Georgia,  Tieran Meets the World

Stuck in Limbo Living in Abandoned Soviet Buildings

IDPs Displaced by War and Stuck in Abandoned Soviet Buildings for 28 Years

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Summary: Georgian IDPs (internally displaced people) have lived in abandoned soviet facilities for 28 years after they fled their homes during the Abkhazia and South Ossetia conflicts. I was able to meet some of them, and learned how their situation is linked to Russian occupation and the 2019-20 Tbilisi protests.

Chapter 1

Tbilisi Protests: Anger in Georgia’s Capital

The red and white of Georgian flags waved from side-to-side above a sea of people, shouts and screams echoed down Rustaveli Avenue, and a row of riot shields formed a wall in front of the crowd. Hundreds upon hundreds of police officers stood shoulder-to-shoulder, careful not to escalate the situation as they had done a week earlier. The country was angry, and it would be displaying that anger in full force in the capital, Tbilisi, every evening for weeks.

“A couple of days ago the Georgian parliament invited a Russian communist in Parliament in Russia to make an address at an international event for the Orthodox church.” My friend, Nino, explained. “He sat in the chair of the speaker of the parliament, and for Georgians that was very symbolic. We have fought against Russian occupation so much, and against Russian regulations and imperialism, and then the government was letting this guy sit in the chair of the speaker… Georgians found it very unfair and disrespectful.”

Riot police stand between two groups of protestors in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi.

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Those initial protests had turned violent. Police had fired rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowd; nobody was killed but one girl lost an eye and three people were hospitalized. The anger hadn’t boiled over out of nowhere; animosity towards Russia had been building for years. Why? Because in 2008, Russia sent its military across the border to occupy two Russian-backed separatist regions, Abkhazia in the Northwest, and South Ossetia in the North. The resulting conflict saw hundreds killed, but Russia and the separatists secured their objectives. Now, Russian forces occupy around 20% of Georgia’s total landmass; that number explained the figure I’d seen spray-painted on walls and emblazoned on posters and shirts.

Protestors in Tbilisi GeorgiaProtestors of all ages took to the streets; this man is wearing an eye-patch in honour of the girl who lost an eye when she was hit by a rubber bullet in an earlier protest. The number “20” represents the percentage of Georgia’s territory currently occupied by Russian force.

Protests against Russian Occupation and Gakharia in Tbilisi GeorgiaTwo protestors outside Georgian parliament. The sign reads “Ghakaria! It’s my birthday today, so can you hurry up out of here?”

The histories of these conflicts go back long before the Russian invasion, so I met up with Nino, a peace-builder whose work involves bringing those on opposing sides of conflicts to engage in dialogue and discussion, to find out more. She was born in Abkhazia, and her family was forced to leave when she was still an infant. Despite the direct effect the situation had on her, her job requires her to remain objective and neutral, so she was able to provide an unbiased explanation of both sides of the story. She confirmed that much of the tension that ultimately led to the conflict is rooted in ethnicity; it was, after all, only ethnic Georgians who were forced to leave Abkhazia and South Ossetia once they declared independence from Georgia.

The Georgian storyline is that Georgians always lived with Abkhazians in a peaceful way. Abkhaz people are not ethnically Georgian; Abkhazians belong to one of the tribes in the Northern Caucasus, but it is the case that they were always living on that territory alongside Georgian. But Georgians have another theory that Abkhazia was never an independent state throughout its history. So that’s why Georgians think that the territory belongs to Georgia.

On the other hand, you have the Abkhaz perspective. They believe that Georgian imperialism always oppressed them. They want to be independent, and they don’t want to live with Georgians. From 1979, these really strong nationalistic movements started, and then there were demonstrations and so on, and finally they asked for secession from Georgia – that was because Georgia wanted to leave the Soviet Union and Abkhazia wanted to remain in it – and then the war started.

