UNICEF in Emergencies & Humanitarian Action

Two families face the future – in Tbilisi, Georgia, and North Ossetia, Russian Federation

© UNICEF Georgia/2008/Nikolaishvili
Most of those displaced from conflict zones in and around South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Georgia, are housed in kindergartens and schools. Shown above: Dato Gambashidze, 8, with his grandfather at the ‘Imedi’ (Hope) kindergarten in Tbilisi, Georgia.

GENEVA, Switzerland, 28 August 2008 – From the same conflict in and around South Ossetia, Georgia, these are the stories of two families: two stories, two temporary shelters in different places, but one very uncertain future.

Neatly painted and recently renovated, the ‘Imedi’ (Hope) kindergarten is located in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. It was supposed to welcome children after the summer holidays in September. Yet by turn of fate it reopened a lot sooner than planned. Instead of welcoming back tanned and rested children, the kindergarten quickly became a haven for people displaced by the conflict that broke out in Georgia on 7-8 August.

A similar story has occurred in North Ossetia, Russian Federation. There, in the town of Alagir, a peaceful and contemplative monastery for devout women was also temporarily re-purposed to house people who fled north from the fighting.

As the ceasefire agreed in mid-August continues to hold, internally displaced people in Georgia and refugees in North Ossetia are now heading home. But the tragic human consequences of the conflict will continue to be felt for a long time. A kindergarten and a monastery have borne witness to that.

Georgia: In the kindergarten
Levan Gambashidze’s family arrived at the kindergarten from Eredvi, a village located 13 km from Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia.

“There were eight of us in a car. We were trying to go to Gori, but then heard that Gori was being bombed. Finally, we ended up in Tbilisi, in this kindergarten,” he told UNICEF as his hands trembled. “We left everything behind – our elderly relatives, our houses … and we do not know what will happen next”.

Levan’s children – Mariam, 9, Dato, 8, and Elene, 5 – were buzzing around their father as he spoke. They seemed quite happy.

“We just explained to the children that we came here on business for a couple of days and would return soon. But I think they felt that something went wrong,” their 62-year old grandmother, Nanuli, explained.

© UNICEF Russian Federation/2008/Muchnik
Dzerassa, a pregnant mother, with two of her four children at the Bogoyavlensky Monastery, a temporary shelter in Alagir, North Ossetia, Russian Federation.

North Ossetia, Russian Federation: In the monastery
Dzerassa, a mother of four young children, is pregnant with her fifth baby. She fled Tskhinvali on the first day of the attacks and headed north. Her sanctuary: the Bogoyavlensky Women’s Monastery in Alagir, North Ossetia, which has been transformed into a refugee shelter.

“My house is completely destroyed. My relatives checked it and told me,” Dzerassa said to UNICEF. “My husband is missing. No one has seen him for days and I don’t know what to think.” 

In Georgia, more than 600 buildings were converted to house an estimated 128,000 displaced people, while in North Ossetia, 40 buildings offered temporary shelter to people who came up from the south. Some 30,000 people initially fled to North Ossetia – many to stay with relatives; others, to stay in public shelters such as the monastery.

Focus on restoring normalcy
UNICEF offices in Georgia and the Russian Federation completed their rapid assessments of the immediate needs of displaced people and quickly began providing assistance. Now, UNICEF is shifting gears to provide assistance to returnees. Along with provision of hygiene kits and complementary food for infants, children’s psycho-social support is a major priority.

The impact on children is devastating, said UNICEF’s Representative in Georgia, Giovanna Barberis. “Parents’ nervousness, the killings and shelling that children witnessed, the displacement: All of this left children with deep psychological trauma, and it will take months, maybe years, to get children back to normal life,” she said.

Restoring normalcy is one focus of UNICEF’s emergency response. It is currently distributing 400 emergency ‘School-in- a-Box’ kits in Georgia in preparation for a return to school on 15 September. Each kit supplies educational and school materials for 100 students. UNICEF will work with education authorities to mainstream psycho-social support into classes and, in the medium term, peace and tolerance education as well.

Psycho-social recovery
In North Ossetia, UNICEF has responded by supporting the local government to ensure that children also have school supplies and that classrooms are in good condition.

But here, too, a key feature of the work will be to assist children cope with the psychological trauma.

“It is a challenge,” said the head of UNICEF’s North Caucasus office, Rashed Mustafa. “But we have had experience with this before as we conducted an extensive psycho-social recovery programme in the aftermath of the Beslan school crisis in 2004.”

Almost all the temporary shelters established to receive internally displaced persons lack potable water and basic sanitary conditions; some also lack electricity. Those who remain in the shelters because their homes were destroyed or their villages are unsafe will face a precarious autumn, when the cold weather comes and conditions in the collective centres worsen.

In the kindergarten in Tbilisi, Levan’s eldest daughter, Mariam, said: “What I miss here a lot is my friends and my pets that I left behind. But we’ll soon go back home and I will see them again, I hope.” So there is hope in the kindergarten named ‘Hope’.

But pregnant Dzerassa, in the monastery shelter in North Ossetia, said she has nowhere to go back to. She started sobbing uncontrollably and said she only hopes her baby will be all right.




27 August 2008: UNICEF correspondent Amy Bennett reports on the psycho-social needs of children whose families are taking shelter in North Ossetia, Russian Federation.
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27 August 2008: UNICEF correspondent Kun Li reports on conditions for internally displaced families in Georgia.
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