By Lizaveta Zhahanina in Tbilisi (CRS No. 524, 18-Dec-09)
Chechen refugees in Georgia, marking the tenth anniversary of their flight, scorn Russian suggestions the war is over and say they will only go home when the bombing and shooting have stopped.
Kameta Temirbulatova, a middle-aged woman wearing the traditional Chechen dress of a headscarf and long skirt, said refugees in Georgia's remote Pankisi valley suffer from homesickness and poverty. They are also stung by Russian accusations that they harbour al-Qaeda extremists.
The valley is home to about 800 Chechen refugees, who have linguistic ties to the ethnic Kists who make up most of the local population.
Most refugees arrived in Pankisi in November or December 1999, fleeing the second phase of Russia's war in Chechnya, which was launched in October 1999.
Russian troops were forced out of Chechnya by separatists in 1996, but returned three years later. Then Russian president Vladimir Putin said Chechnya, which is separated from Georgia only by the Caucasus mountains, had become a sink of crime and violence.
His troops launched a savage bombardment of the capital Grozny, and after weeks of hiding in cellars, around 7,000 Chechens found their way through the mountains to Georgia.
They are just a tiny percentage of Chechnya's refugee exodus of tens of thousands, but have made headlines because of regular Russian accusations that they harbour rebels.
Only a thousand remain in Georgia today, most of them in Pankisi, and they say they still long to return home.
Russia imposed a pro-Moscow administration on Chechnya, and says the war is over. However, suicide bombings and gun fights still occur regularly, and violence has spread from Chechnya into the neighbouring regions of Ingushetia and Dagestan.
"If you are a refugee and are not coming back, you become an enemy, because they (the official Chechen government) think everything is just fine there," Temirbulatova said. "But we are afraid to go. We are scared. Not everything is stable there at the moment. There are murders and bombings."
Most returnees had been men, paving the way for their families to return, although Chechnya is more dangerous for men than women.
"It is safer for women to leave than for men," said Zhaneta Makalova, another refugee.
"There were sweep operations in Grozny. The soldiers would take our men, even those who were underage."
In Pankisi, unemployment remains high, however. Both Chechen and Kist men spend much of their day chatting on the main street of Duisi, the valley's administrative centre.
The Georgian government provides refugees with a monthly living allowance of just 28 lari (about 16 US dollars) per person, meaning many refugees have decided to try their luck elsewhere.
If Chechens do stay in Georgia, they can become eligible for citizenship and Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili has approved more than half of the 31 applications received this autumn.
"Eighteen were granted dual citizenship and the rest were told that at this moment they cannot hold dual citizenship of Russia and Georgia," said Giorgi Meurmeshvili, spokesman for Georgia's registry office in the ministry of justice.
Chechens in the Pankisi valley were often accused of harbouring rebels who used the area to recuperate from the war against Russia. Georgia says that a military operation in August 2002 swept militants out of the region, but Moscow says Chechen militants continue to find shelter there.
In October, Alexander Bortnikov, head of Russia's Federal Security Service, FSB, said Georgia was sheltering al-Qaeda extremists.
When they speak about Russia's accusations, the women struggle to hold back their tears.
"We are very worried about this, because it is psychological pressure on us," Temirbulatova said. "We are barely coming to our senses without this, but they are making such statements all over again and each time it is very difficult for us."
The Chechens have not lost their language or customs during their ten years of exile. Even though most of them are fluent in Russian and have learnt Georgian, they prefer to speak Chechen.
And children continue to dream of returning home.
"Any person is drawn to their homeland," said Fatima Ozneeva, a child of around 14 in the local school. "At some point I will definitely go back."
Lizaveta Zhahanina is assistant editor at The Georgian Times and a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi.