Desperate Georgians Flee the War In Abkhazia

RISING CIVIL STRIFE

TAMRIKO BALAKHASHVILI was playing quietly in her hometown of Sukhumi when the bombs began exploding outside her bedroom window. When the grenade hit, the tiny, brown-haired four-year-old was just a few feet from the safety of the basement shelter.

``She ran down from the second floor toward the basement, but she didn't make it. She got hit in the head and leg,'' says Tamriko's mother, Tsisan, sobbing in a grimy room in the Georgian capital's Republican Children's Hospital as she stroked her daughter's shaved head.

``We were evacuated here the next day. Tamriko was completely naked and I was wearing slippers and a dress,'' says Mrs. Balakhashvili, a Georgian language and literature teacher. ``But we have no idea what happened to my husband and my six-year-old boy.''

Refugees fleeing civil strife in the former Soviet republic's rebel province of Abkhazia are doing so any way they can - by car, tractor, boat, plane, and on foot.

Georgia's Defense Council estimates that more than 120,000 ethnic Georgians have fled Abkhazia since the tiny Abkhaz minority broke a Russian-brokered cease-fire last month and launched a bloody offensive.

And Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze says he estimates tens of thousands more are trying to get out - many struggling through blizzards and over perilous mountain ranges in the Transcaucasian nation in their quest to reach the relative safety of Tbilisi.

The capture by separatist rebels of the Abkhazian capital of Sukhumi on Sept. 27 was the turning point of the four-year conflict, which has left more than 1,000 dead and tens of thousands homeless.

Although Abkhazia poses the greatest threat yet to Shevardnadze's leadership since he returned to his native Georgia in the spring of 1992, in recent weeks rebel forces loyal to deposed Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia have also begun to threaten the former Soviet foreign minister's leadership.

Mr. Gamsakhurdia - the nationalist former Communist Party boss who reappeared in his stronghold of Zugdidi almost three weeks ago after nearly two years in exile - on Oct. 2 captured Poti, Georgia's main port. He now says he has support across ethnically diverse Georgia. And last Sunday, he issued a call for a nationwide uprising against Shevardnadze's administration.

The threat posed by Gamsakhurdia was one reason Shevardnadze felt compelled - following a meeting with Russian President Boris Yeltsin on Oct. 8 - to pledge that Georgia would join the Commonwealth of Independent States. Georgia had resisted joining in the past, voicing concerns about Russian domination of former Soviet republics.

Following Sukhumi's fall, Shevardnadze had denounced Moscow for having ``nurtured, fed, encouraged, and directed'' the Abkhazians and supplied them with arms, a charge that Russia denies. He also vowed Georgia would not join the CIS in the near future, but Gamsakhurdia's rebellion apparently prompted a reversal.

The situation has escalated so much in recent weeks that on Oct. 4 a Georgian official told a Warsaw meeting of the Confererence on Security and Cooperation in Europe that his country was facing a civil war worse than that in Bosnia.

Manala Geibuadza, who fled Sukhumi with her 68-year-old mother, says of the ordeal: ``Our defenders had no weapons, and the Abkhazians had access to advanced military technology. Our boys just couldn't fight against them.''

``The Abkhazians came to our village, to our street, they burnt our homes and slit the throats of my neighbors, of three of my girlfriends,'' she says.

Tbilisi, a dangerous city in itself, represents a safe haven for the refugees. The once lively capital, however, is virtually a ghost town. Most cafes and restaurants are closed, few cars function because of gasoline shortages, and vigilantes armed with assault rifles and pistols patrol the streets.

After dark, the once-bustling sidewalks are deserted, as most residents are too frightened to leave their homes. And on Oct. 4, Shevardnadze imposed an 11 p.m. curfew to cut down on crime and street battles.

Georgia's parliament has passed new laws to help refugees find housing and employment, but new arrivals find life here is harder than in the fertile regions of Abkhazia. It can take four hours waiting in line to buy a loaf of bread - an indication of how Tbilisi's economy has disintegrated since the Soviet collapse. Fortunate refugees live with friends or relatives, but some are housed in former Intourist foreign hotels or makeshift hostels. More than 100 refugees live in the train station's nursery, often sleeping six to a room.

``I've been living here for a year, but I'm staying here until things calm down. I'll die here if that's the way things turn out,'' says Shura Chikovani, who left Sukhumi during the first blockade. A disabled lawyer who has difficulty walking, Ms. Chikovani spends all day inside the hostel with her son, who has not attended school since they left Sukhumi.

On the other side of town, wounded Georgian soldiers are refugees of a different kind, lying in hospitals until they are patched up and shipped back to Abkhazia.

Dzhardzhi Kisturi traveled from his hometown of Tbilisi to Abkhazia last year to help defend his people against what he considers an unprovoked assault against them.

The soft-spoken beekeeper was fighting in Sukhumi when he was severely injured by shrapnel. When Mr. Kisturi recovers, he plans to go back and continue the fight.

``If a man has a soul, he has to serve his country,'' he says.

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