 Poster of Giorgi Gakharia from Tbilisi Protests reading "Sorry is not enough"A poster handed to me by protestors, depicting Giorgi Ghakaria, now Georgia’s prime minister (but at the time the Minister of Internal affairs). Many demanded his resignation after the violent clashes between protestors and police. The Georgian text reads “Sorry is not enough”. “20%” signifies the percentage of Georgian land currently occupied by Georgian forces, and the eye-patch is in honour of the protestor who lost an eye when shot with a rubber bullet by police.

To go deep into all the origins of the conflict would require an entire e-book in itself, so this is an abridged explanation. But it reflects an overarching theme across much of the former Soviet Union; when it was in the process of collapsing, several independence movements were triggered across its territory (including the one in Transnistria, which I discussed in an earlier e-book).

Chapter 2

Natia’s Escape from the Abkhazia War

I wanted to speak to someone with first-hand experience of the conflicts and the crises that came with them. The fighting led to the displacement of some 250,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), which is basically a term for refugees that are forced from their homes but not their country. So, accompanied by my friend and translator, Chris, an American expat who’d mastered the language over the past seven years, I headed to a city in the West, called ქუთაისი (Kutaisi) to talk to some of them. My first meeting was with a woman whose story was more dramatic than I could have anticipated; to protect the identity of those who helped her escape Abkhazia, she had to remain anonymous so, for the purposes of this article, we’ll give her the pseudonym of ნათია (Natia).

“In all my life growing up in Abkhazia, me and my family never had any conflicts with any of the Abkhazians there, despite of the fact that my family had a high ranking in society in the city that we lived in. But during wartime, that rank became a problem; then my family really became victims.

Most people I’d spoken to did not have issues on a personal level with Abkhazians or Georgians. Instead, the animosity seemed to be directed towards the “other side” as a whole. It was refreshing to hear that people like Natia were still able to see others for who they were, beyond their ethnicity and background. Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that there are many who don’t feel this way. Historically in Caucasian culture (I’m referring to culture in the Caucasus not White Europeans, which, fun fact, was actually the original definition of the term before it was redefined by a German anthropologist called Johann Friedrich Blumenbach), “let bygones be bygones” is less adhered to than “an eye for an eye”. In fact, in Georgia’s Svaneti region – a stunning mountainous area to the north – blood feuds are still prevalent between different Svan clans. When talking about moving forward, be that from the bloodshed in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, or the Nagorno-Karabach conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, that’s an obstacle that needs to be taken into consideration. In discussions with Armenians, Georgians, and Azerbaijanis, many suspected violence could kick off again if people who fought on opposing sides of the conflicts suddenly went back to being neighbours. For some, there is a desire for retribution that has never been quenched.

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Once the war kicked off, her family was persecuted by the Abkhaz separatists, and were forced to come up with a way to get out of the region. Natia continued:

“It was very difficult and intense for my family to get out of Abkhazia, to get here to Kutaisi. My children were 7 and 4. My husband was kind of the right-hand of the old government; so the separatists said to him, “you know a lot of information”, and imprisoned him in Sokhumi.  They were threatening to kill our children, so we managed to get our kids out and sent them to Georgia, and then we got my husband out of prison; it was actually some Abkhazians who helped us. 

I was under house-arrest during that time, for 11 days while my husband was in prison. Friends of ours helped us to get out of the city, and then out of the country. We went in a car, and brought petrol with us so we didn’t have to stop at any petrol stations along the way. You weren’t allowed to exit the city without a permit; it was surrounded by a blockade, so one of our friends got a permit for us. We couldn’t have left otherwise. Both the Georgian and Abkhazian governments were sort of involved in getting us our freedom, because my husband and I both had high ranks in the government, and they had a list of all the people who worked for the government.

Of course, there were moments I thought we’d be caught. We still were at risk of losing our lives and, even with a permit, we weren’t sure we’d be able to cross. There were a lot of cases where some Georgians had gotten a permit, and as they crossed the border they were shot in the back. We were constantly looking behind us to check that no one would shoot us from behind and kill us. But we got the permit and went across the border. Then we were in the middle [between Abkhazia and Georgia]; whatever happened to us there, there would have been nobody that was held accountable. I was really scared at that point. If we had been caught on the way out, they would have killed us. After that point, they wouldn’t imprison you, they would just execute you. Nobody would know that we had been killed. War doesn’t have law.”

