Tbilisi Struggles to House Displaced Georgians

Georgians uprooted by the Abkhaz conflict are finding imaginative ways of overcoming the state's failure to provide them with decent accommodation.

Tbilisi Struggles to House Displaced Georgians

Georgians uprooted by the Abkhaz conflict are finding imaginative ways of overcoming the state's failure to provide them with decent accommodation.

The 15-storey Iveria in downtown Tbilisi was a grand affair when it was first built in Soviet times. But like other hotels in the city, it now gives an overwhelming impression of dilapidation. Its balconies sprout improvised canvas or plywood walls. Laundry hangs out to dry the whole length of the building.

Originally intended for tourists, these hotels were turned into long-term refuges for tens of thousands of mainly Georgian families who fled Abkhazia after the autonomous province's declaration of independence in the early Nineties sparked a civil war.

Over a quarter of a million of these internally-displaced people, IDPs, have entered Georgia proper since then - ninety thousand of them are now in Tbilisi. From the start, there was little evidence of a consistent policy towards the problem. At first, the government offered temporary accommodation but no-one expected that the Abkhaz Georgians would still be there this far down the line.

While the state has managed to house around half of the total, the rest are staying with relatives, squatting in disused buildings. The remainder found shelter in the countryside where the housing shortage was less acute. Disused local government buildings and housing abandoned by those migrating to the city were handed over for the use of IDPs.

In the cities, it proved impossible to solve the IDPs' accommodation problems in the same way. "We've lost all hope that things will get better," said 54-year-old Nunu Gabelia from Abkhazia, who is squatting in the Hotel Ajaria with her family. "That's why we've tried to turn our hotel rooms into something resembling a normal home."

Back in 1997, President Eduard Shevardnadze asked Badri Shoshitashvili, the then Tbilisi's mayor, to draw up an inventory of empty buildings in the capital and to make them available to the displaced people.

When Shoshitashvili replied that there were almost no buildings suitable for the purpose, the IDPs took matters into their own hands, and have since taken over some 47 disused buildings in the capital.

The shortage of alternative accommodation has meant that the authorities sometimes rule in favour of the IDPs when attempts are made to evict them. As happened when a factory director appealed to remove a group who had installed themselves in the administration block of a long disused factory.

The eviction was halted and the director relinquished his claim.

Cheered by the success of this do-it-yourself spirit, IDPs began to repair the building's damaged woodwork and connect up electricity and water supplies. Now, many owners of disused buildings turn a blind eye to the squatters, happy in the knowledge that their property is being maintained for free while ownership remains in their hands.

The shortage of housing is still the IDPs' most severe problem, according to Nino Todua at the ministry for refugees and accommodation. The state was able to provide them with some homes in 1997, but no new housing has been built for IDPs in the past four years.

"Most of humanitarian organisations that helped IDPs in Georgia have cut back their programmes since 1997," said Todua. "No NGO is dealing with a problem of housing IDPs and, as a result, there is no long-term policy."

There is quite clearly an extraordinary low level of coordination between the authorities responsible for IDPs and foreign NGOs, because the overseas organisations are indeed providing assistance.

A government official responsible for Abkhazia, Merab Efadze, told IWPR that the UN had provided grants for three accommodation projects. The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Norwegian Refugee Council are also helping to renovate buildings where IDPs are housed.

But the uprooted Georgians are becoming impatient. Despite the risks they face, many have returned to their deserted homes in the Gali district on the Georgian-Abkhazian border. Members of the peacekeeping forces deployed by the Commonwealth of Independent States patrol this 12-km-long strip of territory, but it is regularly targeted by armed Abkhaz groups.

"I know that I could be killed anytime there," said Giorgi Gagua, who recently returned to Gali with his family. "But I'd rather die in the yard of my house, than go back to begging on the streets of Tbilisi. I don't believe anymore that the state wants to help us."

"Going back home is the only solution," added Arkadi Benia, a former official from Gagra in Abkhazia, who is still living in Tbilisi. "Even if only the burned ruins of our homes remain, it's preferable to free housing and the refugee allowance."

Zaza Baazov is an independent journalist based in Tbilisi

Georgia, Abkhazia
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