Humanitarian catastrophe in South Ossetia encouraged the reaction and desire to help from many christian communities of the world. Several days after cease-fire representatives of some christian charity organisations including the the Action by Churches Together came in the region to study the residents problems. Mrs. Renata Ellingsen and Mr. Tor Valle, the members of Norwegian Church Aid, told Interfax-Religion about the difference between their own impressions from visiting Tskhinvali and the reports of leading western media about this war.
Renata Ellingsen: We have been traveling from Norway on the 21th of August. We have been travelling first to Georgia, where we have visited our partners, which are members of the ACT International Network. Our main task was to analyze and asses the situation of the IDPs (internally displaced persons - IF) in Georgia. And our main focus was psychosocial support, water sanitation, shelter and relief items. In our team in the first part, in Georgia, were experts on all these spheres. In South Ossetia we have been only three. We have been there for five days, and in the team there were region experts, experts on psychosocial support and water sanitation. We have visited Tskhinvali and villages around the city, both Ossetian and Georgian. The result of our assessment will be report and recommendation to our partners for the long-term programme in the region.
- You've seen the situation both in Georgia and Ossetia. Can you tell about your overall emotional feelings, impressions?
R.E.: It's very different. In Georgia there were still IDPs, they were still in Tbilisi and in the temporary accommodation centers in the city and around it. The government had the plan to move order IDPs to Gori and surroundings until the 15th of September, when the school year should start. So it was very unclear what will happen afterwards, where the people will live, would it be temporary centers or temporary camps set up, what is going to happen. We've also visited the temporary accommodation centers in Gori, where the IDPs from the first war are living, from the 1990. And they are living really in bad conditions - it is former student home, and in one room the family of five members lives. They do not have any jobs, they stay just at very small jobs, some reconstruction work on the daily basis, but nothing more. The children are going to school, but as a whole this small community is not integrated into the society. And we have not seen very much effort from the government site to integrate the IDPs from the first war. And we're a little bit afraid that these centers will now have also to accommodate the IDPs from this conflict. And it will cause even more overloading of the buildings.
Tor Valle: And the water supply was not appropriate in most places we've visited.
R.E.: The people are living on the hope of returning home. But we know that most of them will lose their home, the numbers of 10 to15 thousand of people who have to live in temporary accommodation centers. They are traumatized, and we have heard a lot of different stories, and we have heard very different stories on the other side. So it is difficult to define the truth, and there is truth actually on both sides.
In South Ossetia the situation was very different. There are only around 480 people living in the temporary accommodation centers. The rest of the displaced persons are living at home or by relatives, by their families. They prefer to live close to their house, so that they can clean and start to rebuild it. Here again the situation was different in the city and in the villages. In Tskhinvali people are optimistic, enthusiastic, they are hoping for the future. But in the villages people are very traumatized, hopeless, frustrated, they don't know where they should ask for help. They are living in very difficult conditions. We met a family whose house was hit by the rockets, and they live in the room with two beds, where the roof is fallen, the ceiling is missing on the part of the room, the windows are broken. And there are also a lot of stories like this.
T.V.: The material destruction in Tskhinvali was much worse than in Gori. In Gori we saw two or three damaged buildings that were hit by bombs or rockets. But in Tskhinvali it was that almost all the public buildings were more or less destroyed, and about 30% of private homes.
R.E.: But we were impressed by the effort of the government to rebuild the country, to rebuild the water and sanitation system and electricity. And also there were plans for rebuilding, and the renovation of the public buildings is the first priority. There were 51 schools opened on the 1th of September. So most of the children were going to school, and they were going to school in free shifts, because they have to be in temporary buildings. And the 1st of September was really a celebration, showing that the life is going on. And we could see effort to have a normal life again.
T.V.: They have rapidly reconstructed all the infrastructure, very rapidly. They have already started the reconstruction of all public buildings that were defected by this war.
R.E.: We will recommend our partners in South Ossetia to focus mainly on the villages because this is area which is not very much covered by the government effort. It's also very difficult to enter the villages. There were no investments into the infrastructure in the past years. We have defined two main groups that would be the target of the assistance, because there is very high amount of elderly people in the villages. And also the traumatized children of under school age were not covered by the kindergarten. So that means that they were not covered also by the psychological support, psychosocial rehabilitation.
