UNHCR chief visits South Ossetia

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres visits the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia to assess the humanitarian situation.

High Commissioner António Guterres visits refugees and displaced persons from South Ossetia in Alagir rehabilitation centre in North Ossetia.   © UNHCR/A.Neshin

MOSCOW, Russian Federation, August 22 (UNHCR) - UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres arrived in Moscow on Friday evening after visiting the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia.

The landmark visit to South Ossetia was aimed at evaluating the humanitarian situation as well as the possibilities for humanitarian access and seeing first-hand the conditions for the return of those uprooted by the crisis. Details were not immediately available.

It came at the tail end of his four-day visit to Georgia and the Russian Federation, who clashed over the region earlier this month triggering the displacement of tens of thousands of people. Guterres is the first senior international official to travel to South Ossetia, which can currently only be entered from North Ossetia. He expressed his appreciation to Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the Russian authorities for facilitating his humanitarian mission.

Guterres began his regional visit in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, where he visited displaced people in two collective centres and held discussions with high-ranking Georgian authorities on Tuesday. The High Commissioner met in Moscow on Wednesday with Foreign Minister Lavrov.

"We discussed humanitarian access, both in relation to areas of Georgia proper where military movements are still taking place and to South Ossetia itself," Guterres said of his meeting with Lavrov. "We also examined humanitarian assistance and protection in North Ossetia, which has received thousands of people who fled South Ossetia. In that context, we discussed the process of, and prospects for, voluntary return. We also agreed on the principle of the non-discriminatory nature of the right of return for all civilians forced to flee."

Russian authorities estimate that more than 30,000 people from South Ossetia fled to the Russian republic of North Ossetia after the short conflict erupted on August 8. Another 128,000 were estimated to have been displaced in Georgia.

While in Moscow, the High Commissioner also visited the new emergency coordination centre operated by EMERCOM, the Russian emergency relief agency with which UNHCR has a longstanding cooperation agreement. On Thursday evening in the North Ossetia capital of Vladikavkaz, he met with Sergey Shoigu, minister for civil defence, emergencies and disaster response.

Guterres also held talks with the head of Russia's Federal Migration Service, Konstantin Romodanovsky, who accompanied him in his visits to refugee sites in North Ossetia. Their talks included a thorough analysis of recent substantial progress in the development of Russia's asylum system.

After arriving in Vladikavkaz, the High Commissioner visited refugees and displaced people from South Ossetia and praised the rapid and effective response to their needs by Russia's humanitarian agencies, including EMERCOM and FMS. Uprooted people in two church-sponsored accommodation centres were unanimous in their desire to return to South Ossetia as soon as they felt it was safe.

"It was very clear to me that the large majority of those here want to go back home as soon as possible," Guterres told reporters. "Working with refugees around the world, we always prefer voluntary repatriation and we certainly hope it will be possible very soon."

Meanwhile, the refugee agency continues to distribute aid in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi and in the west of the country. On Thursday, UNHCR teams visited all 500 IDPs in the western town of Senaki and distributed vitally needed blankets, kitchen sets and jerry cans. One group of 143 people, all displaced this month or in earlier conflicts from the breakaway region of Abkhazia to the west, were found sheltering in a shell-damaged hotel which was being used as a collective centre.

In a second-floor room, a wailing woman mourned for her 29-year-old son, Djoni, who was decapitated by shrapnel as he tried to escape the shelling. His few possessions, including an ID card, sunglasses and a bunch of keys, were laid out on a bed. "What life did he have?" sobbed his mother, who fled in 1992 from Abkhazia, which became a second flashpoint during the recent fighting.

Locals were happy to see UNHCR staff in the town and eagerly explained their situation. Mate, aged 13, showed photos he had taken with his mobile phone of destroyed buildings and the twisted remains of his father's car. Many of those in the west who fled to Georgia proper in the 1990s are going through the trauma all over again. "We are going through this horror for the second time. Where do we flee from here?" asked 62-year-old former nurse, Magvala.

"These people found themselves displaced in what became the frontline in the western region. We will ensure that they are not forgotten," pledged Alessandra Morelli, UNHCR's emergency coordinator for western Georgia.

UNHCR will continue its humanitarian assistance based on a strictly non-political approach while stressing the non-discriminatory nature of humanitarian action for all of the people affected by the conflict and emphasizing the right of return for all of the displaced regardless of ethnicity, religion or political affiliation.

By Ron Redmond in Moscow, Russian Federation
and Melita H. Sunjic in Senaki, Georgia