Laura Sheahen, an information officer for Catholic Relief Services (Caritas USA), was deployed to Georgia during the recent conflict. Here, she reflects on the first frantic week in the field.
Friday-Tuesday August 8-12th
As the bombs fall and thousands of people in Georgia flee their homes, CRS aid workers in my region (Europe/Middle East) watch the news anxiously. On Friday and Saturday, we try to call our CRS colleagues in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, but only a few calls go through. The staff there is safe.
On Monday, higher-ups tell me to get on a plane. I’m in Sarajevo on business and catch Tuesday’s midday flight to Vienna, then catch a redeye to Yerevan, Armenia, which borders Georgia. The Tbilisi airport is shut down because of the war.
Day One: Wednesday August 13th
I arrive at the Yerevan airport at 4:50 am. Later that morning, four of us plus a driver cram ourselves into a small car and drive 3+ hours to the border between Armenia and Georgia. It’s not problem getting into Georgia—the guards let us in and we cross the border on foot. Farther on, our Georgian driver picks us up.
We go immediately to the small CRS office in Tbilisi’s capital, where our colleagues there brief us on the humanitarian impact of the crisis. We then head for the office of Caritas Georgia, our local partner, which has already begun feeding hundreds of people who fled bombings, shootings, house burnings, and more. They’re officially called “Internally Displaced People,” a formal way of saying they’re in their own country but can’t go back home. CRS pledges financial assistance and plans visits to IDP shelters.
Caritas runs a bakery right downstairs. I watch as workers load tray after tray of bread and rolls into the bakery’s van. With Caritas, I get in the van and visit the first of about a dozen dreary shelters for displaced people that I will see over the next week.
Most of the shelters are schools. Georgia is a poor country, and even the best schools I’ve seen look like they’re falling apart. The plaster is cracking, the wooden floors are dusty, the desks and chairs are ancient.
The school furniture is also child-sized, and the frightened eyes of hundreds of adults stare up at me as they sit in tiny chairs.
Many of them ran from villages around the disputed city of Tskhinvali, or from the Georgian city of Gori. When the bombs started falling, they jumped in cars or packed themselves and family members into vans, leaving clothes, IDs, prescription medicine, and even false teeth behind. Those who had to flee in the night left barefoot, wearing pajamas; one woman was milking a cow and ran with milk still on her hands.
Now they live in the crumbling schools, sometimes five families per classroom, sleeping on the floor and often sharing a bathroom with 50 other people. That is, if they’re lucky enough to have running water—many of the shelters are in buildings that were abandoned, and have no water or electricity. Desks are pushed together in odd ways; I learn it’s so the people can sleep on them.
They’re on the fifth day of wearing the same clothes. Someone tells me that mothers are washing out disposable diapers, hoping to reuse them.
Day Two: Thursday August 14th
Several CRS staffers go to what’s called a coordination meeting at the UN; all the charities working in the area attend so no one duplicates efforts. The UN says an IDP tent camp is being set up near the Tbilisi airport.
I meet Nona, a Caritas doctor, at the Caritas clinic. Volunteers are packing bandages, antibiotics, and other medical supplies into an SUV to take to a hospital. Both soldiers and civilians are at the Republic Hospital, many with burns and gunshot wounds. An elderly man had a heart attack when the bombs fell; he breathes heavily and gazes at us over the tubes.
I talk to a Caritas staffer who has heard from Kutaisi, Georgia’s second-largest city, three hours away. Their displaced people need food, and the Caritas bakery there has already ramped up its production of bread items.
At night, I caption and upload the photos I’ve taken, handle press calls, blog. My CRS colleagues work late writing a detailed list of what people need immediately: food, underwear, soap, beds, diapers, sanitary napkins, sheets, medicine, detergent…the list is long.
Day Three: Friday August 15th
A CRS colleague waits in a tedious bank line to transfer $25,000—a first installment of several to come—from CRS to Caritas Georgia. The bank system is unsettled and it takes hours.
We meet with the region’s bishop, who describes the plight of families who fled the bombed city of Gori and sought refuge at a Catholic retreat house nearby. The bishop says he’s heard from all his priests except one in Abkhazia, another disputed region of Georgia. “I have no reason to believe he’s not OK, though.”
In a parish rectory, I talk to Sasha and Georgy, two of the men who left Gori. “No one expected this,” says Sasha. When Georgy first heard the planes, he hid in the basement. Later, he reached his wife and children, who were a few miles away. The four of them, plus ten other people, got in his brother’s minivan and drove to safety.
Sasha’s father is diabetic; a priest from Gori, Father Vladimir, got him medicine. Fr. Vladimir was outside Gori when the bombing happened, but drove back into the city on Sunday August 10th to see the situation and say Mass. “The doors and windows or the chapel were blasted by the shockwave,” he says.
I visit the 3 pm meal at a Caritas soup kitchen. Fifty more IDPs have recently arrived, and they’re now serving over 300 people at that one shelter alone. The food looks pretty good: meat stew, barley kasha, bread, tomato salad. Too busy to eat, I haven’t had more than a Twix bar all day. I eye the tomatoes wistfully.
I learn that people from villages around Tskhinvali will probably never be able to go home. Many of them have lost farms, cows, and orchards. The shock of fleeing from bombs and losing their homes is compounded by the shock of knowing they’ll have to begin again, probably in this unfamiliar urban environment, when the only life they’ve ever known is farming.
Regular Georgians are gathering clothes for the IDPs and buying out food stocks to bring to shelters. At the CRS office, bags of clothes from our Georgian colleagues sit on the floor.
