Rosa Alburova is a careworn woman with three small children clutching at her skirt. She looks around the shabby, dimly lit room in a former sanatorium that has been her family's home for the past six years and voices her dearest wish: "A place of our own where we could live a normal life, even if it was a poor life."
Mrs. Alburova is an ethnic Ossetian who was chased out of her home in Georgia by gun-wielding young Georgian thugs during a 1990 civil war.
A hundred or so miles to the south, in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, Nana Aveliani sits with some of her 10 children in a similar room in a former student dormitory and says: "I know only that I want to go back home."
Mrs. Aveliani is an ethnic Georgian who was chased out of her house in Abkhazia by gun-wielding young Abkhazian thugs during a different civil war in 1992.
But when I tell Alburova how much her refugee plight reminds me of Aveliani's, and ask how she feels, her response is sullen. "I have my own problems to think about," she says. "I don't care about other people's problems. And anyway, I don't like Georgians much now."
Her sour attitude is a reflection of the deep mistrust, hostility, and fear that still poison ethnic relations all over the Caucasus region years after the shooting stopped, and have all but frozen efforts to restart normal life.
Nearly half a million people remain homeless on either side of the Caucasus Mountain range - Georgians, Ossetians, Chechens, Russians, and Ingush. They are continuing victims of wars that the world scarcely heard about and, if it did, has now forgotten. And for the most part, their dreams of returning to the homes they fled in terror remain just that - dreams.
Crammed into old hotels, prefabricated huts, other people's apartments, and even shipping containers, they eke out a living with odd jobs when they are fortunate or with government handouts when they come. Refugees if they fled across an international border, "internally displaced persons" if they simply sought shelter among ethnic kin, they are a frustrated and often desperate testimony to the political ruins of the Soviet Union.
Everywhere the refrain is the same: They want to go home, to the houses they built and the land where their ancestors are buried. But everywhere their lot is the same: They are pawns in a geopolitical chess game that has largely stalled since the violent collapse of the USSR forced them from their homes.
"Ethnic cleansing" won worldwide notoriety in the former Yugoslavia, but it was a familiar scourge in the Caucasus before the Bosnian war broke out, as the region's ethnic soup soured and curdled.
When Ossetians made a bid for independence from Georgia, they expelled ethnic Georgians. In revenge, ethnic Ossetians were expelled from Georgia proper. They fled across the mountains to North Ossetia, where they helped their brethren kick ethnic Ingush out, and moved into their homes.
Many of the Ingush fled to Chechnya, where the Chechens were busy making life impossible for ethnic Russians long before the war broke out there in 1994.
And Abkhazia, a strip of subtropical paradise on the Black Sea coast that claims to be independent of Georgia, is more than half empty since all the Georgians were expelled after they lost the war there in 1993.
Russia's hand lies heavy on its seething southern border, and Moscow holds the key to solving many of the conflicts in the region. The Abkhazians fought with Russian guns and feed their dream of independence on quiet encouragement from Moscow. It is Russan money that keeps separatist authorities in South Ossetia afloat, and it was Russian frustration that unleashed the bloody war in Chechnya.
"Quite strong forces within the elite in Moscow see Abkhazia and Ossetia as instruments for retaining their influence in the region," says Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagarishvili. "Unfortunately such tendencies have not yet been overcome."
The ethnic rivalries and resentments, fanned into hatred by local political leaders, still smolder in the ashes of the wars that left such devastation in their wake.
"I can't imagine living next door to Abkhazians again," says Alexandra Chanturia, a refugee grandmother in Tbilisi who had lived all her life next door to Abkhazians until she fled the sudden fighting five years ago. "They should leave, and then we could go back."
Georgia's foreign minister, Mr. Menagarashvili, insists that with patience political settlements can be worked out and former neighbors will forgive, if not forget. But he is the first to agree that "reconciliation will require a long time and some very serious work."
Meanwhile, crises in other parts of the world have distracted attention from the Caucasus. "Internally displaced persons in Georgia are no longer regarded by the international community as the most vulnerable people," so food aid has been reduced, complains Georgia's Minister for Refugees Valeri Vashakidze. "This is a big mistake."
In Ingushetia, the deputy head of the Migration Service, Magomed Ozdayev, expects to be hosting Ingush refugees from neighboring Ossetia for several years in the absence of a political settlement. He welcomes foreign visitors by saying that "even simple attention to our humanitarian problems is a great help."
But ordinary individuals, impatient with their leaders' repeated failure to reach political agreements, are finding their own way home. Helped by the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, and motivated by their desperation to live under their own roofs again, some of the braver and more resourceful are defying the odds, going back where they came from, and starting again.
"I came back with my family, my cow, my chickens, my cats, and my dog two years ago," says Beslan Yandiyev, one of the few Ingush to have returned to North Ossetia. He has been living in a shipping container in the yard of his former home, which Ossetians looted, burned, and tore down in 1993.
The hardships are obvious, especially as winter sets in. But the motivation is as simple as it is strong. "Our forefathers are buried here, and we were born here," Mr. Yandiyev explains bluntly. "This is our homeland."
Who's Uprooted in the Caucasus Range
Abkhazia, with its palm-fringed Black Sea beaches, was once the pearl of the Soviet Union. Now it is a half-deserted, barely functioning, and thoroughly isolated region in western Georgia. The 60,000 Abkhazians (with covert Russian support) declared independence in 1992 during a quarrel with the Georgian government over autonomy that sparked a year-long war. The Abkhazians won, after some 10,000 people were killed and 280,000 ethnic Georgians were forced from their homes. But the world community refuses to recognize Abkhazia and the area is subject to an international economic blockade.
A three-year-old cease-fire is policed by Russian troops, but sporadic diplomatic contacts between Georgia and Abkhazia have yielded paltry progress toward a solution of the dispute. Some 30,000 Georgian refugees have returned on their own initiative to the south Abkhazian district of Gali.
A province in northern Georgia that declared independence in 1990, sparking a war the following year that killed about 1,500 people before the separatists won. Several thousand Ossetians and Georgians fled the fighting, which destroyed their homes. Revenge attacks on ethnic Ossetians drove some 40,000 of them out of Georgia proper and into North Ossetia in Russia.
Georgian and South Ossetian diplomats have held increasingly regular and fruitful contacts, holding out hope for a resolution of the conflict. But few of the Ossetians who used to live in Georgia proper want to return, and the Georgian government has so far done little to help those that do to get their homes back from squatters.
North Ossetians in Russia and their ethnic kin from South Ossetia, in Georgia, drove out the Ingush minority from the republic in November 1992. About 37,000 of them fled to neighboring Ingushetia or to Chechnya, a fellow Muslim republic. Only a handful of Ingush are returning home, and there has been little relaxation of ethnic hatred in the past five years. Nor has there been any real progress in healing political relations between Ingushetia and North Ossetia.
Chechnya declared independence from Russia in 1992 and beat back Russian troops sent to crush the separatists in December 1994. The two-year war cost unknown tens of thousands of lives, while the fighting and indiscriminate Russian bombardment left nearly a quarter of a million people homeless.
A peace treaty signed in 1996 led to a withdrawal of Russian troops and a formal postponement until 2001 of a final decision on Chechnya's status. Chechnya insists it is independent, but no country has recognized that claim.