You Can't Go Home Again

Georgians from the would-be state of Abkhazia have spent decades trying to rebuild their lives after conflict forced them from their homes. But today, the wounds of war still feel fresh.

TBILISI, Georgia — In an apartment near the city of Zugdidi, in western Georgia, middle-aged Salome* sits with her grown children and relatives talking about the time when they were running for their lives. In 1992, Abkhazia, a region of Georgia, was making an armed bid for statehood, and as Mingrelians, linguistically distinct ethnic Georgians who lived there, Salome's family faced prison or even death if they stayed. With tears in her eyes, Salome recalls how her late husband, a civilian, was held by Abkhazian soldiers for nine months in a prisoner-of-war camp for trying to smuggle food across the new border to his family. On the mantel behind Salome is a photograph from before the bullets started to fly of her husband swinging their daughter in the air.

It's hard to be caught between two worlds, especially when those worlds are Abkhazia and Georgia.

Refugees like Salome and her family still consider the disputed state of Abkhazia their real home and part of Georgia. That position is shared by many other countries, including the United States and many NATO nations, and is offset by only four -- most seminally Russia, which recognized Abkhazia as an independent nation in 2008 after Moscow's war with Georgia.

The situation in the breakaway region is in many ways less tense for Georgians now than it was in the past. Yet the resignation of Abkhazian President Alexander Ankvab in June amid popular protests in the disputed state's capital, Sukhumi, could foreshadow a strengthened position of Abkhazia's most powerful backer, Russia. That leaves internal relations between Abkhazia and its Georgian residents uncertain.

Marina, Salome's 17-year-old niece, says there is a lingering sense of not being wanted. "We have no problem with the Abkhazian people; our problem is the political situation," she adds -- though that might be exactly the point.


Simmering ethnic tensions and frustrated Abkhazian separatist aspirations in the wake of the Soviet Union's fall exploded into civil war in August 1992. The conflict lasted 16 months, during which Marina's parents fled Abkhazia's Gali region to seek a new life in Georgia. The memories of fleeing their homes are still very much alive: The two remember seeing friends and relatives shot down as they fled on foot in September 1993, killed and wounded by Abkhazian forces and Russian volunteers. "Many people died. Our neighbors. It was very bad. There was so much fear," recalls Salome. "Ra dro iqo [What a time it was]," she adds wryly.

War crimes committed by both sides during the war have been documented by Human Rights Watch, including the use of rape to terrorize people, hostage-taking, and the killing of civilians. Yet there were never prosecutions. According to the Red Cross, the fighting claimed between 10,000 and 15,000 lives and left 8,000 wounded, while other sources cite as many as 25,000 to 30,000 fatalities. Some 200,000 displaced Georgians fled the conflict zone, many never to return for fear of discrimination and violence. Nevertheless, an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 ethnic Georgians have returned to Gali. (Fighting flared up there again in 1998, when Georgian fighters tried to retake the region.)

The war completely changed Abkhazia's demographic makeup. In 1989, ethnic Abkhazians accounted for only 17 percent of the population, Georgians for 45 percent. The remainder of the population was made up of ethnic Armenians, Greeks, and Russians. In a 2011 census, by contrast, Georgians made up only 19.3 percent of Abkhazia's population. Abkhazians are now in the majority.

The record of what happened during the war is still a matter of dispute, and one that carries clear political weight. In an interview at his office on Aug. 1, Abkhazian Minister of Foreign Affairs Viacheslav Chirikba disputed claims that there was ethnic cleansing of Georgians during the war, calling it a Georgian political fiction. "It's a very long period since Abkhazia won this war and Georgian people fled," he says. "The majority of them fled, and it's a great deception as to what has happened, that they were expelled."

What is indisputable is that Abkhazia remains one of the few places in the world that has not allowed refugees to return based on ethnicity. Although some Georgians have returned, the majority remain barred solely because their ethnicity and identity are Georgian, though Chirikba claims Georgia is the side that stalled a fledgling process by Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in the 1990s. Furthermore, deplorable conditions and human rights violations, such as a general lack of voting rights for the Georgians who do return, are disturbing to many international observers and analysts. Even in the latest election, held this month, an estimated 22,000 ethnic Georgians were barred from voting after Abkhazia declared their passports to have been illegally obtained.

Salome, like so many of the war's refugees, has carved out a new life in Georgia bit by bit, with help from the government. When she and her young children crossed over the new border in September 1993, they moved into a subsidized apartment block without windows or proper facilities. With winter fast approaching, they bundled up and hunkered down. Her daughter cried for her doll left behind, her son for his abandoned red bicycle. Both cried for their father who had stayed behind in Abkhazia.

