Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Georgian Refugees: Ten Years from Home

More than 200,000 Georgia refugees from Abkhazia remember a tragic past and anticipate an uncertain future.

A decade ago, Marina Margvliani was a frightened seven-year-old Georgian girl who was hidden in the safety of a neighbour’s cowshed after the northern resort town of Gagra fell to Abkhaz forces. Today, as a young adult, she tells the story of the most tragic moments of her life with astonishing calmness.

“It was very difficult to get out of Gagra,” Marina told IWPR. “It was just after my mother had her breast removed because of cancer. Our Abkhaz neighbour took pity on us and somehow managed to get us to the border.”

“I was only seven, but I well remember the cruel faces of the men. They wouldn’t let us through and searched everyone, especially my mother.”

“I remember how they shone a torch onto the scar which was left after the operation. They poked it with a stick to see if she had hidden gold there.”

Border guards stripped the family of all their possessions, including medicine. Marina was orphaned soon after – her father had stayed behind alone in Gagra and died of worry, while her mother, weakened by stress and surgery, died three years later.

Marina now lives outside the Georgian capital in the Hotel Kartli, a once fashionable but now completely rundown and defaced building on the shore of the artificial lake known as the Sea of Tbilisi.

She shares this fate with more than 1500 families from the first wave of Georgian refugees – formally they are internally displaced persons or IDPs – from Abkhazia. And although the big hotel complex is only around ten kilometres from the city centre, it is as though these people are entirely cut off from the outside world.

The only state help the refugees receive is a benefit of 11 laris (around five US dollars) a month, while some get another 14 laris (seven dollars) as a pension for the loss of the main breadwinner.

In spite of the upheaval and hardship, Marina’s 15-year-old friend, Salome Kvekveskiri, has faith in the future between Georgians and Abkhaz. “I know that our generation will solve this problem,” she said confidently.

“The main thing is to meet, look one another in the eye and understand. No one needs war, we have already seen its horrors, and I don’t think anyone wants to see it happen again.”

With the defeat of their army in 1993, practically all Georgians in Abkhazia, comprising some 47 per cent of the total population of 500,000 people, fled. The bulk of this vast human tide poured into Georgia. Since then, a large refugee population has become a fact of Georgia’s everyday political life.

Ordinary Georgians have a complex attitude towards the displaced people. On the one hand, they feel sympathy towards those who have lost both their past and their future. However, the refugees are also competitors for the few available jobs, in agricultural regions they lay claim to farmland and in the cities they move into empty buildings from where it is impossible to evict them.

Last spring, a group of refugees caused a furore when they forcibly occupied Tbilisi’s Botanic Institute, which was partially shut down because of lack of funds. Shouting women with children took over the laboratories and offices and made space for their beds by smashing equipment and test-tubes, and throwing out scientific literature.

There are also complaints that the arrival of the refugees has caused the crime-rate to soar, although this is not confirmed by statistics. In the first half of 2002, only 0.2 per cent of crimes in Georgia were committed by IDPs.

For their part, the refugees complain that lack of work has forced professors, engineers and teachers to earn a living by working as porters hauling sacks at the bazaar.

After working for more than a quarter of a century as a doctor in Sukhumi’s Railway Hospital, Juli Kvaratskhelia is humiliated that she has to support herself by selling sweets.

Malkhaz Sikharulidze, a professional ornithologist, was one of many who left Abkhazia on foot, escaping over the snowy Saken-Chubersky pass. He left his greatest treasure, his collection of 400 birds of various breeds, behind. He was able to take only three small songbirds with him.

“Isn’t it a tragedy that our government has estimated the worth of almost 300,000 refugees at 14 laris each, as if they were railway station prostitutes?” he said.

After Tbilisi, the second highest concentration of refugees is in the Zugdidi region, just south of Abkhazia. In several villages there the number of refugees exceeds the number of local inhabitants.

The refugees from Gali who live in the Inguri Technical College are just a short distance, via the bridge across the Inguri River, from their former homes. Many of them continue to go back there despite the risks. Every day, the bridge is packed with Georgians, dragging trolleys or homemade carts, piled with assorted goods and food.

“The state is incapable of resolving the problems of the refugees,” said Teimuraz Lomaya, Georgia’s deputy minister for the employment and settlement of displaced persons. “It’s beyond the capabilities of our budget to do even elementary repairs to inhabited houses, let alone think of building anything new.”

“The only solution is to return the IDPs to their homes. We have to appeal to the countries of the CIS and ask for their help to begin this process soon. The social and psychological state of the refugees is such that we will soon have a sick generation on our hands.”

Salome Odisharia is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi