Our teams in Georgia have finally succeeded in entering the so-called "buffer zone" north of the town of Gori over the weekend. The zone, controlled by Russian Military Forces, has been out of our reach over the past weeks due to the unstable security situation. These first UN missions are an important step in achieving full access. From now on, UNHCR plans to conduct regular assessment missions to the buffer zone - visiting first the areas from where most of the displaced people who are presently sheltered in the Gori region, originate from.
The two initial assessment missions visited four villages north of Gori - Karaleti, Tkiavi, Kitsnisi and Dzevera. The purpose was to obtain an initial snapshot and analysis of the humanitarian situation.
In the villages closer to Gori, most residents appear to have returned. In the Karaleti area, close to Gori and right on the boundary of the buffer zone, up to 80 per cent of the population has gone back. Deeper inside the buffer zone the rate of return is considerably lower. For example in Kitsnisi, less than ten per cent of villagers have come back so far.
There is still a great deal of fear among the people currently residing in these villages. Beatings, looting and arson by marauding militias have created an atmosphere of fear and insecurity.
The destruction of buildings and houses is not as widespread as was initially feared and varies from village to village. In Karaleti, for example, our team counted 29 houses destroyed, out of some 600 there. In Kitsnisi, only a few buildings have been burned or bombed, while more material and psychological damage has been caused by lootings and destruction inside people's houses.
The situation and the needs in the villages north of Gori are similar. All of the visited communities are largely dependent on agriculture for food and income. The villagers informed UNHCR that 70 to 80 per cent of this year's harvest is gone. This is due to restricted irrigation water coming mostly from South Ossetia and the fact that during the hostilities heavy military equipment passed through many fields damaging the crops. In addition, there are still a lot of mines and unexploded ordnance littering the fields and gardens, preventing people from collecting the harvest.
As the local gas pipeline is not functioning any longer, the villagers now rely on firewood - both for cooking and heating. As a result, the price of firewood has risen by 50 per cent.
There are no health services inside the buffer zone. The population there depends on medical aid and assistance from Gori, from where there is only sporadic access to the area.
School buildings have remained almost intact. In some instances windows have been broken and education tools and materials have been stolen. However, at present, the majority of returnees are adults and schools remain closed.
The first assessments show that returnees to the villages in the buffer zone need rehabilitation and reconstruction assistance and the provision of supplementary food items and firewood.
Following the detailed profiling of internally displaced persons in Georgia completed last week, we have revised the number of people displaced by the August conflict over the breakaway region of South Ossetia. A total of 192,000 people were forced to flee their homes, including 127,000 displaced in Georgia proper; 30,000 within South Ossetia; and another 35,000 to North Ossetia in the Russian Federation.
Most of those who fled to North Ossetia have already returned. Of the 127,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Georgia, 68,000 have since returned home. UNHCR and the Georgian government estimate that another 5,000 will go home before the onset of winter, bringing up the number of returnees to 73,000.