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.

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

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.

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.

Mr. Nabardinshvili and fellow refugees at Tserovani agree. "I don't know what they want to do by building these houses, but I know that I will go back to my village, in any case," he said.

He doesn't see much to entice him to stay. "We'll never live in as good conditions here as we did at home," he said, standing between two hastily completed houses on the settlement's edge.

Another problem for the refugees who will live in the settlement is jobs. "Nobody knows what it will be like, how we'll make money," Nabardinshvili says. "There is no land to make a living on here."

In Kurta, Nabardinshvili and many of his neighbors were farmers. In Tserovani, they will have some land for personal gardens, but most will have to become urban workers to make a living. Standing amid drab houses in various stages of construction, he worries that Tserovani will become a ghetto.

The government plans to survey all inhabitants about their professions and will help them find work, said Subeliani. Where these jobs will come from, though, is not clear.

Georgia's economy is in a precarious position from the August war, according to Vladimir Papava, an economist at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic International Studies.

Still, each house in the new settlement will have furniture and necessary household items, Subeliani said. In his Tbilisi office, he showed off an assortment of pots, pans, an iron for clothing, and other equipment.

Also, "waiting for them when they walk in the door will be [money] on the kitchen table to buy any necessary goods during the first month," he said.

In addition, refugees will have some choice as to where they live, and the government will try to resettle entire communities together, Subeliani said. The government has promised to build churches, schools, shops, and other communal buildings to make the settlement more of a real community.

New Energy, the construction company responsible for Tserovani, is building the communal buildings out of its own pocket, but no timeline has been set, according to Zura Jikia, the company's general director.

"New Energy is very proud that we're building these villages," he said, adding that the company is not profiting from the construction of Tserovani's 2,700 houses.

However, an American contractor said a New Energy executive recently told him the company does not have enough money to pay for the communal buildings.

The government is not paying companies enough per house to even cover construction costs, said the contractor, who didn't want his name used because he works on government contracts.

While the refugees who will live in the settlement still dream of their former homes and hope they'll be allowed to go back, they're grateful to have shelter.

"It's a home, at least," said Giorgi Baruashvili, a refugee from Tsirznisi. Most importantly for him, it will get his family out of the former office building in Tbilisi, where they're living with hundreds of other displaced people.

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