Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Children Haunted by Georgia-Russia War

Volunteers try to help bereaved youngsters still traumatised by the conflict.
By Natia Kuprashvili
More than a year after the Georgian-Ossetian war, 11-year-old Sofiko Okropiridze still relives the horrors of it daily.



“We left the village on August 9 in papa’s car. That day they bombed the road we were on. It was so scary,” she reluctantly remembered when asked to describe leaving the family’s home village of Banata, just outside South Ossetia. It was badly damaged in the fighting between Russian and Georgian forces in August last year.



The psychological damage has been such that, according to her mother Nino Kazieva, she has spent two weeks in hospital and is far from being the girl she was before the war.



Such traumatised children are a terrible legacy of the conflict, and, experts say, resources are inadequate to give each of the children the treatment they need.



Giorgi, a six-year-old boy whose father died in the war, was united with dozens like him at a gathering recently as therapists sought to coax them out of their misery.



They were taken to the Mtatsminda amusement park outside Tbilisi by the Georgian Friends of America Club and, just for a while, they laughed and played like normal children.



“This is very, very good,” said Giorgi with a wide grin. “We don’t have swings like this in our village. I will tell everyone about them when I get back.”



Such meetings for the children, all 70 of whom in the park lost one or both parents, are a key part of plans to help their psychological recovery.



“The boy sees tears and grief around him every day, and meeting these other children really helps him and he’s always remembering them. It would be good if these events could happen more often,” said Giorgi’s mother, Nana.



According to Georgian government figures, 228 civilians died in the war, along with 146 soldiers and 14 policemen. A further 23 soldiers are still missing. Some 150,000 people fled their homes, of whom around 30,000 – mainly women and children – have not been able to return.



With the size of the task facing the government and charities, it is perhaps easy to see how the plight of the 150 children who lost one or both parents had been partly overlooked.



Naira Gelashvili, a peace activist and director of The Caucasian House organisation, which publishes books and conducts small projects to help injured and bereaved children, said she had seen serious psychological trauma in the children under her care.



“War is not just blood, destroyed houses and dead people,” she said. “The horrors affect children more than anyone. The children who came to Caucasian House were at first very secretive and cautious. A 12-year-old child told me that he wished he had burned with his house. Another child cannot get over the fact that his rabbit was left behind in its hutch.”



Dito Razmadze, an eight-year-old boy, is one such traumatised child. His loss became the signature of the war when, during the Russian bombing of Gori on August 9 last year, his father and pregnant mother were killed in front of him. Photographs of his dead father and his grieving uncle went round the world, and the boy is confronted by them wherever he goes.



He was found by relatives in a Tbilisi hospital after the bombing and, although the flat is now restored, he refuses to go back there, preferring to remain at his grandparents’ house in the village of Kheltubani outside Gori.



Giuli Tevzadze, a psychologist who has worked with many of the bereaved children, said Dito’s condition was one of the most disturbing that he had seen.



“Dito will not go to his parents’ grave. It is not that he does not want to remember the tragedy; he does not want to recognise it. Imagine the condition of a child who is always seeing pictures of his father’s death,” Tevzadze said.



“The measures taken for the psychological rehabilitation of those children harmed in the war are clearly insufficient.”



Other charities say many children who were not directly bereaved or injured in the fighting are also traumatised.



Tsitsino Grdzelishvili, a representative of Empathy, a non-governmental organisation, NGO, that works to rehabilitate the victims of violence, says the living conditions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which were recognised by Russia as independent from Georgia after the war last year, were so stressful that thousands of children had psychological problems.



The Gali region of Abkhazia is almost exclusively inhabited by ethnic Georgians who are largely excluded from Abkhazian government structures.



“The children in the Gali region and also in villages bordering the area of the Georgian-Ossetian conflict live in conditions of permanent stress. They require permanent rehabilitation and treatment,” she said.



“Now a few NGOs and funds worry about these children, but this is completely insufficient; every project and grant has its own limitations. We need larger state steps to solve this problem. Our organisation pays for the treatment of children itself. We have appealed to the state in a few particularly serious cases, but almost none of our appeals were approved.”



The government agrees that more work needs to be done to help these children, but officials admit that resources are minimal.



Nana Ubilava, the deputy health minister in Georgia’s government of Abkhazia, which is based in the capital and is seen by Tbilisi as the legitimate authority there, said only one clinic was available for treating children.



“Considering the size of the problem, this is clearly inadequate,” she said.



“The problem is very serious and steps must be taken to resolve it. We have prepared a plan for the psychological and social rehabilitation of people harmed by these conflicts, but I do not know whether there will be financing for it in the budget for 2010.”



Natia Kuprashvili is a freelance journalist.