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Life near the administrative border remains tough

By Etuna Tsotniashvili
Friday, March 6
A half year has already passed since the Russian-Georgian war, but the situation in Georgia is still strained. This is more noticeable for the people who live in the so-called buffer zones. At first glance it appears they were lucky to have been able to return to their homes after the war, but they now live in permanent fear and South Ossetia is very close to their houses.

With International Rescue Committee (IRC) help The Messenger visited some conflict zone villages near the administrative border and observed how people live there in these days.

“Many people returning to their villages in the buffer zone are in poor health and bad shape economically and psychologically,” says M Peter Leifert, the IRC Country Director in Georgia. “With the help of IRC-trained community volunteers we identify the people and families most in need and give them what they need to start on the road to recovery.”

In the village of Megvrekisi most of the houses have been demolished since the Russian aggression or were burnt out during it. The majority of villagers live in poor conditions, as they could not bring in the harvest last year due to the August war and lost their domestic animals as well. But there are some who are particularly vulnerable.

We found the Umikashvili family, comprising 4 mentally ill persons, the father Anzor and his 3 sons. Of these, 19-year-old Amiran and 13-year-old Shmagi can’t speak normally or read and write. During the war they did not leave the village, and while it was being bombed they hid in the gardens. They live in extremely poor conditions, in a very old house, half of which is demolished. In the war their house was further damaged: the roof was hit and the windows were smashed, but a week ago the roof was repaired with the Government’s support and new windows have been put in.

They don’t have enough beds, blankets, clothes, shoes and other basic items. What they wear is either very old or handed down by their neighbours. As the family members have health problems they were unable to cultivate land or work and don’t have domestic animals either.

Since this year the family members have not received any assistance or pension for people below the poverty line because they do not have ID cards or documents. Due to their mental problems they have been unable to collect all the necessary documents, such as birth certificates, ID documents, medical certificates and so forth, in order to apply for disability status and receive a sufficient pension and social support. IRC staff did not find any agency organizing the necessary document preparation process and paying the expanses this would entail. Through IRC’s emergency allowance and volunteers’ support they obtained their documents and the Government will grant them pensions and social support.

Temur Umikashvili, 18, studied at the local school but did not finish it. He helps the family with money he earns as a cattle herder. “During the war we stayed in the village, we did not leave, and when the situation became very strained we went to Shindisi, to our aunt,” Temur remembers. They have a small garden in front of the house, but their main source of income is temporary work, where they help neighbours pick their fruit.

Another vulnerable family is that of Zaza Somkhishvili, who has three children, two of whom have hearing problems. Lana and Lado are 6 and 7 years old and going to school but they need hearing aids which are very expensive. Zaza himself has a hearing problem so it is genetic. With IRC support the children will receive their hearing aids soon, however their living conditions are very poor. “One of them has a goitre and needs an operation, but I don’t have the money to take him to hospital,” the children’s mother, Tsiuri Somkhishvili, told us.

“I’m 6 years old, I like playing with dolls and cars very much,” Lana said, although she only has 2-3 toys and those are old. Lana and Lado usually play together. Their elder brother Shmagi has no health problem. Lana likes going to school very much, she likes Georgian and studying the Dedaena (the first school book). “I know reading and writing, I know poems,” Lana told me, and started reciting one of the most popular poems by heart.

Zemo Nikozi is situated 2-3 kilometres from Tskhinvali, and from there you can see the whole of Tskhinvali very well. During our visit we heard the sound of shooting, although the locals are used to such sounds and calmed us, saying “Every evening there is shooting from Tskhinvali, but they don’t shoot anyone, maybe they are shooting in the air.”

80-year-old Kristina Mchedlidze is an IDP from Tskhinvali who was displaced in 1993 during the first conflict. She lived in Zemo Nikozi before the recent war, but after it her house was no longer in Georgian-controlled territory. She returned to the village and slept in the church or elsewhere in the neighbourhood.

One morning however she crossed the border by stealth and entered her own house, approximately 500 metres over the administrative border in the area not controlled by the Georgian Army. The house was damaged and everything had been stolen, she could not find even a broom. Now she goes to her house every morning and returns to the church in the evening. During the day she cares for her house and garden despite the fact she does not even have a chair. Of course it is dangerous to cross the so-called administrative border but she says she wants to see the house every day and refuses to stay in the collective centre where her relatives live.

Through an IRC emergency allowance Kristina bought clothes, linen and kitchen appliances. She hopes one day she will be able to live normally in her house.

Tsiuri Devidze also became an IDP during the first war in Tskhinvali. She remembered her house and the good living conditions she had in Tskhinvali, however she has adjusted to living in an old carriage just at the entrance to Kvemo Nikozi. She worries that she does not have near neighbours, the nearest person lives 500 metres from the carriage.

“I don’t want to leave this village, my husband’s grave is here and I will never leave it, but I want to have a small cottage in the village in order to have neighbours. Sometimes, when my elder sons are not at home, I am very scared. If something happens I don’t have anyone here to help me.

“After fleeing from Tskhinvali we came here. Some houses were for sale but we did not have any money to buy one, so we found this carriage and started living here,” Tsiuri says. However despite living in such bad conditions she has a third child, now 8 years old. “We don’t have a normal house or much money but I did not think about this, I have gifted a third son to my country,” she says. Her two elder sons are students at Gori University and the third one is at school.

“After the first war, little by little our conditions improved, we were working hard in the gardens, selling some vegetables, and I bought cows so my children could get milk and cheese. But in August after we returned home the cattle were not here any more, I’ve lost them. No one expected such confrontation and war, we were living normally, and even when the confrontation started I did not think of leaving the village. The situation developed so fast that I could not go at first, but we left the village on August 11 and went to Tbilisi,” Tsiuri says. “It is very difficult to think about those days. My two elder sons were not in the village as they were reservists, me and Shmagi were here, hiding in the gardens. I was in such a state that I was not afraid of tanks or artillery, my only wish was that they did not bomb us from the air,” she remembers.

With the support of the Tsiskari charity fund, supported by the Bank Republic Societe General Group, another family, the Kusradzes, has received financial assistance and will soon have a new two room house in front of the hut where they live now. The family has five members and it is almost impossible to live in one old room with a damaged roof and floor. “We are very happy that these people have supported us and given us the stimulus to continue life,” Meri Kusradze said with tears in her eyes.

She remembered the war period. According to her they could not manage to leave the village of Tirdznisi until August 12. “We were hiding in the gardens with these two small children. That was terrible. I even didn’t care about myself but when the children where crying and asked me for something to eat I was in shock, I was picking some fruit in the gardens during the shooting and bombing, that was the only food we ate in those days,” Meri remembers. Several days after the war started the Russian Army entered the village and found the family and took them to Gori, where they remained until they could return to their village.

The target of the programme that IRC Protection Monitoring and Referral for Georgian Returnees conducts is IDPs who have returned to their villages of origin in the ex-buffer zone, north of Gori, Georgia. It aims to help people by providing protection through a monitoring presence, the provision of information on basic services and appropriate referrals through an established mechanism. The programme is funded by UNHCR. It began in December 2008 and has so far worked in eight villages containing approximately 2,400 families. UNHCR is extending its support to enable the IRC to work in 24 villages in the buffer zone through June.