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‘Where Will We Go?’

For many refugees of the Caucasus war, homelessness is an all-too-familiar story. by Leah Kohlenberg 3 September 2008
TBILISI | Hunched over a makeshift ironing board crafted from a school teacher’s desk, 36-year-old Kristina Mysuradze experienced a frightening sense of déjà vu.

For nearly 15 years, she and her family lived in an abandoned school building in Gori, much like the kindergarten classroom she now occupies. In 1992, Mysuradze fled an Abkhaz village outside the capital, Sukhumi, where she lived when conflict erupted between Abkhazians and Georgians, ultimately chasing 250,000 ethnic Georgians from the separatist region. It was a nightmare she relived in August, when fighting between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway enclave of South Ossetia closed in on the central Georgian town of Gori.

Mysuradze [pictured above with daughter] never truly recovered economically from her first displacement. She had only a year ago moved with her three daughters and husband into a home shared with her brother. Her husband is chronically unemployed.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said, looking around the room she must vacate because the school year is starting. “Where will we go?”

Since the fighting began on 8 August, international relief agencies estimate that at least 100,000 people have been displaced, primarily those who had lived between Gori and the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali. Most refugees initially flooded into Tbilisi and have been housed by the government in nearly 600 sites around the Georgian capital -- abandoned buildings, schools, and community centers.

The centers range from reasonable to squalid. Schools and hospitals were usually among the choicest in accommodation – particularly the latter, because they have beds – but most places are so packed people sleep on boards, tables, borrowed blankets, and floors. Many while away the hours milling around outdoors, standing in groups, or sitting on stoops and visiting.

All of them want to go home, regardless of whether that is actually possible.

FROM CONFLICT TO CHAOS

About 70,000 of those people should be able to return, according to recent estimates, but that number remains fluid. In the last week, thousands have traveled to the Gori area to see if their homes are still standing. But at least 4,000 have been stranded in a tent camp set up by aid agencies, in private homes with relatives and friends, or in temporary shelters around the city. That’s either because their houses were destroyed or because they live between Gori and Tskhinvali, which despite the Russian military presence has become chaotic and lawless, patrolled by “looters and marauders” with guns, said Melita Sunjic, spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency in Georgia.

“Even the Russian soldiers at the Karaleti checkpoint, four kilometers north of Gori, are saying that they can’t guarantee people’s safety,” said Sunjic, whose organization is helping the Georgian government deal with the massive short- and long-term shelter needs for refugees.

Karaleti is a good 20 kilometers inside Georgia’s border, well past both the official South Ossetian line and the 9-kilometer buffer zone the Russian military has claimed. Because the area beyond Karaleti is dangerous, it’s off-limits to relief workers and local residents.

This lawless area also created a new group of refugees, as the few people who chose to remain are being forced out, Sunjic said.

“Most of them are elderly and have had to flee their homes, as looters have come through their towns and villages firing weapons in the air, stealing things, beating people, and generally intimidating them,” she said. “Some of them have had to hide in the woods, to travel at night, and make it to us.”

Many of those people were left by their families, either because they were too old to flee or because families thought that looters wouldn’t hurt the elderly, said Jessica Barry, spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross. Her organization has been trying to reunite families separated by the clash.

It’s also hard to assess the amount of damage inflicted in the off-limits area, though aerial and satellite photos show a “great deal of destruction,” Sunjic said, particularly in the villages directly around Tskhinvali. Human rights monitors who have had access to the area also report widespread damage.

That would corroborate the experience of refugees like Nali Lomsadze and Nana Mohalashvili, who say their village – a mere five kilometers from Tskhinvali – was bombed to the ground.

“We didn’t need anything,” Lomsadze said. “We had our own garden, animals, a house. We didn’t need any help. Now we’ve got nothing.”

Though the focus now is on short-term housing, Sunjic said last week the government revealed a long-term housing plan to resettle people like Lomsadze and Mysuradze. Georgian officials identified 34 buildings around the country that can be renovated and winterized to become new homes for those permanently displaced refugees, she said.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has said the country must shoulder both the material and at least partial financial responsibility for relocating these refugees, though he and his Ministry of Refugees and Accommodation are releasing few details about their long-term housing plan, including how many people they expect to be moved into the housing.

One plan that has been scrapped, though, was to consolidate people in one or two large tent camps. Big camps are widely considered by international relief experts to be good for countries that want to solicit aid, but terrible from a humanitarian standpoint.

“That was discussed for a couple of days, but it’s no longer on the table,” Sunjic said.

The European Union has provided humanitarian supplies and on 1 September pledged to call a donor conference to provide reconstruction aid for Georgia. The U.S. Coast Guard and military aircraft have delivered food and medical supplies to the country.

But delivering those supplies to people is proving to be the toughest challenge. International relief agencies are relying almost solely on local nongovernmental organizations and volunteers to distribute food and other necessities to shelters in Tbilisi and Gori. Though the Georgian government is using its network of local leaders to distribute the bland, U.S. government rations in silver-foil packets to the hundreds of shelters, many necessities, from diapers to cooking oil to tampons, are being paid for and provided by volunteers.

FILLING THE BREACH

German nationals Mira Sovakar and her boyfriend, Michael (Misha) Wiederhold, who have lived in Georgia for five years, have spent eight hours a day gathering private donations, buying needed supplies, packing them into their forest green Niva jeep and delivering them to shelters around town. They are working with the local Open Society Institute, which has identified 90 of the neediest shelters for extra attention.

“We’ve seen some pretty bad situations,” Sovakar said. “At one of the shelters, for example, there were people who hadn’t seen any food or supplies for at least a week.”

Sovakar says she is focusing on providing items such as cooking oil, tomato paste, and spices, as well as baby supplies and other hygienic items. She and Misha are also trying to coordinate necessary repair work. At one shelter, an abandoned building behind a kindergarten, shelter residents had managed to jury-rig a hot water heater into a cement-floored room for showers, but needed a plumber to finish the job. Misha directed them to a local hot line to report such problems but told them to call him if they heard nothing.

“It seems to help when we call,” he said. “But we do try to direct them to the official channels first.”

Many of the shelters, such as School 100 on the outskirts of Tbilisi, operate through a combination of volunteer support and official government assistance, said Nana Dolitze, the school principal.

“For the first few days, the neighbors behind the school were bringing sugar, tea, and other supplies,” she said. “There are neighbors who come here several times a day, to help out. I don’t even know them all.”

Among the most active are those most sympathetic to the plight of the refugees – those displaced from their homes in Abkhazia. Refugee rights groups organized by former displaced people in the western city of Kutaisi and Tbilisi have been especially active, Sovakar said.

Former Sukhumi resident Dato Chanturia and his family, for instance, housed refugees from the most recent Georgian crisis. A successful insurance salesman who now maintains three flats, Chanturia was 17 when he had to flee for his life as bombs rained down on the Sukhumi streets of his home in 1992.

Being a refugee is something that never really leaves you, he said.

“It’s a really terrible thing to experience,” he said. “I live in the hope that I can return some day, but in the reality that I live here now, which has allowed me to move on and make something out of my life.”

PHOTOS BY LEAH KOHLENBERG
Leah Kohlenberg is a journalist and journalism trainer in Georgia and Armenia. She lives in Yerevan. Andrew Bennett, a political organizer for the Canadian government and the National Democratic Institute in Armenia, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, contributed to this article.
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