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Page last updated at 23:02 GMT, Thursday, 6 August 2009 00:02 UK

Living with the aftermath of war

The war between Georgia and Russia a year ago may have been short, but for the people of the region it did not end with the ceasefire. They are still suffering the consequences.

Below, the BBC's Richard Galpin reports from Tskhinvali, South Ossetia, on how the war has affected people's lives.

Tom Esslemont is on the frontline , where Georgians and South Ossetians are separated by Russian troops.

And Jennifer Abrahamson, of Oxfam, explains how the war has left thousands of people displaced from their homes in limbo.

SOUTH OSSETIA, ONE YEAR ON

Sultan Kuzayev in South Ossetia
Sultan Kuzayev's house was damaged in last year's fighting

The road heading north from the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali became notorious during last year's war.

Along both sides of the highway were many villages populated by ethnic Georgians.

It was here that Ossetian militias went on the rampage - shooting, burning and looting until the entire Georgian population had fled into Georgia proper.

The Council of Europe described what happened in this and many other Georgian enclaves as ethnic cleansing that has left 25,000 people homeless.

Today the burnt-out villages still stand as monuments to the horror of last summer's conflict.

But in one of the villages a new sign has gone up symbolising what has happened to South Ossetia since the war.

It advertises a new housing complex called the "Moscow district" and it is being built courtesy of the Mayor of the Russian capital, Yuri Luzhkov, as a present to the South Ossetian people.

The land previously used by the Georgian villagers to grow vines and other plants has been cleared by bulldozers.

From the ground now emerge clusters of large detached houses, apartment blocks and schools.

"Thank God Luzhkov is doing this," said one of the Russian builders working on the site. "We are helping our brothers."

He added he did not expect any of the local Georgians would be able to return to live in the new houses, but said this "was the fault of the Georgian government".

Russian investment

The upmarket housing estate is due to be completed by the end of the year with the large school opening in time for the start of the new school year in September.

In a sign of how Russia now runs South Ossetia as an extension of its own territory, it has pledged to finance the entire reconstruction and development programme following the war.

It has reported to have promised more than $300m (£179m) in aid.

But there is little sign of that in Tskhinvali itself.

The local government says 70% of buildings in the capital were damaged in the fighting, which erupted with Georgia's assault on the city last August.

While some public buildings have been repaired or rebuilt, many private homes still lie in ruins.

tank
Russia has taken full control of South Ossetia's security

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, some 2,000 people are still homeless.

Sultan Kuzayev and his family are among those finding shelter wherever they can.

Their house happened to lie on the only road that Georgian tanks were able to use to enter Tskhinvali.

It was hit by a shell and caught fire.

Sultan, who had been sheltering in the basement, was able to save just a handful of their possessions.

Now one year later he, his wife, two children and elderly father are living in a tent and cow-shed in the back garden.

But he refuses to give up hope.

"The Russian President Dmitri Medvedev came here and told people everything would be OK," he says.

"We were told reconstruction of our houses would begin at the end of September and I am confident it will happen because South Ossetia is already part of Russia."

Military bases

That view that South Ossetia is now united with Russia has been reinforced by last year's war.

The region long ago declared its independence from Georgia and Moscow had already given the majority of the population Russian passports while also providing financial backing.

But over the past year, Russia has officially recognised South Ossetia as an independent state and has fully taken control of the region's security.

It has built permanent military bases and has almost 4,000 troops on the ground equipped with tanks, artillery, rocket-launchers and other hardware.

Russian border-guards, who are part of the FSB intelligence agency, control the South Ossetian side of the de-facto border with Georgia.

And this week the South Ossetian leader, Eduard Kokoity, even appointed a Russian national as prime minister.

He admitted to the BBC that all the candidates had been provided by the Russian authorities.

Moscow may not want to officially incorporate South Ossetia into the Russian Federation, but unofficially it has already happened.

CRISIS FOR GEORGIA'S DISPLACED

IDP, Georgia, picture: Jennifer Abrahamson/Oxfam

The year since war broke out in South Ossetia has been a hard one for thousands of ethnic Georgians who were forced to flee the region, as Jennifer Abrahamson, of the aid agency Oxfam, explains.

Spiridon, a 55-year-old farmer from South Ossetia, knows he will probably never step foot in the pastoral villages of his rugged homeland ever again.

"I lost everything in Qsuisi, my village," he says.

"[I lost] my house, my cattle. We were all born in those villages, our grandfathers were born there too. Now nothing is left, everything has been burned. There are only two families living there now."

On 14 August 2008 Spiridon fled his village as South Ossetian militia and, he says, Russian troops, burned it to the ground.

Along with tens of thousands of others, he and his family took shelter in a state school in Tbilisi until he was moved to Khurvaleti settlement in late November. It is now home to some 450 internally displaced Georgians from South Ossetia.

Khurvaleti is just 35km (22 miles) away from cosmopolitan Tbilisi, with its bohemian cafes, trendy taverns and art galleries. But it seems a world away.

