From Tbilisi, Georgia, 19 August 2008

Just over one week ago my life in Tbilisi was a whirl of project planning, NGO meetings and parties. By Monday 11th we were racing for the Armenian border, convinced that Russian forces would soon be bombing Tbilisi and taking control of the city. After a week of fear, confusion, panic, rumours and evacuations, back in Tbilisi we are starting to focus on the real challenge of the crisis, the displaced people. Depending whose estimates you read, internally displaced people number are at least 70,000, more likely over 100,000, because there are so many areas unreachable and the assessment process is barely begun. At the moment the priority is assessing where they are and how many, improving the facilities for them and providing basic goods. To a certain extent the government, well the MRA (Ministry of Refugees) is able to provide estimates and addresses because they directed groups of refugees to certain buildings and settlements.

But the UNHCR warehouse which is the main focus of humanitarian aid supplies is by no means overstocked and access to the warehouse is tightly controlled. It contains, as of yesterday, only basic emergency supplies, like blankets, saucepans, plates and water cans. Yesterday I spent the day giving these out to 1000 refugees, with an international NGO, one of the approved distributors. We visited 5 IDP centres, varying in size from 1000 people to 30. Though we were only giving them these basic things, they were often extremely grateful.

We are wondering when the promised aid from nations in Europe and the USA will arrive, and what it will contain. Basic goods are the priority of course but this is not sustainable. There are no mattresses or cooking stoves right now for example- in many IDP centres everyone is sleeping on hard floors. Those who are housed in public buildings, often building sites (including the disused hospital which was housing 1000 refugees when we visited) are at constant risk of disease and injury. Sanitation will continue to be a significant problem, despite the efforts of the UN group on sanitation who are overseeing water supplies being re-established, as we were glad to see they were doing so at this ‘hospital’ when we arrived.

However next door to the hospital, in a small building which was half destroyed, were living 9 families, sleeping on the floor in one room. Other rooms in the rubble-filled structure were being used as a toilet. Common features of all the IDP centres are that they are overcrowded and lack basic facilities. Schools, hospital buildings and offices are not designed to hold 500 refugees. There are few buildings which are secure or have windows, few have enough beds or any kind of sleeping arrangements. Some are well organised, with committees of volunteers from outside or inside the IDP community who are creating lists and keeping them updated daily, ensuring they maintain contact with outside help and the government to receive the aid when they can. Others are not and are seeing new arrivals every day.

This was true of one of the last collective centres we visited and it underscored how fragile the crisis was. This, a school building containing 450 refugees, a number which was rising by the hour, was clearly fraught with emotion and anger, there were some men drinking themselves into a stupor, there was also nearly a fight that erupted as we were handing out aid. Moreover as the current situation continues, and it becomes obvious their temporary refugee state is not ending soon, it is clear to us and to them that these living arrangements are going to become more unbearable. Frustration will rise, nerves will become frayed, tension may give way to violence and anger. If there are problems, then the IDPs will find themselves becoming very unwelcome, very quickly, by the local communities. This will only make the work of humanitarian aid distribution harder.

Some of the refugees we met yesterday have moved 5 or 6 times in the past week, starting with an exodus from Tskhinvali, constantly fleeing from each new round of fighting, and ending in a school building in Gldani, a suburb of Tbilisi. It is amazing to me that these stories are still told by eyes that are weary, but smiling, and they can still laugh, chat and carry on with a semblance of normal life. Were I in their place, I would not trust myself to be so resilient.

The worst is seeing the children. There are huge numbers of children caught up in this, many of whom have seen horrific sights they should not have been exposed to. Many have lost parents. How do they understand this situation now, I wonder, when just over a week ago they were happily playing football in their yards with their friends? They have nothing with them. Most people ran with whatever they could carry but some came with just the clothes on their backs. So although at the moment basic goods are what the people need the most, we also have to start thinking about how to get books, toys etc to these kids, who are currently filling their days playing in the dirt or fighting with each other.

