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'Where was God?' refugees ask

Of the more than 100,000 people the U.N. refugee agency says have been uprooted by the conflict in Georgia, an estimated 30,000, mostly women and children, have fled into Russia.
Image: Georgian refugees
Georgian refugees flee advancing Russian troops who were moving out from the Georgian town of Gori and heading in the direction of Tbilisi on Thursday.Pavel Wolberg / EPA
/ Source: The Associated Press

Sarmat Kapisov ran all night through the forest with his family, fleeing the fighting in South Ossetia and headed for the Georgia-Russia border. On his back, the 17-year-old carried his brother, who has cerebral palsy.

"It wasn't easy," Kapisov said, huddled alongside his mother and seven siblings, who have taken refuge here at an Orthodox convent across the Russian border.

The convent director, known as Mother Nonna, said thousands have passed through since the bloodshed began one week ago in the pro-Russian separatist province claimed by Georgia.

Most were South Ossetian women and children on their way to a refugee center set up inside a summer camp by Russian authorities. Many of the fathers and older brothers stayed behind to fight.

Mother Nonna said she had never seen so many terrified children clinging to their mothers' skirts.

"The most difficult thing was to answer their question: Where was God?" she said. "They had so much fear in their eyes."

Of the more than 100,000 people the U.N. refugee agency says have been uprooted by the conflict, an estimated 30,000 have fled across the border into Russia. About twice as many have gone the other direction, toward the Georgian capital.

In fear, hiding
When the war started, the Kapisovs spent days hiding in the basement of their home in South Ossetia. The mother and eight children fled. The father and two oldest brothers stayed behind to fight the Georgians alongside the Russian military.

The mother, Lolita Kapisova, 45, said Georgian tank fire later demolished their house.

"The most horrible thing was when the tanks arrived," she said, wearing a brown and yellow patchwork dress and clutching her month-old daughter.

After walking for a night, the family found a military convoy that helped get them to the convent, which has provided food and medicine to refugees. Thirty tons of supplies have poured into the convent from the Russian Orthodox Church alone.

"We are working around the clock," Mother Nonna said. "We drowned in the flood of refugees."

Recently washed children's clothing is strewn across the railings outside the convent, which functioned as a summer camp for the Communist youth group during the Soviet era and now includes a special rehabilitation center for children who survived the 2004 terrorist siege of a school in nearby Beslan.

Dzara Kumeritova, an assistant at the convent, said that the refugees from South Ossetia all arrived terrified, most of the children too scared to eat for the first day or two.

"Somebody slammed the door and the crowd shivered," she said.

Lyudmila Khanikaeva, 21, had been breast-feeding her 4-month-old daughter but she lost her milk for two days because her body was in a state of shock. She fled Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian provincial capital, with her daughter, sister and mother at the front of a pack of refugees.

"Those who followed us died," her sister, Zarina, 24, said, recalling gunfire, mines and tank shooting. "We were shot at all night."

Scattered hopes
Zarina said her father and husband stayed in Tskhinvali to fight. Their mother, Antonina, who said she crossed a forest full of dead bodies when fleeing town, was worried about them.

"Most mothers here are tortured because they don't know what happened," she said.

Russia has said about 2,000 people died in the fighting this week, though that number has not been independently confirmed.

Though international aid organizations have rushed to the rescue in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, the Russian government is handling the refugee crisis here mostly on its own, in part because Western aid organizations do not have access or were not called in.

Russian authorities had yet to allow the Red Cross access to South Ossetia as of Wednesday.

As the fighting has begun to subside, with a fragile cease-fire plan signed on both sides, some scattered signs of hope have emerged here, despite the harrowing tragedy of the past week.

As Kumeritova said, "We knew the kids were getting better when they started misbehaving."