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Georgians Return Home to War Ravaged Villages, but Many Have Nowhere to Go

The war between Georgia and Russia in early August drove more than 130,000 Georgians from their homes as they fled bombing, shelling and looting. Two months later, most of them have been able to return, but tens of thousands are still living in shelters or with relatives because they cannot go home. VOA's Sonja Pace visited some of them in the Georgian town of Gori.

A kindergarten in downtown Gori has been turned into a shelter. Some 170 people call it home - at least for now.

They have all fled the violence of the war in August - the bombing and shelling, the shooting, looting and burnt homes and villages.

In one of the classrooms a half dozen women gather round - some sit on tiny chairs made for the children of the school. That doesn't seem to matter. These women have their stories to tell.

Elene Khaduri, 69, comes from the village of Kurta in South Ossetia and tells a harrowing tale of having to flee with other older people.

"All the Georgian villages in the territory of South Ossetia were destroyed by fire. Then we had to escape. The older couple asked me to take them along and another 63 year old man came also. We were hiding and went through the forest and we slept in the forest," she said.

She tells of a journey through empty villages, fields and orchards - of taking back ways to avoid armed men along the roads. She says they made it to the buffer zone, found shelter and were finally rescued by a young relative.

"On the 15th day, he rushed in, in a taxi. He took us through the villages and this is how we came here," she added.

It's one of many stories here in Georgia, where over 130,000 people fled the fighting that broke out between Georgian forces and Russian troops and their separatist allies in the breakaway region of South Ossetia. The Russians quickly routed the Georgian army and moved deep into Georgian territory, establishing self-declared buffer zones around South Ossetia and the other breakaway Georgian enclave of Abkhazia in the northwest.

People fled to live with relatives or in shelters. The Russians have now withdrawn from the buffer zones.

Stefano Berti heads the Gori office of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR. He says getting people back home is now the priority.

"The government and international organizations - we are starting rehabilitation and reconstruction projects in the buffer zone. So hopefully, their [the displaced people's] needs will be covered before the winter," he said.

Georgians are returning home, but often to destroyed and burnt out houses. They say they need help to rebuild.

But, some 30,000 have yet to return. And for the women in the Gori kindergarten going back is not an option now. Most come from villages in South Ossetia - where Russian troops are in control and separatists have declared independence from Georgia.

Zizilo Terushvili, 68, says she heard from neighbors that her house was burned down just a day ago. And, she says the local council there set an ultimatum for those wishing to return.

"[They said] whoever lived here, you can come back but you must give up your Georgian passport and take a Russian passport," she said.

The women are adamant - why should we do that they say - we're Georgian - South Ossetia was our home.

But for now, this is home - Kindergarten Number 12. They have shelter, bedding, donated clothes and food. They attempt to establish some semblance of normalcy.

For Elene Khaduri and the others going home seems a remote dream.

"I don't know what the government will do. They probably won't leave us in the street," she said.

So for now - they wait and hope.