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Displaced By War, A New Apartment Means Leaving Friends Behind

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Displaced By War, A New Apartment Means Leaving Friends Behind

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Displaced By War, A New Apartment Means Leaving Friends Behind

Displaced By War, A New Apartment Means Leaving Friends Behind

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Since he was forced out of his home in 1993, Yuri Gvasalia has lived in a former hotel. Kartli, as it's called, sits on the far fringes of Tbilisi, Georgia's capital city. It was one of thousands of buildings the Georgian government opened up as temporary housing for people displaced by the war. Two decades later, people are still living there. Claire Harbage/NPR hide caption

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Since he was forced out of his home in 1993, Yuri Gvasalia has lived in a former hotel. Kartli, as it's called, sits on the far fringes of Tbilisi, Georgia's capital city. It was one of thousands of buildings the Georgian government opened up as temporary housing for people displaced by the war. Two decades later, people are still living there.

Claire Harbage/NPR

The government of the Republic of Georgia, resettled those displaced by war in crumbling apartments. Now that they're getting new homes, what happens to the sense of community that survivors forged?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Twenty-five years ago, a man named Yuri Gvasalia lost his home. He lived in a beautiful seaside resort town, and then he became a statistic, an internally displaced person or ITP, one of 40 million people around the world who are displaced by war but still live within the borders of their own countries.

In the past three decades, hundreds of thousands of people from the Republic of Georgia have been displaced by conflict. And reporter Stephanie Joyce met Gvasalia on a recent trip to Georgia.

STEPHANIE JOYCE, BYLINE: Since he was forced out of his home in 1993, Yuri Gvasalia has lived in a former hotel. Kartli, as it's called, sits on the far fringes of Tbilisi, Georgia's capital city. It was one of thousands of buildings the Georgian government opened up as temporary housing for people displaced by the war. Two decades later, people are still living there.

By appearance, it's not a welcoming place. Its crumbling concrete facade would fit in well as a backdrop in a post-apocalyptic movie. But inside, there's plenty of life.

(CROSSTALK)

JOYCE: I first meet Yuri during an impromptu gathering at Kartli in someone's room. When he walks in and sees my microphone, he immediately cracks a joke.

YURI GVASALIA: (Foreign language spoken).

JOYCE: My translator Mariam Aduashvili says he's asking me to take a picture of him back to the United States to help him find a nice grandma.

(LAUGHTER)

JOYCE: Yuri is 71 years old, ruddy cheeks and a mop of gray hair. His neighbors introduce him as someone who's recently been given an apartment by the government, one of a few lucky people.

Congratulations.

MARIAM ADUASHVILI: (Foreign language spoken).

GVASALIA: (Foreign language spoken).

ADUASHVILI: Thank you.

GVASALIA: Merci.

(LAUGHTER)

JOYCE: In recent years, the Georgian government has started building new apartment blocks for displaced people as part of an effort to move them out of rundown places like Kartli. Everyone in this room is hoping for a new apartment, but it occurs to me that getting one means leaving all of these people behind.

I hope this isn't a stupid question, but does it make you at all sad to move out?

"Of course," Yuri says, "it's always hard to leave a place you've grown used to." But it's not just that Kartli is familiar. It's where Yuri landed after fleeing war, and together with the other residents started his life over from nothing.

GVASALIA: (Through interpreter) We were like one family here. It's like restarting your life again because now I will have new neighbors. I will have to get to know them, and it's going to be - everything is going to be new.

JOYCE: When my translator calls Yuri a few weeks later, he still hasn't moved. But he invites us to come back to Kartli. In Georgia, the saying goes that guests are a gift from God, and Yuri has bought cake for our visit. We sit on the bed in his small room, and he cracks a bottle of homemade wine.

ADUASHVILI: (Foreign language spoken).

GVASALIA: (Foreign language spoken).

JOYCE: Mariam makes a traditional toast to life and to the next generation. Yuri follows up the toast by explaining why he hasn't moved yet. He says it's because of his grandchildren, his grandchildren who also live in Kartli, and the cold. He thinks heating his new apartment in the dead of winter could cost as much as $80 a month, and his pension is only $80 a month. But come spring, he says, he will move. It's not like he has much of a choice. Yuri doesn't own his room in Kartli. No one does. They can't stay forever. A few weeks later, Yuri calls to say he's finally moved into his new apartment. It's in a busy district of Tbilisi near the central railway station.

This is it. This is your new apartment.

ADUASHVILI: Wow.

JOYCE: Wow. It's so big.

It has bright, white walls and the lingering smell of paint. The kitchen table chairs are still wrapped in plastic. Yuri offers coffee and snacks and then pulls out a bottle of wine. He explains that back in Abkhazia, the beautiful resort region where he lived most of his life, when someone moved into a new home, they would throw a huge party and invite hundreds of people.

GVASALIA: (Through interpreter) I wish you could have seen how we lived there - back there in Abkhazia, but it's gone now. It would be nice if you got to see what it looked like in Abkhazia.

JOYCE: But the conflict over Abkhazia has been mired in stalemate for two decades, and it's likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future. Yuri is resigned to that and to starting over again.

Who are we toasting to?

ADUASHVILI: (Foreign language spoken).

GVASALIA: (Foreign language spoken).

ADUASHVILI: This is to our neighbors - to my neighbors.

JOYCE: To your neighbors.

GVASALIA: (Foreign language spoken).

JOYCE: "We'll be like this," he says, and brings his two index fingers together, a gesture of closeness. For NPR News, I'm Stephanie Joyce.

INSKEEP: Take that story of one displaced person, multiply it by millions. Stephanie Joyce is NPR's Above the Fray fellow. It's an international reporting fellowship sponsored by the John Alexander Project.

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