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Humanitarian Cost Rises in Georgia

Laura Sheehen, a regional information officer with CRS, is on the ground in Georgia and writes about her first impressions. She can be reached at lsheahen@eme.crs.org or 011.20.16.533.1643.

“We heard some sounds like shelling. We thought, ‘This is strange.’
But no one told us, ‘Leave!'” Lena Mchelidze, a blond woman from a breakaway region in Georgia, gestures frantically as she recalls the events of a few days ago. “Then the tanks came — that was stranger — but still we didn’t understand what was going on.”

“Then the bombs started falling from the planes, and we ran.”

It was the middle of the night, and many people from villages surrounding the city of Tskhinvali had no time to gather their possessions. As fast as they could run out the door or cram their families into cars, their homes were destroyed.

A family who fled their home 5 miles outside of the bombed city of Tskhinvali sits at a temporary shelter in Tbilisi, Georgia. At this shelter, Caritas Georgia is providing three hot meals a day to 300 displaced people. CRS is funding Caritas’ efforts to help families from Tskhinvali and from Gori. Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

As fighting raged last week between Russian and Georgian forces in and around South Ossetia, thousands of innocent civilians who escaped death found themselves instantly homeless. Estimates are that over 100,000 people have fled their homes, most from the city of Gori, where the fighting has been heavy. They poured into Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia.

Now, they wait in temporary shelters set up in schools and similar places — often with little food and no extra clothes, not to mention mattresses, sheets or hygiene supplies like toothpaste.

A construction worker whose large extended family lives in one room of a hastily-converted hostel tugs on his worn white shirt. “This is what I was able to bring with me. Nothing else,” he says. Nearby, his relative holds her 6-week-old baby, who needs diapers. Some report that displaced families are washing and reusing disposable Pampers because they have no other options.

Many people are sleeping on the schools’ floors or putting wooden desks together to sleep on them. In one case, internally displaced people sleeping in a kindergarten weren’t receiving enough food. “We sat hungry for two days,” says Lena. “Then Caritas came and found us.”

Caritas Georgia is already ministering to hundreds of internally displaced people in Tbilisi by providing hot meals at a soup kitchen, bringing bread and rolls to temporary shelters, and coordinating additional aid through worldwide Caritas partners. Caritas, which has a bakery in the western city of Kutaisi, has also been asked to provide bread to 600 people there who have fled the Kodori Valley.

In addition to partially funding Caritas Georgia’s efforts to help displaced people from destroyed Tskhinvali villages, Catholic Relief Services will be providing essential food and other items to families who fled the Gori region and who have taken shelter in safe places like an isolated Catholic retreat house.

The Caritas network is working rapidly to meet immediate needs; staffers from CRS are on the ground assessing the most urgent priorities.

The longer-term needs will be harder to meet. “We just want to go home,” says one person. “But there is no place to go home to anymore.”

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