UNHCR secures safe passage for Georgians fearing further fighting

News Stories, 15 August 2008

© UNHCR/S.Neuman
A mobile phone photo shows UNHCR trucking people out of harm's way in a very remote and dangerous area of western Georgia.

GENEVA, August 15 (UNHCR) More than 700 frightened residents of the remote Khodori Valley in Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia region have been escorted to safety in a two-day operation mounted by UN refugee agency staff. This comes as UNHCR airlifts over 100 tonnes of humanitarian aid to Georgia.

Hundreds of Georgian civilians earlier this week requested UNHCR's help after fleeing over the past weekend from their homes in the Khodori Valley to Tchuberi village, some 80 km north of Zugdidi town in western Georgia.

The group, fearful of passing through military checkpoints, asked UNHCR's office in Zugdidi to accompany them to safety. In all, 732 people were escorted by UNHCR staff in two convoys of private vehicles, trucks, buses and UNHCR lorries that travelled from Tchuberi village to the town of Kutaisi their final destination. The second and last convoy finally reached Kutaisi at 3 am on Friday morning. Everyone made it out safely, with no incidents.

"Most of these people are in good physical condition, but they have been traumatized and shocked by violent events unfolding over the past week and they feared for their own safety. They asked us to help with the safe passage," said Srecko Neumann, the head of UNHCR's office in Zugdidi. "This would be impossible without the cooperation of Russian and Georgian authorities."

The first makeshift convoy, carrying 541 people in some 40 private vehicles, trucks, buses and three UNHCR lorries, reached a temporary transit centre set up in the local stadium in Zugdidi on Wednesday evening. There, the displaced people received food, water and medical assistance before proceeding the same night to Kutaisi.

The second convoy reached Zugdidi Thursday evening. It brought an additional 191 people from Tchuberi village. The Georgian Ministry for Refugees and Accommodation provided help with the transport onwards to Kutaisi, where the displaced people are now accommodated in five government collective centres. The UN refugee agency is following up on the conditions of their accommodation and needs.

The UNHCR office in Zugdidi remains in contact with the local officials in Tchuberi and is ready to react in case new internally displaced people (IDPs) arrive in the area.

Meanwhile, UNHCR's third humanitarian airlift flight to Georgia since the fighting erupted in South Ossetia on August 8, took off on Friday from Copenhagen with more than 38 tonnes of jerry cans, blankets, kitchen sets and telecommunications equipment. It follows two earlier flights from the agency's emergency warehouse in Dubai on Tuesday and Thursday.

With this flight, the refugee agency has delivered more than 100 metric tons of relief supplies within five days enough for more than 50,000 people. In addition to the airlifted supplies being brought in to augment stockpiles already in Georgia, the UNHCR office in Tbilisi has begun local procurement of various non-food items.

Next week, on Tuesday and Wednesday, the agency will send two airlift flights to Vladikavkaz in the Russian Federation, following the acceptance by Russian authorities of an aid offer from High Commissioner António Guterres. UNHCR has an office in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia, which will assist its Russian partners in receiving the supplies.

Guterres will travel to Georgia and the Russian Federation next week to assess UNHCR's humanitarian operations in both countries and to discuss with the two governments any further support they may require. He will continue to press for the protection of the civilian population, particularly the displaced, and for access by humanitarian agencies.

The latest estimates of displacement related to the conflict now total more than 118,000, based on figures provided by the governments. Russian officials in North Ossetia indicate some 30,000 people from South Ossetia are still in the Russian Federation. Georgian officials report that up to 15,000 people have fled south from South Ossetia into Georgia proper. In addition, some 73,000 people are displaced in Georgia proper, including most of the population of Gori which is just south of the boundary with South Ossetia.

UNHCR, which has six offices in Georgia working on behalf of some 275,000 previously displaced people, is pressing ahead with plans to distribute assistance to the newly displaced as quickly as possible. Initial supplies have been delivered to some 2,000 people in and around the capital. Tents and other items were also delivered earlier to Gori, and a total of 20 UNHCR teams have fanned out across Georgia to conduct needs assessments.