Kodori Refugees Only Dream of Returning

Georgians uprooted by the war wonder what a year of neglect will have done to their homes.

Kodori Refugees Only Dream of Returning

Georgians uprooted by the war wonder what a year of neglect will have done to their homes.

A year ago, Vladimir Gerliani was still living in his home high in the lush, forested Kodori Gorge, the last piece of Abkhazia controlled by Tbilisi. Now, he lives in a block of flats with the rest of the population of his village.

Abkhazia, which has been outside Tbilisi’s control for 16 years, took advantage of Russia’s crushing of the Georgian army to take over the gorge last August. And the lives of 80-year-old Gerliani and his neighbours in the village of Azhara changed for ever.

“No one warned us, it started unexpectedly. It started with a bombardment of the gorge and ended with the arrival of Abkhazian and Russian forces,” he said.

Gerliani lived his whole life in the gorge, and had never been to see a doctor, but in the year since he fled and became a refugee in the Georgian city of Kutaisi, he has had two heart attacks and is a shadow of his former self.

“In Azhara, apart from the three houses our family owned, we left behind ten cows, 12 bulls, a lot of poultry and ten hectares of apple and nut orchards,” he said sadly, contemplating his current living conditions.

He now lives in a room given to him by the government and a monthly pension of 103 lari (around 60 US dollars), as well as a monthly supply of flower, sugar, pasta and vegetable oil.

“The government promised to give us land and a cow each. If they could just give us that we would be grateful, but so far we haven’t seen land or cattle,” he said.

“They have given us just spades and mattocks, which I have kept. But they won’t dig into tarmac.”

Gerliani once commanded the Hunter battalion, which was made of local residents who defended their gorge for themselves. He is angry with Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, who insisted in 2006 that the local militia be disarmed and replaced with regular Georgian police.

“They promised us that the police would defend the gorge better than us. And what did we get? The soldiers and officials were the first to leave the gorge, and the people fled after them,” he said angrily.

“Without weapons we could not defend ourselves. Why did they do this to us? Why have I been so shamed in my elderly years?”

Visitors to Azhara after the Georgian troops and civilians fled described seeing an almost-unharmed village, with livestock wandering through deserted gardens. The only buildings to be damaged were military posts and shops, which had been looted.

Gerliani and the other refugees now wonder what a year of neglect will have done to their homes.

“It’s almost harvest time, and I needed to repair the roof too. I wonder if it survived last winter,” he said. “But the livestock has probably been eaten by the Russians, or taken away by the Abkhaz.”

Even so, he wishes he could go home. He has not adapted to life in Kutaisi and sees no future for himself in the lowlands.

“At night I dream of going hunting in our mountains and seeing the graves of my ancestors: my grandfathers, my grandmothers, my parents, my wife and children. I visited them for the last time the day I left the gorge,” he said.

“I would return today. I would go on foot even, even if I knew they would kill me there. I would just need to be told that if I returned to the gorge, I wouldn’t be accused of being a traitor.”

Natia Kuprashvili is a freelance journalist.
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