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Two Months After Outbreak Of Hostilities, Georgian Humanitarian Situation Still Dire

Refugees receiving bread at a camp for displaced persons outside Gori
Refugees receiving bread at a camp for displaced persons outside Gori
Nona Sukhitashvili spends much of her day fretting over her newborn child, hidden deep under layers of clothes.

Her biggest worry is keeping the three-month-old baby warm -- not an easy task in this tent camp, set up for people displaced by the war between Georgian forces and Russian forces and their local allies in the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

"It's cold. I put a coat, a blanket, anything I can find on the baby to keep it warm," Nona says. "It's definitely not the best place for a baby."

She tells RFE/RL's Georgian Service that she fled Karaleti, a village bordering South Ossetia, after hostilities broke out on August 7-8 between Georgian and Russian forces.

Most locals have made their way home in the interim. But with her village now within a Russian-overseen buffer zone and winter fast approaching, Nona and many like her are stranded in a tent camp outside the nearby Georgian city of Gori.

Months In Limbo

Thousands of ethnic Georgians, in fact, remain stranded in makeshift dormitories as Russia drags its feet on withdrawing from "buffer zones" within Georgia proper.

With no heating or gas stoves, and unable to wash their children in the icy water that is available, camp residents say they desperately need better facilities or to be allowed back home.

"The blankets are thin, it's raining, water is seeping in, we're up to our necks in water," laments one woman. "The children are cold, we're cold. Look at what we're wearing. We don't even have proper clothes."

The armed conflict between Russia and Georgia has killed hundreds of people and forced more than 150,000 civilians from their homes.

Most South Ossetians, the bulk of whom fled the battle to neighboring Russia, have been able to return to their homes in that breakaway republic.

"Some are still staying with relatives, but most of the vast numbers of refugees have returned home," Tatyana Lokshina, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Russia office, says. "The situation is quite acceptable in South Ossetia -- reconstruction work is taking place at an impressive rate, there is water, there is electricity. So life is possible there."

Urgent Pleas

The deployment of European observers last week is now raising hopes of a homecoming for ethnic Georgians displaced by the fighting.

Russian troops are expected to pull out from the so-called buffer zones around South Ossetia and another separatist region, Abkhazia, by October 10 under the terms of a deal brokered by the European Union.

Although Russian officials remain evasive about the exact date of withdrawal, soldiers have been seen dismantling checkpoints and bases across the country.

Humanitarian organizations say it is vital that the population of these buffer zones be able to return home as quickly as possible. Besides suffering from cold and homesickness, local residents -- who rely heavily on agriculture for survival -- are eager to collect their harvest before winter sets in.

"If normal security, normal police control, is restored in this zone in the near future, people will return immediately," Lokshina says. "It is very important that this happens quickly because the harvesting seasons is starting. If people can't gather their harvest, the terrible humanitarian crisis now facing Georgia will only get worse."

A complete Russian withdrawal would enable most displaced Georgians to go back to their towns and villages.

Many, however, will be returning to destroyed and ransacked homes. Rights groups have documented widespread destruction of Georgian dwellings by South Ossetian paramilitary irregulars in the breakaway province and Georgia proper alike.

In Occupation's Wake

Georgian authorities are well aware of the destruction. Speaking on October 6 in televised remarks from a building site, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili pledged to provide all displaced Georgians with housing over the next two months.

"I have promised that, in the first instance, we will accommodate everyone who has lost their homes and fortune," Saakashvili says. "We've said that before December 15 -- that is, before the winter gathers strength -- not a single victim of this war in Georgia will remain without a roof over their heads and [normal] living conditions."
A UNHCR ID card in the hand of a Georgian refugee at the same Gori camp

In the meantime, humanitarian groups have been distributing tarpaulins and basic building material to help shield damaged homes from the cold.

But for residents of ethnic Georgian enclaves within South Ossetia, such measures come too late.

Human Rights Watch's Lokshina, who traveled several times to South Ossetia recently, says Georgian-populated villages in the breakaway province have been torched to the ground in the weeks following the war.

"In these enclaves, we visited nine villages and spoke to people from six other villages. Homes in these villages have all been burned down, destroyed," Lokshina says. "When I traveled to this region for the first time, we asked a few militiamen what was going on. And they told us absolutely candidly that they were burning down houses so that Georgians wouldn't have anywhere to go back to."

RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report

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