"Where is the nearest refugee camp?" I asked my Georgian translator, Ana, minutes after meeting her at the international airport of Tbilisi, Georgia's capital. I knew I was late to capture images of fighting between Russian and Georgian troops after my previous flight from Turkey was canceled a week ago. But as usual in these clashes, the human tragedy of the armed conflict was still unraveling, leaving behind grim images of bombed apartment buildings, killed or wounded people and desperate refugees.
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An Orthodox priest looks at a bombed building in Gori, Georgia, on Saturday, Aug. 23, 2008. Russian General Anatoly Nogovitsyn has said that combat troops have pulled out of Georgia, leaving behind only peacekeepers.
Less than half an hour after leaving the airport, I was standing in the middle of a United Nations refugee camp housing hundreds of displaced people. The camp near the village of Tzheta had become the temporary shelter for families who fled the bitter fighting in the strategically located town of Gori, where many buildings were destroyed in Russian aerial and artillery attacks.
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Georgian women sit near their bombed home in Gori, Georgia, Saturday, Aug. 23, 2008.
It was about one week before Russia announced its recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the separatist region from which most of the refugees had fled. The conflict with Russia had broken out after the Georgian military attacked South Ossetia's capital, Tskhinvali, in an attempt to retake the breakaway province. On Aug. 7 Russia sent tanks and warplanes into the former Soviet republic.
As the refugees shyly welcomed a foreign photographer and told about their dilemma and how they had to abandon all their modest belongings and daily lives behind, I began shooting inside one of the giant military tents before sunset.
I could not speak their language but I was able to understand the hardships they had to endure from their bitter voices and tired faces even before Ana translated them for me. Some were asleep; others smoked anxiously. The women were struggling to cook whatever they could find or afford. Although the sides of the tent were open, a profound smell of dust, sweat and vegetables cooked in oil in pans filled the air.
Many were asking questions about how or if they could go to another country. Some others were watching news on small TV sets to learn as much as they could about the ongoing conflict and the position of Russian forces.
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Georgian refugees stand near their tents in a U.N. camp on Aug. 23, 2008. Many of the people are from the breakaway province of South Ossetia. More than 100,000 people have been displaced from areas of North Georgia and South Ossetia, affected by the invasion of Russian forces, leaving Georgia facing a humanitarian crisis. Residents are now said to be returning to their homes in Gori after Georgian forces took control of the main east-west highway.
David, a 14-year-old refugee of the sudden invasion, ironically was sleeping with a toy machine gun on a mattress as another little boy was changing his underwear in the tent with the help of his mother, far away from the privacy of his home. A father was hugging his small daughter and kissing her as the precious doll she had managed to bring along lay on the corner of her mattress. Some adults were filling a small inflatable pool to try and entertain the little children. However, potable water was scarce and almost everyone was carrying drinking water in plastic bottles to their tents.
But the residents of this camp were still lucky compared to those at many other shelters, such as those in former Communist-era apartment buildings where hundreds of people are forced to share public toilets and try to survive with no electricity or running water.
The corridors of one such building in Tbilisi were so dark even during daylight that refugees looked like walking ghosts. The sounds of children echoed in the dark stairs. The sunlight from a window would reveal their suffering and despair. With nothing to do, some people were sleeping in a sports hall, while others were trying to clean the floor or cook.
The influx of tens of thousands of refugees is obviously an extra burden on Georgia, which already had 300,000 refugees from fighting in the two separatist republics in the 1990s. Nearly 80,000 refugees uprooted by the Russian-Georgian fighting are housed in more than 600 centers in and around the capital, Tbilisi. In all, the United Nations has said that the fighting, including thousands who fled to Russia, has displaced 158,000.
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David, a 14-year-old Georgian boy, sleeps with his toy gun in his tent near the village of Tzheta. Many of the refugees here are Georgians from the breakaway province of South Ossetia. They settled into the refugee shelter on Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008. More than 100,000 people have been displaced from areas of North Georgia and South Ossetia, affected by the fighting with Russian forces, leaving Georgia to face a humanitarian crisis.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says that civilians who return to their homes face the risk of land mines or unexploded bombs left behind from the latest conflict. Officials have estimated that nearly 40,000 people have returned to their homes by now.
But, most of them are still in dire need of help and rely on distribution centers set up by UNHCR and other aid agencies as well as shipments from outside Georgia, such as the humanitarian relief supplies sent aboard three American warships. Still, the aid convoys are unable to reach South Ossetia because of worries about the security situation. Many convoys reach Georgia after crossing from the border point with neighboring Turkey, a NATO ally.
The refugees are longing for a normal life. And their desire for a happy life is visible in the eyes of young girls who were wearing makeup despite the squalid conditions and the war.