Behind the lines

A former school building now being housed with IDP's from the Gori area who were dislocated by the bombing. Mercy Corps staff meet with them to assess their winterization needs. Photo: Jeffrey Austin for Mercy Corps

Nearly a month after hostilities erupted that forced almost 160,000 people from their homes, thousands of Georgian families are still displaced. Most of them cannot return to their houses — or even their villages — because of the wreckage, military positions and ethnic tensions. And now, as the warm summer months come quickly to an end, there are concerns about lack of shelter for frigid winter.

Mercy Corps has been responding to the needs of Georgian families since the crisis began. We were among the first agencies to reach the war-devastated city of Gori and are currently the only international non-governmental organization conducting operations behind Russian military lines. So far, we've delivered emergency food rations and hygiene supplies to more than 10,000 displaced people. This includes distributions to nearly every camp and public building where families are taking refuge in Gori.

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Because of the widespread damage — apartment buildings destroyed, farms pillaged, homes looted and burned — there are real uncertainties about what families will do. Enormous needs for food and other critical supplies remain. In the coming days, we will also distribute cots, mattresses, sleeping bags and blankets to camps and shelters.

Mercy Corps Senior Program Officer Rich Ormond is on the ground in Georgia, and took some time to answer some questions about the current situation and our team's work.

Q: What are you seeing right now?

Rich Ormond: There is relative calm. Russian forces have pulled back to positions north of Gori, just outside of South Ossetia. The movement of displaced families seems to be decreasing now, as most of them have determined where they're going to take refuge for now. These families are, however, living in either tent camps or public buildings in and around Gori. And these places are overcrowded.

What is an average camp like?

They're changing by the day. The first camp that sprang up now has more than 1,400 people. Since our first visit, a second camp has been started. Families are living in tents, but have access to reasonable services — hot meals, clean water and latrines — that have been provided by our colleague agencies and the local government.

The families that are taking shelter in public buildings are in much worse shape. In some places, there are 40 families — or more — living in a space with only one toilet.

How are things in the security buffer zone behind Russian military lines?

Those in the buffer zone are mostly people who stayed behind through the fighting — including the elderly and infirmed. There have also been a significant number of men who have returned to collect the harvest, since this is their source of income. However, there's a lot of unexploded ammunition and mines in these farms and villages, and so people are scared. There's also violence against ethnic Georgians and looting within the buffer zones. Families there are relying on Russian troops for their security.

Mercy Corps is currently the only international non-governmental organization doing work in the buffer zone. We've developed a rapport with Russian posts that allow us to gain access and move around in these areas. As a result, we've been conducting assessments of isolated villages and delivering hygiene supplies to families who've stayed there.

What are Mercy Corps' plans for the next few weeks?

We are continuing to focus on the immediate needs of displaced families, but will also focus on restoring economic livelihoods. One way we're planning on doing this is by distributing vouchers worth one month's salary to families. That way, they can buy the supplies they need while putting money back into local economies. We hope that will help stimulate recovery.

The relief phase is ending; now we need to work with families on their transition to returning home.

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