Georgia: Chechens Impatient With Life in Limbo

Refugees from the Chechen conflict say they can’t go back or forward, and life where they are in the Pankisi Gorge has become intolerable.

Georgia: Chechens Impatient With Life in Limbo

Refugees from the Chechen conflict say they can’t go back or forward, and life where they are in the Pankisi Gorge has become intolerable.

Vakha Arsanukaev and his family have lived in a hospital building in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge for six years since they fled Chechnya, always fearing that they could be sent home to an uncertain fate but sustained by the hope that they will one day be accepted as refugees in some other country.

Arsanukaev, 47, is among more than 100 Chechen refugees who have been picketing the entrance to Duisi, the administrative centre of Pankisi, for a third consecutive week.

They are refusing to sign the annual round of documentation that registers them as refugees in Georgia, and are threatening to go on a hunger strike unless the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, and the Tbilisi government act on their complaints. In the face of what they say is continual pressure by Georgian police, they accuse the UN agency of blocking their attempts to leave the country.

"For six years, we have been living in constant fear. Our rights are being violated all the time and nothing is being done to solve our problems,” Arsanukaev told IWPR. "This isn’t our first action. But this time, we refugees are not going to surrender until we achieve some result.”

About 2,000 of an original total of 7,000 refugees from Chechnya remain in Georgia six years after Russia began its second military action against Chechen separatists in 1999. Almost all live in the Pankisi, not far from the mountainous border with Russia.

The Chechen civilians now protesting in the gorge complain of constant harassment by Georgian police.

Security in the Pankisi remains a sensitive issue between Tbilisi and Moscow, with the former attempting to counter Russian claims that it is not doing enough to make the area safe.

From 2001, Georgia cracked down against Chechen militants hiding out in the gorge, and now asserts that the fighters have gone. But the Russian authorities allege that some rebels are still based in Pankisi. Russian bombs have twice landed in the gorge in recent years, and Moscow says it has the right to strike targets outside its territory to wipe out “terrorists”.

But their main complaint is with the UNHCR, whom they accuse of blocking their efforts to be relocated to a third country.

"We have information that Canada, Sweden, Poland and a number of other countries are ready to receive the refugees. But the UNHCR is impeding this opportunity,” said Ziavdi Idigov, chairman of a group which coordinates Chechen refugees in Georgia. Idigov said those people who had managed to reach those countries independently had won refugee status easily.

The UNHCR mission in Tbilisi says such accusations are groundless, and that it is being wrongly blamed for the increasingly tough immigration policies introduced by western countries.

"The High Commissioner’s office does its best to render assistance to refugees - including their departure from Georgia,” said Naveed Hussain, the head of the UNHCR office in Georgia.

“Those refugees who have been refused resettlement [by third countries] certainly think that their rights are violated, and they begin to protest. And because we are the only organisation that works directly with them, they accuse us.”

According to Hussain, 60 Chechen refugees living in Georgia have left for third countries so far this year, with Canada, Switzerland and the Netherlands the most common destinations. In 2003 and 2004, 170 Chechen refugees left for those countries as well.

"Unfortunately, the number of refugees accepted in western countries is reduced every year, as immigration policies become tougher,” said Hussain.

The Chechens protesting in Pankisi say they are so desperate that they would be willing to accept temporary resettlement in other parts of Georgia. But Georgia’s minister for refugee affairs, Eteri Astemirova, said this was impossible.

She pointed out that the government’s existing obligations include helping the ethnic Georgians displaced by the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, over half of whom have yet to be provided with a place to live. Georgia has also promised to help the Meskhetians, a Muslim group deported by Stalin in the 1940s, to come back.

Another complaint made by the Chechen refugees is that the aid they get from UNHCR is insufficient. Each refugee is issued with 27 kilogrammes of flour, three kg of beans, 1.2 litres of sunflower oil, a tin of condensed milk, a can of fish, and some tea, sugar and sanitary supplies.

“It’s not enough to live on,” said one woman, Lia Bagayeva.

Sosbek Alisultanov has lived for years in one room of a state-owned building with his family of three children, and says they barely get by.

“If it weren’t for the help of the Chechen non-government organisations which provide us with some food from time to time, it would be impossible to survive,” he told IWPR. “We are half-starving anyway. We basically eat bread, beans and pasta. We get lucky only when the locals start building something and employ us as labourers. But that happens very seldom.”

However, the UNHCR’s Naveed Hussain says that even though life may be difficult, the refugees here are getting more aid than recipients in other countries, particularly in Africa.

The protesters say they are willing to boycott the re-registration process even if that disqualifies them from the rations.

If they cannot go to another country, or relocate within Georgia, the other option would be to consider going back home.

Many of the refugees are put off by fears that they will be caught up in the continuing military sweeps, in which Russian troops and Chechen security forces loyal to the Moscow-backed administration detain suspected rebels.

"My relatives returned to Chechnya. They were promised a lot of construction work, but we haven’t heard from them since,” said one Pankisi local.

But a minority of the remaining 2,000 refugees hastaken the decision to go back. Vasily Korchmar, adviser to the Russian ambassador in Tbilisi, told IWPR that more than 300 have submitted applications to help them return to Chechnya.

“I have decided to go home,” said one man who refused to give his name. “We have no choice. I wanted to leave for any third country, but I was turned down. We live in very bad conditions, we don’t have enough food and our children need education.

“The Russians have promised to give us living space and financial compensation. We haven’t seen our relatives for six years and we miss our native land, so we’ve decided to go.”

It is a decision that may make this man unpopular with fellow-refugees.

“Everyone who has submitted an application to return to Chechnya is viewed as ‘Moscow’s man’ here and comes under suspicion,” he said. “There have even been fights between those who’d agreed to return and people who were against it. So it’s better to keep silent so as not to complicate life, which is hard enough as it is.”

Giorgi Kupatadze is a correspondent with the Black Sea Press in Tbilisi. Jokola Achishvili is head of the Pankisi office of the Tbilisi-based group Former Political Prisoners for Human Rights based in the Pankisi Gorge.

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