Just over two years after war drove them from their homes in South Ossetia, hundreds of ethnic Georgians again face displacement with their eviction from a temporary shelter in a government-owned building in Tbilisi. Residents call the action totally unexpected; a group of rule of law monitors claims that the eviction is illegal.
Police on August 13 arrived at Tbilisi’s Isani shelter, a former Soviet military hospital, and expelled 334 families by order of the Georgian Ministry of Economic Development.
“It was a disaster. They came in without any notice and told us we were supposed to leave. And they didn’t identify themselves,” said Lena Kiladze, the Georgia-based executive director of the non-governmental organization, American Friends of Georgia, which operated a kindergarten for internally displaced persons (IDPs) at Isani. “We were planning to be there until January,” she added.
The sudden eviction also came as a surprise to Valeri Kopaleishvili, an advisor to the Minister of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Accommodation and Refugees, who had stated in an earlier interview with EurasiaNet.org that he thought the shelter would remain open until October.
“It wasn’t clear to me. There are 32 types of shelters like this and about 27 would be cleared in the next two months -- not all,” Kopaleishvili said. He added, though, that the Isani shelter should have been emptied in 2008 and that residents knew the accommodations were temporary and had ample warning to leave.
Ekaterine Pophkadze, who coordinates monitoring of the evictions for the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, claims, however, that the Isani eviction was illegal. Under Georgian law, people have five days to vacate premises willingly after notice is served, Pophkadze said. In this case, the police allegedly gave the shelter inhabitants seven hours.
Ushengi Batsikadze, an IDP from the South Ossetian village of Eredvi , told EurasiaNet.org that police came to the building at 10pm on August 12 and told people to gather their things. “They didn’t tell us we would have to leave, but at 5:30 the next morning, trucks and buses arrived and suddenly hired men started loading our things into them,” Batsikadze recounted.
Batsikadze’s account reflects the findings of an August 5 Amnesty International report on Georgian IDPs, which states that most of the IDPs interviewed in seven cities in Georgia “lacked even basic information about their rights, options and remedies available.”
Reasons for the short notice given to the Isani IDPs were not clear. Minister of Economic Development Vera Kobalia, a native of Abkhazia who formerly headed the IDP-rights organization Coalition for Justice, could not be reached to explain the order to clear the building.
The Isani eviction follows a similar measure taken on August 11 against inhabitants of the former headquarters of the Group of Russian Forces in the Transcaucasus; a demonstration outside the presidential palace ensued.
On August 16, Interpressnews service reported that “about 50 policemen” had also evicted IDPs from another downtown Tbilisi building.
Some 200 Isani residents say they were evicted before they had received the standard form of compensation for houses lost in the 2008 war with Russia – government-provided, privatized living space or $10,000 in cash.
Since many of the government-provided settlements are far from Tbilisi and job opportunities, many of the displaced have chosen cash compensation, instead.
The Isani IDPs argue, though, that the Ministry is making them jump over hurdles to receive the money, which is allocated to families, rather than to individuals. The Ministry also refuses to compensate people who were not physically present in their homes when they were forced to flee.
Ministry adviser Kopaleishvili says the problem stems from the Ministry’s efforts to verify that all applicants have a legitimate claim to the money; many applicants, he claims, do not.
On August 16, scores of IDPs were lined in front of the Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Accommodation and Refugees building, waiting to be paid. Many, fearing reprisals, were reluctant to speak on the record with EurasiaNet.org.
“Everybody is afraid. If they are quiet, they think they will get their money,” one man said on condition of anonymity. “People are saying ‘Why did they have to kick us out and pay us later? If they had paid us first, we would have left voluntarily. We wouldn’t have to be here.’”
Ten thousand dollars is not enough money to buy a house in Tbilisi, although it is possible to find housing in the regions for that price. Ushengi Batsikadze said he has been waiting for the money since January 2009; he claimed that the Ministry told him the funds will be deposited in his bank account in two days, yet said he has no idea what he will do when they arrive. Batsikadze was forced to quit his job when he was evicted from the Isani building because he cannot afford to commute to Tbilisi.
“We want to calm down a little bit first,” he said. “Then we’ll see what we can do next.”
Paul Rimple is a freelance writer based in Tbilisi.