ROBERT SMITH, host:
And now to a place with a name that doesn't exactly roll off the tongue - Abkhazia - Abkhazia. It's a tiny region of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia that has declared itself independent. The Russians are giving military support to Abkhazia. The Georgians are building up troops on the other side of the border. And caught in the middle - a narrow valley known as the Kodori Gorge.
NPR's Gregory Feifer traveled there and has this report.
(Soundbite of airplane)
GREGORY FEIFER: An old Soviet biplane fires up its engine in western Georgia on an airfield where there are many more grazing cows than airplanes. After take-off, the ancient Antonov 2 plane skims over stunning snow-capped Caucasus mountaintops before descending into a deep, lush valley. The upper half of the Kodori Gorge is very narrow and extremely isolated. Only about 2,000 people live along a barely passable dirt road in simple wooden houses - many in bad condition.
This beautiful corner of Abkhazia was largely shut off from the rest of the world until Georgian troops retook control two years ago. Tbilisi has now based its own so-called Abkhaz government-in-exile here, to rival the separatists in Abkhazia's capital, Sukhumi, about 40 miles away.
The administration's head, Malkhaz Akishbaya, says Georgia has established law and order in the valley.
Mr. MALKHAZ AKISHBAYA (Georgian Official): This region used to be a nightmare. This region was basically run by criminals. We had abductions, killings, blackmailing, everything here. We had these mass violations of human rights of our citizens. We needed to do something to put it in a right way.
FEIFER: Georgia has sunk tens of millions of dollars into building roads, a hospital and a school, and it's hoping the impoverished Abkhaz are taking notice.
The border along the roaring Kodori River doesn't resemble a frontline. Only a handful of Georgian troops in U.S.-provided military uniforms are dug into sandbagged shelters. Just across a small wooden bridge, Russian peacekeepers keep the Georgians and Abkhaz apart.
The rebels are angry over Tbilisi's presence here and are demanding the Georgian troops withdraw before any peace talks resume, while Moscow accuses the Georgians of massing for an attack against Abkhazia. But the Georgian authorities insist there are no more than 500 police commandos providing security for the valley's residents.
District commander Yuri Vasiliev says it would make no sense to attack Abkhazia from this narrow valley.
Mr. YURI VASILIEV (District commander, Georgia): (Foreign language spoken)
FEIFER: There's nowhere even to turn around here, he says. This isn't the 15th century. You need space for troops and heavy military equipment, he continues. How can you bring them here unnoticed?
Georgia, in its turn, has accused Moscow of deploying heavy military equipment in Abkhazia. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili says Russia is furious over Tbilisi's drive to join the European Union and NATO and that Moscow wants to annex Abkhazia.
President MIKHEIL SAAKASHVILI (Georgia): Russia is defying the European and world order that has been established after the end of the Cold War. It's not about Georgia anymore. For the rest of Europe, it should be about the values they always preached to us.
FEIFER: Saakashvili says Abkhazia has refused to respond to his offer of autonomy. Georgia has dismissed claims that the ethnically separate Abkhaz people were fighting for their survival during the civil war that ended in 1994. Tbilisi says it was Abkhazia's 250,000 Georgians who were ethnically cleansed and forced to flee.
(Soundbite of wood thumping together)
Children break old pieces of wood for entertainment in front of a dilapidated concrete building outside Tbilisi. Hundreds of Georgia refugees from Abkhazia live inside. Whole families crammed into single rooms along dark, crumbling, graffiti-painted corridors.
Like many others, Dodo Kvichiani fled Abkhazia in 1993 through the Kodori Gorge, where she saw people die from starvation and freak cold weather.
Ms. DODO KVICHIANI (Abkhazia refugee): (Through translator) We spent seven days crossing the mountains after the Abkhaz forced us from our homes. My husband is ill from depression because we left everything behind. Our lives are miserable.
FEIFER: Many of the refugees say all the victims of the conflict should bury their differences and live together again. But with tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow continuing to run high, there appears to be no relief in sight for the hundreds of thousands of shattered lives on both sides of Abkhazia's border.
Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Tbilisi.
(Soundbite of music)
SMITH: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.