Georgia Crisis: A trip to Gori
Posted by Kate Sands Adams on 28 August, 2008
The IRC surveys homes destroyed by recent bombings in Ruisi, one of the villages surrounding the town of Gori, in Georgia. Photo: Eric James/The IRC
Eric James blogs from Tbilisi, Georgia, where he is coordinating International Rescue Committee programs for people uprooted by crisis in the region.
“We won’t go back until it’s safe,” is the refrain I hear every day from people who fled for their lives nearly three weeks ago amid intense fighting between Georgian, Russian and assorted other forces. Roughly 160,000 people are newly uprooted in addition to a sizeable group of 250,000 displaced from conflicts dating back to the 1990s. Those who fled the most recent crisis left with little more than the clothes on their backs. In some communities, 95% of the population hit the road. The city of Gori, which had 50,000 residents, is one such place. An hour west of the capital Tbilisi, we went there to see conditions this week and look at the possibility of helping people return and recover.
The main motor-route through Georgia, which connects the capital with the western part of the country, was busy with traffic on this day. There were large commercial trucks, mostly from Turkey, along with a number of security and aid vehicles. We also saw some displaced people returning to towns and villages that no doubt escaped major damage. On the horizon, a large black cloud rose from a train that had reportedly hit a landmine left by Russian forces.
Immediately upon entering Gori you can see bombed out apartment blocks. They are scorched black all over and turned inside out. Streams of paper and other personal belongings litter the front grounds. In the center of town, most buildings are intact, unlike the town centers just to the north in South Ossetia where there was heavy fighting. Instead, it seems that a few bombs were dropped here to scare people and make a point. Then, troops entered with their tracked vehicles, shooting buildings at random and ordering residents to leave. Apparently the threat from landmines in Gori has been assessed as “low” because troops did not have much time to place them. Yet we were told that a woman who was out picking grapes and two children had been killed by landmines only the day before.
Gori and villages surrounding it are ever so slowly coming back to life. In the center of town we visited the City Hall. There, a hundred or more people, ready to go home, were waiting on the steps for buses to nearby villages. We talked to a few families who told us they are eager to restart their lives, but remain very worried about the future. “Look, the Russians are still only 7 kilometers away,” said one man with alarm.
Our team traveled further west to Ruisi, a village of 6,000 people. Already a dry place at this time of year, fields were burning and smoke was rising as we drove past scorched trees and underbrush. In Ruisi, we met with the mayor and talked about the crisis over homemade cherry juice. He told us that the fighting disrupted the farmers’ harvest. He also said the farmers are afraid to go to their land, which is so close to the Russian troops. On August 12th, the Russian military dropped several bombs in the area and then occupied Ruisi. The mayor took us to see one of the houses that was destroyed. It was a direct hit which made it look like Hollywood had done it up as a set. Part of the house was burnt and ripped open. The rest had been vaporized. Houses across the street were also badly damaged. We looked into one living room which had debris and dust everywhere. All glass was shattered and the ceiling sagged with its panels ripped apart. We met an elderly man and woman there. The man told us he was inside the house when the explosion happened. I imaged that his ears must still be ringing. The woman dressed in black, I suppose his wife, could only shake her head and motion to the ground and sky. “Why did they do this?” she finally asked.