Patchworks of displaced people mired in memory and grievance
CAUCASUS LETTER:Poverty and indignity run deep due to years of conflict, while feelings of injured identity could well provide the fuel for renewed war
CHECHEN SONGS and the drum of hooves filled the mountain air in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge as exiles from the war-ravaged Russian region marked the recent World Refugee Day with traditional music and horse racing.
Almost 1,000 Chechen refugees live in Pankisi, beneath the Caucasus peaks where Georgia and Russia meet.
They were among some 8,000 people who trekked through the mountains to escape renewed fighting in Chechnya in 1999.
Georgia does what it can to help the Chechen refugees, while also tackling a much bigger problem posed by its own displaced people.
The country’s 4.7 million population includes some 230,000 Georgians who fled the Black Sea region of Abkhazia when it fought free of Tbilisi’s rule in the early 1990s, and 22,000 more who were driven from another rebel province, South Ossetia, when war erupted there in 2008.
Neither group can go back to their homes, most of which have been occupied by others or destroyed. The prospects for any return are bleak as Russia draws Abkhazia and South Ossetia ever closer, stationing thousands of troops in both regions and recognising them as independent states.
Many people displaced by the Abkhaz war lived in dire conditions for much of the last two decades, as instability and poverty limited Georgian governments’ capacity to help.
Aid groups warned of another humanitarian crisis when Georgia and Russia clashed over South Ossetia four years ago. But with EU money, Georgia built several new villages within months to house thousands of people displaced by the five-day war.
The largest such village is Tserovani, where some 2,000 cottages stand in serried ranks beside the highway that heads north from Tbilisi towards separatist South Ossetia.
It has its own modern school, a small football pitch, and people grow vegetables and even rear pigs in plots beside the cream-walled, red-roofed houses.
Residents of some newly built settlements have complained that the houses are freezing in winter and stifling in summer, suffer leaks and infestations of vermin, and are miles from big employers.
During a recent visit by officials to Tserovani, however, locals praised the government for doing its best when time and money were short. “There are not many countries in which such a problem has been addressed so resolutely,” said the EU’s envoy to Georgia, Philip Dimitrov.
For many people in Georgia, from the Pankisi Gorge to the Black Sea, memories of war and displacement are fresh, and dreams of going home strong.