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Refugees Magazine Issue 98 (After the Soviet Union) - Conflict in the Caucasus

Refugees Magazine, 1 December 1994

The collapse of communism and the rise of ethnic strife have plunged the southern fringes of the former Soviet Union into turmoil, particularly in the Caucasus where some 1.5 million people have been forced from their homes.

By Ron Redmond

The collapse of communism and the rise of ethnic strife have plunged the southern fringes of the former Soviet Union into turmoil, particularly in the Caucasus where some 1.5 million people have been forced from their homes in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Although there has been sporadic media coverage of the fighting over the past few years, the world is largely unaware of the human suffering that has followed for hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced people in all three republics.

At government invitation, UNHCR established offices in both Armenia and Azerbaijan in December 1992, marking the organization's first-ever assistance programme for refugees and displaced people in the former Soviet Union. UNHCR began operations in Georgia in July 1993.

In addition to its traditional legal and protection mandate, UNHCR's mission in all three republics is to provide humanitarian assistance to the most vulnerable of the refugees and displaced some 630,000 people in total.

But the refugees and displaced aren't the only ones who are hurting. The general populations of all three countries are also bearing a tremendous burden. The infrastructure is collapsing, and in many areas of the Caucasus fuel and power supplies are sporadic or nonexistent. Trade and industry have ground to a halt, leaving hundreds of thousands of families without jobs or income. Inflation has skyrocketed and there are shortages of just about everything. People are hungry, and the lines for government-subsidized bread grow longer by the day. In Armenia, a half-kilo of butter costs a month's wages; a kilogramme of meat, two months' pay.

UNHCR asked the international community for nearly $27 million for its 1994 programmes in the three Caucasian countries, part of a total U.N. consolidated appeal for the region of more than $114 million.

GEORGIA: At least 350,000 people have been displaced by ethnic conflict on two fronts in Georgia, a country of 5.5 million people that was once one of the most prosperous of all former Soviet republics.

The first conflict began in November 1989 between the government and separatists in the South Ossetia region of northern Georgia. The second and largest conflict erupted in August 1992 between the government and separatists in the Abkhazia region of north-west Georgia.

The displacements have occurred in several successive waves. Up to 350,000 of Abkhazia's estimated population of 540,000 fled the region between August 1992 and October 1993. Most of them, about 270,000 people, went to other areas of Georgia, while the remainder fled to the Russian Federation, Armenia, Greece and other countries. The majority of those fleeing were Georgians, who comprised 47 percent of the population of Abkhazia before the fighting the largest single ethnic group. Abkhaz constituted only about 18 percent of the pre-war population, but today control Abkhazia. Other sizeable ethnic groups included Armenians (18 percent) and Russians (about 13 percent).

In South Ossetia, about 16,000 people fled the ethnic fighting to other parts of Georgia, while another 10,000 went to the neighbouring North Ossetia region of Russia. In addition, at least 20,000 people have been displaced within South Ossetia itself. The fighting also affected some 100,000 Ossetians living in Georgia proper. South Ossetian authorities estimate that as many as 60,000 Ossets fled Georgia, most of them to Russia.

UNHCR has focused on assistance to 150,000 of the most vulnerable internally displaced people from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It has provided hundreds of tons of clothing, shoes, blankets, kitchen sets, soap, detergent, food and heating stoves to the displaced population, and is expanding a programme to rehabilitate accommodation centres throughout the country.

Valeri Vashakidze, head of the Georgia State Committee for Refugees and Accommodation, estimates that at least 60 percent of all aid going to refugees and the displaced in Georgia comes from UNHCR and other international sources.

Of the more than 250,000 displaced people currently in Georgia, approximately 70 percent are living with host families, many of whom are finding it increasingly difficult to support them. The rest are housed in schools, hotels, sanatoriums, hospitals and other public buildings.

The effect of this influx on local populations, already reeling under severe economic pressures, has been dramatic. The population of the central town of Senake, for example, rose from 20,000 to 40,000 following the influx of displaced, while the regional centre of Zugdidi swelled from 80,000 to 154,000 people.

