Georgia: Refugees' Hunger Protest

A group of hunger-striking Chechens accuse the United Nations of abandoning them

Georgia: Refugees' Hunger Protest

A group of hunger-striking Chechens accuse the United Nations of abandoning them

Madina Bagalova, a Chechen who lives in Tbilisi, seeing that her two children were going hungry, decided to go hungry herself - but this time voluntarily. Bagalova's hunger strike ended on June 11, when she was committed to a Tbilisi hospital.

What is unusual about this despairing act of protest is that the target of protest on this occasion was not the Georgian or even the Russian governments, but the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. But the UN says that there is nothing more it can do to help the refugees.

The protests began on May 24 with a hunger strike by Baudi Itayev, chairman of the Committee of Chechen Refugees, based in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge and eight others.

Three refugees are currently on hunger strike, including Birlant Arsanova, sister of former Chechen vice-president Vakha Arsanov. Their main demand remains the same: for the UN to set up an independent commission, comprising other international organizations, to study their increasingly poor and precarious position in Georgia.

"We want to get an answer to the simple question from the UN: can Chechen refugees live like normal people?" said Itayev, who gave up his hunger strike after ten days.

The protest prompted the executive director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, Aaron Rhodes, to send a private letter to the UNHCR in Geneva at the end of May on the matter.

Neither the Helsinki Federation nor the UNHCR wanted to disclose the contents of the letter, but a Chechen refugee who saw a copy, said it proposed "third party mediation."

All the refugees say they do not have enough to live on. Itayev, 45, is a builder by profession but has been unable to find work in the small town of Duisi in the Pankisi Gorge for the past three years. The gorge is officially home to around 4,000 Chechen refugees, although the real figure may be somewhat lower.

Itayev says the rations the UN gives out are insufficient to feed his family. "Every two month every refugee gets 27 kilos of flour, three kilos of beans, one kilo of oil and the same amount of sugar," he said. "How can we live a normal life on this, how can we feed our children, without any opportunity to earn money?"

The refugees are also asking the UNHCR to ease the rules that make it hard for refugees to receive official status in Georgia and restrict them to the Pankisi Gorge.

The head of the UNHCR in Tbilisi, Catherine Bertrand, responded to the protestors only in late May after they had sent a second petition to her office.

"As far as we know, one of the reasons for the protest is the problems of refugees, who are living in Tbilisi and not receiving any humanitarian aid," Bertrand told IWPR. "But when Georgia received the refugees in 1999, the decision was taken to settle them compactly in the Pankisi Gorge, so that is where all our programmes are and it is fairly easy to settle there. As for the level of humanitarian aid, if some people need extra food they shouldn't be asking the UN, they should be asking charitable organizations."

Baudi Itayev, does not accept these arguments. "Article 26 of the Refugee Convention guarantees free movement in the host country, but the UN is trying to confine us in one reservation," he said. "Our children are getting sick from a lack of the most basic food and we don't see meat or fish for months on end. We don't know why we are left with nothing, is this some kind of punishment of Chechens by the United Nations?"

The refugees' second petition asked the UNHCR to open an aid distribution centre for 56 Chechen refugee families in Tbilisi; to resolve the problems of 100 Chechens, who have not been given refugee status in Georgia; to increase their food rations and to help them with their housing problems.

World Food Programme specialists say that the 2,100 calories in the ration currently given the refugees is enough to stop them dying from hunger. "But that amount was calculated for people who will receive that amount of food for a month, two or possibly six - people cannot survive on rations like that for four years," warned Nato Zazashvili, a doctor, who heads the Tbilisi-based Centre for the Psychosocial and Medical Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture.

Zazashvili's centre has been mediating between the refugees and the UNHCR. "We have to characterize the psychological state of these people in medical terms," she told IWPR. "Today Chechens all over the world are afraid of ethnic discrimination and it's no surprise that many of them see a bureaucrat who is just sitting in his office as an enemy."

Zurab Mshvidobadze, a senior official in Georgia's ministry for refugees and resettlement, told IWPR that applications for refugee status were being held up because it took time to issue plastic identity cards in Switzerland. "As for the other problems, as a result of which a refugee has not got status, they should all be resolved in June after the planned re-registration process, which the ministry is making more simple."

"Of course we would much rather go home than go through all these hassles," said Ibragim Sardalov from Duisi, one of the hunger strikers. "But many of those who have left have returned and others have died at home or disappeared without trace."

Sardalov said that his former neighbours in Duisi, the Bitiev family, had gone back to their home village of Shatoi in southern Chechnya last year and were all killed there.

On June 10 and 11, a senior Russian government delegation visited Georgia, hoping to persuade Chechen refugees to return to Chechnya. But most Chechen refugees refused to meet the Russian visitors.

"It was just a political farce," said Aslanbek Abdurzakov, a Chechen human rights campaigner and the only refugee to meet the visitors. "They brought nothing with them but fine words. They didn't talk about material help or guarantees which could be provided for people going back to Chechnya."

"The Russian authorities have still not resolved the problem of the 160,000 Chechen refugees living in hardship in Ingushetia. There's no point in talking to the Russians about the return of refugees until they display some concern about their own citizens by setting an example of the refugees in Ingushetia."

In the mean time the hunger strikers are pinning their hopes on the prospect of an independent commission.

"Maybe the commission will conclude that we don't have the right to make any demands," Baudi Itayev said. "In that case we will call off our protest."

Beslan Makhauri is a Chechen journalist living in Tbilisi

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