By Jokola Achishvili in the Pankisi Gorge (CRS No. 291, 16-Jun-05)
"There is nothing good for my family here. There will be nothing good there [in Chechnya] either. But if I don't leave now, when they [Russian officials] are taking us, I won't be able to do it later. I have no money. Maybe I will be able to find a job. In any case, there is nothing here."
Lela Margoshvili, a 35-year-old teacher, has lived as a refugee for almost six years in the village of Jokola in the Pankisi Gorge -- a portion of northern Georgia, next to the Chechen border, which is home to a large number of ethnic Chechens, or Kists.
Like thousands of other Chechens from Chechnya proper, Lela found shelter here after the start of Russia's second military campaign in 1999.
Later this month, she, her husband, son and around 50 other Chechen families, currently residing in Pankisi, intend to return home to the Chechen capital Grozny. For the first time, refugees are leaving Georgia in officially organised groups. Around 20 people left in late May, and more than 100 families are currently ready to depart.
"All this is being done in accordance with the Russian president's instructions, which provide for a voluntary return," Vasily Korchmar, adviser to the Russian ambassador to Georgia, told IWPR. "The main point here is that the returns should be voluntary."
According to Korchmar, the Chechen government and three ministries in Moscow -- those dealing with emergency situations, the interior and foreign affairs -- are involved in the operation.
Officials from the Russian ministry for emergency situations and interior ministry have long been familiar faces in Pankisi. Over the past years, numerous delegations have arrived here to try to persuade Chechens to return home.
Up to now, all proposals were met with a flat refusal. Refugees said they did not feel safe going back to a country that for the most part remains under martial law.
But years of desperate living in Pankisi have taken their toll. The region possesses very little infrastructure and has few jobs to offer. Only with the greatest difficulty can breadwinners feed their families and keep them warm during the long, brutal winters that stretch from October to May.
"We don't have any other way out," said Adam, a Jokola resident. "We are living under very bad conditions. We lack almost everything."
"We can only live by humanitarian aid, but even that isn't enough. There's no gas and there are problems with firewood in winter. We have to gather brushwood on the roads and in the forests in order to boil water for tea or to make dinner."
Adam's fellow villager Lem Ozuyev left Jokola with the first group of returnees. He has two sick children who he cannot treat, since medical care in Georgia costs money. Russian officials have promised assistance with treatment in Chechnya, a flat and monetary compensation.
"More than 300 people have applied for return. This is a lot more than we expected initially," Korchmar told IWPR. "Not so long ago, just last December, an interdepartmental group arrived in Pankisi -- but people wouldn't even speak with them."
The adviser to the Russian ambassador believes that the mood has changed mostly because people now have faith that a normal life is possible in Chechnya.
"They watch TV, they talk by mobile telephone and they are in constant contact with their friends and relatives. Life in Chechnya is becoming normal, little by little, payments are being distributed, and they hear about this from their friends," said Korchmar.
He added that "the Georgian government has quite a lot of its own refugees" and could not fully provide for children who needed to be schooled, clothed and fed.
But life in Chechnya will be far from easy. For most, the conflict remains a daily threat -- even if it has been re-labelled an "anti-terrorist campaign". Chechen men continue to disappear at the hands of local and federal security services, human rights groups say.
Jobs are also equally difficult to come by, and infrastructure in Grozny -- which has been levelled by a very thorough bombing and shelling campaign by Russian forces -- is rudimentary at best.
Additionally, those who return will have to get new passports, since almost all of them have old Soviet documents, if any.
For these reasons, many refugees are still turning down the offer to return.
"I prefer to die hungry [here in Georgia] to departing with the help of the Russian ministry for emergency situations," said one robust middle-aged Chechen man who lives in the Pankisi village of Tsindani.
"After you arrive in Chechnya, you'll remain under their surveillance for five years and you won't be allowed to leave Chechnya. Also, if you were somehow involved in the war, it will be very tough for you."
Lechi Musikhanov, another refugee, likewise told IWPR that although he finds life in Pankisi "very hard", he will not return to Chechnya.
