Frontline: Abkhazia - Deadly harvest in an agricultural paradise

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"I HAVE nothing left, I have no money and my belongings are burnt; but I can't live here like this; I must go back and if they kill me, they kill me." Zisa Dari is one of the 40,000 refugees driven out of Gali in the separatist Georgian province of Abkhazia by a new sweep of ethnic cleansing last May. Like many, she has moved only a few kilometres over the border to Zugdidi, the other side of the Inguri river, from where she watched the plumes of black smoke that marked the destruction of the Gali villages by the Abkhaz militia.

Under the presidency of Vladislav Ardzinba, the unrecognised Republic of Abkhazia has expelled almost all ethnic Georgians from the province in favour of the minority Abkhaz. Georgia already supports more than 300,000 displaced Georgians who fled during the civil war of 1992-93.

Abkhazia was known as the garden of Russia. For the refugees in Zugdidi, most of them farmers, the decision to risk crossing back over the border to gather crops is a simple choice between extreme hardship and possible death at the hands of the Abkhaz militia. Zisa and her family have decided to take the risk.

"In June my husband went back to our village. On his return he was taken by the Abkhaz and beaten and tortured. He tried to run for the border but died before he reached Zugdidi. One time I too was captured; they beat me and told me that I was not allowed to move on their territory; but what can I do? I have to get food for my children."

Despite the danger, there is still a steady movement to and fro, usually undertaken by the older female family members who are considered least at risk from the partisan groups roaming the region. Many of the older residents, like Zisa, say they prefer to risk death in returning to what remains of their villages than end their days crammed 13 to a room in a freezing schoolhouse.

Mine explosions are still a daily occurrence, and cross-border shooting has taken place as recently as the past month. Last September, Ardzinba requested a meeting with the Georgian President, Edward Shevardnaze, amid fears that renewed hostilities would break out.The talks have yet to materialise.

News of the planned meeting has not been well received. The shooting of three United Nations observers in Sukumi on 21 September was regarded by many as a direct attempt to undermine the negotiations. Tamaz Nadareishvili, chairman of the Supreme Council of Abkhazia in exile, supports Mr Shevardnaze's efforts in theory, but no longer feels that anything can be achieved by peaceful negotiation. "Some 300,000 people are homeless and have waited five years to return. We have no hope that politically this will be possible without war."

Mr Nadareishvili supports the popular belief that the Abkhazian separatists were strongly provoked and supported by certain factions within Russia who still oppose Georgian independence. How else, he argues, could the ethnic Abkhaz, numbering only 80,000, have overthrown the majority Georgian population? While this view is shared by Zurab Zhvania, chairman of the Georgian parliament, he is swift to point out that the last thing Georgia needs is a deterioration in relations with their powerful next door neighbour.

"We are extremely interested in a well-balanced, very close, economic and cultural relationship with Russia. We don't want anybody in Russia to think that we will present any threat. But we demand equal relations, and that small countries have the right to enjoy their independence."