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POLITICS: Russia-Georgia Conflict Left Legacy of Displaced

Nastassja Hoffet

UNITED NATIONS, Nov 25 2008 (IPS) - As the European Union launches a probe into the conflict between Georgian and Russian troops in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia last August – with much of the blame now being cast on Georgia for firing the first shots – thousands of civilians remain displaced and homeless at the start of winter.

UNHCR distributes aid to displaced families. Credit: UNHCR/Y. Mechitov/August 2008

UNHCR distributes aid to displaced families. Credit: UNHCR/Y. Mechitov/August 2008

“It is a race against time,” Andrej Mahecic, spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva, told IPS.

Most of those who fled the bombing and shelling have returned to the “buffer zone” – the area adjacent to South Ossetia’s administrative border – but their living conditions are inadequate to endure sub-zero temperatures.

“The humanitarian crisis and essential needs remain very grave,” Giorgi Gogia, Caucasus researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Tbilisi, told IPS.

In a Nov. 18 report, Amnesty International expressed similar concerns about “the speed with which badly damaged houses can be made sufficiently habitable as winter approaches.”

An estimated 35,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) are living in collective centres run by the Georgian government. UNHCR expects more people to seek emergency shelter because “they ran out of resources, they can no longer afford to rent a place,” said Mahecic.

Human rights groups have called the Georgian government to take greater responsibility for the returnees’ well-being – something officials say they are already doing.

“The Georgian government is now putting together a strong package of support, building shelters for the winter, to be prepared. We hope we will have sustained and continuous support,” Irakli Alasania, Georgia’s ambassador to the United Nations, told IPS.

As temperatures plunge, UNHCR has launched a “winterisation programme” that includes distributing firewood and warm bedding. The agency is also working to repair damaged houses before winter, said Mahecic.

Food supplies are another critical issue, as many of the returnees are small farmers who are now unable to support their families.

“Most of the harvest had been lost when the territory was under Russian occupation. People won’t be able to collect their harvest,” Gogia said. “Since they were not able to collect the harvest, whatever kind of crops they collect, it must be enough for the fall -but in winter the need will increase.”

The security situation remains precarious, with HRW reporting recent incidents in territories adjacent to the administrative border. These areas are “pretty much no-man’s lands and people cannot go back,” said Gogia.

“The security situation along the de facto border dividing South Ossetia from the rest of Georgia remains extremely tense. Up to 25,000 ethnic Georgians continue to be unable to return to their homes in South Ossetia,” said Amnesty International.

“Some 10,000 seeking to return to homes in the former ‘buffer zone’ have been prevented from doing so on account of reported lawlessness and pillaging by militias loyal to South Ossetia” said Amnesty.

On Aug. 8, Georgian troops tried to take control of the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia, de facto independent since 1992, by engaging in heavy fighting in the regional capital Tskhinvali.

Russia, officially in South Ossetian territory on a peacekeeping mission, responded by launching an extensive military operation in South Ossetia and beyond. The armed clashes, which claimed mainly civilian lives, came to an end on Aug. 12, after peace brokering efforts by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose country currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU.

For the 25,000 ethnic Georgians who fled South Ossetia, “the right to safe and dignified return is still to be recognised and guaranteed”, Gogia stressed.

The majority of ethnic Georgians ran away from their villages in August after being threatened or attacked by South Ossetia militiamen who looted and burnt their houses, rights groups say.

Out of the 35,000 people who fled to North Ossetia, 2,000 remain in the Russian Federation, according to Amnesty International.

Although the Russian Foreign Ministry has said the return of displaced persons is a priority, “it’s not yet clear what is being done to implement this right and to return the displaced,” said Gogia.

“Georgia has made significant efforts to build temporary family houses. However, humanitarian needs still persist because these shelters are not enough,” he said.

Of the estimated 192,000 IDPs registered by the Georgian government in August, 80,000 have returned home, Andrej Mahecic told IPS.

UNHCR has also begun to convert unused public building into housing for the 20,000 long-term displaced.

However, UNHCR is still waiting for donors to meet the pledging request of 44.5 million dollars it made in the aftermath of the war to reach its humanitarian objectives. So far, it has received only about a third of the funds.

“We need urgently the funds for the newly displaced population in order to cover protection needs and other assistance programmes,” said Mahecic.

According to Amnesty and other rights groups, another problem is cluster bombs, which were deployed by both Georgia and Russia, resulting in numerous civilian casualties and the contamination of large areas of land with unexploded ordnance.

“Many of the [displaced farmers], after returning, could not collect their harvest because their fields were contaminated by clusters bombs posed by both Georgian and Russian troops,” Gogia said.

These unexploded ordnances are still causing civilian and official casualties. Two policemen were killed by a mine explosion in Nov. 10, according to the Georgian government.

A Convention on Cluster Munitions was adopted by 107 countries in May 2008. Neither Russia nor Georgia signed it.

Humanitarian groups are calling for a broad clearance of all unexploded munitions in the conflict areas.

Meanwhile, both sides are claiming that the provision of humanitarian relief is being hindered by border authorities.

Gogia said that Georgia recently decreed that any goods crossing from North Ossetia to South Ossetia from the Russian side are illegal. He added that Russia and South Ossetia are preventing aid from going into Georgia proper.

“We expect all the parties to honour their commitment. All people of all ethnic origins should have the possibility to return in safety and dignity,” added Mahecic.

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