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Refugees Magazine Issue 117 (IDPs) - A particularly complex problem

Refugees Magazine Issue 117 (IDPs) - A particularly complex problem
Refugees (117, 1999)

1 December 1999
It may be the only country in the world where UNHCR is involved in two simultaneous conflicts.

Georgia may be the only country in the world where UNHCR is involved in two simultaneous crises

By Ray Wilkinson

From a distance the Hotel Iveria looks like a massive flag of distress flying forlornly over the skyline of Tbilisi, the capital of the Republic of Georgia. Pieces of blue plastic, ragged and soiled bedsheets, worn clothing hang from each balcony producing a depressing 14-storey patchwork monument to human folly and despair only a few hundred yards from the country's elegant old city and government seat of power. Inside this shell there is the permanent stink of too many people who have been living too closely together for too long.

Eight people live in one tiny room. In another a young mother feeds her 1½ year-old son one piece of chocolate and one sip of water for breakfast. Dinner will consist of bread and potatoes. There are no elevators, little light and pensioners are trapped permanently like prisoners in their rooms. Winters are unbearably cold and the stifling summers are even worse for the 500 inhabitants.

The Hotel Iveria and its guests have become an easy and obvious symbol for many of the ills which have befallen Georgia since it declared independence from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1990. Almost immediately two major ethnic and secessionist conflicts erupted in Abkhazia in the far north-west and in South Ossetia, bordering on the Russian Federation in Georgia's north central region.

More than 250,000 ethnic Georgians were uprooted in the 1992-93 Abkhazia war and fled into Georgia. Thousands of Russians, Greeks, Armenians and Jews also left the country.

Nearly 70,000 civilians were displaced in every direction by the South Ossetia fighting. In a crazy mosaic of movement 40,000 South Ossetians moved north and sought sanctuary with ethnic kinsmen inside the Russian Federation, equal numbers of ethnic Georgians living in South Ossetia and ethnic Ossetians living in Georgia virtually swapped places and several thousand people were displaced within South Ossetia itself.

An uneasy calm

There have been periodic outbursts of renewed fighting, particularly in Abkhazia in early 1998, but Russian peacekeepers and a U.N. military mission have helped maintain a fragile and uneasy truce amidst endless rounds of negotiations to end the troubles. As the millennium ended there was some optimism in South Ossetia but the larger Abkhazia problem remained deadlocked.

For humanitarian organizations such as UNHCR the situation in Georgia represents a particularly complex challenge. Some of the displaced civilians such as those South Ossetians who fled to Russia were internationally recognized refugees - people who had sought safety in another country. The majority, however, were displaced within Georgia, their country of nationality, and classed as internally displaced persons (IDPs). As such they are subject to a different set of rules and standards, requiring a flexible and differing approach by aid agencies to the two situations.

Not only that, but as UNHCR Representative Ekber Menemencioglu noted, Georgia is probably the only country in the world where the organization is involved in two simultaneous but separate ongoing conflicts and where the organization participates directly in complicated and prolonged peace negotiations to end the crises.

Field staff must often work in extremely hazardous conditions. Funding is a perennial problem to help support victims of two crises most of the world has never even heard about. The Georgian government and its warring factions are too penniless to offer anything but token support for their own displaced citizens, many of whom have lived for years in squalid collective centres in legal limbo, having few automatic rights such as the power of the vote or the freedom to start a business even though they remain within their own country.

A major faultline

Georgia's Gali region is the breadbasket, or rather the fruitbasket of the country. Its fertile soil yields rich harvests of hazelnuts, mandarins, lemons and tea and in more peaceful times accounted for 50 percent of Abkhazia's gross national product.

Today, it is the most dangerous military faultline in the country, forming an uneasy border between Georgia and Abkhazia. Russian peacekeepers patrol the main crossing points. Abkhaz militias and Georgian units maintain their own checkpoints. United Nations observer helicopters scoot overhead. Some of the area is a no man's land, often too dangerous to travel by road. Numerous civilians, several dozen Russians and one U.N. officer have been killed by what field officer Mulusew Mamo calls "the weapon of choice in this area, the mine."

