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Team begins effort to aid Georgia refugees

TBLISI, Georgia (BP)–A Southern Baptist overseas team has engaged the relief crisis in the Black Sea country of Georgia, where an estimated 50,000 people, driven from their homes by fighting, have been forced to take refuge in schools and government buildings not equipped to meet their needs.

The four-member team arrived in the Georgian capital, Tblisi, Aug. 18 and very quickly was asked to respond to the immediate needs of about 600 refugees for crucial medicines and personal items, one team member reported. Local officials gave the team a warm reception, and the team is working with a partner in Georgia who can help establish relief operations in the country.

The team is trying to find out what the situation is like in Gori, a central city overrun by Russian troops a week earlier. Many of the displaced people in Tblisi are from Gori, and if the city is largely undamaged, they will be able to return home once the city is reopened, the team member said.

“The critical thing is going to be to find out if Gori was destroyed in any way or if it’s just that people will be able to get back to their apartments and they might be some time without electricity or water or whatever,” the team member said in a telephone interview. “They are suspecting that there’s going to be more in the neighborhood of 5,000 long-term true refugees from Georgian villages in South Ossetia.”

The refugee crisis was created by fighting between Georgian and Russian troops and allied militias in the region. Russian troops and regional paramilitaries took control of Gori, a strategic city in central Georgia, despite the announcement of a truce that should have sent those forces back to their earlier positions. News reports indicated the city was bombed and looted before those forces moved toward Tblisi and dug into positions 30 miles from the capital.

South Ossetia declared its independence from Georgia in the early 1990s — a declaration that has not been recognized by the U.S. government or the United Nations. Abkhazia, which lies west of South Ossetia, has been seeking independence as well. Georgia gained its own independence when the Soviet Union collapsed but has been in conflict with Russia and separatist groups since then.

The current conflict erupted when Georgia launched an offensive in early August to re-establish control over South Ossetia, and Moscow responded with a massive counter-strike. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Aug. 14 that his country believed South Ossetia and Abkhazia independence leaders would not agree to be “forced back into the Georgian state.”

The Southern Baptist relief team tried to locate one tent city of refugees on Tblisi’s western edge but discovered they had been moved because the location was ill-suited to housing them, the team member said. They were, however, able to make contact with about 600 refugees housed in a former military hospital.

“These are Georgians who lived in South Ossetia,” he said. “Their houses, many of them, were set on fire. They are most likely long-term refugees.

“We were asked to come in and provide medicines that they need right away, like antibiotics, high blood pressure medicine, Tylenol and things like that,” the team member said. “Also we were asked to provide things like soap, toilet paper, toothbrushes, toothpaste — things like that just to get them through.”

One team member was focusing on obtaining permission for Southern Baptists and their local partners to set up a relief operation that could focus on crucial immediate needs like feeding refugees and purifying water.

The relief effort in Georgia appears to require a “Level 2” response, said Jim Brown, U.S. director for Baptist Global Response, a Southern Baptist international relief and development organization.

“It looks like this mainly will be a response conducted by partners already on the ground overseas,” Brown said. “It could require help from Southern Baptists stateside, but that need has not yet been established.”

While the groundwork is being laid for a relief effort, prayer is needed for the people in crisis in Georgia, the team member said.

“The first thing is to pray the city of Gori will be free,” he said. “Pray for the long-term relationship between Russians and Georgians. Pray for the government leaders of both countries.

“We need to pray for those people, no matter where they are — South Ossetia or Georgia or Abkhazia — who have been in conflict and are on the edge, that they would find peace,” he added. “Pray that we would have wisdom to know with whom to work, how to do our work, how to best see how a long-term response will help bring hope and peace to this country that has long been in conflict.”
Mark Kelly is an assistant editor with Baptist Press. Baptist Global Response is located on the Internet at gobgr.org

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