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Georgia: helping to heal the wounds

14-07-2011 Interview

Ariane Tombet has been head of the ICRC delegation in Georgia since 2009. In this interview, she talks about the work of the ICRC between 2009 and 2010, and about innovations the organization has introduced to improve the way it helps people in Georgia who still suffer the consequences of the 2008 conflict.

You arrived in Georgia one year after the 2008 August conflict. How was your first year in the country?

I followed the August 2008 conflict closely, knowing that my next posting would be in this country, but I could never have imagined that a five-day conflict could have such an impact on a population. Our assistance restores hope and dignity, but what counts more to people is that they realise they are not forgotten. We try to make a difference by improving living conditions, helping increase sources of income, bringing news of a missing relative or sometimes just listening when we can do nothing concrete.

Families are still separated. People cannot visit each other as they did before the conflict, they cannot visit family graves, attend funerals, work in their fields or cut wood, because it is simply too dangerous.

What is the current focus of ICRC activities in Georgia?

The ICRC has been working in Georgia since the beginning of the 1990s. Our work here includes visiting detainees, exchanging news between separated family members through the Red Cross message system, ensuring safe access to clean water and facilitating the socio-economic integration of physically disabled people, including mine victims, through physical rehabilitation projects. The ICRC also promotes international humanitarian law in Georgia, just as it does worldwide.

In addition to these ongoing activities, the ICRC launched a number of pilot projects and new activities in 2010. Could you tell us more about this?

During and immediately after the 2008 conflict, the ICRC responded to emergency needs. At the end of 2009, we shifted our emphasis to longer-term assistance that would help people regain and improve their sources of income.

This has involved running micro-economic pilot projects with groups of people in villages along the Administrative Boundary Line (ABL). So far, over 600 projects have been implemented in about 40 villages in Shida Kartli and Samegrelo. Results are positive; as well as enabling people to generate extra income, these projects have had a significant social impact. People are working together for a common cause and they're slowly regaining confidence in the future.

Another consequence of the conflict was that people could no longer visit detained relatives. The ICRC, in its role of a neutral intermediary, agreed on procedures with all sides and began to organize such visits in 2010. You can imagine how moving it is to see an old father or mother embrace their son after years of separation!

We have also stepped up our partnership with the Georgian Red Cross. For example, the National Society is currently assessing the needs of mine victims. This will enable us to include the most vulnerable mine victims and their families in ICRC micro-economic programmes.

You were formerly the deputy head of an international ICRC project on missing persons. How have you pursued this issue since coming to Georgia?

The ICRC's missing persons project focused on the issue of people who go missing as a result of armed conflict. For me, it was important to implement in the field the recommendations that came out of the project. What the family of a missing person needs most is to know what has happened to their relative. Indeed, this is a right enshrined in international law. In Georgia, we are working with all the parties involved, addressing the missing persons issue from a purely humanitarian perspective. Our aim is to find people. If they are dead, we endeavour to ensure that their remains are handed over to the families, so that they can conduct a proper funeral ceremony and start the grieving process.

In 2010, we set up two mechanisms, one for the 2008 conflict and one for those of the 1990s. Over 2000 people are still missing from the conflicts of the 1990s, leaving families waiting for answers and unable to mourn. Families often tell us that all they want is to have an answer and to be able to bury their relative properly. It will be a long process, but I am very pleased that we have finally succeeded in organizing a first meeting between Georgian and Abkhaz representatives.

In parallel, we have initiated a pilot project to help the families of missing persons with social, economic and legal issues. Working with local experts, our psychologist has organized several sessions with these families, and they are highly appreciative.

What is the ICRC doing in Georgia this year?

The ICRC will continue to facilitate the process of healing the wounds left by the August 2008 conflict. The war has created a gap between people, and it is very moving when you see villages so close to each other but at the same time so distant. The situation remains fragile and people are not yet ready to restart their lives. They lost a lot during this short war and most of them are still afraid that conflict could break out again. They want to be able to live quietly, work their lands and sell their products, like they did before the war.

We will continue to support the people of Georgia as best we can.


Ariane Tombet with a folk singer in Tbilisi 

Ariane Tombet with a folk singer in Tbilisi