Posts Tagged ‘Georgia’

A Week in Georgia: Commonweal Magazine Features Journal of CRS Response

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

Laura Sheahen, CRS’ regional information officer for the Middle East and Europe, has been reporting on the emergency response by Caritas and Catholic Relief Services in Georgia. Her day-to-day reflections on the suffering she witnessed among the people displaced by the conflict have been published in Commonweal, a Catholic magazine on religion, politics and culture: A Week in Georgia: An Aid Worker’s Journal.

You can also read all of Laura’s Georgia posts on the CRS Blog:

Displaced Families in Georgia Are Falling Ill

Saturday, August 23rd, 2008

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 or

It’s the end of Week 2 of the Georgia crisis, and tens of thousands of displaced people are getting food. Many no longer have to fear hunger, at least for the short term. But a new enemy is moving in: sickness.

I spoke with one of two nurses working at School #39, where 300 people who fled their homes are now staying. “The conditions aren’t hygienic,” she says. Sharing the school’s showerless bathrooms, sleeping on the floor, and unable to wash properly, the shelter residents are succumbing to diarrhea and vomiting.

A boy sits in a shelter for Georgians who fled their homes amid bombs and shelling. Psychologists are worried about the long-term impact of the violence on children. Photo: Laura Sheahen/CRS

Catholic Relief Services is funding hygiene kits with basic, but crucial items like soap, laundry detergent, towels and toothpaste. At School #39, a small army of Caritas volunteers passes out diapers, toothbrushes, and more.

Local Georgians are aware of the health issue. A woman from the neighborhood of #39 stops by to tell the nurses that her daughter is a gynecologist, and is willing to visit the three pregnant women at the shelter.

Hygiene supplies and medicine will help improve people’s physical health. Healing emotional wounds, of course, isn’t as straightforward.

A woman in her 40s shows me her deep lower-abdominal scar, a sign of her battle with cancer. She weeps for her home and farm, nine miles outside of the disputed city of Tskhinvali. The house was burned, and because of the political situation, her family can probably never go back to the land. “People need to work, but what work can we do now? Our place is gone,” she says.

So the nurses at #39 don’t just listen to people describe symptoms of illness; they also listen to their stories. “Their relatives have been killed, their houses burned or looted,” says one nurse. “We sit and cry with them.”

Nearby, at a psychological care center in Tbilisi, a room of 15 people—Caritas volunteers and others—take notes as they’re trained in basic support to displaced people. Janna Javakhishvili, a psychologist there, tells me some of the stories she’s been hearing. A 24-year-old woman was grabbed and nearly abducted by another ethnic group in her hometown. She begged them to let her go, telling them she had a baby to care for. They didn’t kidnap her, but now she has flashbacks and nightmares about their attempt. Another man saw family members killed, and he buried their bodies before fleeing himself.

Dr. Jan Vorisek of the psych center says it’s important to help severely traumatized people quickly. If they don’t get help, their symptoms can morph into full-fledged post-traumatic stress disorder. “Most people are resilient,” he says. “But PTSD can become chronic—and can incapacitate people from functioning normally for a long time to come.”

After the training, the volunteers will go into 14 shelters and help traumatized people help themselves. The volunteers lead problem-solving groups that encourage displaced people to work together to improve shelter conditions. In one case, a group of residents figured out a way to wire their shelter for electricity. “Before they had no sense of control. Now they have a sense of self-sufficiency,” Dr. Javakhishvili says.

The volunteers will also work with children, encouraging them to be physically active, and to draw and role-play with toys. “If you ask them what happened to them during the conflict, they won’t be able to say anything,” says Dr. Vorisek. “But they will tell you what happened to the toy.”

Sharing sorrow is also important. The mental health staff say that simply showing support can be a great comfort to people who have lost everything. “When we talk to people in the shelters, we often hear the same thing,” says Dr. Javakhishvili. “They say, ‘If you cry with us, we feel better.'”

Georgia Youth Volunteers Working Hard to Provide Relief

Thursday, August 21st, 2008

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 or

The young people—most of them around 18 years old—have worked from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. for six days straight. It’s tedious work—unloading trays of bread loaves, sorting them, roaming from floor to floor of a tall, run-down, abandoned hospital building to pass out food to 1,800 frightened, hungry people—and then moving on to the next shelter. Or the teenagers are registering families who fled their homes, or packing hundreds of bags full of soap, toothpaste, toilet paper and other hygiene supplies.

Caritas Georgia volunteers pack soap, toothpaste, toilet paper and other hygiene items funded by Catholic Relief Services. Photo by Laura Sheahen/CRS

It probably wasn’t the summer fun most teens anticipate. But Caritas volunteers in the war-torn nation of Georgia keep going.

And the staff, which include bakers, cooks, drivers, psychologists, social workers and a doctor, are working around the clock to reach as many displaced people as possible. Estimates now say there are 128,000 people who left their homes are are scattered throughout Georgia, many going to the capital city of Tbilisi. For the tens of thousands without relatives to stay with, government-appointed shelters in old buildings are the only option. “The government left us here, and hasn’t brought us any food. But Caritas came,” said one person at the Isani shelter, a former military hospital without electricity or running water; it’s now home to 1,500 people who left their homes to escape bombings over a week ago.

In Tbilisi and the western city of Kutaisi, Caritas is now feeding 2,660 people a day, up from about 500 the day after the worst violence subsided.

