Stories of families from Abkhazia who fled war to Russia but were unwanted there
Russia wages wars. And people flee to Russia from those countries with which it is at war. They have various reasons for doing this: some believe the country is playing a liberating role, others have relatives living in Russia, and some simply see it as a big country with lots of opportunities. Although the Russian authorities are constantly sending the message that they are fighting those wars for those countries’ peoples, once in Russia the refugees often find themselves in dire straits and without help. Sometimes they are simply expelled from the country. That’s what happened with refugees from Abkhazia: in the mid-2000s they faced reprisals, lost their housing and were deported. As part of Memorial Human Rights Defence Centre’s project 30 Years Before, Cherta tells the stories of families from Abkhazia that considered Russia their second homeland and tried to find refuge from the war there. However, they were forced to leave.
Manana Jabelia, an ethnic Georgian from Abkhazia, moved to Moscow in 1994. She was 39 years old at the time. She fled the war together with her husband, brother, and three sons.

Ethnic cleansing of Georgians occurred in Abkhazia during the war: they were killed and tortured, and women were raped. Many Georgians left Abkhazia for territories controlled by Tbilisi: they would walk for several days, crossing mountain passes. They would try to get onto the helicopters that were sometimes sent for them. Dozens of people died from the cold and from malnutrition while attempting to flee the war.

The authorities could hardly handle the flow of refugees: a total of approximately 200,000 ethnic Georgians left Abkhazia in 1992–1993 and resettled in Georgian-controlled territory. The city of Zugdidi, which is on the border with Abkhazia, was full of refugees at the time. Around 100,000 displaced persons from Abkhazia had gathered in the city and its environs by the end of 1993, although Zugdidi itself had a population of only 50,000 in 1989. The refugees lived with friends and relatives and moved into kindergartens. The hotels and health resorts in Georgia's big cities Tbilisi and Kutaisi were filled to the brim with refugees.

The armed conflict between Georgia and Abkhazia, an autonomous republic of Georgia, began in August 1992. Abkhazia wanted independence but Georgia tried to keep it a part of Georgia. Russia was officially neutral towards the conflict: it condemned both sides’ war crimes, sent humanitarian assistance and helped evacuate refugees. Nevertheless, according to a report from Human Rights Watch, Russian units that were in the conflict zone informally supported the Abkhazian forces: for example, they would bomb Georgian positions (Russia’s official line was that its troops were merely defending themselves by firing in response to Georgian attacks). Georgia accused Russia of supplying the Abkhazian forces with weapons, in particular, with tanks (Russia denied these accusations). Abkhazia, in turn, accused Moscow of giving Georgian troops armoured vehicles.

Not all of those who left Abkhazia during the war stayed in Georgia. Some fled to Russia.

According to the Georgian consulate in Moscow, some 50,000 of the 250,000 Georgians who left Abkhazia in 1992–1993 settled in Russia. At that time, just two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was not considered a foreign state, wrote human rights activists from the Civic Assistance Committee: “Many refugees first travelled to Tbilisi. But then, when they didn’t get substantial help or were unable to find shelter and means of subsistence, they would often go to Russia. Most often they would go to Moscow, which they still considered to be their capital city, a political and economic centre where decisions were made and it was easier to survive.”

Manana Jabelia's family got used to Moscow. Manana herself sold fruits and vegetables at the market. Her son Niko studied to be a lawyer at a college in Moscow. Manana's husband, Shahi Kvaratskhelia, an ethnic Abkhazian, said that he considers himself a Muscovite.

Manana Jabelia's family lived in Moscow for 13 years. Manana held a Georgian passport, but she lived legally in Russia, extending her visa regularly. Then something unexpected happened on 4 October 2006: Manana was detained by the police. She didn’t have her Georgian passport with her because she had left it at the consulate the day before to be replaced.

Although Manana had a certificate issued by the Georgian consulate that she was a displaced person, the police took her to the station anyway and left her there for the night.

The next day, a court ordered her to be deported from Russia. The hearing lasted ten minutes. The court decision stated that Manana Jabelia allegedly confessed that she had come to Russia illegally just two years ago and wanted to return to Georgia. Her son asserted that his mother hadn’t confessed to any such thing.
Photo: Alexander Fedorov
Fleeing to Russia from Russia
April 2, 2024
This article has been published as part of 30 Years Before, a project by Memorial Human Rights Defence Centre. The views of its authors and editors do not necessarily reflect the views of Memorial Human Rights Defence Centre, and vice versa.
In the autumn of 2006—just as Manana Jabelia was detained—Russia started an unofficial “anti-Georgian campaign." Ethnic Georgians, including refugees from Abkhazia, were detained en masse throughout the country. They were kept in prisons and deported from the country even if they were in Russia legally.

