There is a luxury hotel here in Tbilisi that’s about a five-minute walk from my apartment. It’s super swanky, and staying there will run you several hundred dollars a night. For more than a decade in the 90s and into the 2000s, though, it was literally a refugee camp.
The hotel was built in 1967 and was Georgia’s finest hotel. Whenever the Soviet bigwigs came to Tbilisi for business or pleasure, that’s where they stayed. Then in the early 1990s, soon after after the collapse and subsequent breakup of the USSR, a civil war erupted in Georgia. The Abkhazia region (populated mostly by the Abkhaz people who are ethnically distinct from Georgians) broke away from the rest of Georgia. If you look on a map today, Abkhazia is still part of Georgia. For all intents and purposes, though, it’s been its own independent nation for nearly 20 years now.
A couple hundred thousand ethnic Georgians fled Abkhazia during the war. Naturally, a bunch of them ended up in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, and 800 of those refugees wound up in the Iveria Hotel. The hotel had gone mostly unused since the collapse of the Soviet Union and associated collapse of Georgia’s tourism industry. With nowhere else to go, the refugees holed up the 22-floor luxury hotel.
The really crazy thing is that this hotel is right in the middle of the city. It’s one of the tallest and most visible buildings around, if not the tallest. It’s prime real estate. The building, in its dilapidated and ramshackle state, became a blight not only on the city, but on the country’s efforts to get back on its feet in the post-Soivet era. It was only in 2004 that the refugees were relocated to the suburbs of the city (inhabitants were apparently given $7,000 per room to clear out). In 2008, the hotel reopened as the Radisson Blu Iveria.
It gets great reviews on TripAdvisor.
Here it is back in its refugee camp days:…and here it was yesterday: