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

Ossetia's Abandoned Refugees

Ossetian refugees who fled their homes a decade and a half ago have not even heard of a Georgian law that could give them compensation
By Alan Tskhurbayev
Marina Pukhayeva has lived in the Prigorodny district of North Ossetia for 16 years since she and her family fled the Akhmeta region of Georgia following the conflict in South Ossetia. The house she left behind in Georgia was later burned to the ground.



The Pukhayevs now live in a makeshift house on a former pig farm. Around 50 other Ossetian refugee families from Georgia live on the same settlement, consisting of rickety structures in the middle of an enormous field.



A rough dirt track runs for about a kilometre to the nearest village, Kambileevka. To get to school in the district centre, the children who were born and grew up here have to walk much further than that.



The settlement has no sewage system here and no gas, so in winter people heat their homes with firewood. The water they collect from an outside standpipe often contains sand or even small fish.



This is a hidden place that few people know about. One local person told IWPR that the local office of the Russian security service, the FSB, had a designated officer whose job it was to stop foreign journalists visiting the settlement.



In the 16 years the refugees have been here, they say they have never received any assistance from government agencies. Local and international charitable organisations give occasional help.



On January 1, 2007, a new restitution law came into force in Georgia, promising compensation for refugees who suffered losses as a result of the conflict in South Ossetia of 1990-92, which ended in South Ossetia de facto seceding from Georgia.



However, implementation of the law, which would dramatically improve the lives of the refugees, is still far off, as the two sides have failed to set up a commission which would allocate the compensation money.



The de facto authorities in South Ossetia have called the law a “PR action” and complained that they were not consulted when it was drawn it up.



Georgia’s government did not provide for the compensation payments in its 2007 budget and appears to be waiting for as yet unspecified assistance from the international community.



And the refugees themselves, the intended beneficiaries of the scheme, say they have not even heard of it.



According to official Georgian data, 60,000 Ossetians fled South Ossetia and other parts of Georgia as a result of the conflict. Most are now resident in North Ossetia, on the Russian side of the border.



The law, passed in a third reading by the Georgian parliament on December 28, states that anyone – whatever their nationality - who lost property as a result of the conflict is entitled to compensation in the form of property or the equivalent monetary value.



The law stipulates that a tripartite commission consisting of Georgians, South Ossetians and representatives of international organisations should be set up to look at applications submitted by people claiming compensation.



Anyone with a relevant claim is entitled to apply to the commission within a seven-year period after it is set up. The commission is supposed to rule on applications within six months, and pay out compensation within a year of its decision.



However, officials in the Georgian justice ministry which drew up the law cannot say when compensation can actually be paid out.



In an interview with IWPR, Justice Minister Giorgi Kavtaradze blamed the de facto South Ossetian authorities for showing no interest in either the law or the commission.



“We presented the draft law to the authorities in South Ossetia several times,” said Kavtaradze. “We also handed it over through international organisations. They merely sent us a written statement saying they didn’t like the bill’s title, and it all ended there.”



Boris Chochiev, acting deputy prime minister of South Ossetia, told IWPR he was unimpressed with the bill. “There’s nothing we can do with it,” he said by telephone.



Chochiev said the law had been devised without his administration’s involvement and had not taken Council of Europe advice into account.



“This is not a law about the return and welfare of refugees, but about how not to return refugees and give them compensation,” said Chochiev.



“How can we talk about the return and welfare of refugees when even now we are registering [Ossetian] refugees from Georgia? It would be better if Georgia had given a political verdict on its own policy towards Ossetians, which has not yet changed.”



Relations between the breakaway republic and Tbilisi are currently very tense and negotiations are stalled on a way forward in the dispute.



Despite the reaction from South Ossetia, Kavtaradze said that the commission could still be formed without South Ossetian involvement. But he said the agreement of international organisations was needed before restitution money could be allocated from the state budget.



“The appropriate sums will be allocated from the budget after the commission starts working,” he told IWPR.



Asked what sums would be paid out, Kavtaradze replied, “This is a case when it’s impossible to make a preliminary financial calculation. We don’t know how many people will apply to us, we don’t know the market value of the property at the time of the appeal, and we don’t know how much the price of property in South Ossetia will rise as a result of this process.



“We are talking about billions,” he added. “Millions won’t be enough for this.”



Kavtaradze said Georgia was planning to hold an international donor conference to raise the money.



The international community has been encouraging Georgia to take this step. Last spring legal experts from the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe held consultations with non-governmental organisations in South Ossetia and made recommendations to the Georgian drafters of the bill.



Kavtaradze said a delegation from his ministry had met refugees in the North Ossetian capital, Vladikavkaz, at a seminar arranged with British mediation.



“Our delegation came away with very strong impressions – they came back convinced that it [compensation plan] had evoked great interest among refugees living there,” he said.



However in North Ossetia’s Prigorodny region, where Ossetian refugees from south of the border live in large numbers, no one whom IWPR spoke to had been told about the Georgian law, and people sounded distrustful of it.



“I haven’t heard anything about it and I’ll never believe that Georgia can help us in any way,” said Merab Lazarayev, one refugee.



Lazarayev, who walks with a limp as the result of a wound sustained in the conflict, shouted out in indignation, “Look how we live here. Tell me, can people live here? In this mud? I don’t even have a passport; it got lost, and now they will ask for an identity document from Georgia. I’m an invalid and I haven’t received a kopek from anyone in all this time.”



North Ossetia’s migration service has almost 18,000 refugees on its register. Alexander Shanayev, head of the service’s department for displaced people and refugees, said housing is the biggest problem.



“Today we have 4,275 families in a queue to receive housing,” Shanayev told IWPR. “Last year, just one housing voucher was handed out and this year there will be another one. So at this rate, to satisfy everyone we’d need 4,275 years. And our migration service can’t do anything about it because that is the level of funding from the [Russian] federal budget.”



IWPR requested a comment from the North Ossetian government both on the situation facing the refugees and on the Georgian restitution law. However, despite repeated approaches to deputy nationalities minister Soslan Khadikov, he did not respond to questions.



The refugees are not just fed up with their basic living conditions, they are also fearful of being evicted from their current housing. Several of the refugees said they had recently received a visit from strangers telling them that they would have to leave their houses by April as the land had been leased by local businessmen.



Sonya Tedeyeva is 75, and comes originally from the Georgian village of Tetritskaro. Her husband died not long after the South Ossetian conflict and was buried in Georgia. She said that his gravestone was stolen and his body dug up. His relatives then brought his body with them to North Ossetia for reburial.



Tedeyeva, wearing black clothing and headscarf, invited IWPR’s contributor into her one-room house, which contains just a bed, a table and a stove, and has bare electrical wires poking out of the walls. In Georgia, she used to own a large house.



“Aren’t you sorry for us? In 17 years no one has helped us at all,” she said.



Alan Tskhurbayev is a correspondent for Gazeta.ru in North Ossetia. Dmitry Avaliani works for 24 Hours newspaper in Tbilisi. This article is the first to be commissioned as part of an ambitious new IWPR project, the Cross-Caucasus Journalism Network, which is bringing together 50 journalists from all parts of the Caucasus for meetings and collaborative work over a three-year period. The project is funded by the European Union.