The campaign was launched after the Georgian authorities caught five Russian intelligence officers in Georgia and charged four of them with spying. Vladimir Putin, who had already been president for six years by that time, accused the Georgian authorities of “terrorism” and of “hostage taking,” and promised to respond to the so-called provocation.

Two days after Putin’s declaration, the deputy head of Russia’s Federal Migration Service announced that the agency was planning to step up surveillance of Georgians in Russia and threatened to deport those who were working illegally. He admitted that it was a political step, a response to Georgia’s actions. The Russian authorities started to publicly demonise Georgians. The authorities asserted that one out of a hundred Georgian citizens living in Russia was a criminal. They said the Georgian diaspora monopolised the markets and squeezed so-called native-born people out of them.

Under the guise of combating illegal migration and tax evasion, the police started to raid Georgian-owned establishments: restaurants, car repair shops, casinos, and stores. Many of them were closed for violations, while others shut down on their own. For example, the owner of a Georgian restaurant in Moscow announced that he was shutting down because he didn’t want masked individuals to burst into his restaurant during meals and lay patrons face down on the floor. Even the publisher of Boris Akunin’s books was inspected. An ethnic Georgian, Akunin’s real name is Grigori Chkhartishvili. At the time, the writer called the campaign “fascist hysterics." “It’s now dangerous to be a member of a ‘black’ nation in Russia,” he said.

Children were also persecuted. The Moscow police sent letters to the schools asking for lists of children with Georgian surnames. They demanded that school headmasters tell them whether Georgian children weren’t obeying their teachers, whether they were fighting with other children or committing so-called antisocial actions. In Kaluga, for example, FSB officers came to talk with Georgian children.

Not only markets and restaurants were raided. On 7 October 2006, the Moscow police set up a dragnet near the Church of St. George the Victorious, the main spiritual centre of the Georgian diaspora in Moscow. Security officers took down the information of all those attending the service and detained two church choir singers who were Georgian citizens. On the same day, police also stood watch outside the Georgian consulate in Moscow. They checked the documents of everyone who tried to enter the building and detained four people.

All of these events in the autumn of 2006 were the culmination of a conflict that had been brewing between Russia and Georgia for several years. The conflict was triggered by the newly elected Vladimir Putin’s policy towards the unrecognised Abkhazia.

In 2002, Russia started to fast-track the issuance of passports to residents of Abkhazia, then Russian citizenship, followed by Russian pensions and other social benefits. Almost the entire adult population of the unrecognised republic also became entitled to Russian “protection." Then-president of Georgia Eduard Shevardnadze called it “de facto annexation."

Relations between the two countries continued to deteriorate after the Rose Revolution in Tbilisi. It was the first successful colour revolution in the post-Soviet space and brought Mikhail Saakashvili to power in Georgia. He announced a focus on restoring Georgia’s [territorial] integrity and, in 2004, sent troops into South Ossetia, which was another conflict zone like Abkhazia. As in Abkhazia, Russian soldiers were stationed in South Ossetia as peacekeepers at the time. But Georgia’s new government declared that it would no longer “pay regard” to them.

The conflict culminated in the 2008 Russo-Georgian war. But that conflict had already produced victims two years before the war started: the Georgian refugees who lived in Russia, people like Manana Jabelia who were detained and ordered deported in the autumn of 2006.
Photo: Alexander Fedorov
Ethnic persecution
Photo: Alexander Fedorov
The 51-year-old Jabelia was sent to a special detention centre for foreigners to await deportation. Essentially, it was an ordinary pretrial detention facility. She was held there for two months. The court did not agree to release her under house arrest. Manana went on hunger strike for several days. She often felt unwell. She felt so bad that the special detention centre staff had to call an ambulance.

Meanwhile, Manana's relatives and human rights activists appealed the court’s decision. They succeeded: the Moscow City Court declared her deportation order illegal and didn’t find a single reason to deport her from Russia.

Manana Jabelia left the court a happy woman. She called her son and told him that she felt great. But she had to return to the special detention centre and wait for the court’s decision to go into effect.

That evening, she drank tea and ate sweets to celebrate her victory together with her cellmates, other Georgian women who were awaiting deportation. She sang, danced and promised to bring them care packages.

The next morning, her cellmate Eteri woke up when she heard Manana calling her. Manana was standing next to her bed. Eteri went to her and Manana fell into her arms. She was dead.

The medics determined that Manana Jabelia had died of coronary heart disease. Her body was returned to Georgia in December 2006 on a special flight arranged by the Georgian government. Manana’s relatives said the doctor who did the autopsy told them it was a crime to hold a woman with such a bad heart in a special detention centre.

Following her death, Manana's relatives decided to leave Russia. They didn’t have Georgian citizenship. Manana's husband, an ethnic Abkhazian, didn’t know the Georgian alphabet. They didn’t have anywhere to live in Tbilisi. Nevertheless, they decided they had “no future” in Russia.

