Dali Shonia, 57, pulled down the surgical mask covering her face to reveal a single loop of black thread piercing her upper and lower lips.
“I will not un-sew my mouth until they give me an apartment,” she said.
It was Feb. 5, 2017, the eleventh day of the hunger strike, according to a handwritten sign pinned to the wall of a makeshift tent. But so far, the half-dozen protesters were getting nowhere with their demands.
They had set up their protest camp on a busy street in downtown Zugdidi, a city in the western region of the Republic of Georgia. Inside, they relaxed on twin beds, watching a small TV in the corner.
The local press had stopped by, as had politicians from both major parties. But the protest’s target audience — the Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Accommodation and Refugees — had yet to make an appearance, and the protesters were growing impatient.
One of them declared that if the government continued to ignore them, he would set himself on fire in front of the ministry.
Internally displaced people, or IDPs, have fled war and violence — but unlike refugees, they have not crossed international borders to reach safety. In Georgia, there are more than 250,000 IDPs, displaced by multiple conflicts in the country’s brief post-Soviet history. As is the case for IDPs everywhere, they are dependent on their own government, not the international community, for assistance.
But for Georgia’s government, figuring out how to help, and for how long, has proved complicated.
Following wars in the early 1990s, the government’s main response to the sudden influx of displaced people was to open up public buildings as temporary shelters. It was a stopgap solution, implemented without a long-term strategy, but as the years ticked by, it became the system.
Then, in 2007, Georgia finally adopted its first official policy for addressing the needs of IDPs, which called for moving people out of those temporary shelters into more permanent housing. A decade later, that plan is still very much in progress.
Shonia fled her home in the Black Sea region of Abkhazia in the early 1990s, after Russian-backed separatists took control there during a 1992-1993 war. More than two decades later, she is still living in what was supposed to be a temporary shelter, despite new government programs to give new housing to displaced people.
She explained that water ran down the walls of her room when it rained — how could the government not see she was desperate for a new house?
“It is unfair that they give apartments to people who don’t deserve it and they don’t give apartments to us,” Shonia said.
From across the tent, another woman offered to take me on a tour of a temporary shelter — a former hospital complex turned IDP housing just behind the protest camp.
Rain splashed through the hospital’s doorless entryway and into the first-floor corridor, where an old woman was chopping wood.
Just inside, my tour guide pointed up at the ceiling, to a gaping hole extending all the way to the second floor. It turned out to be one of many holes throughout the building — some of them inside people’s makeshift apartments, others in the hallways.
It was undeniable that the building was falling apart and unsafe.
So why weren’t the people living there a higher priority for new housing? I headed over to the regional office of the Ministry of Internally Displaced People to find out.
Inside a drab, white-walled waiting room, a dozen people sat in rows of plastic chairs underneath an electronic ticker displaying which number was up next. A sign announced visiting hours — Monday, Wednesday and Friday between 10 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., with a lunch break from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m.
Everyone was silent until my translator, Mariam Aduashvili, told the security guard I was an American journalist there to speak with the deputy minister. Then the room erupted with people shouting at me in Georgian. They were annoyed, Aduashvili explained, that I was speaking to officials at the ministry.
“You should go to the settlements and talk to the IDPs, rather than come and talk to the representatives of the ministry — they are not going to tell you the truth,” she paraphrased.
After a long wait, we were ushered in back to the office of the deputy minister, Manuchar Chilachava, who sat behind his desk, flanked by staffers.
Yes, he was aware of the protest, he said. No, he did not have plans to go visit the protesters.
“Bad living conditions are bad living conditions,” he said. “We get it.”
But, he repeatedly explained, the ministry has rules it must follow — Resolution 320.
“If they have really horrible living conditions, that … is included in the points,” Chilachava said.
Resolution 320, a decree adopted in 2013, lays out a point system for ranking people’s suffering to determine who gets an apartment first: Three points for those living in “particularly harsh” conditions such as “a garage, staircase of a building, watchman’s booth, self-constructed wooden/plank building, dug-out.” Three points if a family member died in the war. Three points for a family member with a disability.
“We have to follow the law,” Chilachava said.
But how did Georgia end up in a situation where a law designed to help displaced people had resulted in them sewing their lips shut and threatening to set themselves on fire? I decided to go to the top — the minister himself.
On the day I met Sozar Subari at the agency’s headquarters in Georgia’s capital city, Tbilisi, the commission that decides who gets apartments was meeting. Inside a conference room, 20 or so people sat around a table with huge reams of paper in front of them — lists of the 4,000 applicants for just 144 newly built apartments in Zugdidi.
Projected at the front of the room were photos of the inside of an IDP applicant’s house. Subari explained they were verifying that people’s living conditions were in fact as they said they were — a process he readily admitted was flawed.
“To say who is living in the worst conditions is impossible because there is no clear border between them,” Subari said.
He professed no illusions about the problematic reality of ranking people’s suffering: “We have criteria,” he said, “but the criteria are not always fair.”
Nevertheless, he defended the system as the best way to help displaced people — short of them being allowed to return to their homes in the disputed regions. By giving IDPs property, Subari argued, the government was providing the essential pre-condition for them to reintegrate into Georgian society and live as any other citizens.
“They can start businesses and become millionaires, or they can go gamble the whole thing and lose it all in the hour — they can do whatever they want” with their new property, he said. “But once the government has given them accommodation, the government’s responsibility is done.”
His vision is that once all displaced people have been given new housing, the ministry will no longer be necessary. He’ll put himself out of a job, and IDPs will be treated like any other Georgians.
“They are now ordinary citizens,” he said. “If they lost, they lost.”
Stephanie Joyce reported in Georgia as NPR’s Above the Fray fellow. The fellowship is sponsored by the John Alexander Project, which supports foreign reporting in undercovered parts of the world. This story was produced with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.