IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

In Georgia, refugees overwhelm relief efforts

Image: Georgian refugees
Georgian refugees sit in a truck on the road between Gori and Tbilisi, Georgia, on Wednesday. Russian tanks, troops and paramilitary troops rolled into the strategic Georgian city of Gori, apparently ignoring an EU-brokered truce.Sergei Grits / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Tired, hungry and penniless, her dark and bloodshot eyes betraying stressful days and sleepless nights, Manana Karelidze banged her head over and over against a concrete ledge.

She was one of the first to arrive at the Department of Refugees in this Georgian capital, and for the first few days had camped out on the street awaiting registration and the daily supplies of dry pasta that came with it. Hundreds were doing the same.

"This is too much. It is all too much," said Karelidze, a 50-year-old retired accountant, raising her head to reveal bruises.

She is one of an estimated 56,000 Georgians who have fled to other parts of the nation since war between Georgia and Russia broke out a week ago. Most are from the ravaged town of Gori and ethnic Georgian villages in the breakaway province of South Ossetia. About 30,000 have fled across the border into Russia.

U.S. military cargo jets have begun arriving, carrying syringes, bandages, tents and other supplies for Georgians wounded or displaced by the fighting. Still, some areas have been slow to receive any international help.

Outside the Department of Refugees on Thursday, the size of the logistical task facing the Georgian government was evident. Officials announced the registration procedure had collapsed under the weight of applicants: The previous day, eight staff had registered more than 8,000 refugees, most from Gori.

Situation 'extremely critical'
Now the war victims were to cross town and register in the federal Civil Registration Center. But that center was also buckling to the task and was only registering those who could stay with relatives.

The head of the Department of Refugees, Tengis Bendeliavi, said the situation was "extremely critical."

The capital has made about 170 city buildings, including schools and warehouses, available for refugees, but even that is not enough.

"We allow the refugees to stay in any unused building they can find," Bendeliavi said.

Tbilisians have also pitched in, offering to share their homes and workplaces with the refugees.

On Thursday, passers-by pinched their noses as a stench rose from the department and from a nearby slum, combining with that of unwashed refugees milling between. Their numbers increased by the busload every hour.

And the accounts of their plight varied little: After seeing or hearing the bombings of Gori, most fled immediately. Some, like Karelidze, sped to a nearby village and then returned the next day for their things.

But others, like David Arveladze, 70, a frail man in a red bathrobe and socks, didn't see or hear any bombs. The panic that gripped Gori on Monday convinced him to leave. He piled clothes and belongings on his donkey, but on the way to a pickup point near a strip of bombed-out houses, Arveladze's donkey died. He abandoned his clothes and made the bus.

"My life was worth more than my clothes," he said. "The Russians would kill a person for his clothes."

'The rest of the world should be ashamed'
Sopio Iremashvili, 31, was staying with her daughter in a school classroom in Tbilisi after fleeing Gori on Sunday. She said she didn't want to leave but had to think of her daughter.

"You can blame whomever you want, but in the 21st century, this is completely unacceptable," she said, upset that no one came to Georgia's rescue. "The rest of the world should be ashamed."

A 35-year-old woman who gave her name only as Nana because she said she was afraid of repercussions, said she fled her village of Tiniskhidi, home to a Georgian military base, because she heard about bombings and saw planes overhead.

She collected her belongings and found her way about 2 miles (3 kilometers) to the main highway, where she hitched a ride with a Georgian military truck to Tbilisi.

"I didn't want to wait. I dropped everything and ran," she said.

More relief supplies on the way
In the Upper Kodori Valley, in Georgia's northwest corner on the border with the breakaway region of Abkhazia, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency said 1,500 people had been evacuated, many to the Georgian town of Zugdidi.

For those still in South Ossetia — people who had not fled into Georgia proper or north into Russia — there are no refugee camps, said Andrei Pilipchuk, a spokesman for the Russian Interior Ministry in South Ossetia.

"People who went north either went to their relatives' or refugee camps," he said. "People who were left homeless and are still in South Ossetia are living with their relatives or neighbors."

In Tbilisi, the U.N. had plans to send a second cargo plane of relief supplies Thursday. Another arrived Wednesday. Together they were to contain 70 tons of tents, cooking kits, blankets and other supplies that came from central stockpiles in Dubai and Copenhagen. A massive U.S. aid effort is also under way.

Red Cross spokesman Yuri Shakarenko said the agency was still in negotiations with the Russian authorities for access to South Ossetia.