“We always considered Russia our homeland. What am I supposed to do here?” Manana’s husband, Shahi Kvaratskhelia, told journalists from Deutsche Welle in the days immediately following his move to Tbilisi. “Yes, I’m a Georgian by birth, but do I really have to live here because of that? I have become a beggar here. My job and my home are back there. I took care of my children’s education there. At home, in Russia, we lived like decent people. I don’t know how we’re going to live here. I pray here. I stand at my wife’s grave praying and asking Russian president Putin to change his policy. It’s that policy that caused my beloved wife’s death."
Photo: Alexander Fedorov
“We always considered Russia our homeland”
People surrounded the dormitory buildings in northern Moscow in the early morning of 24 June 2008. A Novaya Gazeta correspondent said they looked like “grim hulks in plain clothes." They barricaded the entry door to the dormitory with a metal rod to keep the journalists and human rights activists who had come to the building out. As a crowd gathered outside, inside the dormitory plainclothes operatives broke into rooms and threw residents out of them. Those residents included refugees from Abkhazia. The men in plain clothing beat the people they threw out of the rooms, including children. In protest, one woman poured kerosene over herself in the middle of the corridor and raised a cigarette lighter in her hand.

That pogrom was the end of a two-year standoff. The dormitory that had once belonged to the Smena garment factory had become a shelter for refugees from Abkhazia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan in the early 1990s. But in 2004, the building was placed under the jurisdiction of the Federal Penitentiary Service so that security officers from other regions could live there. The documents said there were no residents in the building. Since then, Federal Penitentiary Service employees tried to evict refugees, workers with temporary residence, and garment factory workers who had come from other regions, but in the summer of 2008, as journalists wrote, security forces “entered the peaceful dormitory as if it were a riot zone."

Fifty-four-year-old Lamara Gegechkori, an Abkhazian refugee who had lived in the dormitory for more than ten years, weathered the raid with her one-year-old grandson in her arms. She recalled that she watched from the window of her neighbour’s room (her neighbour was also an Abkhazian) as the men who surrounded the building sprayed asphyxiating gas. “I looked out the window; I was holding the child in one arm. I took a flowerpot from the windowsill. I told my neighbour: please don’t be upset; it’s a good plant. Then I dropped it,” she recalled.

An ethnic Mingrelian (the Mingrelians are one of the peoples of Georgia), Lamara Gegechkori was born and grew up in the city of Ochamchira, Abkhazia. In 1993, during the war in Abkhazia, she and her husband and children fled to the Georgian city of Zugdidi, which is near Ochamchira. It’s a refuge for most people fleeing Abkhazia.

Lamara’s family tried to live in Georgia for a time, but they had a stronger connection with Russia. It was there that Lamara had done her post-secondary studies. And her relatives lived there. Besides, there were more opportunities in Moscow than in post-Soviet Tbilisi. “When was it ever bad in Moscow?” Lamara said. “It was always good. The entire country worked for Moscow its entire life."

Gegechkori decided to go to Moscow even though she was always certain that Russian troops had fought on Abkhazia’s side during the war. “The leaders are here one day and gone the next, but people always continue to be people. The Kremlin decides everything, but not the people,” she said, recalling her decision.

When she reached the Russian capital, Gegechkori settled in the same dormitory. Her sister was already living there. Then, in the early 1990s, the city government asked Moscow’s factories to allocate rooms in their dormitories for the victims of military conflicts.

Lamara found a job at the Petrovsko-Razumovsky market: “I sold what I cooked myself. Almost all of our women [refugees] became cooks. But I couldn’t get a job at a restaurant because registration was required for that."

Lamara didn’t try to get Russian citizenship. Like many refugees, she hoped to return to her homeland of Abkhazia. As she herself put it, she didn’t want to “chase two rabbits." In the early 1990s, refugees could freely enter Russia. CIS nationals enjoyed visa-free travel and residents of Georgia had the same Soviet travel passports as Russians. Their legal status didn’t differ at all from that of migrant workers from other former Soviet republics.

In 1993, Russia adopted the law “On Refugees.” It allowed war victims to request official status. However, very few people took advantage of this, according to a report from the Civic Assistance Committee. First of all, it was very difficult to obtain this status. Second, it didn’t give the holder anything other than legal status, which people from Abkhazia already had.

The situation got worse over the years: Soviet passports were abolished, so refugees had to either exchange them for Georgian ones or try to get Russian citizenship. Then, Russia enacted the law “On the Legal Status of Foreign Citizens” in 2002. It placed most Abkhazian refugees beyond the pale by saying nothing about the legal status of foreign nationals or stateless persons who already lived in Russia by that time. It also became harder for them to gain legal status, particularly with the start of the “anti-Georgian campaign” which saw Georgian passport holders treated as citizens of an enemy state.

