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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Abkhazia's Refugees Make Do

TBILISI, Georgia -- From her balcony, Larisa Mebonia can see the Kura River winding through stands of sycamores. To her left is Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi's grandest downtown boulevard.

It is quite a view, but Mebonia hardly notices. She is thinking only of a little duplex with a Black Sea view and kitchen garden that she says waits for her 300 kilometers to the west, in Abkhazia.

"I didn't want to leave," she said in a recent conversation. "But my husband said he was thinking of our children. So we took one suitcase. And we came here."

"Here" is room 719, a 3-by-3-meter cubicle (excluding a closet-size bathroom and the balcony) on the northwest corner of the Hotel Iveria. Here, Larisa and Yury Mebonia raised and married off two teenagers. Here, Larisa Mebonia abandoned hope of returning to teaching, consumed by the task of cooking for four on a handmade stove and running a home without heat or hot water.

Here, she and most of the Iveria's 1,026 other residents have lived for 9 1/2 years. All are refugees from a punishing civil war in 1992 and 1993 that drove 260,000 ethnic Georgians from Abkhazia, a separatist Georgia province wedged between the towering Caucasus Mountains and the Black Sea coast.

"They arrived, and the overwhelming understanding was, two or three weeks and the war will be over and we'll go back," said Avtandil Tolidze, 73, the Iveria's administrator. Instead, the two warring sides struck a chilly peace, which left 250,000 refugees homeless.

"This is no longer a hotel," Tolidze said. "It's a hostel."

It is also a hovel, a firetrap, a sardine can stuffed to twice its capacity and, not least, a remarkable piece of deconstructionist architecture.

It was once the city's best hotel, 16 severe stories of prestressed concrete, 300 rooms and 530 beds in the heart of Georgia's lovely if crumbling capital. Today, a decade of home-improvement experiments by refugees desperate for even the barest amenities have left the Iveria transformed. Sheathed in unpainted plywood, bristling with television antennas and draped with half-dried laundry, it is half slum and half work of art.

By the government's count, Tbilisi alone houses 88,000 refugees. The official roster reports 260 people in the Tbilisi Hippodrome, nine in Kindergarten No. 84, 15 at the Blood Transfusion Institute, and so on. Late last month, police had to be summoned to eject a crowd of refugees from the Academy of Sciences' botanical institute.

In the whole of Georgia, more than 2,000 buildings are housing the displaced from Abkhazia, the State Refugees Ministry said.

The Mebonias left an idyllic life in Abkhazia. Outside the capital, Sukhumi, they had a four-room duplex on the Black Sea shore with a huge garden. Yury was director of the regional music organization, the Abkhazia Philharmonic. Larisa taught chemistry in the local secondary school.

But amid bombing and a 1993 invasion of the capital, the Mebonias learned that their home was on a list of Georgians' properties marked for seizure by rebels. After a harrowing nighttime escape attempt at sea, foiled by a fierce storm and a drunken crew, the family made its way to the Sukhumi airport and, by plane, to Tbilisi.

The Iveria, emptied of guests by the war scare, had been earmarked as a temporary home for refugees. The Mebonias felt lucky to secure a room through the offices of a friend.

But, to say the least, life has been simple. Two of the Iveria's three elevators are inoperable. Doors were stripped from their hinges to make beds. Wallpaper long ago peeled away.

The Mebonias' tiny room consists of two day beds and some jury-rigged shelves for books, food and a small television. When the teenagers lived here, they took the beds. Their parents slept on a cot on the balcony in summer, on blankets on the floor in winter.

"It's a small room," Larisa Mebonia said bravely, "and when you have electricity, it's OK."

But there is not always electricity. Utility officials have began to shut off power at night because of nonpayment. The Finance Ministry has not reliably given the Iveria its legally mandated subsidy for refugees, a bare $1.50 a month per resident, since 1998.

The Mebonias strive to maintain their lives. He still runs the philharmonic, now part of a state-financed Abkhazian government-in-exile, and organizes two concerts a year for refugees. She reads -- Greek philosophy, religion, mythology.

"I didn't have a single book when we arrived," she said. "Now I read a lot, so as not to go crazy."

She does not choose to consider the prospect of spending the rest of her life in room 719.

When they left Abkhazia, she said, "I heard a voice, and the voice said to me, 'You can have it all again in the future.'"