses dozens of families of people who were displaced during Georgia's separatist conflicts that followed the collapse of the U.S.S.R.
The sprawling Kartli sanatorium in Tbilisi is a dilapidated facility that houses dozens of families of people who were displaced during Georgia's separatist conflicts that followed the collapse of the U.S.S.R.

TBILISI -- Neighbors and family gathered, as best they could, around the coffin of Zurab Chichoshvili in the cramped, 18-square-meter room where he lived for nearly three decades.

Tormented and alone, the 52-year-old survivor of Georgia's first separatist conflict in the early 1990s had jumped, or fallen, from the seventh-floor rooftop of a crumbling Soviet-era sanatorium, known as Kartli, on January 16.

"What 'fell'?!" one of the mourners asked incredulously.

It was a response to Georgian Health Minister Zurab Azarashvili's suggestion that Chichoshvili's death was an accident and shouldn't be linked to the plight of hundreds of thousands of other internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Georgia.

"'Guys, I'm with you,' he yelled, then jumped," the mourner added. "There were people downstairs -- his sister, his wife's aunt, [and] the rest."

Chichoshvili was one of more than 200,000 Georgians displaced by the fighting in the breakaway republic of Abkhazia in 1992-93. It's a nagging problem that was compounded by a second wave of homelessness from a lightning war in 2008 that pitted Russia and its separatist allies against Georgian government forces in Abkhazia and another breakaway region, South Ossetia.

Known to neighbors as Kiria, Chichoshvili is survived by a wife who went abroad 10 years ago in search of work, taking their infant daughter but never earning enough to allow him to resettle alongside them. He was unemployed and had struggled to recover from an apartment fire two years ago started by a short circuit.

Zurab Chichoshvili, also known as Kiria
Zurab Chichoshvili, also known as Kiria

Chichoshvili was originally from Gudauta, a Black Sea town where a former Soviet military base has facilitated Russian military support to breakaway elements and has been a constant irritant to Tbilisi.

Dangerous Living

The inability to return home and the suffering of Chichoshvili and his fellow IDPs are problems that the United Nations has repeatedly "deplored" and the displaced families themselves have warned about for years. The COVID-19 health crisis has seemingly made things worse, meaning even greater isolation and less access to basic services for those people.

Twice in the two weeks leading up to Chichoshvili's death, Kartli's IDPs held protests and tried to block the road in front of the former sanatorium in an effort to force the government to address their problems and the danger of life inside its dilapidated walls.

A view from the Kartli facility, which overlooks the Tbilisi reservoir.
A view from the Kartli facility, which overlooks the Tbilisi reservoir.

"Let them come out here humanely and reevaluate what's happening in this blasted building -- to get to know the IDPs and see what the conditions are like," Murtaz, a 24-year-old Kartli resident who did not give his last name, told Health Ministry representatives earlier this month.

Aboard The 'Titanic'

Some of Kartli's residents have coined a nickname based on the building's location alongside the Tbilisi Reservoir and its occupants' sense of impending ruin.

"We call it the Titanic," one of the protesters told RFE/RL. "God forbid that this building should share the fate of the Titanic."

The sprawling facility houses more than 120 of the 200 or so families originally relocated here after they were displaced from in and around Sukhumi, Abkhazia's capital city, by the war nearly three decades ago that killed up to 30,000 people.

Its rooms are small, never intended for long-term residency but rather for short, curative visits for patients with heart ailments.

Multiple inspections have concluded that the cracks in its walls and floors are widening and damage appears to be threatening support columns. Gaps have opened between slabs in the construction and holes have opened between floors. Heaps of rubble from the surrounding structure litter hallways.

Rubble in one of the hallways of the Kartli sanatorium in Temka.
Rubble in one of the hallways of the Kartli sanatorium in Temka.

"Fracturing processes are still occurring in the basement, which could lead to the massive collapse of the load-bearing the future," read a forensic bureau conclusion after the last inspection, in 2015.

