Foreign Policy Blogs

Georgia's other IDPs

Not even 30 km outside of Tbilisi and the first road sign to Sukhumi, Abkhazia’s de-facto capital, is a reminder of a legacy and war that continues to haunt the imaginations of IDPs who wish to return home and Georgians who wish to reintegrate the break away region. It is a sign of a conflict that refuses to relinquish and one that for the past few weeks appears to verge on the edge of explosion. Today, some 3600 Russian soldiers are deployed in Abkhazia. And President Vladmir Putin has said he intends to turn the territory into a fortress.

Just beyond the Sukhumi sign is a broad valley that stretches out far and wide. Isolated homes dot the green verdure of the slopes. Along the highway rusted power lines no longer in use hang by the wayside – also reminders of another era when Soviet industry and might dictated terms that Georgians are no longer willing to accommodate. And rightly so. On the horizon, one can make out the white peaks of distant mountains and on the zenith of nearby hill stands a Soviet era statue overlooking the patches of farmland that many still work by hand. This land carries an ancient history and life is anything but easy.

Most of the Georgians displaced by the August 2008 have since returned to their homes, attempting to rebuild their lives amid growing anxieties and lingering threats. But 220,000 to 247,000 ethnic Georgians displaced by the conflicts in the early 90s remain in limbo, unable to rejoin their former homes in Abkhazia. Some have settled in abandoned warehouses and hospitals in Zugdidi, a Georgian border town near Abkhazia, and others in Tbilisi and Kutaisi. Some just survive on paltry government stipends while others complain of receiving no benefits or help whatsoever.

Just before the August 2008 war, I spoke to several young Georgian IDPs in Tbilisi who had all fled Gali, a troubled district in Abkhazia, during the short but bloody two-week conflict in 1998. During that period, two-thirds of all the homes in Gali were set ablaze when Georgian partisans tried to liberate the area according to Thea Galdava of the Caucasian House, a centre for cultural relations in Tbilisi.

“We have the same history,” says Nino Kilanava referring to the Abkhazians she left behind as a child. Nino had just graduated and was working as a human rights and conflict resolution trainer when I spoke to her. “We grew up together. There isn’t a family that doesn’t have a relative who is Abkhaz. Living in Tbilisi is not difficult but we don’t have a choice.”

Reconciliation with her former neighbors and friends in Abkhazia ends when the discussion of independence is brought up. For these young IDPs, Abkhazia belongs to Georgia and while they have visited the break-away region since the 1998 conflict, fear keeps them from returning on more a permanent basis “If one Abkhaz dies then five Georgians will die. Yes, we are still afraid of the Abkhazians.” So far, around 45,000 ethnic Georgians have returned to the Gali district in Abkhazia but under conditions where poverty and lack of opportunity squeeze out any sense of normalcy.

Indeed, the security situation in Gali before the August war was anything but stable. The drive from the Inguri bridge to Sukhumi passed through war ravaged buildings, gutted from both fire and artillery shells. The hate that burned down those buildings are like wounds that refuse to heal. Aside from a number of cows walking on the road and the occasional Russian MC vehicle, the area appeared completely isolated and deserted. But people are here. For those Georgians still living in Gali, the situation has remained as ever – precarious and dangerous. Few are willing to speak but those who did wished to remain anonymous.

“Gali Georgians have no hope, no rights, so why don’t they just return to Georgia? Because ultimately they are not welcomed. Georgia sees their return as a failure to retain Abkhazia,” says Salla Nazarenko, journalist and project leader at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in Tbilisi.

In 2007, the Georgian government had adopted a State Strategy on IDPs to help integrate them without baring their eventual return to their homes. But according to IDMC, the Strategy has yet to be implemented and was reformulated after the August 2008 war.

In Tbilisi, the young IDPs seem to have retained some hope that their lot will somehow improve. Their solution for the end of this conflict is dialogue and understanding with the help of the international community.

“It is important that we continue to meet, to have dialogue, and forget the conflict. The government must follow through with the policies,” says Nino. But then she adds, only if Abkhazia relinquishes its hold and returns it to Georgia.

 

Author

Nikolaj Nielsen

Nikolaj Nielsen has a Master's of Journalism and Media degree from a program partnership of three European universities - University of Arhus in Denmark, University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, and Swansea University in Wales. His work has been published at Reuters AlertNet, openDemocracy.net, the New Internationalist and others.

Areas of Focus:
Torture; Women and Children; Asylum;

Contact

Great Decisions Discussion group