"We ate in the morning and then not in the afternoon. There were no lights," Salome says.

They scraped together the money to buy windows to install in the unfinished walls and seeds to grow food next to the apartment complex, and now they have a community in the apartment complex. There are a volleyball net and makeshift basketball court set up outside, a few pleasant seats under an arbor of grape vines, a soccer pitch, and fields of corn whose crops are used to make Mingrelian ghomi porridge.

It's no paradise, but it's a kind of home.


For those who have returned to Abkhazia, the tension of two dueling identities can be complicated. Marina's parents returned in 1995, but still keep their apartment in Georgia -- the family often travels back and forth between the two sides. Her father holds an Abkhazian passport, while her mother must cross the border secretly because Abkhazia's obscure administrative barriers have blocked her application.

When Marina graduated from her Georgian-language school in Gali in June, she and some classmates wanted to celebrate openly with Georgian music, toasting to Apkhazeti (the Georgian word for Abkhazia), and dancing traditional dances, but such open declarations of Georgian culture could have made them targets for persecution. Some of her classmates crossed the border into Georgia for a graduation party and to take Georgian exams that would make them eligible for Georgian universities.

"In Abkhazia, there is a university, but students there can't learn in Georgian," Marina, who doesn't speak Abkhazian or fluent Russian, explains. Many Georgian Abkhazians are wary of attending university in Sukhumi, even if they could meet the language requirements, because the degree would be worth little outside the region.

A lack of Georgian-language education in Abkhazia is a legitimate -- and long-running -- problem and a proxy for the cultural tensions that eventually led to the 1992-1993 war. In March 1989, protests in Sukhumi by Georgian students demanding that the Georgian sector of Abkhazian State University be made into a branch of Tbilisi State University (located in the Georgian capital) ended in clashes between the students and local ethnic Abkhazians. A decision was later made in favor of the students' demands, and that was seen by Abkhazians as an expansion of Georgian influence and nationalism. It resulted in even worse violence that left 17 dead and more than 440 wounded.

Since the war, Abkhazia has moved much further away not only from Georgia, but also from the Georgian language. Fear of linguistic and cultural assimilation were some of the roots of the 1992-1993 separatist actions of Abkhazians, and in 2007, Abkhazia passed a law that established Abkhazian as the only official language of the territory.

Somewhat ironically, however, there is a growing prevalence of Russian language and culture in Abkhazian society. Russia has grown closer to the region, in particular through a series of bilateral treaties signed after it backed Abkhazia's purported independence in 2008. Many Abkhazians now hold Russian passports, and some pensioners with these passports collect money from the Russian government.

The history of Abkhazia is complicated and diverse, with various ethnic groups having their own unique (and, especially in the case of Georgians, disputed) claims to it. Even Russia fought against Abkhazia in the Caucasian War of the 19th century. But now Abkhazia has Russia securing its borders and cooperating on military matters, something Chirikba, the minister of foreign affairs, insists is purely defensive. "We have maybe 5,000 Russians here, smaller than the American base in Kosovo, which is around 7,000 [troops]," he says. "We are very happy to have a Russian military presence here where they reduce any eventuality of war with Georgia."

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili wants Abkhazia to return to Georgia of its own accord. He hopes to make such an offer increasingly attractive by opening up Georgia to Europe. The June 27 signing of the EU-Georgia Association Agreement to open trade and relations is one carrot that Garibashvili hopes will prove tempting to Abkhazians: While Georgia is made a point of access to the West, Russian-backed Abkhazia becomes, by implication, increasingly isolated.

Abkhazia's government, however, remains deeply suspicious of Georgia. "Georgia wants to use NATO facilities as tools against Abkhazia, and probably against Russia, because Georgia independently is not able to keep Abkhazia," Chirikba says. "It can attack us, it can kill a lot of people, but it cannot keep it [without Western support]. They want the facilities to attack us, not to be protected from us."


Watching some of her young cousins play with dolls on the floor while another one taps out a song on his small electronic keyboard, Marina smiles. Perhaps young children who have grown up after the end of the war could bring a new perspective to a tense, at times violent political situation. "If the children will be friends in the future, I think it will be better," Marina says.

Yet her family does not believe a reunion between Georgia and Abkhazia is now on the horizon -- and Abkhazian sentiment is decidedly similar. Despite Marina's hopes, friendship or even just cooperation between Abkhazia and Georgia seems a long way off.

*The names of some individuals in this article have been changed to protect their identities. (Return to reading.)



