Georgia’s conflict with Russia over South Ossetia ended a year ago, but the stand-off continues. An Economist correspondent meets some of Georgia's displaced citizens ...
An imposing statue of Josef Stalin dominates the central square of Gori, the town in which he was born 130 years ago. Stalin statues elsewhere have been demolished, but he is Gori’s favourite son—the local boy made good.
Still, he showed the region of his birth no favour. Amongst his many worries, this “great Russian leader”, as modern Russian textbooks now portray him, strove to eliminate potential fifth columns that could threaten Moscow’s power. Forced deportation was one of his tactics: Chechens, Ingush and Meskhetian Turks were just some of those shipped off to the furthest reaches of the Soviet Union in the 1940s. Tinkering with boundaries was another: as Soviet rule extended over the Caucasus, he assigned Abkhazia to the Georgian republic, and Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan.
Such boundary drawing all but assured future conflict. Since the Soviet Union fell, fighting in Chechnya has uprooted about 850,000 people, in Nagorno-Karabakh roughly 600,000. Georgia’s forced migration is sad but not new.
Gaiozi is shaving as he welcomes us into his new bungalow in Skra, just a few miles outside Gori. He and his wife, Madina, share two small rooms and a kitchen; an outdoor toilet is a few yards away. But they have no bathroom—hence the bowl of water on the bed, and the hand-held mirror.
Not that Gaiozi is at all self-conscious: hospitality is a Georgian tradition, and we are made to feel most welcome. His family left their village on August 25th, not long after Ossetian militias arrived. His son drove his wife and children to Tbilisi; Gaiozi and Madina, grandparents in their sixties, took to the nearby woods with blankets and food. He saw his possessions stolen and his house burned. “I had six litres of home-made wine. They made me drink half a litre to make sure it was not poisoned, then they stole that too.” One thug put a gun to his head and threatened to pull the trigger, but Gaiozi’s wife is an Ossetian, and her pleading saved him.
Skra hosts about 450 people in 100 small cottages; it is one of many such settlements in Georgia that sprung up in late 2008. Some international organisations publicly criticised the speed with which they were built, highlighting a lack of proper planning and shoddy workmanship. The government scornfully dismissed the criticism: better to provide shelter than ponder it in interminable working groups.
From inside Gaiozi’s bungalow, however, the critics had a point: the walls were damp, the roof leaky and worms occasionally emerge through the floorboards. The first winter was difficult. Since then, the ceiling has been insulated, and summer dried the walls out. Gaiozi has been able to work the small plot of land around the property, but has nowhere to store his crop.
Not that he wants to stay here long: “I am an old man,” he said, “and I belong in my village.” He and his wife could easily return once the political situation allows it. His son might find it harder; his children have just started school, and uprooting them again would be tough. Realistically, though, Gaiozi’s chances of return any time soon are slim.
He blames Vladimir Putin for the war; his wife blames Mr Saakashvili. The disagreement was taken in good humour, but elsewhere debate about the causes of war remains divisive. As part of the ceasefire agreement, Russia and Georgia agreed to an independent investigation. Led by a Swiss diplomat, the team was due to present its findings in late July. That deadline has been extended until late September, in part to avoid escalating tensions on the anniversary of the war, in part because new evidence has recently come to light.
“I am sorry because I have nothing to offer you”, Gaiozi says at the end of our visit. “If we were back home, I would kill a chicken and offer you wine.” And he would, too.
Picture credit: viralbus (via Flickr)