In 2001, the management of the garment factory that owned the dormitory changed and Gegechkori's family was transferred from an ordinary room to a windowless 12-metre space that had previously been used as an ironing room. Four of them lived together in the ironing room: Lamara, her husband, their son, and his wife. Lamara’s grandson Saba was born in April 2007. They brought him from the maternity hospital to the same windowless room.

It was in the autumn of 2006, during the anti-Georgian campaign, that the first raids attempting to evict residents from the dormitory occurred. At the time, the Russian authorities banned Georgians from working at markets and Gegechkori had to hide in the restroom during police inspections. She didn’t leave until the last minute. She left only in August 2008 when war broke out between Russia and Georgia.

As Gegechkori recalls, her family had almost nothing in Georgia. They only had a plot of land in the village where her husband’s parents lived. There they put up a wooden house and lived in it for the first few years. As Lamara said, her son told her at the time that he wouldn’t go to Russia again. He had spent his childhood in Abkhazia fearing bombings and didn’t want his son to spend his childhood in Russia fearing reprisals.
The storming of the dormitory
Photo: Alexander Fedorov
Photo: Alexander Fedorov
“A refugee is a refugee until they die”
Many Abkhazian refugees who were deported or forced to flee from Russia in the mid-2000s had an even harder time. They couldn’t return to Abkhazia, but they no longer had anywhere to live in Georgia. Human rights activists from Human Rights Watch told of a 20-year-old student named Dato, whose family moved to Georgia during the war in Abkhazia, and to Russia in the late 1990s. Not long before Georgians started to be deported, border guards refused to let him enter Russia when he returned from a trip. He was separated from his family and forced to stay in Zugdidi. “I had no money, no home, no education. I’m a stranger everywhere here,” he said.

Student Hatuna Jadzamia found herself in the same situation. She had moved to Moscow from Abkhazia with her family in 1993. A court deported her to Russia during the anti-Georgian campaign. After her removal, in Tbilisi she had to live first with one relative, then another.

The relatives of Manana Jabelia, who had died in a special detention centre, also moved to Tbilisi. Georgia assigned them to refugee housing: a 20-metre room meant to accommodate seven people.

Right after the move, Manana’s son Niko Jabelia said he would sue Russia in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Both he and the other deported Georgians—in particular, Hatuna Jadzamia, the student and refugee from Abkhazia—did actually petition the court in Strasbourg. The ECHR awarded the deceased Manana’s family €70,000 in compensation after it declared that Russia had violated the right to life, liberty, and the prohibition of torture. Hatuna Jadzamia, together with other Georgian nationals who had been deported in 2006, also won her case in the ECHR.

Georgia itself also filed suit against Russia with the Strasbourg-based court. One of the witnesses whose testimony was heard by the court's judges examining the suit was a refugee from Abkhazia who had lived in Moscow with a Georgian passport and a visa. She recounted that when a Russian court delivered the decision to deport her, she asked the judge why she was being deported. The judge answered: “Because Saakashvili is your president. You should talk to him [about it].”

When it examined Georgia’s suit in 2014, the ECHR declared that Russia had violated several articles of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights. The court ruled that the deportation of Georgians had violated the prohibition against collectively expelling foreigners: the Russian courts had issued so many deportation orders during the “anti-Georgian campaign” that the cases simply could not have been examined fairly and reasonably. The ECHR declared the way the Georgians were detained, held under arrest in detention centres and tried a violation of the ban on arbitrary detention and the right to an effective remedy. And the conditions in which they were held in the detention centres—the cells were over-crowded, the sanitary conditions were intolerable, there were no beds or mattresses, meaning that people had to take turns sleeping—violated the prohibition against inhuman or degrading treatment. Under that suit, the ECHR ordered Russia to pay Georgia €10 million in compensation.

The number of Abkhazian refugees in Russia dropped drastically during the anti-Georgian campaign. But some did stay. The family of Violetta Mikia did continue living in the dormitory on Yasny Proezd, where Lamara Gegechkori had defended her right to live but which she eventually left. Violetta’s mother, Leila Shanubia, was one of those people who had left Abkhazia on foot during the war, traveling through the mountains. She reunited with her family in Moscow, settling in the Smena factory dormitory. Having survived the Federal Penitentiary Service raid in 2004, several generations of the family grew up in that dormitory: Violetta Mikia’s son lives with his wife and two children in neighbouring rooms; her daughter lives with her husband across the hall. They have been involved in litigation for more than ten years. And although the Moscow City Court declared their deportation order illegal in 2015, it didn’t secure their right to live in that dormitory.

Their former neighbour Lamara Gegechkori has already been living in Tbilisi for 15 years. “Don’t think I’m living in my homeland,” she says. “My homeland is where I was born and grew up, in Abkhazia. We are refugees here too. A refugee is a refugee until they die."
Photo : Alexander Fedorov