Refugees Dreaming of Home in Hotel Charm

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The Hotel Charm isn't really a hotel any more, and it's definitely not charming. The hallways are scruffy, the stairwells are filthy, broken light fittings cast a pall of gloom across the corridors, and in winter it's cold and damp. But for more than a decade, this dingy concrete block in Tbilisi has been home to around 25 families.

That's because they haven't got anywhere else to go. Their original homes are destroyed, abandoned or occupied by other people now. They're just a few of the 250,000 Georgians who fled the war in the breakaway region of Abkhazia in the early 1990s: tolvilebi, which means refugees, or to be more accurate -- internally displaced people. Georgia has one of the largest numbers of refugees in the world, according to the United Nations. Tens of thousands like them have been squatting in hotels, college dormitories, sanatoriums and even hospitals since the end of the war.

Marina is a mother of two who lives on the seventh floor of the Hotel Charm. When her hometown of Sukhumi fell to separatist Abkhaz fighters in 1993, she escaped across the mountains, walking through snow for a week. Since then, she has occupied a hotel room with seven of her relatives. "It's good here," she says cheerily. "We have electricity, heat and hot water."

Some people who fled the war have managed to build new lives for themselves. But others like Marina, who still live in dilapidated temporary accommodation, sustain themselves with dreams that they will one day be able to return home. They're encouraged by politicians who insist that they will regain control over Abkhazia. Mikheil Saakashvili, who is campaigning for re-election in the January presidential election, has promised that if he wins, the refugees will be able to go back safely within months. He has said his victory will represent "a ticket on a train to Sukhumi."

Such populist rhetoric plays well with people like Marina. "First of all, we want to go back home," she explains. "If that does not happen, they should allow us to stay here, or give us apartments. But first of all, we want to go back to Abkhazia."

A couple of floors up, Laniku, an elderly widow, is a bit more skeptical. "I've heard a lot of promises but not a lot of truth," she says. "We shall see what happens."

For the young children playing in the dank corridors of the Hotel Charm, this is the only home they've ever known. Negotiations between the Georgian government and the Abkhaz separatists have been in deadlock for more than a year. For the hotel's unwilling guests, that could mean that they won't be able to check out anytime soon.

Matthew Collin is a journalist in Tbilisi.