Spiridon's new home is one of the concrete blocks, laid out in incongruously neat rows, built late last autumn.

Psychological battle

About 130,000 Georgians fled their homes in or near South Ossetia last summer as Russian troops and Ossetian militia moved in.

While most of those whose homes remain in Georgian-controlled territory have gone back, that has not been possible for many who, like Spiridon, lived in South Ossetia. Some 22,000 of them are still living in a state of limbo.

They are unable to return to their villages in South Ossetia, but are equally unable to foresee a future for themselves here.

Spiridon, Georgian internally displaced person - picture by Jennifer Abrahamson/Oxfam
Hope dies last. We hope that we might have the chance to go back
Spiridon
Displaced from South Ossetia

Most settlement residents have received small plots of land on which to farm. Spiridon has planted potatoes on a thin strip next to his concrete block.

Other internally displaced people (IDPs) have been allotted plots of land several kilometres away from their new homes.

This week, Oxfam has launched a new programme that will help thousands of IDPs lobby the Georgian government to provide them with social benefits and provide them with opportunities to become economically self-sufficient once again.

The government currently gives the settlement residents 25 laris (£9; $15), cooking oil, pasta and wheat for baking bread every month.

Others still living in creaky abandoned buildings, or "collective centres", in and around Tbilisi, are worse off. They receive food rations, but no money.

Families live in single rooms with patchy electricity. Water and sanitation services installed by NGOs such as Oxfam are shared by several families.

Many IDPs are struggling to cope both financially and psychologically.

Standing just opposite one collective centre on Tbilisi's periphery is an ominous sign: a towering, ragged apartment block still occupied by IDPs from Georgia's civil war with another breakaway republic, Abkhazia, more than 15 years ago.

One year on, handouts of food and pocket money are no longer enough.

What Spiridon needs most is a job, government benefits and a good piece of accessible land so he can get on with his life.

"Hope dies last. We hope that we might have the chance to go back," Spiridon says.

"If you could only see what our villages were like. This is all just like a bad dream."

THE FRONTLINE

Movement between South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia is now strictly curtailed by Russian forces, making life difficult for local people, as the BBC's Tom Esslemont finds.

At the Odzisi checkpoint two Russian border guards stand watch in the narrow strip of shade; their only respite from the repressive 40C heat.

EU monitors in Georgia
Even EU monitors are barred from entering South Ossetia

In the near deafening hum of cicadas in the long grass they carefully watch the steady flow of traffic between Georgia proper and the district of Akhalgori, a valley which was once under Georgian control. It still has a Georgian population of around 2,000-3,000 people, down from 8,000 before the war.

No-one is allowed to cross the makeshift concrete border unless they hold a special resident's permit. Bar one other village, it is the only place where Georgians and South Ossetians living in the disputed region are allowed to gain access to Georgia proper. Many do so to go to the local market.

"I went to buy more supplies. Soon it will be the wine harvest, and selling grapes is my only source of income," says a Georgian man calling himself Simon.

He is returning to Akhalgori with a car full of empty plastic containers. He is one of an increasing number of Georgians displaced by the war who have decided to return to farm their land in South Ossetian-controlled territory. It is unclear how many plan to return permanently.

Picture unclear

The situation appears calm, in spite of reports of at least three cross-border shootings in other nearby villages within the last eight days.

I ask Simon what life is like in Akhalgori, a place cut off from the rest of Georgia.

"It's fine. It is like before," he says. "Why should it be any different? We all believe in one God." He sounds optimistic but his face is drawn; he looks weary.

Since the war Akhalgori has been patrolled by Russian soldiers and Russian-backed South Ossetian militia. Now the soldiers have handed control to guards from the Russian security agency, the FSB.

Without access, it is hard for foreign journalists to get a clear picture of life in Akhalgori. The only way is by listening to the testimony of those who cross the border.

Access is impossible, too, for the 225-strong European Union monitoring mission, which patrols this border area. The mission is made up of police and civilian monitors.

People prepare to cross into Akhalgori
Local people must have a permit to cross into Akhalgori

Part of their job is to gather information from soldiers and civilians about security at the border - the Administrative Boundary Line (ABL) - as it is known.

Since Georgia and Russia started accusing each other of further shootings this week, the EU monitors have concentrated their efforts in observing activity at the border, including at Akhalgori.

A British EU monitor, Charlie Place, says his role has been made more important by the recent withdrawal of OSCE monitors and United Nations observers in June. They were forced to withdraw after Russia vetoed an extension to their mandates.

"I think the critical point for the EU mission is that we are the only mission observing the situation here, so therefore it will be more difficult for the mission to withdraw. Our presence is more important."

But the lack of access to South Ossetia - and the other disputed region of Abkhazia - means they are not able to fulfil the full extent of their original mandate - to monitor the whole of Georgia, which the EU interprets as including the disputed territories.



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