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Georgia: Fear and Poverty in the Kodori Gorge
Villagers in the upper reaches of the Georgian-held Kodori Gorge are living in fear of a possible new Russian-backed offensive by the breakaway republic of Abkhazia.
The war between Tbilisi and Sukhumi may have ended almost ten years ago but tensions have been rising for the past nine months, with this part of the region seen as a dangerous flashpoint.
In the gorge itself, almost the entire male population has combined to form a "self-defence force" - an armed battalion of 800 men aged from 18 to 60, which receives a salary from the Georgian government.
"The Abkhazian army sometimes does exercises. There are some signs of troops and equipment moving," self-defence force member Avtandil Mikiani told IWPR.
"We don't want to fight with anyone, we are just defending ourselves," said David Mukbaniani, from the village of Ajara. "We just want to live quietly. I have not left here since 1993 and I will not leave here alive. That's what all the lads say - we will defend our gorge to the end."
On May 16, Avtandil Ioseliani, head of Tbilisi's intelligence agency, accused the Abkhazians of planning an attack on Georgian villages in the Kodori.
"Several officers from the Russian armed forces have visited Abkhazia and made a plan jointly with its separatist authorities to 'reacquire' the Kodori Gorge," Ioseliani said. "The plan includes the use of a large amount of heavy weaponry and soldiers."
Abkhazia has strongly denied the "provocative" reports. Alik Arshba, head of the region's general staff, said, "It's not true. I don't know anything about that."
The upper part of the Kodori Gorge - bounded by the Caucasus mountain range and and Karachai-Cherkessia to the north and the Tkvarcheli region to the south - is currently the only part of Abkhazia under the control of the Tbilisi authorities. There are 23 villages in this part of the gorge, with a population of around three thousand people.
A group of Chechen fighters led by the commander Ruslan Gelayev entered the gorge from the Georgian side last autumn, causing a major flare-up in Georgian-Abkhazian relations. The Russian airforce carried out air-strikes on the fighters and, according to the local authorities, around 15 per cent of the population fled their homes and sought refugee status in Tbilisi. Georgia responded by moving troops into the area - a step condemned by Abkhazia and the UN.
Villagers now say that, in line with a UN-brokered agreement, all troops and equipment were withdrawn when the snow melted on the region's roads, which are blocked for nine months of the year.
For its part, Abkhazia claims that the Georgian army is still in the area and say that the monitoring carried out by the UN and Russian peacekeepers is ineffective.
Another major incident occurred on April 12 when, as the Georgians were removing their soldiers from the gorge, the Russians deployed a group of peacekeepers in the the area without the prior agreement of the UN or Tbilisi. After the intervention of President Eduard Shevardnadze and the UN, the Russians pulled out again.
"It was very frightening," said Miriam Gasviani, one of the villagers. "Helicopters landed, soldiers jumped out and immediately began to dig trenches. They made no contact with local people, but you could feel their aggression. It was especially frightening for children, who started to remember the bombing raids from last autumn."
Dieter Boden, the UN Secretary General's outgoing special representative for the conflict, has identified Kodori as an urgent priority. He says that while it poses "a certain problem" for the negotiating process, the UN "does not consider the current situation in any way threatening".
The gorge's villagers live in poverty and are cut off from the outside world for most of the year. They live off the land - cattle, maize and beans, hunting and fishing - as goods from western Georgia can only be delivered during the summer months. Communications are bad, even between the villages themselves.
"Because of the lack of roads, it's not always possible to go from village to village," said Hamlet Kochkiani, head of the village of Omarishara. "There is not a single bridge and every river has to be forded."
The village schools in Omarishara and its neighbour Chkhalta are uninhabitable. The children have to study in a shop or in someone's house, although there is no shortage of schoolbooks, which are brought from Tbilisi.
However, there are no amusements for the children - only village libraries, one state television channel and one radio channel. The villagers joke that the major events in their lives are weddings and funerals. Medical assistance is also a problem.
"If someone's illness requires immediate help, then sometimes we can't save them," said Olga Kordzaya, a Leningrad doctor who married a local man. "Where can we get a helicopter in hard times like these?"
Month-long delays in receiving wages, benefits and pensions are no worse than in other parts of Georgia, the villagers say. Sometimes the president's Kodori representative, Emzar Kvitisiani, arrives by helicopter with money to cover costs for several months.
Nonetheless, the villagers are anxious about what the future may hold. On the frontier of two unfriendly regions and cut off from the outside world, they mainly have to rely only on themselves.
Keti Bochorishvili is the BBC Caucasus and Central Asia Service's correspondent in Tbilisi
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