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Georgia: the elderly hard-hit by conflict

01-10-2008 Feature

When conflict in Georgia drove thousands of people from their homes, those too old and weak to flee stayed behind, often isolated. Zoé Brabant, a member of the ICRC mobile health team that went into Gori to assist them, shares her experience.

   

  ©ICRC/J. Barry/ge-e-00334    
 
In villages around Gori, elderly people left when fighting broke out in August feel frightened, lost and cut off from their loved ones. The ICRC has been visiting villages to assess people's needs and bring them relief. 
     
   
       
I am always surprised when life takes me to parts of the world that I would never have expected to explore. This time, it was with 48 hours'notice that the Canadian Red Cross asked me to go to Georgia to serve as a public-health nurse. It was my first time with this organization and under the aegis of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the first time in this part of the world on the edge of Europe and Asia, the first time in a conflict zone (although Afghanistan and Sri Lanka do perhaps fit that description...). Lots of novelty!

 A country suspended  

After a few days of preparations in the capital, where war is difficult to imagine, we leave for Gori. Unlike what you might think from what you see on television, this small city of 70,000 people, which will serve as our base, is almost intact. Some partially burnt-out buildings photographed from every angle are the only signs of the fighting that took place. Today, the Russians have withdrawn and Gori is slowly returning to normal. The people, most of whom fled, have returned, the market is held every day, children play in the narrow streets and yesterday water began to gush forth again from the fountain in the main square. Just about the only thing left is to re-open the Stalin Museum (Gori was his native city).

Then one morning, we're on our way towards villages near South Ossetia where we intend to provide health care. At the city gates, the entrance to the buffer zone, we come first to the Georgian checkpoint, then to the Russian one. The little road that we take from there goes from one peasant village to another.

Think of Balkan scenes, add a hint of Asia, a little more Russia and the warmth of a valley at the heart of a country between two seas, and you will have an idea of the landscapes. Light-brick houses surrounded by the fruit trees that are the region's livelihood: peach, nectarines, apples and plums of every colour are now at the peak of ripeness. And vines, with bunches of red and green grapes hanging down, cover the arbours around the houses, the courtyards and pavements – wherever they can provide some shade, even in the centre of town. There are also wheat and corn fields, cows and dogs. But not a person in sight.

War damage is a lot more obvious here. Charred houses, burnt fields, chopped-down trees and items abandoned on the road allow us to imagine the events of recent weeks. The silence broken by military convoys passing at high speed add to the surreal picture before us. And still no one in sight, as if this part of the country were holding its breath – a country where life is suspended.

 Those who stayed behind  

We may set up our small mobile clinic at an old bus-stop shelter made older by war, in the shade of the trees or in a temporarily closed, often looted and damaged, health-care centre. Two tables, a few chairs, a chest containing medications and dressings. And we wait. An old woman appears at the end of the street, then another. A man leaves his house, cane in hand. Another passes by with a wheelbarrow. One by one, those hidden in their homes dare to enter the street. Calmly, the consultations begin. We do up to 250 per day.

The medical care that we provide here is very different from anything I've seen in other foreign places. Not only because this country itself is different cultu rally, geographically and in other ways too. Not only because its health-care system is much more developed than that of Haiti or of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and handles a greater variety of pathologies. Nor is it because it is almost always Georgian doctors and nurses providing care – which it seems to me is as it should be.

   
  ©ICRC/J. Barry/ge-e-00345    
 
A village north of Gori. Residents receiving health care.    
    No, the most obvious difference is that the people we treat are on average 75 years old. This is because a large part of the population fled during the clashes, leaving behind their homes, livelihoods and aged parents. The parents stayed behind because they were unable physically to join in the hasty displacement. Ever since, they have been hiding away in their homes out of fear – especially of armed groups and thieves, who take advantage of this period of instability to take away everything they can get their hands on: furniture, silver, medicines, anything useful or sellable.

 Fear and anxiety  

    

Our patients, then, suffer above all from the trauma of war, fear, anxiety about what may have happened to their relatives, and the whole range of aches and pains connected with their age. When they see the ICRC convoy stop in their village, they wait to see whether anything happens, then come out of hiding and make their way towards us, taking slow small steps. They are hoping to find some comfort, to obtain some medicines for their chronic illnesses and somatic pains, and to see their friends.

Our clinic is thus a place for all these elderly women in checked skirts and dark flower-print blouses, and all these worthy toothless men with hands gnarled by working the fields, to renew ties. It's truly moving to see them embrace and cry in each other's arms when they see the face of a loved one they did not expect to see again.

All of them exchange news, and each has a sad story to tell. As an old blind man tells me his story during a house call, his wife, who is just as old, bustles about removing crumbs from the table, picking peaches and washing them for me. Always so generous and hospitable, even when they have almost nothing left.

If I understand correctly what old Sasha is saying, as translated by my colleague, who is shaken by what she hears and unused to medical vocabulary, he has an eye ailment and should have had an operation in August that would have restored some of his sight. He was unable to have the operation, however. In addition, he sold his old car to cover the high cost of the surgery, and thieves took all the money. The neighbours who have gathered to listen shed a tear for his misfortune, and for their own. I am speechless. What can I do for him?

Fortunately, a semblance of stability in these villages is making it possible for people to slowly return. Every day, I see younger men arriving, and also some women. Yesterday, for the first time, a child. That's probably the most comforting thing that could happen to these people: to have the opportunity to see their loved ones again and to have some normality return to their lives.