Georgia/South Ossetia: people forced to cope with lasting upheaval

06-08-2009 Interview

A year after Georgian and Russian forces clashed in Southern Caucasus, most of the tens of thousands of people forced to leave their homes have returned. Pascale Meige Wagner is ICRC's head of operations for Eastern Europe and Central Asia. As she explains, the fighting of summer 2008 continues to have a major impact on the people of the region.


Pascale Meige Wagner.    
     One year on, what are the humanitarian consequences of the fighting?    
The lives of the region’s inhabitants have undergone lasting upheaval. To start with, large groups of people were displaced. Fortunately, most have been able to go home. Others have been re-accommodated in newly built dwellings, either because their homes were destroyed or because they wouldn’t or couldn’t, as members of a minority, return to their villages of origin.

The local authorities have responded quickly and massively to this new reality. A number of technical problems nevertheless remain, in particular in terms of sanitation. The impact has been most severe on socio-economic customs. Many people no longer have access to their traditional markets – either to buy what they need or to sell what they produce – to schools or to the health services they used until last summer. And those who can’t go home have to rebuild their lives.

 Now that the emergency phase has ended, what is the ICRC’s focus?  

When the tension and population displacements were at their peak, the ICRC worked to ease the suffering of the most vulnerable people by providing substantial direct assistance: it distributed food and other basic necessities, facilitated access to health care and sanitary installations, and restored contact between members of families who had had no news of each other.

The focus has now shifted to “normalizing” daily life for these people. This involves improving living conditions – especially sanitation – in the collective centres for displaced persons and the new residential districts. It also involves distributing agricultural items for orchards and market gardens, which remain the main source of income for most people, and facilitating access to microeconomic initiatives.

The ICRC is also helping to renovate rural health centres and improve access to drinking water, in particular by digging wells. For humanitarian reasons, we are facilitating medical evacuations, family reunifications and the transfer of human remains across the administrative boundary line that de facto separates South Ossetia from Georgia.

 The needs are still considerable. How is the ICRC responding?  

Today, our activities focus on meeting the most urgent requirements – on helping those most in need. However, many problems require long-term solutions. These are often structural, but in some cases the solutions required are political, and do not come under the ICRC’s remit. One example is the sharing of energy and water resources on both sides of the administrative boundary line. The health system in South Ossetia also needs longer term measures.

 How do you see the ICRC’s future in a region where many countries are now conflict-free?  

The situation remains fragile and tense, both in Georgia / South Ossetia and in the Caucasus in general. Last summer’s fighting unfortunately confirmed the need for a long-term presence in the region. Because it is on the spot, working in proximity to the population, the ICRC is in a position to respond rapidly should the situation deteriorate. And the fact that the hostilities have ceased does not mean there are no more humanitarian needs.

Mines and unexploded ordnance will pose problems for many years to come. There are families whose members can no longer communicate with each other because of the administrative boundary line, and for whom the ICRC transmits Red Cross messages or parcels. Others are waiting to recover the remains of their relatives.

Moreover, not all the humanitarian repercussions of the conflicts of the early 1990s have been dealt with. Some 200,000 displaced persons have still not been able to go home and the families of over 2,000 people still do not know what happened to them, with all the pain and anxiety that uncertainty implies.

 The Geneva Conventions were signed 60 years ago. What do the events of summer 2008 tell us about respect for international humanitarian law?  

The ICRC engaged in confidential dialogue with the parties as soon as the fighting broke out. That dialogue continues today. The 60th anniversary reminds us that we cannot do without international humanitarian law. It also reminds us that the ICRC is concerned by the humanitarian consequences not just of “traditional” armed conflicts but of all situations of violence, including those sparked by socio-political tension. We are making an enormous effort to heighten awareness of the need to comply with international rules when using force.

 What has this conflict taught us?  

The fact that countries have ratified an international treaty does not mean that they will respect it. Its provisions have to be incorporated into domestic legislation and steps taken to ensure their application, both by the civilian authorities and by the armed forces. Once a conflict has broken out, it is too late to introduce suitable procedures. In the case at hand, for example, mechanisms relating to prisoners of war – in particular their notification to the adverse party – did not function properly. There is also a need to pursue and develop dialogue on weapons with uncontrolled consequences that have a lasting impact on civilian populations.