Story 2 of 3: The Mother

Refugees In Their Own Country

Most people uprooted by war haven’t crossed international borders to reach safety.

They fled for their lives, but they don't count as refugees.

They are the displaced. And all they want is to go home.

Officially, they’re known as “internally displaced people,” or IDPs, and there are 40 million of them across the globe – outnumbering refugees by more than 2 to 1. They have fled within their own countries – mostly in the Middle East and Africa, but also in Latin America and Europe.

They rarely demand the world’s attention. The international system isn’t responsible for their well-being; their own governments are.

In Georgia, a country of 4 million, roughly 1 in 20 people has been internally displaced by war in the past three decades. The government has done its best to accommodate them.

In the past 25 years, Georgia’s breakaway regions – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – saw two separate wars, with neighboring Russia backing the separatists. Tens of thousands were uprooted. Many remain displaced.

But many are traumatized. And stuck. Most have been waiting, hoping against hope for decades, to go back home.

Here are three of their stories.

The Mother

Ana Sabashvili

“We're not really settled here. It’s like when the chicken is sitting on her eggs. When they have lice, they don't sit fully on the egg. They sit a little up. And that’s how I feel — like I’m sitting up. I have a feeling that I have to go somewhere.”

The first thing that hit Ana Sabashvili when she arrived in Berbuki was the sound — or rather, the lack of it.

“It was completely silent,” she says. “There wasn’t a single bird calling.”

The settlement at Berbuki was built by the Georgian government to house IDPs. When Sabashvili and her family first arrived, she worried that her young son would get lost amid the identical homes.

There were no trees or plants or animals. Just 134 identical yellow cottages in the middle of what had been a field. One of them would be her new home.

“We didn't believe we could start a new life here,” Sabashvili says.

That was eight years ago. Now Sabashvili, 50, shakes her head thinking about how quickly her life changed.

“I feel like I dreamed it,” she says.

In the summer of 2008, Sabashvili had been planning a memorial celebration for her mother-in-law, who had died the year before, and setting up a new bed in her house. She lived in Kurta, an ethnically Georgian village in South Ossetia, a small, mountainous region in north-central Georgia. She was married and busy raising her 4-year-old son, Giorgi, after becoming a mother at age 38.

Reports on TV warned that tensions were rising in South Ossetia, but Sabashvili, whose ruddy cheeks attest to a life spent outdoors, wasn’t worried. In more than 20 years of on-and-off ethnic conflict between Ossetians and Georgians, she knew tensions were always rising and falling. Anyway, she had her hands full with her boy, who had frequent health problems.

Nugzar Maisuradze, Sabashvili's husband, embraces Giorgi, the couple's only child.

It was a Friday, Aug. 8, when war broke out between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia. Sabashvili’s husband, Nugzar Maisuradze, rushed into the house. "Quickly, quickly, we have to pack and go!” he said. The Georgian government had launched an assault on the city of Tskhinvali, 5 miles away and the de facto capital for the separatist government of South Ossetia. Kurta, as a Georgian town, would almost certainly be a target for Russian-backed Ossetian militias responding to the attack. So they fled — first to Gori, a city an hour’s drive south, then even farther, to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia.

“We didn't bring anything because my husband thought we would be able to go back the next day,” she says. But “I had this feeling this was the last time we would be there.”

Ana Sabashvili fled with her husband and young son after fighting erupted in nearby Tskhinvali. They went first to the capital, Tbilisi, and from there, moved to Berbuki, a settlement some 20 miles from Tskhinvali.

In Tbilisi, the family found shelter in a building that formerly housed the Ministry of the Interior. Its drab offices and meeting rooms had been converted into temporary housing for the displaced. It was there that Sabashvili learned Kurta, her village, had been burned. Her house, the product of a lifetime of work, was gone.

She was inconsolable. As she tells it, she cried so much for so many days that Giorgi tried to comfort her by saying he would build a metro like the one in Tbilisi, so they could go back. But with South Ossetia fully under Russian control, going back was not an option.

Berbuki, IDP settlement

Instead, the family made its way to Berbuki, an hour’s drive west of Tbilisi and just 20 miles south of Kurta — one of more than a dozen new settlements built by the government for those who had fled the war. The fighting had lasted just five days, but the war permanently displaced 30,000 people.

International observers praised Georgia’s response. In a report, Transparency International said it was "unaware of any similar precedents by a country emerging from conflict to immediately address the shelter needs of an internally displaced population."

Still, these settlements — although a far cry from the tent cities that house displaced people in many parts of the world — hardly telegraphed a message of permanence. Nor did they resemble communities.

Although Berbuki sits further out in the countryside, many of the settlements were built alongside Georgia’s main east-west highway, a perpetual reminder to passing motorists that the country remains mired in conflict. The rows and rows of identical houses, laid out on a grid of perfectly straight dirt streets, could not help but act as a giant sign, telling anyone passing that “Hey, look, IDPs live here.”