After all that, for the first month that we were here, we were in a psychological centre where they were just working on helping us get past all that trauma; the stress had been so intense. After one month in that centre, they put us up in a hotel here in Kutaisi. I ended up staying there for 17 years.

Natia spoke as though her story was one of many. I suspected it was down to the fact that so many had endured similar hardships, and that she’d been interviewed about this before, but the tone in which she described her escape made it all sound run-of-the-mill. She was forced to leave everything and everyone she knew behind at a moment’s notice. When I asked her if she had time to prepare, or at least pack a few important belongings, she laughed:

“No, what are you talking about? You can’t think “oh, I’m going to take this and this”. The important is just to get to Georgia alive. All the gold, the diamonds… it’s excess. I don’t feel much pain knowing that I left these things behind. I can get these things again – they might not be gold, but still. Although I would still be really happy if someone was able to bring my stuff here, especially my photo albums.”

The government was able to give just $4,500 in compensation to each family who lost their homes as a result of the Abkhaz and South Ossetia wars. Fortunately, Natia had managed to start a new life in Georgia, and was no longer totally reliant on government housing and assistance to survive, but there were many, many more who still had yet to find their footing. $4,500, after all, is not enough money to restart your life. I’d heard rumours that a number of old Soviet medical facilities, ranging from children’s hospices to psychiatric wards, that had been abandoned once the U.S.S.R. fell, had been refitted to “temporarily” house Georgian IDPs, in a desperate attempt to cope with the sudden influx of people fleeing the fighting. It was difficult to get a clear answer on where they were, but Chris mentioned that he’d seen some in a nearby village, წყალტუბო (Tskaltubo). So, we hopped on a marshrutka (a type of minibus) to see the housing for ourselves, and to find out how the government was catering to those still in need.

Chapter 3

Stuck in Limbo for 28 Years: Life in an Abandoned Soviet Sanatorium

From outside, it looks abandoned. Chris and I have been searching for over an hour, asking locals where we can find the IDP housing settlements. Not even nearby residents seemed to know. At long last we’d been directed here, but now we look at one another, ready to give up and head back to Kutaisi. But wait… we pause for a moment to listen; the echoes of voices struggle to penetrate the vegetation, but we hear them.

“Is this it?” I ask, as Chris takes a step towards a dirt road almost erased by unruly, overgrown plants. As if to answer my questions, the ding of a bell cuts through the trees and a boy on a bike appeared at the end of the lane, scraping past the undergrowth at his side. “Must be.”

IDPs and Refugees living in Abandoned soviet sanatoriums GeorgiaThe exterior of the old left wing of the sanatorium, now used to house IDPs.

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You’d never know from passing by that dozens of families live in this abandoned Soviet Sanatorium; a medical facility that hasn’t housed patients in over 20 years. Ivy crawls up walls crusted with flaking paint and around windows that have long since lost their glass. A bark here, a whine there, and a stray dog scampers between the buildings. It’s only when you get closer that you notice the signs of inhabitants; towels hanging from clothes lines and the chickens clucking outside their coops. 

More signs of life; we glimpse a man carrying wood inside, a young mother waving from a window with her son, and the occasional TV satellite dish perched on a balcony railing. Awaiting its owner in neutral, a dilapidated Lada that looks about as old as the facility we wandered through splutters fumes from a rusted exhaust.

Abkhazia South Ossetia IDP and Refugee housing in GeorgiaThe outside of a sanatorium ward converted into temporary IDP housing.

