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Georgia: A rude welcome

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by Molly Corso

Georgian villagers are slowly returning home in the wake of the Russian army's withdrawal from checkpoints in the so-called "buffer zone" outside breakaway South Ossetia. While most are happy to be back, the hard reality of rebuilding their lives in time for winter is daunting.

On 10 October, the Russian army's deadline to evacuate its posts within Georgian-controlled territory, a dug-up field was the sole sign of the Russian military installation that for the past two months had manned a roadblock on the road connecting the Georgian town of Gori and the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali.

Instead, the highway was full of large, yellow city buses carrying mattresses, blankets, and a few passengers back to their villages after they fled their homes during the August war between Georgia and Russia.

According to the Georgian government, 40,000 Georgians -- out of the 128,000 people initially displaced by the war -- can safely return home now that Georgian police have resumed patrols in 55 villages that were claimed by Russian forces in the wake of the Georgian retreat from South Ossetia.

"As soon as the Russians take their first step [away from the security zones], they will be replaced by our police officers. Not one minute or second will be lost," Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili said on 8 October during an interview with the Georgian television station Rustavi-2.

"Half an hour after the Russian occupiers leave these territories, displaced people will be able to return to their families, and the Georgian police will take full responsibility for their security."


For Marika Galavashvili, a resident of Karaleti village outside of Gori, the promise of security was important. Galavashvili and her family escaped during the height of the fighting on 11 August -- first to Gori and then to Tbilisi -- and split their time over the past two months among relatives' houses and a temporary shelter in the capital city.

The 54-year-old noted that "at first" she was afraid to come back, although her husband had made the trip earlier to check on their house.

Now, finally back in her own home, Galavashvili, an apple farmer, faces new worries. Most of her crop is lying rotten in the fields and many villagers are too afraid of possible mines to pick what is left.

"Everything is spoiled," she said, referring to her apples. "Everything. ... There is no work. Nothing. [But] we will survive. The most important thing is we returned."

The family returned on 9 October, relieved that only windows and doors were missing. According to Koba Subeliani, a member of parliament and the former minister of refugees and resettlement, only "a few percent" of the homes in the villages were destroyed. "There are many houses that need repair and we will do that; it is not a very difficult task," he told Utsnobi Radio on 9 October. "The damage [to houses] is less than we expected; we expected much more damage."

Nona Kisishvili, a resident of Tkviavi, was one of the unlucky ones. Her home and store were destroyed by fire. Standing inside the ruins of her small shop, she noted that there is little hope she can repair any of the damage.

One day after returning home from a tent camp in Gori, she and her husband are still in shock. "I didn't sleep, day or night," she said, adding that her husband has not been able to speak since he saw the damage. "Why the hell did they need to burn the house?"

Her neighbor, Neli Gomishvili, was also surprised when she found out her home had been destroyed.

"I really didn't expect them [Ossetians] to do anything like this," she said, motioning to the charred remains of a refrigerator. "What can I do? Nothing. I have nothing -- I had lots of books. I had everything I needed -- now look at what state it's in."

Gomishvili said government officials were at the house on 9 October, but "didn't ask anything."

"They've just taken pictures. No one asked me anything. They wrote down my husband's telephone number," she said. "Here you can't repair anything or do anything. Even the walls are burned."

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