Thousands of Georgians Have Little to Celebrate
- By Matthew Collin
- Sep. 15 2008 00:00
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There was a jovial atmosphere last Saturday night in the "Stop Russia" bar in Tbilisi after Russian troops started to pull back from their checkpoints deep in Georgian territory. The bar used to be known as "U.S.S.R." and is still decorated with busts of Stalin and Soviet memorabilia, but it was hastily rebranded after last month's war. "It's against Russian aggression," a dark-eyed, pencil-thin barmaid declared urgently. "We want them out of our country!"
The ominous mood that had gripped the city seems to have lightened in recent days, particularly since the huge "Stop Russia" demonstrations a couple of weeks ago, which according to official estimates brought more than a million people onto the streets. After this, youths partied late into the night in Tbilisi, letting off some steam after enduring some of the darkest times in recent Georgian history.
But reminders of the war are hard to ignore -- particularly the thousands of internal refugees who fled the fighting and took refuge in empty state buildings and hastily constructed tent camps. Ironically, some of them have occupied a dilapidated block, which used to be the Russian military command center for the Caucasus. Once this building housed some of Moscow's spooks, but now its inhabitants are dining on emergency-aid packages supplied by Washington.
This is a real tragedy, which has only compounded the last one. Georgia is still struggling to deal with tens of thousands more people who were displaced by the civil wars here in the early 1990s. Many of them still live in suspended animation in temporary accommodation, sustained by dreams of eventually going home. For 15 years, they've been a visible symbol of Georgia's lost territories and a physical embodiment of the desire to win them back. But now those breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, are effectively Russian protectorates, and their chances of returning seem bleaker than ever.
In a tatty high-rise building on a rubbish-strewn hill, high above the capital, I met Mzia, a former teacher who escaped from the war in the breakaway region of Abkhazia in 1993, along with all the other families that live in this wind-lashed block. Since then, she has shared a cramped studio apartment with her adult son.
Mzia offered coffee and chocolates while I asked her if she still thought she would ever be able to return home to Abkhazia considering that Russia won the five-day war over South Ossetia. She smiled, frowned, then suddenly seemed to be on the verge of tears. "Before, sometimes we lost hope, but hope always returned," she replied calmly. "But now, we have doubts. "
Matthew Collin is a journalist in Tbilisi.