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People who lost their livelihoods during the recent fire at the Bavshvta Samkaro shopping centre in Tbilisi declared a hunger strike on 21 February.
The victims of the fire decided to hold the strike after finding out that the government wasn’t planning to compensate them for their losses.
Juli Eliava, an internally displaced person from Abkhazia, told OC Media that she worked in Bavshvta Samkaro (Children’s World) for 15 years. She estimates that she lost ₾100,000 ($38,000) as a result of the fire.
‘I’ve been a refugee from Sokhumi for 23 years. I lost everything in that war [in Abkhazia] and I came to Tbilisi. I lost everything I built during these 23 years’, Eliava said.
The woman said that even though it is already the second day of the hunger strike, no government official has paid any attention to them.
‘I couldn’t afford even a single dress. I barely set up my business. Now it was taken away from me and I’m doomed to hunger. I will not leave this area until they return what I lost’, Eliava said.
Mari Shengelia also had a small business in Bavshvta Samkaro, which she lost in the fire. She set up a tent in front of the burnt building and declared a hunger strike, demanding compensation for her losses.
‘The state has its reserve fund, which they could use to help the victims. For one month there has been no response at all’, Shengelia told OC Media.
The woman claims that she owes $50,000 to the bank, which she can no longer pay back now that she isn’t working.
‘When we asked the bank to freeze the debt, they agreed to do it for six months. Still, we will have to pay the interest for these months. How can we manage to do it?’ she said.
Another protester, Tsisana Gabeskeliani, said that the state wasn’t taking any responsibility for its citizens, which made her join the strike. According to her, the money the state spends on concerts could be used to rebuild the businesses.
‘I was supporting my family with my hard work. It was our only income. Today, we don’t even have money for public transport. I addressed the owner of the shopping centre and he said that it wasn’t his responsibility. Government officials said the same. Who is then?’ Gabeskeliani told OC Media.
She argues that responsibility lies with the owners of the shopping centre, as they were obliged to keep the building safe, for which they collected money from business owners.
‘Until they agree to our demands, we’ll stay here until we die. We have no other way. We’re only asking for attention. This is a tragedy that happens once in a lifetime’, Gabeskeliani said.
According to TV channel Rustavi 2, Tbilisi City Hall denies that it is their responsibility to pay compensation. OC Media contacted the City Hall for a comment, which was declined.
Bavshvta Samkaro burnt down on the night of 30 January. From among the many businesses in the building, only jewellery, which was stored in safes in the basement of the building, survived untouched.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs is currently investigating whether the fire was caused intentionally, which would be punishable by three to five years in prison.