In Tbilisi, the fears of the international aid workers are beginning to diverge even further from the attitudes of the Georgian authorities. It appears as though they are very much convinced that once Russia pulls back, out of Georgia proper, then the refugees will return and the IDP crisis will be resolved. They have demonstrated this point of view by insisting the schools and kindergartens, currently housing IDPs, will reopen as scheduled, in three weeks time. Of course it would be a blow to the education system in this country if the schools do not re-open, but even if we can trust the intention of the Russians to pull out, this optimism is ludicrous.

It is almost certain that any IDPs from south Ossetia cannot go back, because Russia and the South Ossetian government will not allow them to. Those from Gori, who make up most of the Tbilisi IDP population, may not have anything to return to. I have not been into Gori and few, if any, humanitarian workers have been allowed to pass the road-blocks, so we cannot really know how bad the situation is there, except for journalists reports. However we can make some educated guesses at this point. Even if the homes of IDPs are still standing, which many wont be, they will be emptied of anything of value as mass looting has occurred there. If they owned cars, they will be burnt out or stolen, if they had a shop that will probably be looted and destroyed. No businesses will function there, there will be no jobs. Yet the government will expect them to return... to what?

No, the IDP problem Tbilisi and the surrounding areas currently face is not at its worst point yet and I honestly can’t see how it is going to get better. Many will have to remain and make their lives here, just as IDPs from the last secessionist war, over 10 years ago, have had to start their lives again. And I fear that the authorities will not go to great efforts to help IDPs integrate and recover their lives. Perhaps that is because the government cannot afford to support these people in the long term but also because it has shown, along with other countries hosting IDPs, including Azerbaijan, that it is politically useful to maintain an IDP population as a political pawn.

This is only the situation in Tbilisi because I can see it. But I know elsewhere the situation is many times worse. In fact, Tbilisi is the only place we are able to keep track of refugee numbers, partly because in villages and rural areas, families have taken refugees in and are providing for them. An NGO we are in contact with in the region of Guria has informed us there are about 4000 refugees in 2 towns living in these circumstances. This is a facet of the famous Georgian hospitality I have been familiarised with when travelling in rural areas too. Although their living arrangements will be in many ways preferable to that of the collective centres, it means that the authorities and humanitarian organisations do not have any idea how many people are there and where they are staying, so help is less likely to reach them. Those families, who have taken in one or two refugee families and are providing all their food and support, cannot afford to do so indefinitely.

Despite hosting an estimated 30,000 to 70,000 refugees, in Tbilisi everything is fairly calm, almost oddly normal, although the city is a little emptier than usual. It is obvious that Georgians have been through this before, have hosted huge numbers of IDPs and life carries on. But the sense of sobriety and shock is palpable, and though young people still walk arm in arm eating ice cream on the main street running through the city, no one looks to be enjoying themselves very much. I think we all fear for the future here, not least because it doesn’t look as if Russian forces have any intention of pulling out, despite many promises to do so. We keep hearing reports they are bringing in more heavy artillery, and ‘digging in’, literally digging bunkers, in the areas surrounding Gori. So, they may be here for a long time to come.

I cannot emphasise to those who are unfamiliar with Georgian geography how important the road is from Batumi to Tbilisi which goes through Gori. It is really the only main highway and the only fast road. It’s the artery of the country’s cargo transport, from the ports to the capital. It is also a road usually buzzing with business and families travelling back and forth. I have travelled the road myself many times, visiting central and west Georgia. Without this artery nothing is moving in Georgia. The economy is frozen and will suffer immeasurably.

