Georgian Refugees Appear Free to Return Home but Remain Fearful

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Traffic moved through a Russian checkpoint on Sunday, but crowds of refugees remained camped nearby, preferring hot tents and filthy toilets to the violence they fear awaits them at home.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Russia will give military aid to the two separatist regions at the center of the war with Georgia — a sign Russia has no intention of backing down in the face of Western criticism.

The war began Aug. 7 when Georgian forces began heavy shelling of the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, hoping to retake control of the province. Russian forces poured in, pushed the Georgians out in a matter of days and then drove deep into Georgia proper.

Fighting has ended, but on Sunday a handful of Russian soldiers armed with automatic rifles leaned casually on concrete road dividers at the Karaleti checkpoint, about four miles north of the city of Gori, which Russian forces had controlled until Aug. 22. They gave cursory inspections to the occasional cars headed into the zone.

A soldier said movement was completely free and the only concern was whether people had weapons.

But that was not the point for refugees in a camp at a playing field in Gori. They claim the Russian forces say their security cannot be guaranteed — and many fear not only local militias and bandits, but the Russians themselves.

The refugees fled in the war over the separatist region of South Ossetia, which is now under tight Russian control along with the security zone four miles into Georgia proper.

"We are afraid to go back if there won't be any police or soldiers" to guard the returnees, said Tsiuri Mariamidze, from the buffer-zone village of Kitznisi. "The Ossetians were coming in cars ... pushing young people into cars and taking them to Tskhinvali," the South Ossetian capital.

"At any minute, they could come and start shooting — the Russians and the Ossetians," said another refugee, Natsi Talkashvili.

Ano Chimakhidze, 75, said "maybe the Russians won't harm us, but we are still afraid." And it could be traumatic for her to return to the scene of her recent terror.

When marauders started burning and looting her village of Kavarti, she said, "I went into the fields to sleep ... I put grass on top of myself to hide."

In comparison, the camp in Gori is a sanctuary of civility, despite the refugees having to get water from a hose and endure portable toilets smeared with excrement.

Georgia appears likely to be hosting tens of thousands of refugees for a grindingly long and expensive time. How much aid the small and struggling country will need to support them is to be among the top issues of a European Union emergency summit on Monday.

The United States also has sent substantial aid to Georgia following the war, using naval ships and military aircraft. Russian officials speculated that the United States was trying to restore Georgia's armed forces, which had received massive military aid from Washington in recent years.

Asked whether the United States was considering new military aid, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said on a Saturday visit to Gori that "these subjects are part of a longer and midterm discussion" when Congress reconvenes in September.

Under an EU-brokered cease-fire, both sides were supposed to return their forces to prewar positions, but Russia has interpreted one of the agreement's clauses as allowing the security zones, now marked by Russian checkpoints.

Georgia has severed diplomatic ties with Moscow to protest the presence of Russian troops on its territory. It claims, as does the West, that Russia is violating the EU agreement. Russia and Georgia are keeping consular offices in each other's capitals to assist their citizens living in the countries.

Moscow condemned the diplomatic cutoff, which will require Georgia and Russia to negotiate through third countries if they negotiate at all. That would make for a sticky situation because Russia sees Western nations as biased in Georgia's favor. Georgia, which had pushed for a greater role for international organizations, could see it as advantage.

But it may bring little change, because there were few signs of productive diplomacy even before the war.

Trade between Russia and Georgia is also minimal, following Russia's imposition in 2006 of bans on Georgia's major exports — wine and mineral water — and other products. Only a fraction of foreign investment in Georgia comes from Russia. A Russian ban on direct flights to and from Georgia was lifted this year but flights halted again when the war broke out.

Russia has faced isolation over its offensive in Georgia and its recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. No other country has followed suit and recognized the regions' independence. The United States and European nations have condemned Russia's actions but are hard-pressed to find an effective response.

Medvedev said he expects agreements soon to lay the basis for "allied" relations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

"These international agreements will spell out our obligations on providing support and assistance: economic, social, humanitarian and military," he said.

With European Union leaders set to discuss how to deal with an increasingly assertive Russia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has angrily warned Europe not to do America's bidding and said Moscow does not fear Western sanctions.

Adding to the tension, a lawmaker in South Ossetia said Russia intends eventually to absorb the province.

South Ossetia broke away from Georgia's central government during a war in the early 1990s, and many see integration into Russia as a logical next step for the province with closer ethnic ties to North Ossetia, in Russia, than with Georgia.