Sunday, April 20, 2014


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As Smoke Clears In Georgia, Humanitarian Concerns Come Into Focus

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By Claire Bigg
Georgian refugees flee Russian troops on the outskirts of Gori

As Western diplomats focus on finalizing a fragile cease-fire between Russia and Georgia, humanitarian organizations are scrambling to help the estimated 118,000 civilians displaced by the conflict.

Humanitarian groups have been shipping medical supplies and food to Tbilisi.

But so far, little aid has reached civilians in the conflict zone, which remains largely off-limits despite repeated calls by humanitarian organizations for safe and unimpeded access.

Aid relief is badly needed even in Tbilisi itself, where hundreds of displaced Georgians continue to gather every day outside the mayor's office to be placed in one of the shelters set up in the city.

Medea Tramagadze and her family fled their home in Mamisaantubani, a Georgian village in South Ossetia, which came under intense artillery shelling in the early days of the conflict.

"We have been given shelter, at least one part of my family. The children have proper food, the place is clean -- but it was very crowded, there were very few places there," Tramagadze says.

Crowded Camps


With displaced civilians still flooding into Tbilisi, shelters are increasingly overcrowded, prompting humanitarian groups to hastily assemble tent camps close to the city.

Maia Kardava, who works for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Tbilisi, says the group is concerned about the well-being of those living in these makeshift dormitories, many of which have no water or sewage systems.

Kardava says displaced people are also in great need of psychological assistance.

"People who had to flee their homes come to our office. I have to say that our work is very difficult, and it's very difficult too for these people, who have obviously been under stress," Kardava says.

"Many of them come to us because they've lost contact with their loved ones -- and that's something we're now working on, helping them restore family links. What might be coming soon -- and it's obvious there's a need for that -- is psycho-social assistance to the displaced population."

Humanitarian groups are also active in Russia's republic of North Ossetia, where thousands of South Ossetians have sought refuge from the fighting.
A refugee camp in Alagir, North Ossetia

Roza Tsargasova fled Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, after cowering for days in a basement with her grandchild and pregnant daughter.

"We went down to the basement after the fighting started. We spent three days there, in the dark, without either water or bread. Among us was a 4-month-old baby, a pregnant woman, elderly people, children," Tsargasova says.

"We sat there in anguish while heavy artillery was being fired, we didn't even see the light of day. Then someone came from another building and told us that a [humanitarian] corridor had opened and that we should run for our lives."

Roza and her family safely made it across the Russian border into North Ossetia, where they found shelter at a tourist pension in the town of Alagir. She says her house was destroyed in the fighting.

"We ran out and what we saw was terrible -- all the houses were destroyed, schools and buildings were ablaze," she says. "Now we are being sent here and there. But we'll probably go back to our native city, even if the houses are in ruins. We'll build a shack and live in it, and help our people."

Innocent Victims Of War

Just outside Alagir is a women's monastery where nuns are currently sheltering some 50 people.

"The first thing we did was to feed people at the monastery's gates. This went on for the whole time. The sisters got almost no sleep. Now we are working hard on redistributing all the aid that is brought to the monastery," says one of the nuns, Mother Nonna.

"At the beginning there were mostly women and children, but now there are very old people whom I don't how to look in the eye -- after living their lives, building their houses, at age 70 or 80 they have to leave for unfamiliar places."

According to Russian officials, 12,000 South Ossetians have already returned to the province. Early Russian reports said as many as 30,000 Ossetians fled across the border, although some have disputed the figures.

Some rights organizations are also addressing claims that both Russian and Georgian forces deliberately targeted civilians during the fighting, which began on the night of August 7-8.

Tskhinvali on August 14
Tatyana Lokshina, the deputy head of Human Rights Watch's (HRW) Moscow office, is one of the few rights campaigners who gained access to Tskhinvali this week. She said she saw signs Georgian soldiers had used indiscriminate use of force against local residents.

"Several of the city's residential districts are severely damaged, government buildings suffered extensive damaged. We saw traces of strikes aimed at basements in which people were hiding and were then trapped for several days. We saw houses whose basement walls had been breached by armored personnel carriers," Lokshina says.

"We saw undeniable signs that the Grad [missile] system, a nonprecision weapon, was used. There is no doubt whatsoever that the rights of Tskhinvali's civilian population were severely violated."

Casualty Numbers Unclear

According to the Russian government, 1,600 South Ossetians were killed in Georgia's offensive to regain control of the region.

Lokshina, who spoke to staff at Tskhinvali's central hospital, says the real figure is considerably lower.

"We were told that 273 injured people were brought to this hospital from Tskhinvali and its outskirts. Concerning the number of dead, the number cited was 44 South Ossetian residents," Lokshina says.

"Doctors are positive that all the South Ossetians killed were brought to this hospital. They are convinced that the number of dead is not much higher; otherwise they would know about it."

Lokshina, however, says the death toll could rise further since some bodies are still trapped in basements, while other victims could have been independently buried by their families.

No figures are available for Georgians killed in Tskhinvali, whose bodies have yet to be counted, or, in some instances, even retrieved from the streets.

HRW also says it has evidence that Russian aircraft dropped cluster bombs on Georgia, including the 50,000-strong city of Gori. Russia has denied the charge.

Trading Accusations

Reporters and human rights campaigners have also reported seeing Russian and South Ossetian fighters carrying out looting in Georgian villages.

Both sides of the conflict have traded accusations of atrocities in the conflict zone, including ethnic cleaning and attacks on the civilian population.

Yelena Tyutkova, an ethnic Russian who holds Georgian citizenship, fled her home in the western Georgian city of Zugdidi and is currently sheltering in a hostel in Sochi, in Russia, after receiving passage through Sukhumi, the capital of the breakaway region of Abkhazia.
Elderly Georgians wait for bread at a bakery in Gori on August 14

Tyutkova and her extended family of 14 were all born and raised in Georgia. But she says that didn't prevent local Georgians from forcing her family out of the city. Trying to soothe her 5-month-old baby, Tyutkova says the Georgians were retaliating for Russia's attacks on Georgia.

"It was very tough, they started threatening us and expelled our daughter from school. They threatened to either kill us or blow up the school. They smashed the windows of the school that's in the Russian sector. They started dragging us out of our flats, our rooms," Tyutkova says.

Tbilisi accuses Moscow of war crimes, because Russia launched a large-scale retaliatory strike against Georgia.

Russian officials, in turn, accuse Georgia of genocide and claim Georgian troops planted mines in civilian areas as they retreated.

RFE/RL's Russian and Georgian services contributed to this report
Crisis In Georgia
For RFE/RL's full coverage of the conflict that began in Georgia's breakway region of South Ossetia, click here.

 

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