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Georgians flee from wars that no one understands

THE SMELL of defeat hangs heavy in the Kutaisi town bus, packed with displaced Georgians and crude bundles of their possessions: stale food and drab clothes unwashed after weeks of war and days of trekking through the cold, cruel mountains of the northern Caucasus.

'My family slept outside for three nights. Snow was falling,' said Vezo Bobokhidze, a 47- year-old train mechanic, after his flight from Abkhazia to Kutaisi, the main government- controlled town in western Georgia. He put his finger through his split and worn-out shoes. 'It all happened so suddenly. I had the car ready with petrol and our things. But our house was hit in the shelling and destroyed. Now all we have is this blanket.'

Demoralised forces loyal to the Georgian president, Eduard Shevardnadze, suffered further defeat yesterday, deepening the two-year crisis that has split the former Soviet republic of 5 million people into five increasingly self-governing parts. Mr Shevardnadze's men were forced out of the Black Sea port of Poti in a dawn attack by rebels loyal to ex-president Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who leads the 1.7 million ethnic Mengrelians of western Georgia, and controls a belt of land between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia. The fate of Poti's inhabitants was not immediately known, but they are mostly Mengrelians likely to accept the rule of the 'Zviadisti' rebels.

A fresh human disaster has followed the panic and the rout of Georgian forces from the autonomous Black Sea republic of Abkhazia, as the last of 200,000 Georgians flee their homes in the subtropical coastal strip. It is a tragic paradox that, as the conflicts of the Caucasus remain obscure to the outside world, few of its local victims understand what is happening to them. Most take refuge, like their competing leaders, in cursing presumed plots by neo-imperialist forces in Russia.

By a roadside east of Kutaisi, a middle-aged secretary of a collective farm burst into tears, barely able to speak about her flight from Abkhazia. She contemplated her small old broken-down car, loaded with fellow workers and their possessions, all stranded after a tea-leaf-cutting tractor that had been towing them ran out of fuel. Other Georgians who had fled south from Abkhazia were squashed into open- topped trucks and horse-drawn carts, or pushed their bags in wheelbarrows and prams towards new lives in pokey old hotels, disused sanatoria or the crowded houses of relatives.

Nobody seems sure exactly how many people need urgent assistance, a familiar phenomenon all over the Caucasus, where one in 10 of the combined populations of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia has been displaced over the past five years. Family ties are strong, so some relatives take several refugees' families under their roofs, or help them to build new homes.

Georgians made up 45 per cent of the pre-war population of Abkhazia, so Mr Shevardnadze's estimate of a total 200,000 displaced seems reasonable, though many left some time ago.

'There are 100,000 refugees in our area, but Tbilisi takes no heed of that,' said Mr Gamsakhurdia. 'They don't want to help us. We are under blockade. We have no fuel, no gas and no bread. This is your great and honest and democratic Shevardnadze.'

Mr Gamsakhurdia's main town of Zugdidi continued to receive electricity through Abkhazia, but he said he did not have enough food for his own people, let alone newcomers.

MOSCOW - Russia's Foreign Ministry said yesterday it was prepared to send peace- keeping troops to Georgia to oversee any peace settlement, Reuter reports. A ministry statement denounced both the advance by Abkhazian separatists and other insurgents backed by Mr Gamsakhurdia. 'The irresponsible actions of the separatists and the supporters of Zviad Gamsakhurdia have brought that country to the verge of civil war,' the statement said. 'The very existence of the Georgian state is in question.'

(Photograph omitted)