Scattered Photos, Scattered Lives

The small, scuffed photo of a boy lies in the dust of the abandoned schoolroom where it once adorned the classroom wall.

The village teacher recognizes the stubborn face that had stared seriously into the camera: Zviadi Gergedava, when he was in seventh grade.

Today, seven years later, she says he is a refugee in Tbilisi, Georgia, like most of his classmates.

Zviadi's photo is about all that remains of the Repi village school. Looters stripped the building of everything from desks, floorboards, and lights to windows and door frames after Abkhaz independence fighters chased away the village's Georgian inhabitants in 1993.

But now, the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, is refitting the school as part of its attempt to make life livable for people who want to come home.

The UN agency has started to rebuild schools and hospitals, and is handing out roof kits, nails, and cement to families who need to rebuild their homes.

That means most of them: More than half of the houses in the Gali district were completely destroyed by looters and arsonists trying to ensure that their Georgian inhabitants would never come back.

"We are trying to establish normal living conditions," says UNHCR official Saed Sadic. "It's a pulling factor - news spreads, and more and more people are coming."

The villages are still eerily quiet; unpicked pears and pomegranates hang from trees in overgrown gardens, and much of the region seems trapped in suspended animation.

But more than 30,000 refugees have come back, and signs of their presence are clear: Wherever a house, however dilapidated, has a window frame rather than a gaping socket, someone is living there.

Gali is easier to come home to than other parts of Abkhazia. Its population before the war was almost 100 percent Georgian, and Abkhaz security forces no longer venture into the area.

When the school in Repi opens, its teachers will not deal with the Abkhaz authorities in the regional capital, Sukhumi. They will report to Georgia.

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