UNHCR personnel travel in heavily armoured and specially built anti-mine vehicles in the most dangerous areas of Gali where ambush and sniping by marauding armed groups has been common. The threat of kidnap here, in Tbilisi and in South Ossetia is ever present. Traditionally, UNHCR staff were able to assist refugees in safe 'second' countries, but as the organization's role expanded in recent years, including the introduction of programmes to help some of the world's internally displaced, field personnel came face to face with a harsh new reality; more often than not they found themselves in the middle of an ongoing crisis such as the situation in Gali or South Ossetia and not safely on the sidelines. "It is now part of the job," says Mulusew Mamo. "There are few safe places left in this profession."

After the initial mass exodus from Abkhazia in the early 1990s people began to trickle back to the Gali region and by 1997 as many as 50,000 had returned. Agencies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and UNHCR launched ambitious programmes to kick start the region back to life, rehabilitating agricultural projects, homes, schools and clinics. But amidst claim and counter claim about which side began the shooting, conflict again broke out in May, 1998 and Abkhaz militias drove tens of thousands of ethnic Georgians back across the border, levelling more than 1,500 homes and schools in a frenzy of ethnic cleansing.

"Gali broke my heart," says Ekber Menemencioglu. "It is so fertile and we were so hopeful things might work out. And then came the renewed fighting." Today, though many ethnic Georgians return to Gali on a daily basis from just across the border to farm their plots, UNHCR refuses to help rebuild the region's infrastructure for a second time until a permanent peace is concluded. At year's end that looked unlikely with Abkhaz leaders favouring total independence or a link with its Russian neighbour and Tbilisi offering autonomy within the Georgian state.

Like so many obscure and little understood conflicts in out of the way places, Abkhazia risks becoming even more marginalized by an international community disillusioned and frustrated by a seemingly intractable crisis.

A human jigsaw

In the South Ossetia capital of Tskhinvali, Stephanie Rinville makes her daily round, helping to patiently paste back together the region's fragmented human jigsaw. There has been a modest success here. Several thousand people have returned from Russia and a trickle from Georgia proper. UNHCR helped reconstruct homes and offered other assistance to smooth the return home. During her visits, the UNHCR field officer checks building progress, the well-being of the returnees, engaging in a constant person-to-person dialogue.

Protection work, however, is labour-intensive - and expensive. "This type of operation, hands-on protection, does not come cheap," says Representative Ekber Menemencioglu. "It's not like distributing a bag of flour." True enough, but an ongoing headache to find sufficient funds from a weary donor community.

"Just our presence here has helped to bring a degree of stability," says Stephanie, a member of the local UNHCR mobile team, so named because of its ability to transfer quickly from region to region to any new crisis. "But we may have done as much as we can here" she said adding that more emphasis would be put on helping thousands of displaced persons, currently blocked by fear and property disputes, to return to Georgia proper.

That may be difficult. Raya Kisieva, has lived with her three children in a single room, its walls covered in a dirty yellow smear, in the Turbata collective centre in Tskhinvali since 1991. A trained economist, she now makes the equivalent of eight dollars a week working at a local car wash. The family fled their Georgian home after her husband had been severely beaten by neighbours during the turmoil early in the decade. "How can we live with them again after they drove my husband mad, literally," Mrs. Kisieva asked. "Perhaps in several centuries peace will happen again. But it will be too late for us. We will probably have to stay here."

There is the same mood of brooding resignation among many of Georgia's displaced population which are bewildered not only by their original forcible eviction, but by their current predicament.

As nationals of Georgia, the displaced should be far better off than typical refugees, receiving the protection of their own government and the benefits of other citizens. All too often, however, internally displaced persons fall foul of governments either incapable of helping huge numbers of uprooted people or which usurp their rights out of political expediency.

Georgia, which has difficulty in paying teachers and state salaries on a regular basis, can only offer its tens of thousands of displaced persons token assistance. Equally worrying is the fact that the majority now cannot vote in national elections or even begin a new business to try to support their families.

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 117 (1999)