Sunday, November 7, 2010
georgia: refugees of abkhazia 2010
Soon after Georgia gained its independence, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, internal strife between the semi-autonomous region of Abkhazia within Georgia and the Georgian government began. Problems were quelled for a time but erupted again after the coup that ousted Georgia’s first democratically elected president, Gamsakhurdia. War for Abkhazia’s independence was waged against Georgia and its new leader, Shevardnadze, between the years of 1992-1993. At the same time, a civil war between Gamsakurdia and his supporters and Shevardnadze was raging mostly in Abkhazia and the region at its southern border, Samegrelo.
The Mingrelian ethnic group traditionally inhabited both Abkhazia and Samegrelo and constituted about fourty-five percent of Abkhazia’s population before the conflict. Approximately 300, 000 people, the majority Mingrelian, fled Abkhazia during the war to Georgia proper. The city of Zugdidi in Samegrelo is a city to which many internally displaced people from Abkhazia now live. Forty-two percent of the displaced inhabit government-controlled institutional buildings called collective centers. The populations within these centers have changed somewhat over the 18 years as some people have moved away, passed away, or have been born and raised there.
The survivors of this war face a daunting multiplicity of problems. They live with memories and trauma of the war. They lost family and friends to horrific ethnic cleansing and military service. They lost their homes, farms, communities and livelihoods. They lack basic resources. They are mostly unemployed and poverty stricken, trying to subsist on a meager fifteen dollars per person per month allocated by the government to the displaced. Quality health care and education are out of reach. Those still living in collective centers are geographically and socially isolated within the bounds of these centers.
Living conditions in collective centers are grossly sub-standard. Multi-generational families live in single rooms plagued with roof leaks, crumbling paint, collapsing floors, hazardous electrical wiring, and broken windows. They have no refrigeration and cook on a single electrical burner. Up to twenty families share a few toilets and faucets. Unsanitary conditions result from compromised sewage systems.
Over the many years, the people who fled the war in 1992-1993 have been waiting for a time when they can return to their homes in Abkhazia safely. They have received help from international and Georgian organizations and the Georgian government but mostly the conditions of their lives have altered little. A state strategy for internally displaced people (IDP’s) wasn’t developed until 2007 and only amended in 2009 to include integration. The focus is on resettling IDP’s and giving ownership of new or refurbished buildings. This is a slow process weighted in controversial methodology. Amnesty International’s 2010 study ,"In The Waiting Room: Internally Displaced People in Georgia," found significant human rights violations in the IDP integration process. Some buildings fail to meet housing standards under international law. Often the new settlements are in isolated areas without adequate infrastructure. Furthermore, the displaced remain uninformed about the process and their rights.
While in Zugdidi, in the summer of 2010, I used photography to document some of the collective centers and the people who live in them. I have chosen over thirty photographs to represent the internally displaced people of Abkhazia living in the collective centers.