There has been no work to fortify the building in the subsequent seven years, and a huge crack now runs up its western wall, broadening as it approaches the roof.

Georgian officials have acknowledged there's a problem.

The day of Chichoshvili's death, the Ministry for IDPs from the Occupied Territories, Labor, Health and Social Affairs, a cabinet-level agency, vowed that "the IDPs living in the former sanatorium Kartli will receive new housing unconditionally in 2022."

The government had already pledged to find them new apartments but mostly failed to deliver as Kartli's walls literally crumbled around the residents.

It has offered to contribute the local equivalent of about $96 per month toward alternative housing, nearly half the $205 rent for a one-bedroom apartment outside Tbilisi's city center, according to one crowdsourced global database. Or it will provide a onetime payment of about $550 per square meter toward the purchase of a new apartment.

But distrust of officials runs deep among Kartli's IDPs, and take-up has been low.

They complain that they are unlikely to find homes for sale in the capital at that price, and fear that the government could toss them out on the street after a few months in new rental apartments. (Some claimed to know IDPs to whom the latter had happened.)

Public Defender Nino Lomjaria, an ombudswoman, said IDPs "have been trying for a long time to find adequate housing within this amount" but acknowledged that demand has contributed to making it "physically impossible to meet the criteria that the ministry requires of IDPs."

Moreover, many displaced persons, some of whose families have been in state-provided accommodation for a generation, aren't on the official list of those eligible for such assistance.

Case Closed?

Chichoshvili was one of those who'd slipped between the cracks, according to neighbor Ia Salia.

"He asked them [officials] to be put on the list," Salia said, "but he wasn't."

The authorities are now investigating the circumstances of Chichoshvili's death.

One day after the incident, Azarashvili, who assumed the leadership of the Health Ministry in December 2021, expressed condolences to the dead man's family in front of reporters.

Georgian Health Minister Zurab Azarashvili
Georgian Health Minister Zurab Azarashvili

But he rejected the notion that Chichoshvili's or other IDPs' problems played any role in the tragedy.

"I can't agree that it has anything to do with the events of the previous days," Azarashvili said. "It's an accident."

Ombudswoman Lomjaria said it was wrong for senior officials to draw conclusions one day into the investigation.

The IDPs themselves, in a joint statement, called officials' reaction "an attempt to violate the dignity of a hopeless, vulnerable person."

"My uncle jumped, [but] maybe you can help me anyways," Chichoshvili's nephew, Zaza Esiava, said in a public address aimed at Azarashvili.

"If you say on TV today that this is an accident, you are very mistaken," he said, adding that he and "all those who know us" will take their protest to the doors of the ministry itself.

'Fighting For A Home'

Eyewitnesses told RFE/RL's Georgian Service that they saw Chichoshvili leap to his death at around 5 p.m. amid preparations for another protest.

"He was fighting for a home," one neighbor said. "His daughter was going to come [visit], and you saw the room. What [kind of home] is that?"

Back at the makeshift funeral in Chichoshvili's tiny room, four chairs were all that was left next to the coffin.

Zurab Chichoshvili's coffin lies in his tiny room at the Kartli sanatorium.
Zurab Chichoshvili's coffin lies in his tiny room at the Kartli sanatorium.

Neighbors stood frozen in the hallway, trying not to talk out of grief and respect for the deceased.

They said they wouldn't resume their protests until Chichoshvili was buried, and vowed to demand justice on his behalf. Some tried to speak, only to fall silent again as tears welled up.

"What's the point of these apartments?" asked Gennady Akhalaia, an IDP originally from Sukhumi, the Abkhaz capital now controlled by breakaway authorities supported by Russian troops. "The more doors I open, the more I have to remember."

Written by Andy Heil based on reporting in Tbilisi by RFE/RL Georgian Service correspondents Tea Topuria and Sandro Gvindadze
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    Tea Topuria

    Tea Topuria is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Georgian Service. 

  • 16x9 Image

    Sandro Gvindadze

    Sandro Gvindadze is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Georgian Service. 

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden. 

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