Abkhaz officials encourage them to return but Georgian refugee leaders warn against doing so.
By Irma Choladze and Natia Kuprashvili in Kutaisi (CRS No. 477, 22-Jan-09)
“Hay, cross-shaped cheese cakes, hazel twig and fruits. A pig’s head is the only thing missing,” said Giuli Fangani, as her family and other refugees from the Kodori Gorge prepared to hold their traditional New Year’s Party.
“I suppose my pig was eaten long ago. Who would have left it alive?”
Minutes before midnight, men holding these ritual objects knocked on the door of the refugees’ temporary home in the former machine-building school in Kutaisi, a city in western Georgia, and then recited a rhyme in their own language.
It was a brave attempt to make themselves feel at home 100 kilometres away from their remote and forested valley.
All ethnic Svans, with a language distinct from Georgian, they left their homes in the gorge in August just ahead of advancing forces controlled by Abkhazia’s breakaway government.
They have been living in the most basic conditions since, but that did not stop them celebrating Orthodox New Year on January 14.
They complain that the government – which has already had to help more than 200,000 refugees who fled Abkhazia in 1993 as well as those displaced by the war in South Ossetia – has done little to assist them.
“We’re not livestock, we need to wash ourselves, to wash our clothes, just to live. I am all nerves and I can’t even smoke, because there are no cigarettes in the aid we get and we don’t have any money. It would be better if they gave us money to buy what we want. And even better would be if they had kept the gorge and things had not come to this,” said Omar, one of the refugees.
The authorities in Abkhazia, whose independence is recognised by Russia but by no other countries in Europe, say it is safe for the refugees to go home. But the United Nations has advised them not to and, since the high passes are closed by snow for eight months of the year, they would struggle to do so anyhow.
The Abkhazian assault on their villages, which lost the Georgian government the last pocket of Abkhazia still under its control, took advantage of Russia’s victory in South Ossetia. Refugees from South Ossetia flooded into Georgia proper, while many of their houses were burned behind them.
Under the French-brokered ceasefire that ended the conflict, the Russians agreed to pull their forces back to their pre-conflict positions in the two breakaway provinces. But the Kodori Gorge‘s status is not covered by the agreement – which only refers to “the zones adjacent to South Ossetia and Abkhazia” which the Russian army seized control of – leaving the 2,000 refugees in limbo.
The former school in Kutaisi is now temporary home to 276 families from Kodori. What food they have is provided to them by the UN and is mainly bread, cereals and canned meat.
Each of the rooms in the building accommodates several families, including many children. The beds are separated from one another by whatever can be used as a curtain.
The common kitchen is always busy. During IWPR’s visit, a woman was warming up milk for her one-year-old toddler, while others were cooking macaroni with canned meat – a meal later to be shared by all the residents.
There are few other facilities.
“We cannot wash our linen and clothes. Local people have been very helpful, doing our laundry for us. Some of them have even invited us to wash ourselves at their place,” said one old woman called Nazi.
In the meantime, the local government has been building blocks of flats for the refugees, using funds provided by Tbilisi.
Kutaisi deputy mayor David Godeladze said each family would receive a flat by February 15.
“These are apartments equipped with all modern amenities,” said Godeladze. “I wish the Kodori residents could go home, but even when that happens, the [Kutaisi] flats will remain their property.”
Today, Sergei Shamba, the “foreign minister” of Abkhazia, is advising the former Kodori residents to return to their homes.
Abkhaz news agency Apsnypress cited Shamba as saying that “the Abkhaz government will not cause any problems to those who wish to return to the Kodori Gorge”.
But Georgia’s own exiled loyalist administration for the region has a different point of view.
“The gorge is occupied by the Abkhaz and Russian militaries. Even if the land road were not blocked, I don’t think any of the refugees would dare return there,” Temur Mzhavia, chairman of the exiled Supreme Council of the Abkhaz Autonomous Republic, told IWPR.
“The refugees know well what conditions Georgians have been living in Gali, and I don’t think this is something they would wish for themselves,” he said, mentioning the part of Abkhazia where ethnic Georgians make up the absolute majority of the population.
Members of the Fangani family say they would like to return to the gorge, whatever the risks are, but do not know what has happened to their houses.
“They have only said that our houses were not burnt, unlike those in Georgian villages [in South Ossetia], but robbed clean by looters,” said Giuli Fangani, who left behind a six-room house, livestock and beehives in Kodori.
Like other refugees, the Fangani family can’t wait to move into the new flat. But they are sad that they failed to do so before the New Year, because of a local superstition that how you meet the New Year will determine how you spend the next 12 months.
“When snowfalls blocked the roads, we would leave the gorge for some time,” said Giuli. “But we knew that the spring would come, and we would go back to our homes. Now we are not so sure.”
Irma Choladze is a correspondent of a Kutaisi-based TV-company Rioni. Natia Kuprashvili is a freelance journalist.