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Georgia Demonises Chechen Refugees

Conditions for Chechen refugees sheltering in Georgia are rapidly deteriorating.
By Besik Kurtanidze

The Georgian media and security forces are harassing and intimidating thousands of Chechen refugees sheltering in the northeast of the country, refugee representatives claim.


The refugees, living in wretched conditions in the Pankisi Gorge, on the border between Georgia and Chechnya, say the media unfairly blames them for isolated crimes and attempts to stir up trouble between them and the local population.


They say constant claims by the Russian media that Chechen fighters are smuggling weapons through the region has provoked fears of federal airstrikes. "Children run home whenever they see planes in the sky, " said one Chechen woman. " People are terrified they're going to be bombed."


The concerns have been heightened by the Russian bombing of Omalo and Shatili, two Georgian villages on the Chechen border, in the last few months.


Refugee representatives are now so concerned over the plight of their community that they've appealed to the Georgian leadership to relocate them.


While some refugees are clearly involved in crime, the Georgian media is quick to exaggerate the problem and to automatically blame Chechens.


The Pankisi Chechens claim Georgian police arrest young refugees for no apparent reason and steal money from them. "If you believe everything you read in the papers you get the impression that all the robberies in the country are committed by refugees," said one Pankisi official.


A recent case in the Akhmeta region illustrates the point. The Georgian media accused Chechen terrorists of taking three Georgians hostages. It transpired that the refugees had kidnapped two people who owed them money. Both were freed after paying their debt. Not much was known about the third missing person - the only reason the Chechens were blamed for his disappearance was that his car was found on a road leading to the Pankisi Gorge.


While drugs are clearly being smuggled into the Pankisi Gorge which has become a haven for addicts in the east of the republic, local Georgian officials complain that the police are doing little to stem the flow. "Should the police have decided to deal with this problem, it would have been solved long ago," said Tariel Tsiskarishvili, the deputy head of the Jokholo village administration.


In addition to exaggerating levels of crime in region, the Georgian media has been accused of heightening tensions between refugees and the local population.


There have been problems between the two groups. Locals have accused the refugees of selling humanitarian aid on the open market. And the latter accuse the former of registering as refugees in order to get aid.


The problems though are not serious. Indeed, relations between the two groups are generally good, despite appalling hardships - food and power shortages, poor drinking water and inadequate medical facilities. Around 95 per cent of the refugees live with local Georgian families.


Gogi Baakashvili, the acting head of the local administration in the village of Duisi, said, "There's seven of us and we're sheltering 17 refugees. Most of us sleep on the floor. And if I don't wake up early enough, I have to wait an hour before I can use the toilet."


The dreadful conditions in the gorge have prompted some refugees to move to Baku or Nazran. But most have little hope of moving on, not least because they have old Soviet passports which mean that they can't travel outside the Russian Federation.


Some have considered returning to Chechnya. In fact, Moscow has been actively encouraging them to do so, but most believe it would be unsafe for them to return.


"Russians try to persuade us to go back to Chechnya. They say they'll give us money to rebuild our homes, pay our pensions and salaries, " said one refugee. "But do you think we can really trust them after what they did to us?"


Besik Kurtanidze is a correspondent for the Dilis Gazeti newspaper in Tbilisi


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