Tserovani settlement in Georgia, uncertainty and nostalgia

On April 9 the authorities of South Ossetia held a referendum to change the name of the de facto Republic. The President Leonid Tibilov wanted along with the presidential election to ask the people that remained in the region after the war, to change the name of South Ossetia for South Ossetia – The State of Alania. They won of course with 79% of the votes. Some analysts understood that this goes in the direction to unify the region (either de facto state or occupied Georgia depending on the point of view) of South Ossetia with the North Ossetia Alania region in the other side of the Caucasus, a region which is inside the Russian Federation. This was considered as a provocation by the Government of Georgia. The uncertainty of the internal displaced persons from the war of South Ossetia (from now on IDPs) continues and their situation is unresolved.

Author: Marc Fornós

April 2017, Tbilisi (Georgia)

War in 2008

The increasing tension between Russia and Georgia drove to the 5 days war in 2008. Whatever the cause people fled from areas where they were living and many violations had been committed in both sides according to Human Rights Watch. HRW has documented that the people from the region of Akhalgori, populated at that moment mostly by Georgians and not part of the previous conflict, suffered the harassment of militias and were forced to leave their territories under threats of closure the administrative border with Georgia. Now this territory is controlled by the authorities of Tskhinvali the capital of South Ossetia with the support of the Russian army and Russian intelligence, and there are two check points that separate that area from the rest of Georgia, one Georgian and one Russian. Between them there’s a kind of “no man’s land”. It seems that the Russian side decides who and how can get into the so called “de facto state” in one side, and according to the other side “occupied Georgia”, either by the authorities of Tbilisi or the majority of the international community.

Tserovani settlement

Near the ancient city of Mtskheta, 20 km from Tblisi, the capital of Georgia, next to the highway that has the goal to connect the Caspian Sea to the Black sea in what it will be a modern belt that one day will connect Europe and China like in the old silk route, it raises Tserovani, a huge settlement divided in squares and parallel lines that host 2000 cottages and 8.000 inhabitants. The people there are mostly from the region of Akhalgori which was undisputed territory before the war of 2008, also some from places around Tskhinvali. The settlement was built right after the war within six months to accommodate IDPs and there are 12 settlements like this one around the region, although this one is the biggest. Most of the population of this settlement have Georgian roots but also some are mixed with Ossetians, and some others with only Ossetian roots. They were forced to leave their houses and although some of them have the permission to go back they prefer to live in the settlement. The houses are still there some of them were looted, but at least still stand, not like in the region of Tskhinvali where the destruction was massive.

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We met in Tserovani Nana Chkareuli from the NGO “For a Better Future”, a girl that was motivated before the war in 2008 to have a more active role in her community and after that war she carried on with her activities to improve the circumstances that the IDPs were forced to live. This organization has several on-going programs, among them some for peace building and also for livelihoods. One of them is focused in the population of Akhalgori region, helping them to create small business there and to reinforce the link between this region and Tbilisi and the rest of Georgia. This program counts with the participation of the Danish Refugee Council providing grand to CHCA, NGO based in Tbilisi, and is called “From dependency to self-sufficiency-Innovative, effective and scalable livelihood solutions for Georgia”. The aim is either to help people to develop their own business and also to keep the link Mtskheta region-Akhalgori. Must be said that the road from Akhalgori to Tskhinvali is across the mountains, and the new road that the Russians built is more difficult from Akhalgori than to be linked with the valley and the Mtskheta region. Also the check points made life more difficult for the residents.

Nana herself knows that the situation is complicated and even goes from bad to worse, the news from the other side are not so good. She could go to Akhalgori in the past but the Russian checkpoint does not allow her to cross it anymore because of her activities in NGO field. In the case of this region there are many problems for the people caused by this imposed division of land after the conflict. Even more, on May 2013 the Russian troops started the installation of wire fences that add more problems for citizens and its livelihoods and of course this has a negative impact on the local population. In a statement after the wire fences construction in 2013 the European Union Monitoring mission had said that this is unacceptable and not in line with freedom of movement stipulated by provision of international law.

The EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM) in Georgia is in the region according to the six point agreement that ended the war in 2008 and their deployment assists helping people to talk and help them to have communication exchanges. Also the control inside borders in both sides according to that agreement, although south Ossetian and Russian authorities do not allow them to patrol their side. They patrol 24hs a day, seven days a week and every single week. EUMM Georgia has a hot line for exchange of information, which means that in a case of emergency they can help because both sides don’t talk to each other. For instance in a case of emergency because one woman needs medical attention to give birth in a Georgian hospital, EUMM Georgia can get the information from the Ossetian side and transmit it to the Georgian side in order to facilitate the situation and to make the transportation fast, a situation that happened in the past. But there are a lot of different situations where this mission can and try to help people in a determined action for peace and understanding, ensuring that there is no return to hostilities, as one of the aims of this monitoring mission.

“For a Better Future” focus also in the youth from the settlement, they are more and more in touch with the reality of the city of Tbilisi, only 20 km from Tserovani, and somehow leaving the Akhalgori reality behind. Even so, they organize activities to increase the sense of common identity with the hope to go back some day to their land and continue their lives there. But is not easy for them, teenagers are afraid to say that they are IDPs and they don’t say that because of the fear to be refused. They are not so well integrated in the Mtskheta region cause they have this particular situation that somehow receive more attention than others around them, a thing that cause unrest and rejection from the community in Mtskheta. On the other hand, they don’t live in their land, where they think they belong, although they own the cottages, the place has an obvious temporary nature. This situation of uncertainty is what makes everything more difficult, an enormous sense of nostalgia from our motherland – another settle told us- a feeling that we cannot get rid of it, always in our mind.

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The initial camp was built up in familiar houses that cost 1 GEL symbolic to the families that occupied them after some paperwork and was built up fast after the war. We walk around the place and the place has some particular situations, you can see different kind of houses and in different state. Some of them have improvements after some works, the other ones are deteriorating rapidly. We speak with some people and we ask them about the difficulties in the place and one young lady start to complain about the price of the gas bill. The same are saying two old ladies, but in this case they pointed out that they are afraid to complain, “at least we have gas now, perhaps if we speak up we will lose it”-one says-. It is clear that the old fear to speak up still remain in this generation but at the same time they are aware that some other settlements do not have gas and not even drinking water.

Difficult livelihoods

We went to another settlement, this case to Prezeti, to meet Mariam. In this case is a smaller place nevertheless has 1800 inhabitants and 300 cottages, the majority are from Akhalgori but some are from Tskhinvali. She is living in a regular cottage with her family of five members, parents and two brothers. She wanted to study journalism but after some bureaucratic problems she had to quit and finally she managed to study business. Now she is working in a bank and gets 200 GEL (75 Euros) and is the only member of the family that works right now. The family have also a little shop and many problems with it, for instance the producers don’t want to go to the settlement to bring goods because is not profitable for them and they have to manage to go by themselves to Tbilisi which is very difficult in their daily life. Also settlers cannot pay sometimes because they have no money. But they are managing the situation, they serve products anyway and at the end at least they do not lose money and is also a way to help the community.

The networks of support among IDPs is what makes life possible in the settlement, we must not forget that the unemployment is the main problem in the settlements and everything is difficult. At the same time the family have a little piece of land and some livestock, which give them food to survive, but the lands are not good -she says- and they have many problems to work with them. She also was working in some projects for the NGO “For a Better Future”, for instance as a coordinator in a project for youth community engagement with youngsters from 17 to 30. She would like to be more and more involved in social action in her community helping the neighbours to improve their lives, but at the same time situation is not easy for her and her family and now she cannot do anything else but work and help them with all her means.


Hope for the future.

Nana Chkareuli pointed out in our visit to Tserovani that the existing model of IDP allowance is problematic in many ways and cannot provide adequate assistance to the displaced families. She shares the opinion that is necessary to issue the IDP allowance reform and adjustment to the needs of the refugees in order to prevent risks. Among other things the government should not be guided by the state budged-saving initiatives and should identify the IDPs needs with active involvement of the IDPs and establish and appropriate system to support them.

In the middle of a political situation that is discussed in desks far away from their daily realties, the IDPs are stacked with this label that hurts, in their settlements waiting for a solution. They are struggling among the difficulties that anybody in the country has, but with the awareness and the trauma that had been pulled up brutally from the place where their ancestors live from old times, in a country that tradition and family is so important, and forced to live a life far away without their consent and always with uncertainty.  The IDPs in Georgia are also suffering of being in two places at the same time and in reality, they are neither in one nor in the other utterly, with a huge feeling of nostalgia that take them over.

>> You can also read this article in Danish at Magasine Roest.