Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Armenia: Georgian Refugees Set to Return

Many refugees from August war planning to head home, but still traumatised by their experiences.
By Gayane Mkrtchian
Twenty-four-year-old Teona Kurtanidze is still living with her three-year-old son Nikolai in a room on the edge of the Armenian capital Yerevan, given them as temporary refuge from the fighting in neighbouring Georgia this summer.



“A few days ago I took Nikolai to Victory Park,” she said. “There was a plane there and he climbed on it and said, ‘Mama, let’s go and bomb Gori!’ I said ‘Why should you bomb Gori?’ and he replied, ‘There are Russian soldiers there.’ When it rained heavily in the night, he would wake up and shout, ‘Mama, let’s run, tanks are coming’.”



Teona and her son fled the town of Gori for Yerevan when fighting broke out in August and were given shelter by the Armenian migration agency.



Ruzanna Petrosian, an official in the migration agency, said that since August 11, when Georgian civilians began to flee in large numbers, 106 people had been given temporary refuge and two had received refugee status. The vast majority of them were ethnic Armenians who were Georgian citizens.



Armenia was bracing itself for a bigger flood of refugees and it was able to cope with those who did come. Now, many of the latter are planning to head home, but are still traumatised by the brief August war between Russia and Georgia.



“We were drinking tea that morning,” recalled Teona of the day the Russians attacked Gori. “It was around 11 or 12 o’clock and planes appeared over the town and began to bomb us. I couldn’t believe my eyes – it looked as though it was raining. I grabbed Nikolai and ran out of the house, without even taking anything with us.”



Two days later, she headed to Armenia where she believed her son would be safe. They are now virtually the only Georgians who have remained in government accommodation, with all basic facilities and food provided for them.



Susanna Harutyunian, 57, was born in Tbilisi and has lived there for 42 years but says she does not want to return.



“When it all began, it didn’t take me long to decide to come to Armenia with my daughter and grandchildren,” she said. “I sent her to her husband in St Petersburg and stayed on here. My husband could not come with us because of his health. They say it’s all calm there now but I don’t know. I am very afraid, I want to bring my husband there, just so long as we have a roof over our heads.”



According to Ruzanna Petrosian, people who apply for temporary refuge have the right to live there for three months and should return home if the situation in their home country has stabilised.



“If that is not the case their case continues to be considered and an appropriate decision is made,” she said.



The Armenian Red Cross Society and the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, also give humanitarian aid to refugees, both those in temporary accommodation and staying with relatives.



Volodya Martirosian, 60, an economist, came to Armenia from Poti. “My time here in this shelter runs out on November 1,” he said. “If my request is granted I will stay in Armenia, my homeland. I don’t want to go back to Georgia.”



Martirosian blames Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili for the August war. “Any person who knows the slightest bit about politics should not have made this step,” he said. “A clever person, if he is not sure of his own strength will not start a war. Why do so if you are going to lose?”



Teona Kurtanidze does not agree and is full of praise for Saakashvili, saying merely that he gave in to a provocation.



She is a journalist by profession and worked in the local television station and newspaper in Gori. Turning on a computer, she opens up pictures of the bombing of Gori, with burning buildings, people fleeing in panic and bodies on the streets. In one picture, a wounded woman with a bleeding face wants to flee but does not know where to go.



“These pictures were taken by my friends in the TV station,” she said. “We lived through this horror ourselves. And now I just want one thing – that there is no more war, and that no child should have to see what my son saw.”



All the same, she has taken the decision to go back to Georgia when her three months in the shelter expire on November 22. “Gori is my homeland and I want to go back there,” she said. “Where else can I go if not to Gori?”



Gayane Mkrtchian is a correspondent for Armenianow.com in Yerevan