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Page last updated at 14:35 GMT, Thursday, 14 August 2008 15:35 UK
Disbelief and refugees in Tbilisi

By Edward Stourton
Today programme, Tbilisi

Refugees in Tbilisi
Two refugees from the fighting shelter in a disused military hospital
Finding your way to a war zone usually involves a trek across a dusty desert or a bumpy ride in a military helicopter.

There was something slightly surreal about flying into Tbilisi on a regular Georgian Airways flight from Frankfurt and checking into the hideous but perfectly comfortable Sheraton.

This is, in many ways, a modern city which, since the Rose Revolution five years ago, has had its mind focused on the modern pursuit of getting rich, and many Georgians can't quite believe that they have been at war with Russia over an issue with roots that go deep into history.

I met one resident of Gori in the hotel lobby here who was trying to cadge a lift off journalists heading for his home town; he couldn't quite get his head around the fact that the normally routine journey had become too dangerous for most taxi drivers to contemplate.

And because Tbilisi by and large works like a modern city the impact of the war is less immediately obvious. We kept being told that there were thousands of refugees from the fighting, but where were they all?

There is nothing here that matches the kind of image the phrase "refugee camp" conjures up, nothing remotely like the kind of thing you associate with, say, the conflict in Darfur.

Instead the group of refugees we did find - around 1,000 of them - were tucked away discreetly in a former military hospital in city.

The fact that they were living under concrete rather than canvas did not, however, mean that they were not enduring real hardship. Many of them had frightening stories to tell - stories of villages hit by Russian bombs, houses burned and relatives left behind in areas now under Russian and South Ossetian control.

Some had come with little but the clothes they were in - like the rest of us watching from outside, they had been caught unprepared by the speed with which the conflict escalated.

Aid promises

The building which is now their home had apparently been abandoned before they arrived - and looking at the damp and peeling walls and the long dark corridors it was easy to see why.

When we visited there was no food or cooking facilities, no running water, and no power - a few rooms had beds, but most people were sleeping on the concrete floors.

While we were there we met representatives from two international agencies, the ICRC and the World Food Programme, who arrived with some aid and promises of further help, but they are struggling to keep up.
Panorama of Tblisi
Even if the tales of beheadings and shootings have no basis in reality they are building a storehouse of hatred for these people to draw on in the future

Most of the refugees we met came from South Ossetia itself, which means they are likely to be here in Tbilisi for a good while to come; the conflict of the past few days has made any prospect of reintegrating South Ossetia into Georgia proper very remote indeed.

They were passing reports of South Ossetian atrocities between them, and even if the tales of beheadings and shootings have no basis in reality they are building a storehouse of hatred for these people to draw on in the future.

Temur Iakobashvili, the Georgian minister who has been responsible for negotiations over South Ossetia's future, told me that the Russians have been deliberately encouraging a refugee crisis; he is convinced they are determined to drive President Shaakashvili and his government from power, and argues that they see a displaced and angry population as a means to that end.

Mr Iakobashvili is a man of restless attention; in the course of our interview he took calls on both his telephones and ordered tea from his secretary using sign language - and when he interrupted the conversation so that he could talk to a fellow minister on one of his lines he played patience on his computer with his spare hand.

This, he told me, was to calm his nerves - and he may need very steady nerves in the days and weeks to come.

That grand old man of Georgian politics, Eduard Shevardnadze, told me that Mr Shaakashvili and his colleagues are safe for the moment, but he said that once the Russians withdraw the president will have to explain to the people why things have gone so badly wrong.

Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Georgia's first post-independence president, was driven from office amid bitter recriminations and died in 1993, officially by his own hand although his death remains a mystery. The second holder of the office, Mr Shevardnadze himself, was ousted in a revolution by the current incumbent, Mikhail Shaakashvili.

There must now be at least a question mark over whether Mr Shaakashvili will successfully serve out the remaining four of his term in office.

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