The apostolic nuncio for the region, Monsignor Claudio Gugerotti, is at the Isani shelter too, meeting with the residents and asking them what they need. They’re grateful for the food, but eating bakery items (like bread rolls with bean or kielbasa paste) for a week can be hard on the stomach. Getting the displaced people a greater variety of food is key. Wiring the large building for electricity is happening slowly, floor by floor, but the people still have no water. One man washes his legs with a hose available outside the building.

The nuncio describes how he managed to enter the bombed city of Gori on Monday. So did Father Witold, president of Caritas Georgia, who brought Caritas bread to people unable to flee the shelling 10 days ago. Many people who fled Gori are worried that their homes are being looted by roving gangs, and they’re probably right. “They tried to steal a local priest’s car when we were in Gori,” says the nuncio.

Back in Tbilisi, Caritas volunteers stir enormous pots of macaroni and cheese, load mattresses into vans, and assemble hygiene packs that are funded by Catholic Relief Services. The teenagers put detergent, towels, sheets, soap and more into bags for each shelter resident. The sharp corners of the toothpaste tube cut the plastic bags, so they find an ingenious solution: put the toothpaste inside a toilet paper roll.

While they work, they talk about what they’ve seen in the shelters. Many of the shelter residents are from the country and ran from farms when the bombs started. One woman was milking a cow, and ran with the milk still on her hands. Many displaced people need shoes, underwear and other clothes. “They’re in shock,” says a 23-year-old volunteer named Irma. “Some fled barefoot, in their pajamas.”

The children are frightened, says another volunteer. “They’re afraid to go outside,” says 17-year-old volunteer Albina. “If they hear a loud sound, they’re scared.” Volunteers have gathered not just essential items, but also toys for the shelters. And there is some happy news: a shelter resident just recently went into labor, and was brought to a Tbilisi hospital to give birth. Mother and baby are doing well.

Georgi, 17, loves fishing. Ordinarily in the summer he might be in Georgia’s picturesque mountains, standing near a stream. Instead, he is moving heavy supplies in the hot sun from a cargo container. A few days ago it was mattresses and pillows. Today it’s boxes of shampoo bottles and soap. Caritas has worked here for years, so it knows all the warehouses, how to work out shipping details, and how to get the best discounts on large supplies of humanitarian aid.

The aid workers are weary but aren’t stopping. Rapidly sorting bread loaves, a 21-year-old volunteer named Timuri says the reason is simple. “These are our people.”

The Forgotten Georgians

Tuesday, August 19th, 2008

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 or

“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.

No Way Back Home: Displaced Georgians Fear for the Future

Friday, August 15th, 2008

Laura Sheehen, 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 or

“I bought my house last October, borrowing money from friends to do it,” says Georgy, a man from the bombed Georgian village of Gori. “It could be destroyed when I go back, or everything in it could be gone.”

Sitting in a church rectory in the capital city of Tbilisi, Georgy has tears in his eyes as he talks about getting his wife and two children out of his town during last week’s bombing. His plight reflects that of many people who escaped Gori; several had already been pushed out of parts of Ossetia, farther to the north, and had started life over.

Now, twice-displaced people are wondering if they can ever go back to Gori—and what will be left of their homes and possessions after a week of turmoil.

Father Vladimir Aksentyev, a parish priest from Gori, was 40 miles east of the city when the violence began. He drove back to Gori on Sunday to assess the damage and celebrate Mass. “The windows and doors of the chapel were blown out by the shockwave,” he says. Father Vladimir brought a grieving woman and her family back to Tbilisi.

Georgy and his family stayed one night at a Catholic retreat house, and are now with his wife’s relatives near Tbilisi. He is more fortunate that the thousands of suddenly homeless people from bombed areas who now are in makeshift shelters in the capital, often sleeping on the floor in crumbling old buildings.

Catholic Relief Services is supporting local parishes and Caritas Georgia as they respond to the immediate needs of the people. Because it already had a soup kitchen and large bakery, Caritas Georgia was able to swing into action early in the crisis and now is feeding 300 people three meals a day at one shelter alone. Caritas is also bringing bread, tomatoes, large pots of stew, and more to other shelters in the city. In several shelters, residents desperate for clothes picked through donated clothing dropped off by Caritas.

Caritas has a clinic and brought medical supplies like bandages and antibiotics to a Tbilisi hospital. The numbers of people killed or wounded by the violence are unclear, but the number of displaced people is estimated to be 100,000. The question now is how many will be able to go back.

At one shelter, a man from a village near the disputed city of Tskhinvali mourns his home and farm. “I lived in that house my whole life—50 years. I had nine cows, an apple orchard…it was so good,” he says. With continuing tensions between Russia and Georgia, he fears he will never return. “What can I do now?”

Humanitarian Cost Rises in Georgia

Thursday, August 14th, 2008

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 or

“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.”

Catholic Relief Services Preparing Response in Georgia

Saturday, August 9th, 2008

As fighting rages in Georgia’s separatist South Ossetia region, estimates are that 1,500 people have died. Thousands have been wounded and many are fleeing. Catholic Relief Services’ staff in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi is now assessing needs and readying CRS’ response.

“It’s heartbreaking,” says Kellie Hynes, Head of Office for CRS Georgia about the casualties and the continuing violence. “There is movement by car and on foot from Gori. Everyone is coming out of the area.”

Because the hospital sector is most in need of assistance, CRS is arranging to dispatch its Cairo-based medical staffer to Tbilisi. CRS Georgia will also work with established local church partners to identify the greatest needs of displaced people.

“Despite the rapidly growing insecurity, our team is safe and is working on helping the innocent victims of the violence,” says Mark Schnellbaecher, Regional Director for Europe and the Middle East.