Tbilisi, Georgia - For the 42 families taking refuge in the School for Blind Children in downtown Tbilisi, the one advantage to their location is that the Sheraton hotel next door provides food. Leftover hotel food is a welcome break from pasta and buckwheat, their sole sustenance provided by major aid organizations.
"We had the richest land and could cultivate anything - grapes, all sorts of apples, walnuts, pineapples, peaches," says one elderly woman dressed in black. South Ossetia seems almost like Shangri La when spoken of by families forced to flee two-story homes and fertile farmland. Now, they occupy classrooms, one family to each classroom, with cots and laundry lined neatly against blackboards.
A group excitedly gathers around an aid worker who arrives to report on their living conditions. A visit by a foreigner or someone official looking can mean either news about the homes they abandoned or their next move. They are apprehensive about plans by the Georgian government to build 7,000 winterized homes in the Buffer Zone (the area just outside of South Ossetia) by December for those who will not be able to return to their villages.
One woman from the group stands out from the rest. Lenna is middle-aged and blond with a small upturned nose. She is Ossetian and married to Giorgi, a mustachioed Georgian farmer. Mixed marriages between Georgians and Ossetians are common but complicate an already difficult situation since Russian authorities will not permit families with Georgian members to return to South Ossetia.
"Our land was so fertile and we used to sell our fruit in Russia," says Lenna. "When we compare what we had there to what we have now, we feel like beggars." This is the second time Lenna has been displaced. She and her husband fled Tskhinvali in the early 1990s when Georgia first lost control of South Ossetia. For the past 18 years, however, life had been good in Didi-Liachvi where her husband built a successful farm and two homes. Lenna raised their three children while working full-time as a teacher of Georgian literature.
"They could come any day and force us to move somewhere we don't want to go, and maybe the land will not be any good," says Lenna, referring to the government's resettlement plans. She doesn't have the energy, she says, to start a new life for the third time. Perhaps it would have been better to live in a tent and to have a temporary home than to be settled in a place where nothing will grow.
IOCC has been providing continuous assistance to thousands of displaced people who fled throughout Georgia, as well as to southern Russia, since the August conflict began. Through a new $200,000 grant by the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), IOCC is helping 2,000 individuals get through the winter by providing stoves, fuel for cooking and heating, bedding, and winter clothes. IOCC is cooperating with the Georgian Orthodox Church to assist families, like Lenna and those staying in the School for Blind Children, and in 20 displacement centers in and around Tbilisi.
To help in providing emergency relief, call IOCC's donation hotline toll-free at 1-877-803-4622, make a gift on-line at www.iocc.org, or mail a check or money order payable to "IOCC" and write "Conflict in the Caucasus" in the memo line to: IOCC, P.O. Box 630225, Baltimore, Md. 21263-0225.
IOCC, founded in 1992 as the official humanitarian aid agency of the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA), has implemented over $275 million in relief and development programs in 33 countries around the world.
Media: Contact Ms. Amal Morcos at 410-243-9820 or (cell) 443-823-3489.