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It's shelter but not a home

Refugees from Georgia's war with Russia are being resettled in villages but long for their old homes and communities.

By Dan CatchpoleContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / December 29, 2008

Under construction: The government of Georgia is constructing 2,700 houses to shelter refugees displaced by its August war with Russia.

Dan Catchpole

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TSEROVANI, Georgia

Driving from Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, to South Ossetia, a disputed region that declared its independence from Georgia in 1991, it's impossible not to notice rows and rows of identical, one-story houses going up beside the highway. A town is rising just nine miles outside Tbilisi to house some of the thousands displaced by the August war between Georgia and Russia.

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The Georgian government has launched a massive building campaign to permanently house most of these displaced people in 18 settlements located within 15-1/2 miles of the conflict zone.

At Tserovani, some of the thousands of mostly unskilled laborers hammer house frames together while others stack cinder blocks on a fresh layer of mortar. Still others smear stucco on exterior walls.

Some of workers who are hurriedly building the red-roofed, single-family houses will soon be living in these houses. But they aren't necessarily happy about it.

"I don't want to live in this area. I want to go back home," said Gocha Nabardinshvili, a refugee in his late 20s who was hired as a laborer. Inside one of the unfinished houses, he and several other refugees were preparing an early dinner over an open fire.

He and his parents fled their village, Kurta, in South Ossetia when fighting broke out in early August. His home and his brother's home were destroyed by Ossetian separatists.

Up to 31,000 people were displaced by the five-day war, according to Koba Subeliani, Minister for Refugees and Accommodations. Georgia still has more than 200,000 people displaced by wars in the early 1990s in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the country's other breakaway province. Most have spent 15 years or more in dismal, cramped "temporary" housing.

But in a sharp change of policy, Georgia announced plans to permanently house people displaced by August's war by the end of this month and to provide housing for all refugees by 2011.

According to the plan, each family will receive its own furnished three-room house that can hold up to six people, and larger families will receive two houses. All families will own the houses outright.

Until now, Georgia has used refugees as proof of ownership of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Mr. Subeliani is quick to point out that building houses doesn't negate Georgia's claim over the disputed territory, adding that all refugees will keep their political status of "internally displaced people" until they return to their native land.

Subeliani is originally from Abkhazia, and several of his relatives were displaced by fighting there in the early 1990s. The young minister has a reputation for being a problem solver and is one of the ruling National Movement party's leaders.

"The right to return is an inherent right confirmed by all international documents, and the ownership of private land is not contradictory to that," he said.

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