By Tamar Dvali in Gori (CRS No. 467 06-Nov-08)
From the main highway, the dozens of red-roofed houses in the plain outside the Georgian town of Gori resemble a field full of red-capped mushrooms.
From up close, the houses, built by the Georgian government for refugees from South Ossetia, look absolutely identical. Lined up in meticulous rows, they all have red roofs and the same number of rooms. The stories that their future inhabitants have to tell also differ little from one another.
Life in the town that was hit hardest during the short Georgia-Russia war in August is now getting back to normal, the only visible reminder of those events being the refugees who, still unable to return to their homes, are sheltering in Gori kindergartens.
Nino Kanashvili left Gori together with her two small children after her block of flats was set on fire by bombs from Russian planes on August 9. "God must have wanted us to stay alive," she said. "Unfortunately, one of my neighbours, was killed. That was the day we left Gori and came to Tbilisi."
Like other refugees, Nino returned to her home town in September, but she says her flat is still not fit for habitation, "It's true they have repaired it, but it is totally empty. We have no beds or kitchenware there. Everything we had got burnt."
Nightmares about what she endured in August still haunt the young woman, but, like other Gori residents, she's been trying to get back to her previous life.
According to official Georgian figures, 228 civilians died in the August conflict, with Gori bearing the brunt of Russian attacks. The Russian bombings also left 12 blocks of flats needing a complete overhaul and 70 more partial reconstruction.
Now a rapid reconstruction effort means that the physical traces of the armed conflict have been almost fully erased. All state and private institutions, including banks and schools, have been working as normal for a long time.
"The impression is that the town has become cleaner and more beautiful... they've been trying so hard to sweep away every trace of Russian aggression," said Gori resident Nunuka. "Even the street cleaners, who sweep streets in the morning, seem to have been doing this with greater enthusiasm."
Leila Dalakishvili works as a teacher at one of Gori's schools. She says all her pupils have come back to Gori and are attending school. "It was impossible to have lessons at first, as the children were agitated, talking about the war all the time, sharing stories of how they escaped from the town, how scared they were at what they saw," she said. "Now we all, both teachers and pupils, try not to think about that time."
Lado Vardzelashvili, the governor of Georgia's Shida Kartli region, of which Gori is the capital, said three million lari (2 million US dollars) had been allocated from the state budget to rehabilitate the city, in addition to the funds provided by private and international donors.
The Georgian building company Arsi undertook to reconstruct the apartment block that suffered most from the bombing.
"It's a five-storey house situated next to Gori's tank base," said Tornike Abuladze, Arsi's executive director. "The reconstruction work is nearly completed and soon all the flats will be fully repaired and returned to their owners."
The deputy mayor of Tbilisi Niko Khachirishvili, who has also been helping reconstruct Gori, said almost all the multi-storey buildings in Gori were damaged in the conflict and there was not a single building whose window panes were left intact by the conflict.
"The damage is great," said Khachirishvili. "Dozens of buildings are just carcasses. The one with the worst damage is the block of flats in Sukhishvili Street, No 12, and the area around it. That was the building, hit by the first bomb."
The Georgian building company Centre Point has finished rebuilding one district of Gori and has informed the Georgian government that it is ready to help it rehabilitate war-damaged villages as well.
The ministry for refugees and resettlement says it registered 120,000 refugees during the August conflict. Most of them have by now returned home, but some - residents of Patara Liakhvi, Froni Gorge, Akhalgori and Kodori Gorge - remain displaced. It is for them that the government is building new houses, promising that each of them will have their own roof to live under by the end of the year.
Under the plans, a total of 4,490 new houses will be built for the refugees from the August war, and 1,576 more repaired.
The 177 cottages, now being built on a territory of 15 hectares near the village of Shavshvebi in Gori District, will be home to around 700 people.
Lasha Gotsiridze, head of the municipal development fund, said about 20 building companies were taking part in the construction and repair work.
"The building companies were selected in an emergency situation, as the government had not had time to announce a tender," said Georgia's regional government minister David Tkeshelshvili. "The preference was given to Georgian building companies. Everybody knows that the construction business has since before the war been experiencing certain problems, and by [recruiting them] we tried to help them."
According to Giorgi Kharabadze of the municipal development fund, construction of a house with an upper storey costs 27,000 lari (19,000 dollars). He said a plot of land, a barn for animals and new furniture would go with each of the houses.
"Our major task is to create basic living conditions for the refugees for the first several months, and after that we'll start thinking about more long-term projects," said Tkeshelashvili.
Tamar Dvali is a correspondent with the 24 Hours newspaper in Tbilisi.