T.V.: The existing water supply system was not affected by this conflict. But it was liked to improve the situation, especially on the sanitary part, an improve in share public water space located in the country. But we will wait until Emercom (the Ministry for Extraordinary Situations or MCHS - IF) has decided what kind of projects they will recommend. They are not yet sure how much they will do in the villages and what kind of projects they recommend regarding water and sanitation and shelter.
R.E.: Different will be the focus in Georgia. We've recommended partners to focus on the temporary centers and also the water & sanitation especially. Another assistance recommended will be psychosocial assistance, the creation of initiative groups in these temporary accommodation centers. Kind of coordination units, may be some workshops, income income generating workshops, hygiene trainings.
T.V.: We will also focus specially on hygiene provision as a part of water & sanitation project.
R.E.: Immediately when we came to North Ossetia, to Vladikavkaz, we travelled to South Ossetia. And when we returned we only visited the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees - IF) and UNICEF and informed them about the situation. Because no other international organization except ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross - IF) have access to South Ossetia.
- You have a great experience of visiting conflict areas. What is the difference between what you saw in other places and here?
T.V.: If you compare Tskhinvali and South Ossetia to Kosovo, there is a lot of similarities. I think Tskhinvali was even more destroyed than the towns and cities in Kosovo. Almost all public buildings were more or less affected by this conflict. I think Tskhinvali is one of the most affected cities I have seen.
R.E.: Yet the government efforts were very organized and structured except registration. That is the weakest institution - registration of people died and also if those returned, registration of the damage. What was also interesting to see - how people are helping to each other, to families, friends and to neighbours. So a lot of people were living by their neighbours.
T.V.: No indicational registration... They have access to bread factory, bakery. So I don't think they have a lot of suffering in that way. The agricultural business in South Ossetia is much impressive, so they are supported by their own food.
R.E.: Emotionally it was that people in South Ossetia were saying that of course this is something they have wished in the last 17-18 years, they were living for. And they hope for a peace.
In Georgia we met a lot of traumatized people in the hope to return home. So it was very different experience. But it is always very difficult to see people were suffering from the conflict. It was found very important to work on the both sides because people are suffering on the both sides.
- From the both sides, who is blamed by the population?
R.E.: That is a tragic question... We have listened to the voices of the people in Georgia, and of course they blame those whom they saw, about whom they heard, - army and the politicians. We heard from the most of people that they love Russians and Russia but they do not like the political system. And they've also being talking about the Ossetians, of course, for coming and burning their villages, and killing people. And everybody was talking also about the paramilitary groups. You know, people say a lot of things that they hear.
In South Ossetia it was Georgia of course, and especially Saakashvili who was blamed for the attack.
T.V.: ... with the support of US.
R.E.: Yes of course, United States. And sometimes we've heard there were people even hostile to us, blaming also the European Community, the European Union and other countries for not recognizing them and supporting Saakashvili. But these were popular voices.
T.V.: In Georgia the most of the people were behind Saakashvili, at least at this period. But this is a typical reaction in the conflict - they support their leaders, whatever they are doing.
- But do some Georgians blame Saakashvili, or their authorities?
R.E.: We don't know. We met the people who were affected by the conflict. And then it is very natural to stand for their leader. We didn't talk to people who were not affected, who for example were living in Tbilisi or in other places.
- Before arriving to Georgia you saw the interpretation of the conflict in Western media. Is there a great difference between those reporting and the facts you found at the place?
R.E.: About Georgia we have received a lot of information from the Western media, it was very good covered. May be the damage in Gori was smaller than it was reported. We almost didn't have any information about South Ossetia. The information that we got was that the damage was small. So we were really surprised finding the damages in the city of Tskhinvali and in the villages.
T.V.: The Western media do not use Russian media sources for information. So that's the problem because western humanitarian organizations plan some actions in South Ossetia but they do not have adequate information.
R.E.: But it is also because the western journalists do not have such easy access to the region. They can only come for one day. But we don't have very much information about that. Also the information that we get from the Western media is focused on Russia and Georgia, but South Ossetians are not covered. They are not very much mentioned. And we heard it also from the people in Tskhinvali: "Everybody is talking about Russia and Georgia, and nobody is talking about us".
- Did you meet there a lot of western journalists?
R.E.: No, we didn't meet anyone.
- And some priests?
R.E.: We have visited the Ossetian Orthodox church, but it was just a very short visit, we were only looking at the damage. We didn't have any meetings there. As I know the society here, in Eastern Europe, I was surprised that the church is not very visible in the city and in the villages. The villages that we have visited didn't have church, and people said that they needed to go to Tskhinvali to pray.