The refugees choice
85 000 refugees, most of them from Abkhazia, make Samegrelo the most refugee populated region in Georgia after Tbilisi.
20 years after the war between Georgia and Abkhazia ceased, housing remains the key problem for them.
In the 90s the authorities could not provide thousands of refugees with new housing. Some have squatted hospitals, hotels, schools, plants, other public facilities. Some have been sheltered by relatives. Several compact settlements have been established in Samegrelo for the refugees from Abkhazia. The conditions there are unbearable, and hundreds of families are expecting the government to help them.
Hoping for social aid
The refugees have been living in the semi-ruined Zugdidi district hospital for 22 years already. Many of them were recently revoked of the status of socially dysfunctional persons.
Dali Jalagoniya, a refugee from Gali, is one of them.
Dali is single and lives in a room at the former hospital building serving her as the kitchen, the bedroomand the living room.
Dali has been denied the financial aid without any prior notification.
“I have no other sources of income. The grant has been letting me to survive. I have been paying the electricity bill, buying bread and potatoes on it. I have hardly managed to pay the debts at the neighboring food shops. I had electricity cut last month for failing to pay the bill. I am of poor health and doubt I can survive the winter in such conditions.
Thousands of families in Georgia, considered socially dysfunctional, are eligible for the grant of 30 to 60 lari. Even more families applied for the grant unsuccessfully, or have been revoked of it.
Whether the families are eligible for the grant or not is decided by the officialsmaking the special ratings. Dali claims, she has been revoked of the grant because of the Soviet made little refrigerator, a present, discovered in her room. “They thought I was a millionaire owning this old refrigerator. Damn them.
The house Dali and her neighbors live in is in poor shape, with leaking roof, bare wall bricks and plastic instead of glass in some of the deformed windows. Broken sewage and one toilet for all make the place insanitary.
Most of Dali`s neighbors are unemployed. And they don’t own a piece of land to grow something on it. They live beyond the poverty line. Social aid is their major source of income. Some survive through petty trade, the basic occupation for refugees in Zugdidi with its abundant street trade.
Refugees sell bread, fruits and vegetables from the trays around the city market. The local authorities do not let them trade outside the marketplace, causing protest, as one has to pay a fee for trading inside.
New house, new block
4,273 refugee families in the Zugdidi district live in 207 houses, receiving a monthly grant of 45 lari.
The government step by step approach and a large number of the refugees in need of housing keep the problem generally unsolved.
The government has provided refugees in Samegrelo with 800 apartments in the last 4 years. Besides, houses have been built for 14 families, sheltered at the mayor`s office, as part of a larger housing project, and small grants have been allocated to have them employed.
Four 12-storey houses meant for refugees are under construction in Zugdidi at the moment.
Twenty six 12-storey houses for 2016 refugee families will mark the end of all the current and planned projects.
The refuges, whose housing problem has been already solved, demand to be paid the social grants, though, having no alternative source of income. Unemployment is the key problem in Georgia both for refugees and local residents.
Tsiala Kobaliya, a refugee from Gali, is one of the fresh apartment owners.
“I have almost gone mad out of joy, when they handed me the keys. Sure, I have better living conditions now. But every day I have to find the way to feed my sick child, whose pension the whole family lives on.
Election campaign and refugees hopes
Parliamentary elections are due in Georgia soon, and Zugdidi is gripped by the election fever.
The point is, that Sandra Rulovs, Georgian ex-First Lady, is running in Zugdidi supported by the opposition National Movement, and is considered a formidable rival to the loyalist candidate.
The city is full of election billboards and ads.
The candidates walking along the streets, meeting people and giving promises are to be seen everywhere – in the Zugdidi Central Park, public places, refugee settlements.
Refugees are the traditional issue in all elections.
The parties promises seldom vary:they all pledge to bring the refugees back to Abkhazia and to solve the acute problems.
Merab Kvaraya, the ruling Georgian Dream candidate in the majority constituency, promises 10 000 new apartments and 1,500 houses for the refugees families in 4 years.
The opposition does not believe the promise, accusing the authorities of stealing the budget allocations for the refugees housing construction, as well as of nepotism and corruption when distributing the apartments.
Some refugees believe the situation is to improve after the elections. Some expect nothing but the new hardships.
“When we need them, there is not a single politician to be found, and now they are rushing into our homes. They hold rallies and promise us anything in case we vote for them. I do not trust a single party. “What is to save the country, where the key promise of the politicians is the one of social aid?, Alik Kobaliya, a refugee from Abkhazia, says.