Many of Tskaltubo's sanatoriums will soon be renovated and reopened to tourists once again through an initiative funded by the government and private investment.

Longtime refugees in Georgia say goodbye to the Soviet-era sanatoriums they called home

Displaced people have spent decades living in old sanatoriums and hotels scattered throughout Georgia. Now, the government plans to restore the dilapidated buildings to boost tourism. 

The World

Many of Tskaltubo's sanatoriums will soon be renovated and reopened to tourists once again through an initiative funded by the government and private investment. Most of the last internally displaced people who have called these buildings home since the '90s have finally been relocated to permanent housing.

Levi Bridges/The World

Lika Xarabava finds it hard to watch news coverage about the war in Ukraine from her dilapidated residence in Tskaltubo, Georgia. 

“It’s very difficult because we’ve already lived through what Ukraine is experiencing right now,” Xarabava said, “but for us it was even worse because, back then, there wasn't the internet to show the world what was happening.”

In 1992, Xarabava fled Abkhazia, a breakaway region in Georgia, amid brutal conflict between Russian-backed separatists and the Georgian army. More than 250,000 internally displaced people (IDPs), mainly ethnic Georgians, fled their homes during the war to other parts of the country.

She and her family, along with thousands of other IDPs, established a new home in an abandoned sanatorium in Tskaltubo, a former Soviet-era spa town renowned for its healing mineral springs.

A former bathhouse in the town of Tskaltubo, Georgia. Workers once traveled from throughout the Soviet Union to bathe in the town's mineral waters which have healing properties.

A former bathhouse in the town of Tskaltubo, Georgia. Workers once traveled from throughout the Soviet Union to bathe in the town's mineral waters which have healing properties.

Credit:

Levi Bridges/The World

Displaced people like Xarabava have spent decades living in old sanatoriums and hotels scattered throughout Georgia, remnants of a time when the country's temperate climate, mineral springs and Black Sea beaches made some consider it to be the pearl of the former Soviet Union.

The Soviet-era buildings had hosted travelers who came to bathe in the town’s mineral springs. But the sprawling sanatorium where Xarabava has lived for three decades is falling apart. 

Lika Xarabava, 40, was still a child when she fled Abkhazia and found refuge in one of Tskaltubo's rundown sanatoriums.
Lika Xarabava, 40, was still a child when she fled Abkhazia and found refuge in one of Tskaltubo's rundown sanatoriums. The aging building is the only home she has ever known in her adult life.
Credit:

Levi Bridges/The World

On the ground floor, tall marble columns rise before a sparkling chandelier. But there are several smashed windows throughout the building and the floors of some of the uninhabited rooms are covered with pieces of wood, old books and broken glass.

When Xarabava first arrived in the once-stately building, there was no electricity, water or heat. Today, power lines and hoses snake out the windows. The family cooks on a small wood stove.

During the war in Abkhazia, ethnic Georgians were often targeted and even killed by separatists. Xarabava and her mother left Abkhazia after separatists burnt their home to the ground. 

“They wouldn’t let us live,” Xarabava said. “They even killed children and old people, it was genocide,” she said. 

The war ended in 1993, but the conflict was never fully resolved. Abkhazia declared itself independent and Russia is one of the only countries that recognizes it, with Russian troops still stationed there.

Many IDPs never returned home.

‘Sometimes it brings  tears to my eyes’

There are 22 sanatoriums scattered around Tskaltubo. 

For some older Georgians, seeing Tskaltubo’s sanatoriums in their current state of ruin is painful.

“Sometimes it brings tears to my eyes when I see what kind of condition the sanatoriums are in. It’s unimaginable what’s happened to them,” said Anzor Babunashvili, a 72-year-old Tskalbubo native who once worked at the town’s sanatoriums.

Many of the sanatoriums built during the Soviet period in Tskaltubo, Georgia, were grandiose neoclassical buildings with statues and tall columns.

Many of the sanatoriums built during the Soviet period in Tskaltubo, Georgia, were grandiose neoclassical buildings with statues and tall columns. But after the Soviet Union fell, many of the buildings were abandoned and later used to house people displaced by war in Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia.

