South Ossetia Diary: Tskhinvali Residents Who Fled to Georgia Left in Limbo
To register as an Internally Displaced Person (IDP) with Georgia's Ministry of Refugees and Accommodation, applicants need a residence registration document, a passport and any civil registry document that can verify their address. Registered IDPs have access to 22 to 28 lari (roughly $13.17 to $16.17) a month, resettlement in housing with small plots of land, medical benefits and free textbooks for their children.
But individuals who lived in separatist-controlled territory now have no way of securing those documents. Many of them, usually ethnic Georgians or Ossetians with a Georgian spouse or children, would risk their lives if they did return.
By contrast, residents from Georgian-controlled South Ossetia have been able to rely on the records village authorities took with them when they fled South Ossetia, or on those officials' visual identification.
The story of Nona Hubulova, an ethnic Ossetian, reflects the complications. Hublova lived with her Georgian husband and half-Georgian daughter in the separatist-controlled portion of a mixed village, Arcevi.
When a bomb destroyed her house, Hublova fled first to the nearby Georgian city of Gori, where her husband worked, and her daughter was treated for third-degree burns. She then moved on to Tbilisi.
"All my documents, everything was in my house," said Hublova. "All I have is my Soviet birth certificate, which was miraculously in Tbilisi, but that is not enough to get me my IDP status."
Instead, the government sends individuals like Hublova to the office of Dmitri Sanakoyev, who served as leader of Georgian-held South Ossetia until Tbilisi's loss of that territory during the 2008 war with Russia.
The office acts as a liaison between 27 families in limbo and the Georgian Ministry of Refugees and Accommodation and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Advice is given; money is not.
Lali Pukayeva, a Sanakoyev advisor, told EurasiaNet that the government is setting up a commission to deal with the cases of individuals from Tskhinvali and Ossetian-controlled villages who cannot receive IDP status. The commission is expected to decide by May 15 how to handle the cases and how much money to allot to Sanakoyev for their needs, Pukayeva said.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Refugees and Accommodation underlined that all individuals registered in South Ossetia who fled to Georgian-controlled territory will eventually receive IDP status. Individuals who only have documents issued by the separatist authorities -- Tbilisi does not recognize their jurisdiction -- will not be denied that status, she said.
"The procedure will be finalized in the coming month or so," stressed Iulia Kharashvili.
But one former Tskhinvali resident fears that that time may not come soon enough. "They say they'll know more in a month, but I don't know if I'll be alive in a month, "said Ilita Dudayeva, an Ossetian woman who suffers from excess salt deposits.
Dudayeva left the South Ossetian capital for Tbilisi two days before the war broke out on August 8, 2008. Her two daughters, 4 and 9 years old, are half-Georgian, and the reason why she says she will not return. Although Dudayeva received a Georgian passport and now lives in an IDP shelter, she says she has not received any material assistance from the government to purchase the medication she needs.
"Wherever I go, there is no help," said Dudayeva.
Kharashvili admits that there are gaps in the ministry's action plan, but claims that the influx of people fleeing South Ossetia after the 2008 war was the Georgian government's first experience dealing with such an emergency.
"Many things were done timely and properly, some not done so well, but the government is learning and not leaving these people without attention," she stated.
Tens of thousands of people fled South Ossetia and Abkhazia for Georgian-controlled territory in the early 1990s after wars with separatists.
Other residents from separatist-controlled South Ossetia have fared far better than Dudayeva and Hublova. Alan Parastayev, the former chief justice of the self-declared republic's Supreme Court, now serves as the deputy minister of Georgia's newly created Ministry for Penitentiary, Probation and Legal Assistance Issues.
Parastayev, who was serving an 18-year prison term for allegedly plotting against de facto South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity, escaped to Georgian-controlled territory after prison authorities set inmates free at the start of the war.
"I'm still a South Ossetian patriot, but as the years passed, I realized war wasn't necessary. . . . " commented Parastayev, who served as a military commander during South Ossetia's 1991-1992 war with Georgia, and, later, as the region's de facto interior minister. "The military way didn't bring a resolution [to South Ossetia's problems]."
The likelihood for Parastayev's return is slight. But for ordinary ethnic Georgians who lived in separatist-controlled South Ossetia, the risks of returning are just as high.
Givi Gelishvili, who moved to Tskhinvali in 1995 to take care of his Ossetian mother, hid for nearly a month with Ossetian neighbors when war broke out. In early September 2008, militia allegedly searching houses for ethnic Georgians found him.
"They gave me two days to leave or they'd kill me. I went to [an Ossetian] relative's, and they said if we didn't leave, they would kill my relatives," Gelishvili recounted, adding that he speaks Ossetian fluently. "Then, they gave me a choice. They said I could stay, but my wife would have to go because she was Georgian."
Elementary school teacher Naira Maisuradze, born and raised in Tskhinvali, faced a similar dilemma. In mid-August, Maisuradze was evacuated with other residents to the North Ossetian capital of Vladikavkaz in Russia, but was told to leave when she returned to Tskhinvali a few weeks later.
"I never thought I would have to leave, but after the city was quiet and the shooting stopped, some locals who knew what was going on told me I should leave, that they wouldn't be able to protect me," Maisuradze said.
Now, like Gelishvili, Maisuradze lives in a Tbilisi IDP shelter with her family, making do on handouts of macaroni, beans and oil from the UNHCR and private agencies.
The government urges patience. And, for now, these former South Ossetian residents have little other choice.
"We're waiting," said Dudaeva. "For what, for where, we don't know."
Paul Rimple is a freelance writer in Tbilisi. Sophia Mizante is a freelance photographer also based in Tbilisi.