Day Four: Saturday August 16th
A 5-person CRS team leaves for the western city of Kutaisi in a Ford Sierra, a delightful car for smooth city drives. For going up mountains on rocky dirt roads, not so much. But troops have blocked off the country’s main road between east and west, and renting a 4-wheel drive in Tbilisi right now is difficult. We need to see the IDP situation in the west, so there are no other options.
On the paved road, the trip takes under three hours. On a circuitous and bumpy southern route, it takes us ten and a half.
The car overheats eight times as we wind our way up mountain passes at ten miles an hour. Early in the trip, there are some villages, and our driver knocks on doors to ask for water. Later, the landscape is deserted—no houses, no haystacks, no longer even the occasional cow to swerve around. We keep a sharp eye out for mountain streams and fill bottles with water we use to cool down the radiator.
Halfway through the trip, we hear a clank and suddenly the car sounds much louder. The muffler and exhaust are gone, casualties of all the rocks we’re navigating.
Dust from the road fills our nostrils and coats our skin. A colleague with a touchy back shifts uncomfortably in her seat as we bump along. There’s no sign of human habitation anywhere, and we’ve eaten most of the snacks we brought. “I’m so hungry I could eat mayonnaise,” she says, though she loathes the condiment. We had reached the Mayo Point.
The landscape shifts from grass-covered mountains to forested ones. Smoke billows up; our Georgian colleague says military troops have set fire to some of the woods.
As night falls, we reach Kutaisi and meet our local partner charity there. They thoughtfully provide us with a home-cooked meal before we sit down to business. By the most recent count, there are 14,225 displaced people in the city and its environs. As in Tbilisi, they are housed in schools and old public buildings.
At the guesthouse where we stay the night, I sigh in relief when the internet works; I’d been told that telecommunications were iffy all week in western Georgia. When the net doesn’t work, I can’t do much of my job.
My joy is short-lived. The connection lasts for about 20 minutes, then dies.
Day Five: Sunday August 17th
We get in the car for what would be a madcap day of short trips if it weren’t so sad. We race from one filthy Soviet-era shelter building to another, scribbling notes that always begin with the word “no.” No toilets. No water. No lights. No mattresses. No dishes. No stoves. No antibiotics. No painkillers.
We visit several elderly people who look incredibly fragile. They lie quietly in the corners of rooms shared by 5, 10, 20 people. One woman is wheelchair-dependent and was carried up three flights of stairs by relatives. The one toilet available is outside, and downstairs.
Some of the children are doing OK. One boy throws a 7-Up beach ball around the room, laughing joyously. Others play earnestly with discarded water bottles or clothespins. But many cling nervously to their parents: we’re told that when they hear a loud sound, they flinch.
Our local partner (AIC) is made up of people who used to be IDPs themselves; they fled similar violence in Abkhazia in the early 1990s. As we zoom from place to place, an AIC staffer stops at a store to buy adult diapers for the elderly woman we saw.
AIC is worried about the new IDPs and winter, which comes quickly in Kutaisi.
Day Six: Monday August 18th
We wake up early for the trip back to Tbilisi, since the paved road is still closed by troops. All weekend long we’ve heard reports of looting in the bombed areas; the IDPs are terrified that if they’re able to return, there will be little to go back to. But we’ve also heard good news: Turkey, a near neighbor to this part of Georgia, has sent trucks of macaroni, mattresses, and dishware.
We pack ourselves into the Ford and steel ourselves for the rocky road. The journey takes slightly less time; our driver learned some magic mojo to keep the car from overheating. Still, it’s a long, dusty, bathroom-less day.
Day Seven: Tuesday August 19th
Two weeks ago, before the war began, Caritas soup kitchens and bakeries were feeding a hundred or so poor people once a day. They’re now feeding 2660 IDPs several times each day. As grateful as the shelter residents are, those receiving only bread products need more variety–coupled with the unsanitary conditions at the shelters, diarrhea and nausea are taking a toll.
I visit Isani, a former military hospital that now houses 1800 people. There’s no water and no electricity; as in most other shelters, I make my way down the dark corridors carefully, trying not to stumble. I nearly run into the Apostolic Nuncio for the region, who is visiting the IDPs too. He says that he and a Caritas priest were able to get into the city of Gori on Monday; diplomatic credentials can work wonders. Looting is still going on: “They tried to steal a priest’s car while we were there,” the nuncio says.
Georgians aren’t the only ones suffering. We hear from Caritas Russia, which is scrambling to help thousands of people who fled north. The needs are the same, according to the Caritas Russia report: “People usually have only clothes which are put on them; many have no documents and money, children are heavily stressed, elderly people need medical treatment.”
Day Eight: Wednesday August 20th
Caritas has mobilized crews of volunteers—mostly teenagers—to sort and pass out aid supplies. The volunteers have been working 8, 9, 10 hours a day in the broiling Georgian sun. Today they’re assembling bags filled with hygiene supplies. As the hours wear on, boxes topple and some of the bags rip. The Caritas staffer in charge warns them again and again to tie the bags tightly.
I sheepishly pull out the reporter’s old chestnut and ask a volunteer, “What motivates you to do this?” A 21-year-old gives me a hard look. “These are our people.”
We meet Father Vladimir again; his parishioners keep text-messaging him, asking him when he thinks they can return to Gori. Something about him seems familiar. “It’s already the second week I’ve been wearing these clothes,” he says, laughing.
There are fewer press calls, fewer radio stations interested in the crisis. For the first time in ten days, Georgia drops out of U.S. headlines. Generous aid is pouring into the country, but I can already see it’s not enough. There are thousands of Georgians who will never go back home, Georgians who will never have the same jobs again, Georgians who from now on will divide their lives into “before August 2008” and after. CRS is doing all it can to help suffering people and will keep doing it. What we can’t do–rewind the clock–is the only thing that would really work.