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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own