Credit:

Levi Bridges/The World

Several sanatoriums retain names like Geology, Media and Metallurgy, titles inspired by the different groups of Soviet workers who once came to stay in them. 

Workers were sent on free trips to spend time recovering in Tskaltubo. 

Over time, the town became known throughout the Soviet Union as a place to rest and relax. A stay at one of Tskaltubo’s sanatoriums came with a set health improvement regimen, including frequent soaks in the town’s mineral waters. 

“It [the sanatoriums] was more regulated than a hotel, where you just go and have fun and have drinks,” said David Sichinava, a human geographer and lecturer at Carleton University in Ottawa, who was also displaced from Abkhazia during the war and grew up in Tskaltubo.

A photo in Tskaltubo's museum shows the Geologist sanatorium named after one of the groups of workers who once came to this town from across the Soviet Union to seek treatment in the local mineral waters.

A photo in Tskaltubo's museum shows the Geologist sanatorium named after one of the groups of workers who once came to this town from across the Soviet Union to seek treatment in the local mineral waters.

Credit:

Levi Bridges/The World

Sichinava said that sanatoriums first started in Central Europe and the tradition eventually spread to places like Russia. 

Sanatorium stays became so widespread that the practice even popped up in literature, like the works of Dostoevsky. And many characters, not only in Russian novels but throughout European literature, often spent time healing in sanatoriums.

“It was actually a very popular pastime in late 19th century, early 20th century,” Sichinava said, “but when the Bolshevks took over in the Soviet Union, the goal of sanatoria changed to serve the broader masses, not just wealthy people.”

Restoration plans

The Georgian government recently launched an effort to renovate Tskaltubo’s sanatoriums with the help of a large grant from the World Bank to spur tourism and welcome travelers to the buildings once again.

Most IDPs who were living in the buildings have been relocated to new housing constructed by the government. 

As the town attempts to rebrand itself from a rundown refuge area, back to its original glory as a spa resort, Sichinava worries the residents who have inhabited the sanatoriums since the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union will be written out of recent history. 

“The stories of 10,000 people who used to make their life in Tskaltubo now are almost being erased,” Sichinava said.

Tskaltubo's sanatoriums might appear abandoned, but inside there are signs everywhere of the people who live there.

Tskaltubo's sanatoriums might appear abandoned, but inside there are signs everywhere of the people who live there.

Credit:

Levi Bridges/The World

As Xalabava and her family prepare to move, the town is already opening its doors to new arrivals. 

Hotels in Tskaltubo recently started offering free rooms to families fleeing Ukraine. 

The number of people displaced by conflict globally has continued to rise steadily for the last half decade, and the conflict in Ukraine threatens to continue that trend in 2022. 

And as the world’s population becomes more urbanized, displaced people are ending up in urban environments and substandard housing, rather than refugee camps. 

Tamara Sarria, 87, fled war in Abkhazia in 1992 when the region tried to separate from Georgia and has lived in a neglected sanatorium in Tskaltubo for the last three decades.

Tamara Sarria, 87, fled war in Abkhazia in 1992 when the region tried to separate from Georgia and has lived in a neglected sanatorium in Tskaltubo for the last three decades.

Credit:

Levi Bridges/The World

On one of their last nights in the sanatorium that they have called home for the last three decades, Xarabava and her mother gathered in their room and sang songs by the fire. 

They have a brand new apartment waiting for them — but Xarabava isn’t ready to leave.

“I’ll admit this place isn’t comfortable, but I got used to it,” Xarabava said. “It’s home.”

Related: 'Their lives collided with war': Ukrainian refugees in Poland open their own schools

Will you support The World today?

The story you just read is available to read for free because thousands of listeners and readers like you generously support our nonprofit newsroom. Every day, the reporters and producers at The World are hard at work bringing you relevant, fact-based and human-centered news from across the globe. But we can’t do it without you: We need your support to ensure we can continue this work for another year. 

Make your gift of $100 or pledge $10 monthly, and we’ll thank you on The World’s podcast in early 2023. And every gift will get us one step closer to our goal.