Teona Chakvetadze was 10 years old when she discovered her displaced identity.
“My grandmother took my sister and me to the registration center for IDPs,” recalls the 25-year-old, a student at Tbilisi’s Georgian Institute of Public Affairs. “It was in Kutaisi. There were so many people I could hardly move. My sister, who’s younger, cried. After roughly five hours of standing in line, we entered the building, and the woman asked me where my Abkhazian hometown was. I said ‘I’m from Gagra.’”
Chakvetadze, though, was not born in Abkhazia, the Russian-backed breakaway region over which conflict broke out in 1992. She was born in Khoni, in western Georgia, three months after her parents had fled Gagra, a seaside town in northern Abkhazia.
As many as 350,000 people are believed to have fled Abkhazia during the 1992-1993 conflict. According to Georgia’s Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) ministry, 98,796 children were born to families displaced from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the country’s other disputed region, between 1994 and 2017. Under Georgian law, these offspring are also IDPs even though they were neither born in Abkhazia or South Ossetia, nor have ever lived there.
They often have experienced Abkhazia only through their parents’ stories. Nonetheless, it has morphed into a Shangri-La where dreams could come true.
“I am an IDP by inheritance,” notes Chakvetadze. “Growing up, I remember thinking that we could return to Gagra, our ‘real home’ at anytime. It took some time for me to realize that I was an IDP in my homeland.”
Over the years, Abkhazia has allowed some level of return, including to Gali, a predominantly ethnic Georgian region in the south. (Stricter rules recently have made the trip more difficult, some IDPs say.) Thousands have been estimated to commute daily across the administrative boundary line from Georgian-controlled territory.
Returning to Abkhazia or visiting those who have returned is fraught with difficulties.
The war left deep scars, in both people and buildings.
Many returnees, like one featured in “Born Displaced,” found their houses in ruins.
Many more, though, have never been back.
The twenty-something IDPs have grown up loving that land through the stories of those who lived there until the conflict. But as they now create their own families, those stories will become third hand tales.
“Born Displaced” seeks to answer the questions around what it means to be displaced from a place where you were neither born nor lived. It asks how long the emotional attachment to those locations can last and how it can be passed on to future generations, should the displacement continue for years to come.