Page last updated at 19:57 GMT, Monday, 11 August 2008 20:57 UK

Georgian exodus as fighting rages

By Matthew Collin
BBC News, Tbilisi

An unidentified crying Georgian woman is calmed by her husband in Gori
Some 40,000 people are thought to have fled from Gori

In the shadow of a huge statue of Josef Stalin in the centre of the Georgian town of Gori, the latest victims of military conflict in the turbulent Caucasus region prepared to flee to safety.

Volunteers handed out humanitarian aid while people dragged along suitcases containing what belongings they could take with them.

This central Georgian town was once a sleepy sort of place, known mainly for its most famous son, the Soviet dictator Stalin.

It was home to a Georgian military base which supplied troops for Georgia's operation to seize back control over breakaway South Ossetia.

But that also made it a target for the Russian forces when they hit back.

By Monday, Gori had almost become a ghost town, and few families remained in apartment blocks where hundreds used to live.

Other buildings lay in rubble - "collateral damage" from Russian air strikes on the Georgian base.

Fighter jet fear

The United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, says around 40,000 people are estimated to have fled from Gori - around 80% of the population.


A day of advances, retreats and rumours across Georgia

Most left because they believed the Russian fighter jets would strike again.

"We're very concerned," said Christoph Bierwirth of the UNHCR in Georgia.

"In particular, the people who left South Ossetia, they often left with nothing but what they were wearing."

Mr Bierwirth said the UNHCR was preparing to fly in emergency aid from Dubai.

"People's most urgent needs are shelter and clothing, and some of them also need food assistance."

Abandoned villages

Many people fled to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

At a hastily-established aid centre in the city, people queued up for food, clothes, soap and milk powder for babies.

Bodyguards escort Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, centre in Gori, Georgia
Mr Saakashvili was rushed away amid fears of a Russian air raid in Gori

Tbilisi residents and local businesses also brought donations.

At the city council building in the capital, hundreds of people waited to be registered for temporary accommodation and emergency help.

Some said they had been standing outside for more than one night already.

"We were evacuated three days ago and we've been here since then," said one woman who fled from almost continuous rocket fire in the village of Kheiti in South Ossetia.

She said she had been offered accommodation in a school building, but was then told it would be used to house the wounded instead.

Villages like Kheiti, in what was once Georgian-controlled territory within South Ossetia, are now virtually abandoned.

The UN refugee agency says about 15,000 people from these villages have fled South, while officials in Moscow say that 14,000 Ossetians from separatist-controlled territory have already crossed the northern border into Russian-controlled territory.

Crying and distraught

In most villages, the only people who remained by the end of the weekend were those who were too old, too poor or too stubborn to go anywhere else.

The country has to face up to yet another huge exodus of the poor and desperate

"In one village I saw some people who were still leaving on foot, carrying plastic bags with whatever they could carry, even bringing their cows with them," said Paul Rimple, a journalist who visited the area.

"The women were crying and the men were distraught."

However, some villagers tried to continue their everyday lives despite the devastation and dangers.

"I saw men cutting hay in an area which, the night before, was right in the middle of the firing," Rimple said.

Even before the current conflict with Russia, Georgia had a huge problem with internally-displaced people.

Tens of thousands have lived in dilapidated temporary accommodation since the end of the civil war in Georgia's other breakaway region, Abkhazia, 15 years ago.

Now the country has to face up to yet another huge exodus of the poor and desperate.

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