They squat in abandoned buildings, crash in rickety schoolhouses or sleep under bushes and trees. They stumble into the city wooden-faced and traumatized, children in tow, with little or nothing but the clothes they were wearing when they fled their houses.
Tens of thousands of Georgians have been forced from their homes by days of fighting and Russian occupation, leaving this small country suddenly swamped in a major humanitarian crisis. Georgia is now packed with homeless and panicked families in desperate need of shelter, clothes, food and medicine. This week’s cease-fire has not ended the suffering.
The crush of displaced people has proved more than the government or aid organizations can handle. Many who have taken shelter in the Georgian capital say they could not have survived if not for an impromptu outpouring of charity from fellow Georgians, who have opened their doors to strangers and shown up at shelters bearing food, bedding, soap and medicine.
Although aid is being quickly flown into Georgia and has begun to arrive at shelters, including 82 tons from the U.S. over the last two days, many refugees are still waiting for help. People are sleeping on the bare floors of schools and other government buildings, some of which lack proper bathrooms or electricity.
“This is a very hard situation for which we were absolutely unprepared,” said Besik Tserediani, deputy minister of refugees and resettlement. “There’s a huge amount of people coming in, and it’s impossible to deal with it.”
Tserediani slumped over his desk Friday on a high floor of the ministry, bags under his eyes and his head hanging down as if his neck couldn’t hold it up anymore.
Outside in the yard below, refugees were piling in, angry and impatient and frightened, hollering for shelter, food, medicine. They crowded the steps; some of them wrestled with the guards, trying to push past.
“Get back, get back!” a guard shouted, shoving them out the door.
“I don’t know where I can get food!” yelled a man in thick glasses.
“Just get back from here!” the guard said.
Hatya Zekasashvili had brought her 2-month-old to the ministry, looking for baby formula. She had no money and no way to nourish the infant, whose body seemed to droop wearily from her mother’s arms. The pair had arrived in Tbilisi so destitute that they’d slept in a park before finding relatives who let them stay.
“They said the formula is gone, that it was already given away,” Zekasashvili said, trembling. “I have a hysterical feeling. I’m so worried about not being able to feed her.”
In the chaos of war and occupation, nobody knows for certain how many people have been displaced. International organizations estimate the number at about 100,000, including South Ossetians, many of whom have fled over the border into Russia. The Georgian government estimates there are 40,000 refugees crammed into Tbilisi and its suburbs.
Families have been divided, with some members stranded in western Georgia or in Tbilisi, with Russian troops deployed in the middle.
“We are left without any hope,” said Mary Mamistalove, who said she had been separated from her blind parents after their home in Gori was bombed. She began to weep, dark hair hanging over her eyes. “I came here to get some food. I have not even a penny.”
Humanitarian troubles also plague the city of Gori and outlying villages, where uncounted numbers of civilians remain trapped, reportedly at the mercy of bands of marauding militiamen. Supplies have begun to arrive, even though Russian soldiers clamped down the city this week.
Russia dropped a cluster bomb on Gori’s main square Tuesday, just as civilians were gathering to collect food aid, a Human Rights Watch investigation concluded. The group also reported the Russian use of cluster bombs in the Georgian town of Ruisi. Russian officials deny the use of cluster bombs.
Living conditions in the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, where civilians are beginning to venture back to a ruined city, are also grave, Human Rights Watch researcher Anna Neistat said. There is bread, but residents face severe shortages of water and gasoline, she said by telephone from South Ossetia.
Refugees complain that they weren’t able to bury their dead. They say corpses are piled in the morgue at Gori or abandoned in the villages. The death toll in the five days of fighting remains elusive. Nobody has been able to reach Georgian lands to count the dead, and bloodshed reportedly continues in parts of the country captured by the Russians.
Despite heavy wreckage in Tskhinvali, Human Rights Watch has been unable to find evidence to back official Russian claims that Georgia carried out a “genocide” in South Ossetia that claimed 2,000 lives.
So far, researchers have proof of 44 deaths and 373 wounded, Neistat said.
“The figure provided by official sources has not been substantiated by any evidence, by any source,” she said. “We hear all this very strong language of genocide and ethnic cleansing, and I just don’t think responsible officials can afford to make these kinds of statements without providing any evidence.”
In the shelters of Tbilisi, the recent arrivals come heavy with trauma. They clung to their homes through Russian bombardment and the retreat of the Georgian army, only to flee when Russian troops and militiamen arrived in what many describe as a rush of looting and destruction.
A slight, dark-haired woman named Leila Kopadze said she watched militiamen rampage through her neighborhood in the Divani district. They stole cars and stuffed them with household goods, she said; ripped down Georgian flags and replaced them with Russian flags; set fire to houses. When one of her neighbors, a man named Ermala Bejanishvili, came running with buckets of water to put out the blaze engulfing his home, the militiamen gunned him down with a Kalashnikov, she said.
“They are destroying every house,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes. “They are just shooting in the air and screaming, ‘Hoorah, hoorah.’ I knelt down before them and asked them not to shoot me.”
Scrambling to ease the suffering, the United Nations, the World Food Program, France and the International Committee of the Red Cross have all brought tons of aid into Georgia.
But at the registration centers for those displaced, the hours stretched long and miserable. Sometimes the refugees railed about Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili: “Let him step down!” Sometimes they griped about the Americans. “They say they are helping us!”
But mostly, they stood around looking worn and sad.
“I can’t find anything empty,” said Ludmila Kalichava, a 59-year-old who stood cradling her granddaughter in the yard of the ministry. “If I find any empty space, I’ll crawl inside and just stay there, and no way will I leave.”
The crisis is clouded with uncertainty over when, if ever, the refugees will be able to go home. Many say their houses have been destroyed and, anyway, Russia is still occupying a large swath of Georgia.
Refugees from South Ossetia, which declared independence from Georgia in the early 1990s, are watching keenly as politicians discuss the future status of the territory. Russia has vowed to support independence for South Ossetia and another breakaway republic, Abkhazia -- a move many here view as a de facto annexation. For these refugees, the question of whether their homes will still fall within recognized Georgian borders is of dire importance.
“If Georgian jurisdiction is restored, we’re ready to rebuild, even on burned land,” said Kati Kochlashvili, a 29-year-old policewoman who fled a South Ossetian village. “If not, no way. Not even if they give us a brand-new house.”