Overall, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports more than 158,000 people were displaced by the fighting, 128,000 within Georgia and roughly 30,000 who became refugees by fleeing to neighboring Russia. Since Russia pulled back the bulk of its forces from Georgia proper, roughly 15,000 IDPs have returned to Gori. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Concurrently, people from nearby villages have streamed into the city, fleeing from looting and harassment carried out by South Ossetian and North Caucasian militias. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. With the city's war-damaged housing stock already at the bursting point, city authorities, with UNHCR help, have established temporary housing, including a tent camp set up on a soccer field that is now home to 800 people. Many of the tent camp's residents are two-time IDPs: people who fled the Russians and who returned to their villages when the Russians left, but who were subsequently driven out again by militias and irregulars. "The newly displaced in Gori all have stories of intimidation, including beatings by the militia in buffer-zone villages," UNHCR representative Helene Caux told reporters in Gori.
Another 1,500 people live in 17 shelters set up in schools and kindergartens around the city. Others are staying with their relatives.
"Gori has reached its absorption limit and we are working hard to provide assistance to everyone," said Alesandra Morelli, UNHCR Senior Emergency Coordinator. She said there was enough aid for everyone, but added that IDPs started moving in before the tent camp was fully completed. Officials are still trying to ascertain an accurate IDP headcount. Water and sanitation services are also still being completed.
In the shelters and at the tent city, various relief organizations, including the World Food Program, UNICEF and UNHCR, are coordinating the distribution of food and aid. The International Red Cross and the Italian Red Cross are also active in the city.
Refugees milled among the rows of blue and white tents as aid workers distributed assistance. IDPs reported receiving enough food, but many said they needed clothes. Leo Katsiashvili, 11, was fetching water for his family filling up bottles from a pipe that lay low on the ground. He said her grandmother was caught in the bombing. "She's in the hospital now, we went visit her," he said. "She's doing okay, but doctors say she cannot sleep."
A group of women resting in a blue tent recounted harrowing tales in the villages north of Gori, and said they were worried about elderly relatives left behind. "I know nothing about them," said one woman speaking about her octogenarian in-laws, who remained behind in the village of Kistnisi. She asked not to be identified. "What if someone reads your story, finds out that Georgians are still there and tracks them down?"
Many refugees are pleading for the creation of an evacuation initiative for those who were too old, or otherwise unable to flee to Gori on foot. Aid organizations have been denied an entry to those areas by Russian troops, UNHCR has reported.
Several refugees argued bitterly with aid workers, as volunteers tried to provide help to the distressed people. "Everyone will get assistance, give us a little time," a frail-looking aid worker said trying to placate a woman, who claimed her family hadn't received a full aid package.
Throughout Gori, electricity and water supplies were restored on August 19, when Russian forces were still in control of the city. But other essential services are still in a state of shambles. The Bank of Georgia's regional office, telecommunications stations of Georgian mobile phone operators and a television relay station were all looted during the Russian occupation and remain inoperable.
"We are still taking stock of the damage, but I what I know for sure is that it will take tens of million of dollars to restore the city," regional Governor Lado Vardzelashvili told EurasiaNet. Authorities say they are considering preserving one of the apartment buildings hit by the bombs as a memorial to the victims of the Russian incursion.
Nana Gvenetadze is one of the many Gori residents who face the daunting task of rebuilding. Along with her teenage son, Gvenetadze rummaged through the debris of her devastated apartment, located in the charred remains of a bomb-damaged apartment building. "It seems that it was just yesterday that we were playing this piano and look at it now," said 38-year-old homemaker pointing at a black Soviet-made instrument smashed almost beyond recognition.
Most of the furniture in her apartment was destroyed by the triple whammy of bombs, fire and water sprayed by firefighters to douse the flames. Neighbors helped Gvenetadze drag into the courtyard a sofa, matching armchairs and refrigerator. "I'll try to fix these," she said, as her son and other children played in the burned-out building.
"I am happy that everyone in my family survived," Gvenetadze went on. After the first bombs hit the outskirts of the city on August 8, Gvenetadze decided to take her family to her mother-in-law's house in a nearby village. Two hours after she left, Russian jets raided her neighborhood. Gvenetadze said that 10 of her neighbors were killed and one remains missing.
Uncertainty continues to mark Gvenetadze's days. "We asked the city government to provide us with a different housing, as I am afraid this building may collapse any time. But they are telling us to wait," she said.
Beyond Gori, the situation remains complicated. Russian troops remain deployed at various choke points in Georgia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. And on August 29, a former Black Sea Fleet commander, Admiral Eduard Baltin, suggested that Abkhazia could host a Russian naval base, and asserted that Russia could take out the US naval flotilla in the Black Sea in "20 minutes," the official RIA Novosti news agency reported. Meanwhile, in South Ossetia, officials revealed that the Kremlin harbors an intention to annex the region within a few years. Moscow caused an international uproar earlier in August by recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Georgia's parliament on August 28 voted to terminate the mandate of Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, declaring the Russian troops in these areas and in Georgia proper as "occupying army." The resolution stated there is no legal basis for a Russian military presence in the separatist regions, and called for the replacement of Russian peacekeepers with a genuinely "neutral" force. Prime Minister Lado Gurgendize endorsed the parliamentary resolution on August 29.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter also based in Tbilisi.