The Forgotten Georgians

Laura Sheahen, a regional information officer with CRS, is on the ground in Georgia and reports on the plight of those displaced by the fighting. She can be reached at lsheahen@eme.crs.org or 011.20.16.533.1643.

“Don’t let me die without you,” 87-year-old Zina Kvanchiani pleaded to her family when violence broke out in the Kodori Valley, a region of northwest Georgia. Paper-thin from illness and unable to walk, Zina was in no condition to flee the area unassisted.

Her two daughters and a friend had no other choice: they sat her in a bag and carried her on footfor milesto safety.

Elderly woman displaced by violence.

An elderly woman in a makeshift shelter for displaced people who fled bombings and shooting mostly in the Gori and Kodori Valley areas. CRS partner AbkhazInterCont is working to help displaced people in the Imereti region in western Georgia. Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

Now Zina and four other people from her family live in a tiny room on the third floor of a crumbling school that was unused for years. The building has water only every other dayand it’s not drinkable. There is no bathroom on her floor, and she is far too frail to move.

Zina is in a makeshift shelter in Georgia’s second-largest city, Kutaisi. As of Sunday, over 14,000 people had fled to the city and its surrounding towns.

As international attention has centered around Russian-Georgian politics and the capital city of Tbilisi, thousands of displaced people in the west of Georgia are at risk of being cut off from aid or forgotten. Kutaisi is only about three hours west of Tbilision a good road. Kutaisi is closer to the Black Sea than Tbilisi, which helps in terms of port shipments. But with the railroad bombed and the main road between east and west Georgia shut down by the military, few resources from the eastwhere the airport isare able to get through.

A CRS team arrived in Kutaisi on Saturday taking a winding, unpaved back road that few 4x4s can handle, much less trucks carrying humanitarian aid. Going from shelter to shelter, the team met with people who had lost everything and whose most basic needsfor water, bathrooms, and a way to cook donated food like rice and potatoeswere not yet met.

One mother displayed a prescription for her three-year-old son, wondering how to contact a doctor. Another needed adult diapers. An elderly lady had fled her house so quickly that she was without her false teeth, and could not chew.

“We know we can’t ask for what we had at home,” says a woman whose family lives with five other families in a 20×20 foot schoolroom. “But we need soap, medicine…”

CRS’ longstanding partner in the area, AbkhazInterCont (AIC), is run by formerly displaced people who fled similar violence in the early 1990s. Their current programs provide vocational training and small loans to displaced people who had to start new careers.

Having rebuilt their lives over the course of many years, the staff of AIC is now gearing up to help the new victims of the conflict. “We understand exactly what they’re going through, because we went through it ourselves,” says Archil Elbakidze, who heads AIC’s board.

Another CRS partner is also working to help Kutaisi’s displaced: local authorities have asked Caritas Georgia to provide bread from its bakery. There is enough food available to last a few weeks until aid shipments arrive, say city officials, and the hot summer temperatures mean that heating is not an issue.

But winter comes quickly in the region, and authorities are worried about what will happen then. Tens of thousands of people may need heaters for the winter, blankets, and kerosene. And if they are not allowed to return to their homes, they will need financial help to get housing and perhaps to learn new livelihoods. CRS and partners like Caritas are focusing on immediate needs like food and hygiene, but are also planning for the long road ahead.

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