How to Save a City From Itself

Nearly a decade after France's suburbs burned for weeks, Paris has an ambitious plan to reinvent itself to rescue its crumbling outskirts. Color the banlieues skeptical.

PARIS — It has a reputation as one of Paris's most dangerous suburbs, but the first thing that any visitor to Clichy-sous-Bois notices is the odd calm that pervades the city.

In Paris, almost every street corner is home to a bustling café where locals greet each other over an espresso or glass of wine. In Clichy, as locals call the city for short, the streets are empty. No restaurants, no downtown. Most residents leave town to do even their most basic grocery shopping: The city's only shopping center, in lower Clichy, is run-down, and residents don't feel safe shopping there. The quiet is only broken around 5 p.m., when the city's teenagers get out of school and make their way down the streets, lingering on sidewalks and corners, in part because they have nowhere else to go: The only social space where young people can congregate in Clichy is a McDonald's.

Less than 15 miles northeast of Paris, Clichy-sous-Bois, a city of almost 30,000, is one of the poorest municipalities in the country, and the most prominent symbol of egalitarian France's glaring and ongoing inequality. The world learned of Clichy in 2005, when it was the epicenter of riots that would eventually sweep through banlieues, or poor suburbs, throughout France, in which alienated suburban youths set fire to cars and public buildings for nearly three weeks. Nothing made investors in Paris more squeamish than seeing those suburbs burning, former Clichy mayor and current Senator Claude Dilain told me in a January interview at his offices in central Paris.

Nearly a decade later, France has embarked on an ambitious plan to remake Paris -- and, in the process, solve its suburbs problem. On Jan. 1, 2016, Paris, along with Clichy and more than 120 of its closest suburbs, will be enfolded into the Métropole du Grand Paris, an ambitious but still ill-defined project to create a sort of uber-city -- an overarching metropolitan government for the greater Paris area, encompassing around 7 million inhabitants and over 270 square miles. While each of the current cities will continue to exist as a distinct municipality with its own mayor and will likely retain authority over some local services such as primary education and civic duties like performing marriages, they will be regrouped under the Métropole -- a concept similar to New York City's borough system, but on a much grander scale. "It will be a revolution," said Paris City Councilman and Senator Jean-Pierre Caffet. "It will be an absolutely considerable upheaval."

The Métropole is a sweeping attempt to reinvent the government of one of the world's marquis cities: To govern Paris not as its own town, but as the hub of a coherent region -- one that, if it takes shape according to the vision of its founders, will share a tax base, handle urban planning for the region, and write Métropole-wide policies on everything from housing to economic development. The government would also put equality and fighting poverty at the heart of its mission. It's an idea that some urban planners say could reinvent how the world thinks of its urban centers -- except that no one knows quite what it looks like yet.

The Métropole du Grand Paris has been in the works since 2001, years before the banlieue riots rocked France. It's the culmination of projects begun by then-Mayor Bertrand Delanoë, who argued that the lack of cooperation between Paris and its surrounding suburbs -- cities that Paris relied on for housing, industry, workers, airports, and more -- was both outdated and unsustainable. Delanoë began prompting city leaders to come together to discuss areas in which they could cooperate.

Delanoë's slow, steady process abruptly switched gears with the 2007 presidential election of Nicolas Sarkozy, who, only weeks after his election, announced his plans to make a Grand Paris a reality -- then quickly met with resistance from fellow members of the center-right, many of whom were mayors of wealthy suburbs loathe to share a tax base. Sarkozy's transportation and economic development plans for wider Paris continued on, but progress toward a Métropole-style government ground to a halt. The project didn't gain new momentum until 2013, over a year after the election of socialist President François Hollande, when a small group of mainly socialist parliamentarians pushed through a law that made the Métropole a looming reality for 2016. But the law was intentionally vague, in order to build the necessary consensus to get it passed. It didn't specify most details, including crucial questions of how finances will be shared, and how much autonomy individual cities will keep. And it's these details that will determine whether a Grand Paris can empower its struggling suburbs.

The story of how Clichy-sous-Bois became one of the worst-off areas in the Paris region helps explain why many here believe the Métropole can help: by ensuring that urban planning takes place with the needs of the whole region in mind. Clichy was originally intended as a middle-class city: In the 1950s and 1960s, developers put up high-rise buildings originally meant for workers in and around the Charles de Gaulle Airport, then under construction. But the promised highway that was intended to link the suburb to the airport, where the jobs were, was never built. Without the promised highway, Clichy was isolated, cut off from the economic motors of the Paris region. Brand-new apartments never sold; they were then rented at low prices, often to immigrants. Better-off apartment owners fled, reselling their units to slumlords, who allowed the apartment buildings to slide into disrepair.

