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Across the Former Soviet Union Jewish Refugees in War-torn Region Dream of Two Different Homelands

April 6, 2006
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Marina Gasviani dreams of two homes. One is the Jewish homeland.

In a corner of the bedroom here that she shares with her younger sister, Marina has decorated the white wall around her computer desk with a large Israeli flag, map and photos from her visit to the Jewish state — a trip last summer courtesy of birthright israel.

“This is my small Israel,” she says of her pseudo-shrine in near-perfect English, her green eyes glittering. “I like to feel like I’m there; it’s a place very close to my soul.”

Like many young Jews of the former Soviet Union, Marina has mulled making aliyah — joining her older sister, Ekaterina, who immigrated to Israel five years ago.

But Marina has a second home that also occupies her thoughts: her hometown, Sukhumi, the Black Sea city and capital of the Georgian province of Abkhazia.

When the separatist Abkhaz minority rose up in the early 1990s, the ensuing warfare in Abkhazia would claim at least 10,000 lives and drive out an estimated quarter-million Georgians and others from their homes. From Sukhumi alone, a once-vibrant Jewish community of 3,000 has shriveled to about 200, most of them elderly.

In fact, ex-Soviet Georgia has also been torn by a second, albeit far less lethal, ethnic-based separatist movement, from the province known as South Ossetia.

From that territory, too, several hundred Jews were on the run.

To be sure, no Jew in Abkhazia or South Ossetia, it seems, was expelled “as a Jew.” Georgian rulers, it’s said, have been especially renowned for their hospitality toward Jews; indeed, Jewish roots in ancient Georgia can be traced back 2,600 years.

Nevertheless, here they are: Jewish refugees. Which in this day and age, is rare.

While the Jewish existence today has its trials — the threats to Israel, an upsurge of anti-Semitism across the Diaspora — Jewish flight is not one of them.

Iranian Jews face their share of persecution. But perhaps the only recent event comparable also occurred in the 1990s: interethnic killing that tore apart Yugoslavia also destabilized the Jewish communities of Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia.

In 1992, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee evacuated some 2,000 Bosnian Jews, Muslims and Christians, via buses and airlift, from the besieged capital, Sarajevo. (Four years later, the Jewish Agency for Israel would airlift several hundred Jews out of war-torn Grozny, Chechnya’s capital.)

For a fledgling state like Georgia, the enormous cost of housing and feeding a quarter-million refugees — in a country of only 5.6 million — coupled with the civil war and economic crisis that followed in the mid-1990s, has been catastrophic. Once among the most prosperous ex-Soviet republics, Georgia is now one of its poorest.

Each refugee receives free housing from the Georgian government, plus a monthly stipend equal to a mere handful of dollars.

It’s far from adequate. So for Jewish refugees, the JDC helps fill the vacuum.

The JDC, the leading Jewish welfare agency in the former Soviet Union, primarily assists the elderly. There’s no special category for the refugees.

“But we assist them as we would any other Jew in need,” says Sergey Vlasov, the Tbilisi-based JDC representative for Georgia and Armenia.

Yet today, more than a decade later, Georgia’s two internal conflicts continue to simmer, with no resolution in sight. And two, virtually anonymous communities of Jewish refugees continue to live in limbo.

Tina Khakhiaschvili had only moved to Tskhinvali, the provincial capital of South Ossetia, five years earlier. Tskhinvali is the hometown of her husband, Robert Schaptoschvili, and his family had deep Jewish roots in the city.

A city of roughly 35,000, Tskhinvali was at one point home to some 1,000 Jewish families and a thriving community of Jewish businesses, many downtown.

Warfare has since seen the community dwindle to roughly two dozen Jews — again, mostly elderly.

Before the war, Tina and her husband lived well, she says.

She taught German, while he owned two clothing factories, one in Tskhinvali, the other in the city of Gori, about 15 miles to the south, in Georgia proper.

The couple enjoyed a two-story villa in the city center, with two cars and a garden. A daughter, Bela, arrived in 1990.

But in October 1991, her husband caught wind that “a big criminal group” — allegedly led by local Ossetes, with help from paramilitary forces — was “going to start a war” by provoking local Georgians. “And three-four days later,” says Tina, “it started.”

The couple became alarmed by glimpses of looting of homes in the suburbs. With a 1-year-old to consider, they became one of the first families to flee.

They ultimately settled in Gori, but their quality of life nosedived.

With the economy feeble and jobs scarce, Robert hasn’t been able to restart the business. Tina hasn’t found work teaching, sometimes earning cash by cleaning offices.

So, after relative affluence in Tskhinvali, the family now relies on the 14 lari, or $7.80, per month, per family member, from the government — plus help from the Gori branch of the JDC-supported Hesed for food and other assistance.

“Can you imagine pulling up all the roots from your home and life, then go somewhere else and have to start your life over again?” Tina said recently. “And when you look back, you remember you had a home, job and cars? It’s hard to imagine.”

After her family’s experience in Tskhinvali, she says, she doesn’t want to return.

“An Ossetian family is now living in our home, and we couldn’t get it back anyway,” says Tina. “Besides, someone else’s feet have been in my home and yard, and I wouldn’t feel free there anymore. I want to rebuild my life here.”

Nora Kalachava is a self-described “Sukhumi girl,” nostalgic for her seaside city of sub-tropical weather and fertile land that produces oranges, lemons, pomegranates, tea and tobacco.

Long divorced from her Georgian husband, Nora was living in Sukhumi with her daughter, Zhanna, then 5, and her mother, Lida, then 67, when war broke out in 1992.

