"Hazelnut refugees" may soon be able to sleep at home again

News Stories, 26 August 2008

© UNHCR/M.Sunjic
The mayor of Anaklia (right) points across the Enuri River to Abkhazia.

ANAKLIA, Georgia, August 26 (UNHCR) Conflict may have forced the people of Ganmuhuri to flee their homes in the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia, but it could not stop them from returning to harvest their precious hazelnuts.

A UNHCR team came across the displaced group of 59 families when they went late last week to the village of Anaklia in western Georgia to assess protection needs. The UN refugee agency returned later with blankets, kitchen sets and jerry cans for the newcomers.

The families (about 240 people in total) comprise the entire population of Ganmuhuri, which lies across the Enuri River from Anaklia in a small ethnic Georgian pocket of Abkhazia. On August 8, fighting erupted in another breakaway region South Ossetia and later spread to parts of Abkhazia.

When Abkhaz forces took control of the Georgian pocket, the people of Ganmuhuri were too afraid to stay in their homes overnight. Every evening they cross the river by boat and seek safety with host families in Anaklia, only to return to their homes and land in the morning.

"We call them hazelnut refugees," said Anaklia's mayor, Gela Lemonjava. "It is the height of the hazelnut harvest, so they go back to collect hazelnuts in the day and come to sleep in our village when night falls," Lemonjava explained.

"What we witness here is called night displacement," added Alessandra Morelli, UNHCR's emergency coordinator in western Georgia. She has seen similar situations in Sri Lanka, where the UN refugee agency also helps tens of thousands of displaced people.

But an end to their exile is in sight. Tensions have been easing in the region, with Russian Federation forces seen moving out of western Georgia. UNHCR expects that the "hazelnut refugees" will soon be able to sleep at home again.

By Melita H. Sunjic in Anaklia, Georgia