Of course this is the intention of the Russian government. Gori is close enough to south Ossetia that they can justify it as a legitimate holding point, but in reality the objective is to paralyse the country. They are succeeding. Two days ago they also bombed the railway line, again, the only main railway link. The country is essentially divided into two blocks, areas accessible from Tbilisi, and the rest. No one can get to western Georgia and we have very little idea of what’s happening there, except that Zugdidi seems calm and fortunately Georgian troops withdrew from Abkhazia without a fight so life was able to continue there without bloodshed. Occupying the port of Poti and destroying its infrastructure, including sinking ships, will ensure that no supplies can get through by sea. It is only a matter of time before shortages are visible.

Aside from critical infrastructure they have also attacked economic targets, factories and businesses. The international business community will not want to be in Georgia and the foreign investment market that was flourishing just over a week ago is now in ruins. Tourism has been destroyed as soon as the black sea area became a target. Every summer thousands of Armenians have been pouring into the black sea resorts of Batumi and Kobuleti, bringing valuable tourist income to businesses. The confidence this has inspired led to a huge reconstruction project in Batumi. That has now gone. And as of yesterday, the national park at Borjomi, another tourist attraction and one of the most beautiful, wildlife rich places you can imagine, was burning. Who knows why and how the fire started.

What we do know is that tactics which were applied very well in Chechnya are being used in Georgia and it’s hard not to draw comparisons. Information is sketchy but it appears that, rather than being responsible for terrorising the remaining population themselves, Russian forces are deliberately arming anyone with a grudge to bear, ensuring the countryside affected by the war is filled with armed rebels, not in uniform, marauding around and helping themselves to whatever they would like. The casualties who are still rolling into the barely functioning medical services in Gori have apparently encountered these irregular forces, or bandits, who have been peppering the few remaining civilians with bullets, at will. This means, that even if the Russians do pull out, many sections of the countryside are likely to be no-go areas for a long time to come and IDPs are even less likely to be returned to their homes. At this point I also have little faith in the Georgian authorities’ ability to face the challenge of armed militias and protect the civilian population, not least because our own armed forces have been totally decimated.

We also fear what will happen to Georgia politically now. It seemed sure a few days ago that Saakashvili would have to step down and we were optimistic of a bloodless transition. But he, like the Russians, has ‘dug in’ during the past week and his position looks stronger than ever. If the Russians are expecting to remove him from power by remaining threateningly close to Tbilisi they too have miscalculated. They have only made the population panic and rally behind their leader. National flags and posters now adorn the main roads and streets in the capital. Rallies which were held to show unity with the Georgian people and demonstrations against the Russian occupation became somehow synonymous with supporting the regime. With popular legitimacy comes the ability to do whatever he likes and the high likelihood that when protests do erupt, as I’m sure they will, they will be dealt with severely. Authoritarian rule is only a few steps away. What that will mean for Georgia is a very frightening thing.

Should Georgia take a turn down this route, it is likely that the support of the international community will begin to deflate. In every aspect of this crisis, and as the situation on all fronts worsens, NGO workers and humanitarian aid distributors are completely powerless to affect anything or anyone. This entire conflict began, a week ago last Thursday, as a very risky, very nasty political game, in which innocent people were caught up. Now it is up to us to clean up the mess that has been created, in what little ways we can.

Sian Davies
British EVS Volunteer, for YUPMMG (“Youth Union of Public Movement Multinational Georgia” a Georgian youth NGO)

About me: I have been in Georgia now for 5 months, half of my expected 10 month EVS project and thus far I have had a very enjoyable and productive time here, working with young people form ethnic minorities on non formal education projects and integration issues, as well as election monitoring in minority areas. This was the last thing any of us expected and I am still unable to process the events of the past week and compare what the reality is now, with what my life was just 2 weeks ago. The majority of my international friends and fellow volunteers have been evacuated to their home countries, some of us remain, and some want to return soon, to do whatever we can and to direct those motivated to help from outside in fundraising. My Georgian friend’s lives are all on hold, as the country is, and many have lost loved ones or are separated from them by the conflict. My youth projects, which included a multiethnic youth peace summer camp due to start last weekend, are also indefinitely postponed. Everyone is trying to help IDPs now, in any way possible.