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Georgia: uncertainty about the future haunts the displaced

17-08-2008 Feature

Since the start of the conflict in South Ossetia on 8th August, tens of thousands of people have fled from towns and villages all across Georgia. Many of them have made for the capital, Tbilisi, where they have found shelter in makeshift collective centres in schools, kindergartens and abandoned buildings. Now they wait for help from others, a situation they could never have imagined only a fortnight ago.

  ©ICRC/J. Barry    
  Friends and neighbours gather to share stories of escape and loss    

  ©ICRC/J. Barry    
Lali and her husband Paata are waiting for supplies so that they can move into their room.    

  ©ICRC/J. Björgvinsson    
Tsiuri with her son Shmagi in their room at the Collective Centre.    

The expressions on the faces of the displaced say it all. Sitting in warm sunshine on the steps of the Plant Protection Institute whose offices have been given over to the homeless, neighbours and friends exchange horror stories of escape and loss. Their tales are hauntingly similar and speak of days sheltering in basements with little to eat or drink while the shelling lasted, then flight to the woods, and a long walk -- or, if they were lucky – a ride into Tblisi. 

" There was an explosion in my garden five metres away from us, " said Tsiuri, a widow, explaining the danger that prompted her to leave with her young children. " I saw two black tubes sticking out of the grass. Those were bombs. If they had fallen on my paved yard we would not have survived. "

Seventy-three year old Misha was also keen to talk. Taking a rest from helping to unload blankets, soap, and other supplies being delivered by the International Committee of the Red Cross nearby he said " I stayed for days in the forest before feeling safe enough to find my way here. But I am strong, " he went on proudly, straightening himself up to his full height. " I've never been ill in my life. "  It was a moment of pride amidst much despair.

" How can we stay here? " questioned 38-year-old Lali, the director of a kindergarten, who had fled with her husband from a village near Gori. The room she was standing in was clean but almost bare, furnished with just a table and chairs. " My husband and I are being hosted by friends until we can get some supplies and something to sleep on. " She looked angry, frustrated and tired. Softening a little she added, " the friends who have taken us in were themselves displaced by the fighting in the early nineties, and have never returned home. They have shown us respect and compassion. They have even given us their bed to sleep on and are sleeping on the floor. "

The newly displaced have one constant refrain. Walking back from a handout of food, her arms full of bread, Lali spoke for them all. " We feel so ashamed at being here, " she whispered. " We had good lives. We never thought we would be reduced to this. "

One of the saddest facts about the collective centres where the displaced are now living is that it is not the first time they have sheltered the homeless. During conflicts in both South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia, during the nineteen nineties thousands of people fled their homes and settled in the schools, hotels and empty or abandoned buildings in Tblisi that are hosting the newcomers today. Many of those earlier inmates are still there.

One such centre is in the ironically named'Turbaza Vake', or'Tourist Base'resort. Set amidst pine trees in a fashionable part of Tblisi it was a holidaymakers'haven in the past. Far from enjoying a vacation its present guests are living on the brink of an abyss.

Walking down a dim, dark, damp-smelling corridor in the Turbaza Vake were two women.

" We have been here for 18 years, " said one of them, a lady with sad blue eyes and a pink dress. She shrugged her shoulders and turned her head away. Beside her stood a pretty four-year-old girl for whom the dismal hotel has been her home since birth.

The ICRC is making daily distributions of household supplies to the centres, and aid is flowing in from other agencies, local charities and private donations. Volunteers from the Georgian Red Cross are among the hundreds of young people who are giving their time a nd energy to help organize the distributions. ICRC water engineers are helping to reconnect broken water supplies and installing toilets.

But it is not only the displaced who are in need. Equally worrying is the fact that in all the villages from which people have fled, there are others who could not leave because of sickness, disability or simply old age. With access for humanitarian agencies blocked to rural areas because of poor security, their situation is becoming more precarious by the day.

ICRC tracing teams in the collective centres are gathering information from families who are separated from their loved ones. The lists are growing daily as more and more people come forward to give details about relatives left behind with whom contact has been lost. The kindergarten director, Lali, is looking for her brother-in-law. " We have heard nothing from him, " she remarks. " I am afraid he has been killed. "

Foremost in everyone's minds are questions about how long it may be before their upturned lives get back to normal. Old Misha is morose. " How do I know? " he asks. " Those from Abkhazia thought the same, and they have been here 18 years. " Who knows when this is going to end. "