Boys play on a mound of dirt and straw at the edge of the Berbuki settlement.

Sabashvili remembers spending her first few weeks in Berbuki hiding out in the cottage her family had been assigned. She didn’t know many of her new neighbors, and in her depression, it seemed like an insurmountably daunting task to try to get to know them.

“I was also worried all the time that my son would get lost, because all the houses look the same,” she said.

Staying inside wasn’t a particularly appealing option, though. The cottage was clammy and cold; it had been built in such haste that the materials didn’t have a chance to cure. Sabashvili says she had to iron the bed every night to dry it out enough to put Giorgi to sleep.

Six months after losing everything, she was grateful for a roof over her head, and thanks to aid donations, the family had enough food. But the brief war hadn’t just taken people’s houses — it also robbed them of their communities, and a sense of purpose. It took a long time for Sabashvili to feel comfortable in her new surroundings.

Toné oven, Berbuki settlement

Half a dozen women sit on short wooden benches around a tiny table covered with a white cloth. The smell of hot bread wafts out of a nearby shed, where it is baking in a traditional stone oven called a toné.

It is Mother’s Day in Berbuki, and everyone is out celebrating on a balmy March afternoon. When the bread is done, the women pass it around, ripping off hunks to dip in green tomato preserves or top with lard. As at any Georgian feast, there is a pitcher of amber wine on the table. Sabashvili has been appointed the tamada — the toastmaster. She makes toasts for mothers and future mothers and grandmothers, and women in general, before arriving at a toast for peace.

“Let he who wants war have it in his own house,” she says, and everyone drinks.

Sabashvili bakes bread in the communal toné oven in Berbuki. Neighbors and friends often stop by to chat and gossip when it is in use.

In the eight years since the war, residents have planted trees in Berbuki and the birds have arrived. There is even the occasional sound of hammering or a grinding motor, from people making modifications and additions to their cottages. But for Sabashvili, it still feels like a place stuck in between.

“We're not really settled here,” she says. “It’s like when the chicken is sitting on her eggs. When they have lice, they don't sit fully on the egg. They sit a little up. And that’s how I feel — like I’m sitting up. I have a feeling that I have to go somewhere.”

Almost no one in Berbuki has a job. The primary sources of income are a 45 lari ($20) per person monthly allowance from the government, and whatever money people can earn selling extra produce from their gardens or working as itinerant farm laborers.

There are no reliable data on the IDP unemployment rate in Georgia, but anecdotally, it is believed to be much higher than the overall Georgian unemployment rate of 12 percent. Many people in Berbuki were previously farmers and had big plots of land and orchards — but now they have small plots and young orchards, and they lack the skills for other jobs.

(Top) Sabashvili and son Giorgi check on their chickens in their backyard. (Bottom) Very few of Berbuki's residents have full-time jobs, so people spend time stacking firewood or tending plots of vegetables. There is one shop in the settlement — a general store that sells candy, beer, cigarettes, dry goods and other staples.

A few years ago, Sabashvili received a grant from an aid organization for a brand-new sewing machine. As a young woman, she had trained professionally as a seamstress, and she shows off the machine proudly, demonstrating on a scrap of fabric all the different stitches it can make — tightly spaced runners, neat zigzags. She is ready to hem curtains and sew women’s clothing. There’s just one problem — she hasn’t been able to find many clients.

“No one [here] has money, so who is going to pay for orders?” she said.

Sabashvili's new sewing machine sits mostly unused.

She occasionally does some work for friends and people she thinks need the help, but it is hardly the income generator she had hoped it would be. For a while, her husband had a job working construction, but when the project was finished, he was laid off.

Sabashvili often finds herself thinking of life back in Kurta, and of the family members buried there.

“I see my mother-in-law in my dreams,” Sabashvili said. “We are chasing chickens in the yard back there, and she is saying, ‘Where are you guys? I can't see you.’ ”

Field, Berbuki settlement

Sabashvili doesn’t have much hope that she’ll ever be able to go back. At night, from Berbuki, she can see the lights of a nearby Russian border guard base, just over the boundary line in South Ossetia. It’s a constant reminder that even what she has managed to rebuild is tenuous.

“It awakes fear inside me,” she said. “It would be so easy for them to destroy these cottages. One bomb would be enough.”

Most of the time, she tries to focus on things she has some control over — tending to her plot of potatoes and onions and tomatoes, keeping the house in order and raising Giorgi well.

Giorgi, 12, runs down a street in Berbuki, proudly showing off his soccer cleats.

He is 12 now, a precocious kid who likes to participate in adult conversations. Although Giorgi claims not to remember much of what happened during the war, he can readily point to Russia on a map and explain the history of the conflict.

But Berbuki is home, and given the choice, he hesitates to say whether he would go back to South Ossetia.

“I would like to go back with my mom,” he said. “But I would be here and there — both.”