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Georgia: for the ones left behind - so near and yet so far

21-08-2008 Feature

For the elderly, the sick and the frail who were unable to leave home when other family members fled the fighting in and around South Ossetia, each passing day of separation increases their vulnerability. Jessica Barry has been talking to some of the displaced in Tbilisi about the loved ones they left behind.

  ©ICRC/J. Barry    
The tracing services of the ICRC provide a lifeline for families separated by conflict, even though re-establishing contact and tracing the missing can take time    
  ©ICRC/J. Barry    
Many of the children in the collective centre at school number 64 are too young to understand the calamity that has befallen them    

The image of an elderly woman peeping fearfully out of her half open door sums up perfectly the plight of those left behind when other family members fled the fighting in villages around Gori during the first days of the conflict.

Already these individuals, many of them old, are at risk. In villages in and around Gori, shops and health care facilities are closed. Food is scarce. The longer they remain isolated and alone, the more people's needs will grow.

For the families who left, knowing how vulnerable their loved ones are becoming is a cause of growing anguish in the collective centres around Tbilisi, where many of the displaced in Georgia are living. 

Families speak via mobile phone, but contact is often difficult. Listening to the growing plight of their relatives, so near and yet so far, is very hard for those who are now safe in the Georgian capital.

The sense of uncertainty and communication problems are compounded by a lack of information, in some cases, about whether residents remained in their villages or moved around.

 Restoring shattered family ties  

Teams of delegates and national staff from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) visit the collective centres daily to provide tracing services. They say that the number of people approaching them with requests for help for those left behind, as well as to give information about people who are missing or feared dead, is skyrocketing.

Although primarily intended to help separated families to remain in contact during times of conflict and war, the ICRC's tracing work – which is a key part of its mandate worldwide -- also enables neighbours and friends to keep in touch.

 Looking out for the weak and vulnerable  

At a collective centre in school number 64 in Tbilisi, Marina Kharbedgashvili, from a village near Gori, approached the tracing team one recent morning seeking information about a 54-year-old neighbour who is a diabetic. " She couldn't leave when we did, and she doesn't have a phone, " Mrs Kharbedgashvili explained. " She needs insulin injections daily and she had only a few days’ supply when we fled a week ago. I am very worried about her because she is frail and can't get to the hospital in Gori to fetch her medicine. "

At another table a young man explained how he had brought his wife and daughters to Tbilisi for safety and then tried to return home to fetch his mother. " I was stopped at a check point and wasn't allowed to proceed, " he confided. He rejoined his wife and daughters in Tbilisi, leaving his mother stranded back in their village. The two of them are now a couple of hours'drive, and a whole world, apart. 

By all accounts it was mostly the elderly and infirm who stayed when others fled. While some displaced people have managed to talk to those they left behind, others have no idea what happened to their loved ones. The ICRC team in the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali has also been meeting with concerned families, whose relatives are unaccounted for or who are searching to speak with their loved ones who fled.

In the centres for the displaced in Tbilisi, an atmosphere of malaise hangs in the air. Men sit glumly, smoking cigarettes and exchang ing news. The women too, gather in groups, village by village, seeking comfort in familiarity; many of them have in tow children too young to understand the calamity that has befallen them.

 Fleeting hope  

The ICRC's visits are a momentary cause for hope, and a lifeline onto which the displaced, desperate for news of loved ones and friends, can cling. But the very fact that the tracing services are needed is a reminder as to just how suddenly people's tranquil lives have turned into a nightmare in one of the most agriculturally rich and beautiful parts of Georgia, famous for its apple orchards and vines.. And all in the space of a few short days.