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Georgia: out in the villages life continues, but nothing is the same

25-08-2008 Feature

Most able-bodied people having fled to safety, the elderly and infirm in isolated villages are left to fend for themselves. The ICRC is bringing them relief and helping those who have lost contact with family members restore it.


  ©ICRC/J. Barry / ge-e-00333    
Many of the elderly, who remained in their villages when others fled, are women    
    The village lay about three kilometres from the main road to Gori, along a narrow country lane. Small brown cows grazed peacefully in the meadows. Corn stocks stood golden in the newly harvested fields. The orchards were laden with red peaches and purple plums. It would have been an idyllic scene but for the eerie silence that lay over the land.

An old man with missing teeth and a cloth hat stood in front of his iron gate. As the two ICRC land cruisers pulled up to ask for directions he offered to show the way. Further down the road, a group of elderly men sitting in the shade of a tree ambled up when the cars stopped beside a row of sturdy brick houses with corrugated iron roofs.

One after another, villagers appeared from behind tall gates that enclosed gardens filled with fruit trees. Dogs ran up and barked. There was only one thing that made this simple scene different from any village encounter anywhere. Nearly all the people who approached the cars were elderly women. Some hobbled up leaning on canes. They gave wrinkled, weather beaten smiles, their white hair partially hidden beneath ancient headscarves. The men, too, had the leathery skin and creased hands of farmers who have spent a lifetime working in the fields.

 Looking out for one another  

  ©ICRC/J. Barry / ge-e-00341    
In times of conflict the elderly become ever more vulnerable.    
    Watching them approach it seemed so sad that these gentle old souls should be the victims of a war that would have seemed unimaginable in such a peaceful setting, even a few weeks ago.

Medea Javakhishvili, who said she was 65 and looked much older, flung her arms around one of the ICRC field officers. " My son is a surgeon in Gori, and my daughter is far away, " she cried. " Neither of them can come home. I am here with my disabled son. We are quite alone. "

Her thoughts were echoed by the other women, many of whom were dressed in shapeless black dresses, ankle socks and slippers. " We need medicine, " said one. " We can't get to Gori to buy any, because there is no transport. We feel cut off here. "  

" We are scared, " said another. " We don't know what is going on. "

Mrs Javakhishvili kept her arms wrapped tightly around the field officer's waist. " You would make a lovely wife for my son, " she said, beaming up at her.

A younger woman joined the group. " There are only 200 people left here now, " she volunteered, " Normally we are about 900. Everyone left when the fighting started. "

Asked why she herself had stayed behind, the gaunt faced women, who said her name was Tsitso, replied. " There was no one else to look after the old people. "

" You are our hope, don't leave us, " said the other women crowding round. " You are our family now. "  

After distributing the rice, salt, sugar, and cooking oil we had brought for the people whose stocks had run low, we drove on.
 An uncertain future  

  ©ICRC/J. Barry /ge-e-00342    
Young and old alike are bewildered by what has happened to them since the fighting began    
    The road started to climb. In a hamlet where fat geese waddled in the sunshine and a farmer filled his churns with water from the village tap, another group of elderly people gathered as we drove into the square, the land cruisers bumping over the stony ground.

" Armed men came and looted equipment from the school, " said the former head teacher, now retired. " But we were lucky. They didn't take everything. "  

" Will the school open again when the new term starts? " we asked.

" How is that possible? " she replied. " There are only 15 children left in the village now. "

Eleven-year-old Mzia, a pretty girl with blond hair and a freckled nose is one of them. " Yes, I want to go to school, " she said in a small voice. " But all my friends have gone away. "  

" We would have left, too, " said Mzia's father who was standing beside her. " But my son is blind. Where could we go? My other daughter is living in Tshkinvali and can't get out. I want to know what has happened to her. "

Walking around, it was evident that the village, like the one we had visited earlier, had fared far better than those lying closer to the front lines. 

But the trauma of this sudden, bitter war, which is now hopefully over, has left no one unscathed.

" Yes, we need food, " said one old man as we handed over the supplies we had brought with us. " But we need peace more. "