Security of Returnees to Conflict Zone NOT Guaranteed
Forced Return or by “Free Will”?
Nona Suvarian, Tbilisi
Despite looting, beatings, torturing, planted landmines and unexploded ordnance in the yards and gardens, a total of 38 thousand IDPs have returned to their villages in the conflict zone since the end of the August Georgian-August war. Most of them have no place to live and have found shelters in livestock sheds or find temporary housing with their neighbors. They have no alternative as their houses have been burned to the ground. Governmental officials claim that IDPs have returned to their villages based on to their own free will. Moreover, those who are afraid to return or have their houses burnt down, are offered alternative places to live. However, experts who personally work with IDPs speak of other reasons as to why IDPs had no choice but to return.
“Ethnic cleansing continues in the buffer zone,” said Aage Borchgrevink, representative of Norwegian Helsinki Committee. “I was in the Georgian-Ossetian village of Disevi and personally witnessed the situation there. By our estimates, at least three quarters of the houses had been burned, suggesting a systematic and planned destruction of the entire settlement. The monitors encountered houses that were still smoldering while we were visiting this village on the 20th of October. The situation gave the impression that there was a systematic plan to punish Georgian people. Locals told us that Ossetians arrived by trucks in the village and looted their houses when they are still in the village,”
Soso Papuashvili, lawyer for the Human Rights Centre, visited the conflict zone together with Aage Borchgrevink. They managed to get into the village that is still controlled by Russian and Ossetian militants. Papuashvili recalled that when they were entering the village locals suggested them to leave the area immediately, as Ossetian soldiers were deployed only 100 meters away, and they were fearful that they might have learned about their presence in the village.
“Ossetian perpetrators and paramilitary formations raided the village. The locals state they returned to the village because Georgian authority had ordered them to do as it is necessary. However, it is true that many locals prefer to live in their mined plots rather than in shelters elsewhere. Particularly hard is the situation that exists on the border area with the area with what is now designated as South Ossetia.
I personally witnessed how Ossetians had crossed the border and burned houses. Georgian police officers have to live in those villages that are closely located to the administrative border. Many locals had no choice but to abandon their houses. In addition, many Georgians still remain in the Georgian villages that are currently being controlled by Ossetians. Those are mostly elderly people who are still under constant threat and abused.”
Shalva Tramagidze, the head of the Shida Kartli Regional Police Department, claims that situation is stable everywhere where Georgian police are deployed. However, the same cannot be claimed about the village of Disevi; Georgian police are not controlling the village.
“The situation is normal in Gori district villages. We are controlling almost all of the villages. We are deployed on the border that was set up by Ossetians. So, our villages behind our police lines are protected.”
Initially, Shalva Tramagidze persuaded us that no new facts of looting or harassment have been recorded in the last two weeks. However, later he pointed out that Ossetian people have been and continue looting in the territory that is controlled by Georgian side.
“We have noted four such incidents in the last two weeks. We reacted to all four, offenders were arrested and they will be charged under Georgian law.”
Although mass de-mining activities have been completed individual mines are still being found in the yards and gardens of the locals. In addition, local residents are still being attacked. According to the representative of the Helsinki Committee 16 cases of alleged cases of civilians (excluding deaths resulting from cross fire, bombings and shelling at the time of hostilities), and these deaths have occurred since the conflict finished but they have not been investigated yet. Despite tense situation, population returns to their mined house plots.
Valeri Kopaleishvili, deputy minister of refugees and accommodation, claims that population returned to the conflict zone but only based on their own free will.
“We do not force anyone to return to the village. There have been enough living places for everyone to stay in the tent town in Gori. Everybody, who petitioned to the authority, was offered alternative living spaces. If the people are afraid to return to their estate because it has been mined or house destroyed than they will be sheltered in Tbilisi or some other district. When their houses will be restored or the estate de-mined, they will be able to return home,” said Kopaleishvili.
Nevertheless, Mamuka Areshidze, specialist of conflict resolution, speaks about different reasons for t he return of IDPs.
“According to my information, (that has been received from various reliable sources; since I have been working on the issue for a long time and know people directly involved in the process), a large part of people, particularly residents of the village close to border checkpoints, were warned one day to return to their houses within a period of two or three days. These people were virtually kicked out of the public schools and kindergartens. IDPs were threatened with imprisonment of the men in the families if they did not return in time. So, these people were forced out into the field where there was no water and electricity (though water and power is supplied in some places already). Everything is destroyed, officials from the administration ironically reply to IDPs. “If you have houses destroyed then shelter your neighbors.”
Moreover, the whole territory is mined, although specialists are working on the area to de-mine the territory, and these activities should first be finished and only afterwards people would be able to return to their homes. I visited one of the villages and a peasant showed me an unexploded mine. He said he had found it in his yard and it could have exploded….”
Mamuka Areshidze thinks that an idea came to somebody’s mind that IDPs could join protest demonstration on November 7 and authority decided to remove them from the Georgian capital. “One more reason is PR for the central authority, which is very important for governmental officials. Moreover, it is not something they want foreign experts, who arrive here, to see the poorest living conditions where IDPs live. Consequently, they removed all IDPs to tent towns, and none are sheltered in kindergartens.”
Nino Tsikhistavi, director of the Caucasus Women’s Network, also speaks about the fear among IDPs. She said this fear is first of all connected with safe return to their houses. Besides that, mostly they avoid open speaking about social problems that they face in their lives.
“The current situation about IDPs resulted from the fact that Ministry of Internal Affairs is in charge of solving the problem. We all know that several weeks ago Ministry of Internal Affairs declared their institution would control not only the construction of new houses for IDPs, but they would also carry out necessary census of IDPs. Consequently, IDPs refuse to speak with any opposition party; they do not wish to speak with journalists either and if, at least they say something, IDPs ask journalists to keep their names anonymous.”
Unlike Mamuka Areshidze, Nino Tsikhistavi does not connect the current situation about IDPs with November 7. Simply, government does not want people, with common problems, to live and complain as a group. Nino Tsikhistavi shares that there are some other factors that caused fear among IDPs.
She says, “They are afraid because of their shocking situation. Our government has taken few steps to resolve this problem. One more issue is that IDPs do not participate in the decision-making process when their fate is being discussed. Other structures are making decisions for them and they are not included in the process.”
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