The daughter of a deaf-mute father, Nora worked as a sign-Georgian translator. And while the city was divided roughly into Georgian and Abkhaz sections of the city, Nora’s family lived in an ethnically mixed, five-story apartment building with Georgians, Abkhaz, Russians, Greeks, Ukrainians and Kazakhs.

Warfare, she says, unleashed “indescribable violence and torture.” However, with two dependents and nowhere to go, Nora decided to stay put.

Enduring it for a full year, a terrifying thought possessed her. “I was waiting for death, dreaming all day the Abkhaz were coming after me, saying ‘We’re going to kill you,'” she says. “At the same time, I was hungry, I was cold.”

One day, she contends, an Abkhaz neighbor who coveted her apartment called on some “thugs” to kick her out. Neighbors knew she was Jewish, not Georgian, she says, but there was nothing anti-Jewish about the expulsion.

After arriving in Tbilisi, she said, she couldn’t rid herself of either the morbid thoughts, or the cold and hunger. She entered herself into Tbilisi psychiatric institution, and lived there with Zhanna for more than two years.

Better today, Nora says, she and Zhanna, now 18, again live with her mother, now 80, with other refugee families in a former sanatorium, on the eastern outskirts of the capital, overlooking the modest Sea of Tbilisi.

It’s a grim place, despite the cacophony of competing music and cooking, and shouts of glee from teens kicking a soccer ball in an adjacent recreation center.

The elevators don’t work. The circular, concrete stairwell is hazardous, with its lack of lighting and broken steps. Some apartments have sheets for doors. And the hallways are lit by single, naked light bulbs — or not at all.

Because they are three, Nora’s family actually has two small adjacent rooms, with tiny kitchens attached. The first is dilapidated, with worn wooden floors and water-stained walls. Wires stick out of an exposed light socket. The lone personal touch is a large rectangular clock on the wall, projecting a kitschy waterfall scene.

The second room, however, is surprisingly cheerful and well-maintained. Hesed has refurbished this room, with a new bureau for clothes, two beds, furniture, a whitewashed ceiling and cappuccino-colored wallpaper with floral prints.

Nora says she tried to keep the renovation as discreet as possible, to avert the jealousy of neighbors. On this day, she also urges her visitors to keep a low profile.

“Everybody living here wants help,” she says. “We also keep it a secret that we’re Jews and getting help from Hesed. We just want to live a quiet life.”

Her mother’s pension is the equivalent of $15 per month. But Nora, who says she hasn’t been able to find translation work, is three years away from the pension age of 60.

So, the three of them receive assistance from the JDC-funded Hesed, mostly in the form of hot Meals on Wheels — like grilled meat, fish, soup, salads and fruits — and monthly packages of food staples like butter, flour, oil, salt, milk, sugar, tea, soap and toothpaste.

Hesed has been a “great help for us,” she says. But living off assistance “has been very hard. Very hard. But what can we do? How else can we live from month to month?”

Zhanna has built a new life in Tbilisi. But Nora, asked through a translator if she’d return home, gives two thumbs-up.

“With great pleasure I’d like to go back,” she says with a smile. “I believe in God, and I believe I will go back there.”

The Gasviani family also dreams of returning.

In Sukhumi, too, inter-ethnic relations were relatively harmonious. One manifestation is the degree of inter-marriage: her father is Georgian, her mother Jewish.

The Gasvianis lived in the city center, among Georgians. So when war broke out, says Zorbeg, it wasn’t difficult to know in which homes the Georgians lived.

“We couldn’t stay, because my last name is Georgian and it was very dangerous,” says Zorbeg. “We’d always lived in peace with the Abkhaz. But in those last years, our last name divided us from them.”

As the uprising evolved into warfare, even a walk outside became risky. In March 1992, Zorbeg learned his younger brother, Vakhtang, had died. Some Abkhaz had set fire to a home, Zorbeg was told, and when Vakhtang heard children inside crying for help, he ran in to assist. The ceiling collapsed on him.

So Zorbeg’s family hid in their apartment building basement, with other families.

Though the situation steadily worsened, Zorbeg says his decision to flee was actually split-second.

“There was fighting in the streets, with rumors they were killing people in their basements,” he says. “The bullets were flying, and we heard the Abkhaz were coming.”

On Oct. 27, 1993, amid heavy fighting, the Gasviani’s building caught fire.

Zorbeg scooped up his youngest daughter, Kristina, then 4, and with Nelly, Marina, then 12, and eldest daughter Ekaterina, 13, the family bolted from their home, taking nothing with them. The five headed into the mountains, hiking by foot from village to village — for a week.

Twelve years later, the family lives with other refugees in the distant, hilly suburbs west of the capital, in a shabby former dormitory of Tbilisi State University.

The Gasvianis have blended into the Jewish community here: Marina is program coordinator of the Tbilisi Hillel, younger sister Kristina, now 16, studies at a Jewish school, and Nelly volunteers at the Orthodox boys’ school, often in the kitchen.

Zorbeg, however, hasn’t been able to find work. So the family strains under both the economic and psychological burdens of dislocation. They rely on a monthly state subsidy of $6 per person, plus food and other assistance from Hesed.

Marina’s salary is also crucial, but she politely declines to divulge her earnings.

She and her father say they, too, would return to Sukhumi — if they could. They learned that half their apartment building had collapsed during the fire. It was later rebuilt, but an Abkhaz family is now said to be living in their home.

Besides, the Abkhaz-Georgian border remains sealed. Still, they hope.

“In Sukhumi, we had everything; here we’ve had to rebuild our lives from zero,” Zorbeg says. “Every refugee who doesn’t live in his own home hopes to return to home.”

Marina adds simply: “Our place is in Abkhazia. It’s our home.”

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