"I am disabled but I will not depart with them. At least I am safe in Pankisi," he said. "Here, I am not afraid of anything and I can sleep calmly. My girls are growing up and the situation is very tense there [in Chechnya], with all these cleanup operations and killings of civilians. I prefer to stay here."
Lechi said his family has lived for the past seven years in a kindergarten in the centre of Jokola. Until lately, seven families with several children apiece were in this eight-room one-floor building. Just recently, three of the families left for Holland and Sweden.
Lechi and his family now have two rooms. One, which is about 20 square metres, is used as a living space for four people. The other serves as a kitchen. There is no natural gas and the family has to use an old wood-burning tin stove. They bring water from the yard.
Some Georgian officials view the plight of the refugees with embarrassment. "This speaks badly of Georgia. We have failed to help these people in a difficult period in their history," said Giorgi Anchabadze, director of the University for Caucasus Studies in Tbilisi.
"On the other hand, the fact that many of them have decided to return to Chechnya means that the horrible things that are happening there are becoming usual and habitual, and people no longer have any hope that anything will change in Chechnya in the foreseeable future." Until recently, many refugees also held out hope that they could emigrate abroad as part of a resettlement programme which was launched a year ago under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR.
UNHCR representatives, based in the district centre of Akhmeta, started holding closed interviews with possible candidates for departure to the West.
But very few were accepted.
"According to our data, no more than 70 families departed to third countries," said Aslambek Abdulzakov, a Chechen human rights activist who lives in the Pankisi Gorge and heads the International Committee for Human Rights, ICHR, a non-governmental organisation which assists the refugees.
"This process has now been suspended, but we don't know the reason. At the time, we did not know how they selected people or how many of them would depart. Everything is secret."
IWPR was unable to obtain any comment from the UNHCR mission in Akhmeta.
In March 2005, a group of Chechen refugees organised a one-week hunger strike outside the central UN mission in Tbilisi, demanding permission to depart to any western country.
Natvrisa Tsatiashvili from the village of Jokola was among the participants. "We ended the hunger strike because they promised that we would be allowed to leave," she said. "And some of the participants did leave very soon afterwards."
"But the others were told that countries had refused to receive us after the terrorist attack in Beslan. One might think that it was us who organised the attack."
She does not know what to do now. "I don't intend to go to Chechnya," she said. "I have three adopted boys. They are already grown-up and I am afraid that they will be killed or that they will disappear without a trace, as often happens there. It's true that the conditions here are unbearable, but at least I'm not afraid of losing my sons."
But despite the numerous fears and arguments against going back, the list of those who would want to return becomes longer and longer.
Complicating the process is the fact that many homes and documents were destroyed during the war. Russian officials often do not know if those applying are indeed citizens of Chechnya.
"A lot of documents were destroyed during the war," said Vasily Korchmar. "Imagine a situation where all the residents of a particular part of the city left, plus there are now no houses there and no streets names. And now we are looking for their acquaintances -- someone who can confirm that that person did indeed live there... that, yes, he was our neighbour across the street."
Korchmar told IWPR that, according to Russian data, there are now no more than 500 Chechen refugees are in Pankisi. The Georgian ministry for refugees puts the figure around 900.
According to the adviser to the Russian ambassador to Georgia, part of the problem is that many local residents, Kists, are among those who have applied for departure.
"Many of those who applied are not citizens of Chechnya," said one Kist named Ramzan, who has applied to go to Chechnya despite the fact that he originally comes from Georgia. "The main thing is to depart and receive [Russian] passports. Apparently, as soon as we arrive in Chechnya, they will give us flats."
"If this doesn't work out, then I will go to a third country. As a last resort, I will find a job in Nazran and return home by winter."
Those Chechens who actually fled the republic, however, will have no such freedom of movement.
"I had just graduated from an institute in Grozny but failed to receive my diploma," said Lela Margoshvili, the teacher who is returning to the Chechen capital at the end of the month. "I hope I will be able to do this now."
"I don't know what has happened to my flat there... they are promising things. But we don't have any other way out," she added with a shrug. "We have to return to Chechnya."
Jokola Achishvili is head of the Akhmeta branch of the Former Political Prisoners for Human Rights, a non-governmental organisation working in Pankisi.