Georgian Returnees in Abkhazia Fear War and Renewed Flight

The three documents Lashkarava holds -- the Abkhaz and Georgian IDs and the Russian passport -- reflect the chaos that complicated people's lives in disputed regions at the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Much of the discord is the result of Joseph Stalin's legacy. During Stalin's rule, national and ethic identities were shifted, encouraged or suppressed. Entire nations were uprooted and deported to the other side of the Soviet Union and scattered through the desolation of the Russian Siberia or the Kazakh steppes. Arbitrary borders were drafted, dividing nations and fomenting ethnic unrest.

In Abkhazia, Georgians were brought in to change the demographic balance and the Abkhaz language was banned.

When the Cold War faded and the Soviet Union died, the former republics declared independence.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia did not want to be part of an independent Georgian state and went to war against Georgia -- winning de facto independence with Russian support through a bloody conflict, resulting in their current semi-autonomous status.

Frozen in Time

The lush green area of Abkhazia, once the place in the sun of the Soviet intelligentsia, remains frozen in time, littered with war-damaged houses, potholed roads and patrolled by U.N. armored vehicles and Russian tanks. At the numerous checkpoints, hard-faced and listless Russian soldiers seemed more interested in soliciting watermelons from passing cars to combat the triple-digit Fahrenheit summer heat.

The ethnically distinct Abkhaz minority runs the statelet of Abkhazia on the Black Sea and demands formal independence from Georgia. The self-declared republic has a president, a flag, a national anthem and an army.

But most Abkhazians carry a Russian passport, and the only valid currency is the Russian ruble. The enclave's isolated economy is fueled by Russian business interests -- though Moscow has never officially recognized the republic -- and Abkhazia sits comfortably behind a shield of Russian peacekeepers that divide the territory from the rest of Georgia.

Gali's residents have been allowed to relatively freely cross into the neighboring Georgian districts, mainly by heading to Zugdidi, the last Georgian town before the Inguri River that defines the border with Abkhazia. The Soviet passport, a relic from the past, is the most common document used to cross the bridge.

Since explosions at the beginning of July in the capital, Sukhumi, the sea resort Gagra and in Gali, the border has been closed, cutting off a lifeline for small traders and for people with relatives on both sides of the conflict zone. For weeks, thousands have remained stuck on one side or the other of the bridge.

The Abkhaz authorities maintain a shadowy stand on the return of the displaced, blocking a full assessment by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

But when asked about it, the response is different.

"We are glad people returned; we encourage people to come back," Arshba Besik, the administrative chief of the Gali district, told ABC News.

Shrugging his shoulders, the ethnic Abkhaz stressed, "The central [Abkhaz] government is allocating funds for better heath care, education."

Still, the state-of-the-art computer and TV system in his office in Gali was a stark contrast to the outside, where the roads bear the scars of lack of maintenance for decades.

The roads got better near Sukhumi.

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