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

Georgian Refugees Speak of Pain and Suffering

As they settle into makeshift camps around Tbilisi, refugees share tales of their horrific experiences.
By Vika Bukia
Giorgy Tsiklauri is 22. His home town of Gori was bombed by the Russian air force and is still under the control of the Russian army.

Giorgy became a refugee on August 9, after bombs fell on the apartment blocks in which he lived.

Now, Giorgy has been entrusted with the important mission of supervising one of the many tents in a camp for refugees from the fighting in South Ossetia as well as from the Gori district and the Upper Kodori Gorge.

The city authorities pitched the camp on the side of the road leading to Tbilisi airport, where it attracts the attention of new arrivals heading into the Georgian capital.

The refugees here have electricity, running water and even refrigerators. “You can live here, but only temporarily,” said Giorgy.

According to Giorgy Vashadze, the head of the Georgian justice ministry's civil register, around 110,000 refugees have been settled in 459 resettlement points. Many of them have yet to receive the humanitarian aid provided by the United States and European countries.

Another makeshift refugee camp is School No. 199 in Tbilisi: washing-lines are stretched across the yard, where a man is cutting a water-melon and handing out slices to a group of children around him. A woman is busy washing vegetables under a tap.

“I am from [the village of] Nikozi [in South Ossetia],” she said. “I am in Tbilisi for the first time in my life.”

Learning that she was talking to a journalist, 53-year-old Manana began asking questions herself.

“Will they leave soon? Did you hear what that bandit [South Ossetian leader Eduard] Kokoity said? He said he wouldn’t let us return to home. What do they say? Is it true that we won’t go back?” she asked.

Manana is at least happy that all her family members are safe and sound.

“You can’t imagine what we’ve been through these days,” she said. “There wasn't a single day without shooting in August. My husband and I took it in turns to sleep, we were frightened.

“I used to go to Tskhinvali to sell yoghurt, cheese and milk there. Nikozi is just fifteen minutes’ drive from Tskhinvali. I knew a lot of good and kind people there. Ordinary people there are pure gold.”

Tamuna is nineteen. She wears a black headscarf and a long black dress that can’t hide the fact that she is pregnant.

Several days ago she became a widow, after her husband was killed by a rocket fired from Russian helicopters, as he was helping her escape.

She won’t talk much, saying only that she hopes she will give birth to a son, who will carry his father’s name.

Washing lines can be seen in the yards of nearly all kindergartens and schools in Tbilisi.

Like many other schools in the city, School No.161 was having repair work done on it, when refugees moved in to take shelter there. It’s dusty inside. The whole place reeks of building materials. Currently, around 600 refugees are living in the school.

Children are playing football in the yard, licking ice-cream cones – a present from a Georgian ice-cream-producing company.

The adults gather around a new radio set, listening to the latest news. “According to [US Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice, NATO will protect all its members, as well as those aspiring to become part of the organisation,” the newsreader was saying.

“They (the Russians) don’t care about what NATO says, they don’t care a damn about NATO and Europe, about us and the Ossetians alike,” a thin man in his sixties retorted angrily, lighting up an unfiltered cigarette.

The doors to the classrooms have all been opened to create draughts – it’s over 30 degrees Celsius outside. You can hear children laughing in some rooms, and women crying in others.

The school is now home for Mariam from the village of Eredvi. She is only two weeks old. She is a good girl: she eats well, sleeps a lot and never cries.

“The local population is very helpful,” said Mariam’s mother Natia, who delivered her baby by caesarean section. “People from nearby homes have been bringing Pampers for Mariam, they have given us a cot, nappies and toys. One woman comes over every day to take us to her place to bathe the baby.

“I was wounded. It was difficult to sleep on a desk during the first days here. Mercifully, they’ve brought beds and mattresses, though not enough for everybody.”

Natia escaped from her village, which was already burning, on August 8. “I can only vaguely remember being lifted on to a lorry with my child. When I came to we were in Tbilisi,” she said.

Everyone here has a tragic story to tell.

“My husband is lying there killed, left to be eaten by dogs, “said Dali Romelashvili from the village of Kvemo Achabeti. “My husband’s sister was burnt alive. Ossetian fighters made her set her own house on fire, then they pushed her in there and locked the door behind her.

“I phoned my Ossetian neighbours, asking them to bury my husband. They said they had tried, but the fighters threatened to kill anyone who would try to bury a Georgian. I’ve been haunted by nightmares, I can’t carry on living.

“I left my home as early as August 6,” said Ketino, a refugee from the village of Nuli. “My village took the hardest hit. They bombed and fired at it from all sides. In the morning, after the attack on our village stopped, we got out of our cellar and fled.”

As the conversation went on, one of the women was crying constantly.

“This is Leila Maroshvili, she is from Karoleti,” said one woman. “She had to leave her old father behind, she doesn’t know what happened to him. The village was destroyed and plundered and lots of its residents were killed.”

“If you’d met my father, you would know that he was an absolutely harmless person, he did not deserve a death like that,” wailed Leila. “And he cried so much, when I was leaving... how can I ever forget his eyes?”

A hotline set up by the government is constantly receiving calls from people who suffered in the war. Hundreds of calls have been logged from those who have lost their loved ones during the conflict.

Nika Maisuradze, a new arrival at School No. 161, is looking for his parents. “Today I was told that they were killed, but the person, who told me this does not know them personally, he isn't certain. It’s not reliable information, it’s a rumour. I don’t believe it. I don’t want to believe it. I will go on looking for them.”

Vika Bukia is a correspondent for Imedi Television in Tbilisi.

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