The state social security network, which formerly provided assistance to some 1.5 million people, has virtually collapsed. The national currency, the coupon, has depreciated several thousand percent since it was introduced in September 1993.

"When we talk about assistance, we don't mean only for the displaced people," said Dr. Nino Uznadze, head of Georgia's International Humanitarian Aid Commission. "Host families and many in the general population also need help."

To meet the needs of the most vulnerable refugees and displaced, UNHCR initially appealed for $14.4 million for its 1994 programmes in Georgia, part of an overall U.N. humanitarian budget of more than $40 million for the country. UNHCR later reduced its component to $7.4 million. As of late October, $6 million had been received.

Despite the many problems, there are some signs of hope. UNHCR, the Russian Federation, Georgia and Abkhaz authorities signed a Quadripartite Agreement on 4 April 1994 paving the way for the return of refugees and displaced people to their homes in Abkhazia. The parties agreed that the return should begin in the Gali district of Abkhazia, where the level of damage is much less and the security situation better than in most other parts of the war-ravaged region. The return began in October, but progress has been slow because of a number of unresolved political issues between the Abkhaz and Georgians.

An estimated 80,000 people most of them Georgians fled the Gali district for other parts of Georgia. The current return plan assumes that some 40,000 of them will return to the Gali district. Some of the returnees are expected to come from the Russian Federation and other adjoining republics as well. Many of the returnees require some form of assistance from UNHCR food, temporary shelter, household supplies, reconstruction materials.

At least 80 percent of homes in the Gali district were looted and stripped of every removable item, including doors, windows and electrical and plumbing fixtures. However, most of the homes are structurally sound and can be repaired.

Land mines have been scattered indiscriminately by the warring sides, particularly along the Inguri River in Gali district. These weapons, many of which are hidden in tea plantations and farm fields, pose a major threat to returnees as well as to those who remain in the region. UNHCR, in coordination with the Department of Humanitarian Affairs, was to begin a mine-awareness campaign in November.

Mobile UNHCR field teams are closely monitoring the return and reintegration process, working with local authorities, CIS peace-keeping forces and other humanitarian agencies.

ARMENIA & AZERBAIJAN: The six-year war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh has left thousands dead, tens of thousands wounded and driven more than 1 million people from their homes. In addition, the economies of both countries are in ruins and hundreds of thousands of people are without jobs or incomes.

Initially established as a six-month, $6.4 million emergency operation for both countries, the UNHCR programmes in Armenia and Azerbaijan are now their second year and have a combined 1994 budget of $12.5 million.

As 1994 drew to a close, a fragile cease-fire remained in place in what has become the longest-running conflict on the territory of the former Soviet Union. But there was still no immediate prospect that the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the fighting would be able to go home anytime soon.

In addition to six years of war, Armenia is staggering under the effects of a de facto blockade by its neighbours that has at times blocked nearly all trade routes into the country, leaving it desperately short of food, fuel, seeds, fertilizer and other essentials. With the collapse of the former Soviet Union, government and regional administrative networks have disintegrated. What's left of the economy is a mixture of socialist, market and barter systems, underlaid with what locals call a strong "mafia" influence. More than 70 percent of the country's former industries have shut down, and those that remain open are operating at only 10 to 20 percent of capacity. The Armenian currency, the dram, was valued at 14.5 per U.S. dollar when it was introduced on 22 November 1993. By June 1994, it had depreciated to 400 per dollar. During the same period, prices increased 23-fold.

The Armenian government estimates that 94 percent of the population of 3.5 million people live below the World Bank poverty line of $1 per person per day. And the government is still trying to cope with the aftermath of the 1988 Armenian earthquake that devastated much of the country, killed 25,000 people and left 500,000 people homeless.

On top of these huge problems is a refugee population of more than 300,000 people who fled Nagorno-Karabakh and other areas in Azerbaijan in a series of outflows between 1988 and 1992.

