Georgia/South Ossetia: two years after conflict, daily life still a struggle

06-08-2010 Interview

Twenty-four months after hostilities erupted between Georgia and Russia, the ICRC is still helping people affected by the war. Ariane Tombet, who heads the ICRC delegation in Georgia, explains how the organization has adapted its activities to meet current needs.

  ©ICRC/J. Powell/ge-e-00573    
  South Ossetia, Tbet. Zoia Tigiev shares photographs of her missing son with an ICRC employee.
See video: Living in limbo    
  ©ICRC/N. Berikashvili    
  Zemo Kikozi. Water distribution point provided by the ICRC with mine awareness poster in the background.    
  ©ICRC/H. Elmazi    
  Zemo Nikozi. ICRC distributes food in villages along the Administrative Boundary Line.    
  ©ICRC/A. Tombet    
  Shida Kartli. Greenhouse microproject.    
  ©ICRC/J. Powell/ge-e-00591    
  Ergneti. Sirana stands at the door of her wrecked home. She and her husband have returned, having fled to Tblissi during the fighting in August 2008.    
  Ariane Tombet    
     How has the situation changed for conflict-affected people over the past two years?  

Ev en though the August 2008 hostilities lasted for only a few days, their impact has been profound. The Administrative Boundary Line (ABL) between the South Ossetian region and Georgia proper is hindering people's movements, and this has many consequences. Family members are still separated, and they cannot visit each other as they did before the conflict. They cannot visit their family graves, attend funerals, enter their fields or cut wood because of security concerns. Moreover, people are facing economic difficulties, since their livelihoods depend on trade. The situation gets harder in the winter because of the lack of firewood needed for heating.

For internally displaced people (IDPs) the situation is also difficult. About 30,000 people remain displaced by the 2008 conflict, and a further 220,000 people displaced by conflicts in the 1990s have still not been able to return to their homes. The Georgian authorities have adopted an action plan aiming to make displaced people the owners of their own accommodation, but there is still a lot to do to renovate the collective centres they currently occupy. The current situation is not considered an emergency, and international organizations are gradually leaving. However, the consequences of the conflict remain harsh, and they need to be addressed.

 What is the ICRC currently doing to help victims of the 2008 conflict?  

During and immediately after the conflict, the ICRC responded to emergency needs by bringing in food, water and medicines. We are now aiming to help people regain or improve their source of income, often by giving them the opportunity to earn an extra income that can enhance the quality of their everyday lives. Pilot projects in villages along the ABL have not only provided people with extra income but have also had a significant social impact. Villagers keep busy by working together for a common aim. A nd once their projects achieve some success, work opportunities arise for other villagers.

The ICRC continues to provide water and sanitation services, mainly in conflict-affected villages along the ABL and in some settlements for displaced people.

We also continue to facilitate family reunifications on both sides of the ABL and to help with urgent medical evacuations. We visit people arrested during or after the conflict to ensure that they are being held in acceptable conditions and that they are able to communicate with their families.

We also work very closely with the Red Cross Society of Georgia with the aim of enhancing its response capacity. Our cooperation with the Society mostly involves activities such as assessing needs and distributing aid, which require a network of volunteers.

 What other programmes is the ICRC currently carrying out for victims of the 2008 conflict?  

One of the many consequences of the conflict was that families were no longer able to visit detained relatives. In its role as a neutral intermediary, the ICRC agreed procedures with all sides and began organizing such visits this year. Significant logistical organization is required since the families have to be brought back to their homes on the same day the visits take place. So far no difficulties have been encountered, and we are very satisfied. You can imagine how moving it is to see a mother embracing her son after two years of separation!

The Red Cross Society of Georgia is currently assessing mine victims so that we will be able to include the neediest victims and their families in our assistance programmes.

We have also started a pilot project for the families of people who went missing in connection with conflicts in the 1990s (families of people who went miss ing in 2008 will be included in the near future). The aim is to address the families'need for social, economic and legal aid. Families of missing people are among the most vulnerable victims of conflicts since they have not only lost their breadwinners but also endure the painful uncertainty of not knowing what happened to them. Even after many years they cannot turn the page and they will not be able to do so until they have a concrete answer. Our psychologist is working with local organizations to address the very specific needs of these families.

 What are the other main developments with regard to missing persons?  

What families of missing persons need more than anything else is information on what happened to their relatives. Families have the right to know, and the ICRC is actively working with all the parties involved to see to it that they receive answers. A tripartite coordination mechanism with Georgian, Russian and South Ossetian participants, chaired by the ICRC, was set up at the end of 2009 to clarify the fate of people unaccounted for during and after the August 2008 hostilities. Three meetings have already been held. When a person sought after is found to be dead, their remains are handed over to the families to enable them to hold a proper funeral and do their mourning.

Addressing the issue of missing persons is part of any reconciliation process, since families cannot move on to reconciliation on a personal or community level until they find out what happened to their missing relatives. Resentment at the damage done to the life of a community can be passed down from one generation to the next.

The ICRC is also seeking to restore some mechanism for establishing what happened to people who went missing in connection with the conflicts of the 1990s. Such a mechanism does exist, but it has been at a standstill since 20 07.

 You often travel throughout Georgia, including to the Shida Kartli area, which was once at the very heart of hostilities and which is still a very sensitive area. What is your view of the situation there?  

It is very moving when you go to the ABL, to see villages so close to each other but at the same time so distant. The war has definitely created a gap between people. Confidence-building is essential but, obviously, that will take time. The situation remains fragile and people are still not really ready to restart their lives. They lost a lot during the war, and most still fear that another conflict could start at any time. The main thing they want is peace, and the freedom to move about without being frightened. They want to be able to live quietly, work their lands and sell their products, just as they used to do before the war…



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 Our priorities in South Ossetia  


The emergency phase is over in South Ossetia. But two years on, people are still living with the consequences of the conflict. In particular, the closed ABL (Administrative Boundary Line) is having an impact on the economic and personal lives of the population.

The ICRC is running a wide range of activities in South Ossetia:

The organization is enabling families separated by the ABL to meet up and is providing transport to medical facilities for people who are in urgent need of treatment or who cannot be taken to Vladikavkaz for treatment.

The ICRC also visits civilians detained in connection with the conflict, especially those arrested for crossing the ABL illegally. The organization enables them to stay in touch with their families via Red Cross Messages and to receive parcels, and makes it possible for their families to visit them.

The ICRC's economic support activities focus on rural areas. The majority of people in these areas are elderly, and the ICRC supplies them with seed and fertilizer, enabling them to cover their immediate needs. The organization has set up approximately fifty microprojects for displaced persons living in communal accommodation. Now, the ICRC is launching microprojects in rural areas, providing participants with a tractor, livestock, or the means of producing honey.

The ICRC is also helping people get access to water. A number of water network projects are already complete, and others are under way. Currently, the ICRC is working with the urban water authorities to improve the water supply and sewerage systems around communal accommodation housing people displaced by the first and second conflicts.