Today, Clichy is a destination for the most vulnerable members of French society, often newly arrived immigrants. Though the French government has since made major investments in the city, including a €580 million urban renovation project that improved living conditions for many residents, serious problems remain. Lack of public transportation is endemic: No trains stop there, and it takes about an hour and a half to reach Paris by a combination of bus, commuter rail, and metro. Residents who manage to get a job soon leave for places with a better commute, and are replaced by poorer ones. Today, 76 percent of residents under 18 have at least one parent who was born in another country -- the highest percentage of any city in mainland France. The average income, €15,314, is half that of the region, and the 22.3 percent unemployment rate more than double the rate for the region.

Few Parisian suburbs are as isolated as Clichy. But most still suffer from a lack of adequate public transportation, and across the region, the rapid growth and construction of the suburbs after World War II resulted in hastily built housing projects that have fallen into disrepair, and neighborhoods that lack crucial elements of city life such as easily accessible stores, cafés, and playgrounds.

The goal of the plan isn't only to help places like Clichy: Its architects hope it will reinvigorate the City of Lights by simplifying Paris's notoriously byzantine bureaucracy, and make it a more attractive place to do business. But the plan is also the first of its kind designed explicitly to combat concentrations of poverty within, and inequality between, neighborhoods. "The reinvention of Paris is also the renegotiation of a model of society," one where the traditionally marginalized banlieues have a voice in the future of the region, said Frédéric Gilli, a professor at Sciences Po in Paris and the author of a recent book about the Métropole. At stake, he says, is whether a world-class city can become egalitarian by design.

When Clichy and other banlieues become part of the Métropole du Grand Paris, they'll become eligible for funding financed by the tax dollars of wealthy municipalities such as Paris or Neuilly-sur-Seine -- though what they will be able to spend it on is not yet clear. A central housing authority will require even the wealthiest cities within the Métropole to provide public housing, which could help redistribute poverty -- currently concentrated in the northeast -- throughout greater Paris. The Métropole will also be in charge of urban planning, hopefully avoiding infrastructure bungles of the sort that isolated Clichy in the 1960s. And beginning in 2023, Clichy should also have a new train station as part of the Grand Paris Express metro system, planning for which began under Sarkozy, which will improve access to jobs.

Beyond the tangible benefits of a train station and tax dollars, urban planners are hoping a government for Grand Paris will foster a common identity -- one that creates a sense of belonging. "Residents of Clichy-sous-Bois don't feel like they belong if they go to Paris," Mehdi Bigaderne, a member of ACELEFEU (a play on the words assez le feu, or "enough fire"), a community group founded in Clichy during the 2005 riots that advocates on behalf of underserved neighborhoods, told me recently. For future generations, he said, he hoped "there will just be one big Paris."

But back in Clichy, for most residents the Métropole project remains a "total abstraction," as one resident told me. Most don't understand what it is, or how it will affect their lives; for those with everyday struggles, a train station in 2023 and a new financial redistribution system in 2016 are not solutions. Most don't trust the French government. "There have been so many promises here that residents are starting to distrust," said Bigaderne of ACELEFEU.

And even as the details are still being hammered out, the Métropole project is facing larger political hurdles that threaten to scale back its ambitions. In March, municipal elections in the cities around Paris that would make up the Métropole swept in a wave of new conservative mayors, of the sort who once blocked the project when it was being pursued by Sarkozy. Officials from wealthy areas of greater Paris are pushing hard for the government to revise the law to allow cities to retain their fiscal autonomy; meanwhile, even those on the left who championed the idea have begun to consider scaling it back, unwilling to see a powerful institution fall into the right's hands.

Still, at a time when cities are becoming increasingly important arenas for the fight against rising inequality -- New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, for example, ran on an inequality-focused platform, while Seattle recently raised its minimum wage -- some have begun holding up the Métropole as a potential model for how other cities can address inequality. Representatives from Bogotá, Milan, and Moscow came to observe an early consultation session for the project, said Pierre Mansat, the Paris mayor's deputy in charge of the Métropole du Grand Paris, and while the model might not be directly transferable, the ideals are universal, he said.

But for those in Clichy, that their future city may one day be a model for others remains small consolation while the city lacks a train and a downtown. And 2016 feels -- in many ways -- still very far away.

"We've gotten so used to waiting, to being patient," said Bigaderne. "There you go; we're going to wait."

Photo by ALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images