Georgia: Refugees Claim to be Put at Risk

Officials urging displaced to go home, but they say their villages remain dangerous.

Georgia: Refugees Claim to be Put at Risk

Officials urging displaced to go home, but they say their villages remain dangerous.

Refugees from the August war with Russia say they are being pressured into returning home, despite being concerned for their own safety.

Officials say the villages are now safe and that return is voluntary, but refugees, who had been living in temporary accommodation near the capital, say they have been denied food aid, and told they can only receive more at home.

The war, when Russian troops pushed Georgian forces out of the rebel enclave of South Ossetia, left around 130,000 Georgians displaced. While many of them have returned to their homes voluntarily, 24,000 people are still sheltering elsewhere.

The government has built houses and supplied food for many of them, but others say they have been pressured to go back to their home villages, which the government has labelled as “due for repopulation”.

“When I said I wouldn’t go, they said, ‘We don’t care about you having children or being pregnant. You must go, because you can’t allow the village to become depopulated’,” Ledi Birtvelishvili, a refugee from the village of Knolevi near the Ossetian-controlled Znauri District, told IWPR.

Birtvelishvili left her village two days after the war started when Russian and Ossetian troops occupied villages near her home. Birtvelishvili, who is pregnant and already has two children, headed for Tbilisi 100 kilometres away.

It took the family four days to reach the capital and she found shelter along with some neighbours in an old school in the nearby town of Rustavi.

At first, the town authorities and the ministry for refugees and settlement helped them, sending weekly food parcels of bread, salt, sugar, beans, pasta, cakes and sunflower oil.

Problems started on October 13, when a bus was driven up to the school, and officials told Birtvelishvili and others it was to take them home.

Birtvelishvili said she was too scared to do so, and refused, but others had no choice. Ninety-two people were settled in the school, and refugees say around half of them have been forced to return home.

“They rolled up our mattresses, blankets and other things, took them down, loaded them into the bus and threatened to throw it all out if we refused to go,” said teenager Khatuna Totladze. “They did it all so quickly I had not time to understand what was going on.”

Totladze said her family home had been so badly damaged in the fighting that she spent the night with relatives in a neighbouring village, and returned to Rustavi the next day.

Maia Ilariani was also on the bus but came back to the school several weeks after she had been taken home. She told IWPR that a Georgian police car had been blown up in Knolevi soon after her return, terrifying her six-year-old son.

”He came running from there, saying that the police had told him to go away and then scattered themselves,” she said. “The child was shocked, not knowing what he was talking about. He could have become mentally ill.”

In Rustavi, the villagers were told by officials that they should not expect to continue receiving humanitarian aid, since Knolevi was listed among “villages due for repopulation”. The term is used to describe areas that are controlled by the Georgian authorities and seen as safe to live in.

Merab Gelashvili, of the ministry for refugees department for the region of Kvemo-Kartli, told IWPR that they were no longer eligible for assistance in Rustavi.

“No one is forcing these people out of Rustavi, but the aid they used to receive here will now be issued where their homes are. Distribution of food aid stopped automatically in Rustavi, with people receiving it in places they come from,” he said.

Beso Tserediani, a deputy minister, told IWPR the situation in Knolevi was quiet. “If you don’t believe me, you can go there and see it yourself,” he said.

When IWPR visited Knolevi, it was certainly quiet. Villagers said they had been “lying low” and careful not to attract the attention of the armed men at the Russian and Ossetian checkpoints.

But the village looked like a potential flashpoint. A Georgian police post had been set up in the very heart of the village, while an Ossetian post was only 100 metres beyond the last house.

“We are wedged in between the Georgian police and the Ossetian post,” said elderly local resident Temur Maisuradze. “It means we’ll be in great danger if there is some incident or an exchange of fire between the Georgian policemen and the Ossetians.”

“And the Russian soldiers have pitched their camp above our heads,” he added, pointing to a nearby hill outside the village, where a Russian flag was flying.

Villagers’ fears of violence were confirmed on January 10, when a 26-year-old Georgian policeman was killed by a sniper bullet in the village.

Maisuradze said nearly all the younger villagers had fled. His two sons and his pregnant daughter-in-law had been among the refugees and, though he missed them, he said he did not want them to come home yet.

“Suppose I brought my pregnant daughter-in-law here, and then something happened at night, where do I take her? There are no cars here, there’s nothing here at all. Aren’t we in a pitiable situation?” he said.

Only Maisuradze and his wife now receive food aid from the government. The other members of the family who have stayed in Tbilisi have none.

Neighbour Darejan Tsikubadze is in a similar situation. She and her husband receive aid, while her daughter, now staying in Rustavi, does not.

“I wish they would give her bread if nothing else. Now we share with her whatever food they give us. We can’t let her starve,” she said.

After IWPR’s visit to Knolevi, we approached the ministry for refugees again, asking whether refugees who refused to go home out of fears for their safety received any aid.

“Persons refusing to go back to their homes because of a lack of security guarantees continue to receive whatever aid they are entitled to,” said Tamar Martiashvili, first deputy minister.

On January 20, the authorities dispatched another bus to the Rustavi school to take more refugees home. But many once again avoided eviction.

The displaced women and children say they want to go back to their villages very much, but will do it only after peace has been restored there.

“When everything calms down we will go home by ourselves. It is better to live in one’s own home in one’s own destroyed village. But that will only be when we are not scared, when everything is calm,” Birtvelishvili said.

Magda Memanishvili is a reporter for TV Studio Monitor, which conducts journalistic investigations.
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