Now, people are starting to take more notice of the two unfamiliar faces speaking English; another wave from the top floor of one of the old wards, and a nod from a kid carrying a beaten up football. We follow the sounds of clucking until we stumble across some chickens pecking at seeds scattered amongst tree roots and pine needles, and we’re greeted with a smiling face. ადელი (Adele) has been here since 1992, when she was forced out of Abkhazia. That was long before Russia invaded Georgia, though even back then they still unofficially backed the separatists. She explained what life was like in the sanatorium:

“It’s quite a difficult life. We have no warm water, no gas supply, and no baths. There’s lots that needs to be improved. There is no work for us here, so I have to have these chickens to feed my family. Lots of people who were here have moved on to Poti, Batumi and Kutaisi, but about half remain here.”

Adele is an IDP who fled Abkhazia war

Adele, an IDP from Abkhazia feeds her chickens outside her apartment building.

After talking outside for a few minutes, Adele leads us to see her apartment. “These are really bad conditions, we’re all in difficulty. Not just me, all of us. We came here ourselves without the help of the government initially” She rests her hand on a bannister that wobbles as she walks up a flight of stairs. “It’s difficult to cook. We can do it with electricity, but that’s more expensive so we use gas cannisters. It’s not comfortable living.” We pass a pile of firewood on the landing, and a row of doors secured with makeshift locks; padlocks on metal shutters.

Firewood outside IDP housing in GeorgiaFirewood on the landing on the same floor as Adele’s apartment in an abandoned Soviet sanatorium.

What comfort do I have? The walls are peeling, and the wind rips wallpaper from wall. I’m a pensioner, and I can’t afford to buy medicines, or make repairs. I received no compensation when I left. Now, I get 200 Lari ($62.00) per month from my pension, plus 90 Lari ($28) from social assistance.

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IDP housing in soviet sanatorium Tskaltubo Georgia
IDP apartment Tskaltubo Georgia
IDP accomodation Tskaltubo in Georgia

 Inside Adele’s apartment: (Top) her bedroom/living room, kitchen (bottom-left), and stove (bottom-right).

I expected to stay here for a maximum of 10 days when I arrived, and then the war would finish and we would go back.

She repeats a common theme that I’d heard from Natia and others I’d spoken to; that they’d expected this to be a very short-term situation. Most IDPs thought that they’d be able to return to their homes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia within a few weeks. 28 years later, and they are still waiting for the conflict to end.

IDP residents of the Soviet Sanatorium in TskaltuboAdele’s neighbours sit outside their apartments in the Sanatorium chatting.

Chapter 4

The Modern IDP Settlements in Georgia

We step off our second marshrutka of the day outside some of the more modern IDP housing. It’s not luxurious, but from the outside, at least, the short, blocky apartment blocks look practical and adequate for their purposes. A woman shoots by on rollerblades while laughing with an invisible friend on the other end of a phone call. This is one of the more modern settlements, built after the war so that some IDPs could be moved out of the Sanatoriums and into more acceptable living conditions. Up ahead, a man sits on a bench, flicking his thumb through a metal necklace in one hand. He introduces himself as ვახტანგ (Vakhtang), a war veteran who fought in the Abkhaz conflict. He tells us that he fought for almost 2 years, before the war entered the “frozen” state in which it remains to this day. Because he was on the opposing side to the separatists, he wasn’t able to stay in his home.

Vakhtang is a veteran of the Abkhazia Georgia conflictVakhtang sits in front of a grape vine outside his apartment in a modern IDP housing block.

“I’ve been here for 7 years. Before that I was in a sanatorium. This place was built specifically for IDPs; it’s falling apart, and hasn’t been done well. Some apartments have two rooms, but many have just one.”

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The number of rooms in each apartment is important; Vakhtang tells us that regulations have been a big issue for the residents here. According to him, a health and safety law regarding gas pipes and living spaces meant that the government turned off his supply.

“The law says that where a person sleeps, there cannot be gas. But the government built this with one room, where I have to sleep and cook, so what’s an old guy going to do when winter comes? It’s cold and there’s no gas!” 

He’d found a way around that law now, by constructing a wall through the middle of his apartment, splitting one room into two. But “some people still have a husband, wife, and kids all in same room, without gas.”

“I want to leave, but I cannot. I don’t have a place to go besides this. Where can I go? The government doesn’t help us enough.”

