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UNHCR Gains Access to Buffer Zone in Georgia

The U.N. refugee agency says it finally has succeeded in entering the so-called "buffer zone" north of the town of Gori in Georgia. Lisa Schlein reports from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva the zone is controlled by Russian military forces and has been out of reach during the past weeks due to the unstable security situation.

The so-called buffer zone is a strip of land that borders Georgia and its breakaway region of South Ossetia. It is under control of the Russian military and during the past few weeks thousands of residents were forced to flee their homes after being attacked by marauding militia men, many reportedly from South Ossetia.

The area has been off-limits to the U.N. refugee agency until now. Spokesman William Spindler says aid workers who recently ventured into the area to assess the situation were disturbed by what they saw.

"There is still a great deal of fear among the people currently residing in these villages," he said. "Beatings, looting and arson by marauding militias have created an atmosphere of fear and insecurity."

"The destruction of buildings and houses is not as widespread as was initially feared and varies from village to village. In Karaleti, for example, our team counted 29 houses destroyed, out of some 600. In Kitsnisi, only a few buildings have been burned or bombed, while more material and psychological damage has been caused by lootings and destruction inside people's houses," he added.

Spindler says the situation and the needs in the villages north of Gori are similar. He says all of the communities are largely dependent on agriculture for food and income. He says villagers told UNHCR up to 80 percent of this year's harvest is gone.

"This is due to restricted irrigation water coming mostly from South Ossetia and the fact that during the hostilities heavy military equipment passed through many fields damaging the crops," said Spindler.

"In addition, there are still a lot of mines and unexploded ordnance littering the fields and gardens, preventing people from collecting the harvest. As the local gas pipeline is not functioning any longer, the villagers now rely on firewood, both for cooking and heating. As a result, the price of firewood has risen by 50 percent," he continued.

Spindler says the UNHCR plans to conduct regular assessment missions to the buffer zone and to provide aid to the inhabitants. Since the situation has calmed down, he says a number of people who had previously fled have now returned to their homes.

Based on first assessments, he says returnees to the villages in the buffer zone need rehabilitation and reconstruction assistance as many of their homes have been burned down or otherwise damaged. He says they also will need supplementary food and firewood.