UNHCR in 1994 assisted a "most vulnerable" caseload of 180,000 of these refugees. But as the above examples illustrate, nearly the entire population of Armenia is now vulnerable.

"Despite the hardships faced by the general population, the Armenian people have been extremely generous to the refugees. They feel a lot of sympathy for them," said Robert Robinson, UNHCR's head of office in Yerevan. "Armenians don't let each other starve. They share what they've got."

But that generosity may not last if things get much worse for the general population, particularly with the onset of another bitterly cold winter. "When you're sleeping in a room that's minus 10 degrees centigrade, you're on the ninth floor with no elevator, you have no electricity 24 hours a day and you have little food or fuel, it takes a huge psychological toll," Robinson said. "I think as each winter comes, the amount of energy that people have to cope becomes less and less."

UNHCR has increased its caseload of most vulnerable refugees in Armenia from 53,000 when it opened its office in December 1992, to 140,000 in 1993, to 180,000 in 1994.

In 1993, UNHCR delivered a total of 105,000 family food parcels, along with blankets, plastic sheeting and kerosene as part of a wider distribution by USAID (co-financed by Japan) to the general population. It also supported a variety of programmes by NGOs, including an innovative rural shelter project that provides so-called "container housing" and 800-square-metre plots of land to refugees so they can grow some of their own food.

Although the government has registered about 340,000 refugees, some 35,000 are believed to have returned to Nagorno-Karabakh and thousands more have gone to other countries mostly within the former Soviet Union because of the poor economic conditions in Armenia. It is estimated that about 300,000 refugees who fled from Azerbaijan remain in Armenia. The government says a further 72,000 people are displaced from towns and villages bordering Azerbaijan in the east. There are also an estimated 5,000-6,000 refugees who fled fighting in the Abkhazia region of Georgia.

About 60 percent of refugees in Armenia live in communal centres, many of which urgently require repair and rehabilitation.

UNHCR's funding requirements for Armenia in 1994 were $4,005,700 to provide multi-sectoral assistance to refugees and internally displaced people.

In Azerbaijan, UNHCR has seen the number of refugees and displaced people in the country swell from less than 500,000 in December 1992 when it opened its office in the capital, Baku, to some 900,000 today. Between 10 and 15 percent of Azerbaijan's population are now refugees or displaced, placing a huge strain on society and the government.

Although UNHCR's involvement in Azerbaijan initially began as a six-month programme, the Kelbajar emergency of April 1993 underscored the need for continuing emergency assistance as well as aid to previous arrivals. In 1993, fighting sparked at least five consecutive waves of displacement, prompting extension of the programme. UNHCR's support for 1994 included provision of basic essentials and other urgently needed assistance for refugees and displaced in the areas of health, water and sanitation.

UNHCR has provided tens of thousands of tons of humanitarian supplies to Azerbaijan since late 1992.

The refugee population is composed of 228,840 Azeris who fled Armenia, mostly in 1988. There are also some 50,000 Meskhetian Turks who fled from Uzbekistan in 1989, a movement not connected to the war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Internally displaced Azerbaijanis number at least 630,000.

The number of UNHCR beneficiaries those considered most vulnerable and in need of assistance has increased from 53,000 when the programme was established in December 1992, to 300,000 in 1994.

Some 42 percent of the beneficiary population are children under 15 years of age, 31 percent are women and 15 percent are elderly.

Most of the displaced are from rural areas and the majority now live with host families and in public buildings that have been turned into communal shelters. However, there has been near-total saturation of public buildings, including schools. As a result, by mid-1994 at least 60,000 displaced people were living in tent camps and settlements, many of which sprang up spontaneously along roadsides near the front lines following the latest fighting in mid-1993. UNHCR has begun a programme to provide tent schools to the displaced population.

UNHCR's funding requirements for Azerbaijan in 1994 totalled $8.5 million, all of which was met.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 98 (1994)

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