That’s perhaps one of the biggest issues faced by many IDPs: that there is no opportunity for them to move on. Many feel that the government has not helped them to get back on their feet after the war, and that’s trapped them in this sort of no-man’s-land, where they cannot get jobs, so can’t afford their own housing, and have to rely on government support. It’s a cycle of deprivation that is very difficult to break out of.

Modern IDP housing in Tskaltubo Georgia
Modern IDP apartment Tskaltubo Georgia
IDP apartment block Tskaltubo Georgia

The more modern IDP housing: (top left) exterior, (right) the stairwell above one of the entrances  and (bottom right) Vakhtang’s kitchen.

We take some photos and move to leave. I hesitate and, out of curiosity, I ask what the necklace, that Vakhtang is still flicking through with his thumb, is meant to signify. He tells me he “made it out of paperclips”, and it’s for his religion; a form of prayer beads used in Orthodox Christianity. Without warning, he puts it over my head, shakes my hand, and refuses to take it back. As I write this, it’s hanging from my bookshelf behind me.

Vakhtang's homemade prayer beads orthodox christianityVakhtang’s homemade prayer beads; prayer beads are often used by orthodox Christians, who are the dominant religious group in Georgia.

Chapter 5

Forgiving, Peace-Building, and Moving Forward

Back in Kutaisi, I’d asked Natia whether she still felt angry about all that had happened to her. I couldn’t imagine letting go of an experience like hers, and forgiving those who were the cause of her and her family’s suffering. I was amazed to learn that she was now involved in the peace-building process between the two sides. Like Nino, she facilitates discussion between Abkhazians and Georgians. 

“Yeah, it’s difficult for us to forgive when there has been casualties and bloodshed. I couldn’t have imagined at the time that after all this stuff that I went through, that I would be involved in the peace-building process. Politically, we won’t forgive each other but, on a personal level, the people themselves want peace. It’s possible that my generation won’t see that happen, but in the next generation I think they will be able to manage. It’s all about the political will, and the discussions that will take place with the President of Russia and the President of Georgia. If we want to reconcile with Abkhazia and with Russia, we all must take steps together.”

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“As long as I am alive and breathing, I’m going to continue being involved. There are good educational reforms happening in Georgia and Abkhazia, and we will have more exchange with each other. Georgia is starting its integration into Europe, and the education system will start doing this too. Then we will have the ability to bring these values and experiences from Europe to Abkhazia. We’re making progress, and nobody should fall behind; not us, not them, not anyone. Through sharing of experiences, with small steps, we will be able to build trust and peace.

Before we leave, I ask Natia one final question: what would you do if you were allowed to return to Abkhazia tomorrow? 

“I’ve often thought, “how can I return?” I know that people live in my home now. It’s an Abkhazian family. If I return back there, I don’t want to be in this home; I will give it to them as a gift. For me, I want a home on the coast, but on that land. I don’t want any compensation; I’ll do it all myself, without the help of the government, just let me be on my land.”

She didn’t harbour hostility towards the people who have lived in her home since it was taken from her. Instead, what was important to her was to be able to live in the region she called “home”. She seemed to have abandoned any sense of attachment to material items; be it jewellery or a house. Whether other people in similar positions would be as understanding about their old properties, however, is another question. 

Final Thoughts

It’s easy to miss the struggles that Georgia and many of its citizens face. The stunning natural beauty, the warm culture, and its often overshadowed presence on the world stage means the IDP situation doesn’t gain the media traction internationally that it should. That, coupled with the fact that the Georgian government is moving aggressively to boost the tourist industry, particularly since their economy has suffered after Russian issued trade sanctions on Georgian wines (a decision sparked by the conflict between the two nations), has left many of those still living in the architectural skeletons of the Soviet Union feeling forgotten. As we said farewell to Adele after she showed us around her accommodation, she leaves us with a parting comment that reinforced that notion: If nothing else comes of this article you’re writing, the world has to know about it.”

Thoughts? Leave a comment down below!

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