Abkhazian refugees fight for life: With the enemy army close behind, thousands of Georgians are stuck on the wrong side of the border

THE altimeter in the battered helicopter cabin showed 4,500 feet and the rotors were clapping with strain when we saw them first, dots in the snow, people clustered together as if wondering what to do next on a barren pass in one of the remotest corners of the north Caucasus mountains.

A flatbed truck had made it to the top, and a bulldozer pushed to and fro, but it soon became apparent that almost the only things able to move through a ribbon of hundreds of abandoned vehicles were the thousands of people who fled their homes more than a week ago, after Georgia lost its one-year battle for control of its Black Sea republic of Abkhazia.

Easing past the snow-capped peaks and down through a forested valley of startling alpine beauty into what remained of government-controlled Abkhazia, the helicopter settled on a pasture next to a wood-fenced pen of cows. But the first warm sunshine for days, the tinkle of cow bells and the idyllic setting around the wood-built village of Gentsvishi were deceptive.

The helicopter had brought sacks of bread and jars of baby food, but people who rushed up seemed uninterested. Struggling men and women hurled themselves at the helicopter door, only wanting to escape on the rare flight out with their frightened, screaming children. Others watched and wept from a distance.

Nobody knows how many Georgians are stuck in the mountains of Svanetia, straddling the Abkhazian border with Georgia just south of the Russian frontier. The Tbilisi government believes 40,000 people streamed out of the doomed Abkhazian capital of Sukhumi into the mountains about two weeks ago. I saw between 5,000 and 15,000 people still camped out on the Abkhazian side, but only the strongest can attempt the final walk over the pass as the Abkhazian soldiery slowly advance up the valley behind them, reportedly looting as they go.

'I am Armenian, not Georgian. But they shot at us too. I had a flat, cows, a garden. Now I have lost everything,' said Valentina Tamlian, a 45-year-old electrical engineer from Sukhumi. She had travelled the 50-mile distance on tractors, buses and on foot, sleeping in cars and village houses that sometimes shelter more than 50 people a night.

She rained curses on the two men fighting for power in Georgia, President Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister, and his ousted predecessor, the charismatic nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia. 'They should both be shot. Where is our government?' she said.

Ms Tamlian and other displaced people saved their most virulent abuse for Russia, which they felt had openly backed the Abkhazians with weapons and truckloads of food. Only now has Georgia got help from neighbouring Armenia and Azerbaijan, which have donated a few helicopters to supplement four working machines. One Georgian helicopter has already crashed and killed its crew on the pass, defeated by appalling weather last Friday.

The disillusioned Georgians seemed beyond even hoping for help from the West. Helicopter-carrying naval ships could have made short work of this refugee problem from the nearby Black Sea, but although Mr Shevardnadze made possible the post-Cold War peace dividend, Western capitals seem to have quickly forgotten their debt.

Tamava Dochvili stood beside her small Moskvich car, having buried her aunt an hour before, dead of a heart attack after six days and freezing nights on the road and the stress of life in an impromptu camp set up by those unwilling to tackle the pass to Georgia. At least 30 people were thought to have died in attempts, including several children. The pass could quickly close if the weather turns nasty again.

The pass is only the start of some people's problems. The Georgian civil war on the other side means that those who want to go on to the capital, Tbilisi, may have to negotiate another range of mountains to avoid territory controlled by rebel Gamsakhurdia loyalists. Neither side has the reserves to give long-term help to the homeless anyway.

Reminiscent of scenes during the Iraqi Kurdish exodus of 1991, the mountain track sides were littered by the wreckage of a once-civilised urban life: here a fire engine, there an ambulance and several Sukhumi city buses. Most vehicles were made useless by inadequate fuel supply but some insisted on attempting the pass. One tank-tracked tractor was towing a trailer and three cars, one behind the other, past an obstacle course of abandoned vehicles.

People had stripped off tyres to burn for warmth at night. Many also wrecked or shot up their cars so that when the Abkhazians arrive, there will be less to loot. The front line still appears to be 30 miles from the Georgian-Abkhazian border, but the Abkhazians are meeting little apparent resistance. Defeated Georgian fighters from Sukhumi only want to go home and appeared half-crazed by their losses. Local Svanetian militiamen may make splendid partisan cavalrymen, but the frequent rattle of machine-gun fire echoing through the valley seemed to be the frustrated obliteration of random targets rather than any military act.

A hollow-cheeked woman with deep rings under her eyes gave up hope of a helicopter ride out. Carrying the baby to which she had given birth eight days before, she started plodding towards the pass with her husband. 'It is impossible to fight for a place, and they keep firing their guns,' she said. Others accused militiamen of differentiating between ethnic minorities in their allocation of places.

That is probably giving the gunmen too much organisational credit. When another helicopter finally slid down the valley to the camp, order collapsed in the usual terrifying scrum at the door under the deafening noise of the engine and wash of rotor blades. The strong and ruthless made it, some diving through portholes, women screaming insanely as they fought to keep contact with babies and toddlers.

The pilot lifted off when he judged he had a maximum load, shedding any loose hangers-on. Inside, relief spread among the 30 adult passengers and 16 children. Women crossed themselves and hugged each other - some baggage was gone but no babies were missing. But almost everybody wept. Most had left their husbands and much else behind in Abkhazia.

(Photograph omitted)

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