On the steps of Gori City Hall, an elderly woman waits for the local government to determine what to do with her and the town's other residents whose homes were destroyed in the recent fighting with Russia's invading army.
On the steps of Gori City Hall, an elderly woman waits for the local government to determine what to do with her and the town's other residents whose homes were destroyed in the recent fighting with Russia's invading army. Mike Shuster/NPR
Thousands of Georgians who fled the fighting during Russia's recent invasion are now returning to their homes, and many are finding far less damage than they feared.
Gori was the largest town occupied by Russian forces, who blew up and ransacked two Georgian military bases there. A few residential neighborhoods suffered some damage, but those returning found much of Gori surprisingly untouched.
Still, there were exceptions.
Along a short stretch of Sokishvili Street, on Gori's east side, half a dozen Soviet-style apartment buildings were scorched and wrecked from Russian bombing runs. Residents of the street straggled back over the weekend to take a look at the damage. Among them was a distraught, elderly Elena Zavakidze.
"I really don't know what to do. The first bomb just hit our building and all walls are just kind of broken," she said in Georgian. "I don't know what to do. I don't know where the government can take us."
Zavakidze fled the Russian attack along with her son and four grandchildren. Hundreds of families in these apartment houses were displaced by the fighting, and most of the apartments are no longer habitable. The death toll is unclear. Local hospitals report more than 60 civilians killed.
Zaza Babutidze, a 33-year-old house painter, could only stare blankly at the wreckage of his apartment. He witnessed the Russian attack.
"I was at home when it was being bombed," he said in Georgian. "My neighbor was killed, like next to me. After the bombing, I left."
He said it's now impossible to live in his apartment.
Gori is a town of about 35,000 residents; many of them did not flee.
Dana Dalakishvili, a physics teacher, lives on the town's west side with her sister and their 87-year-old father, who is disabled. There was some sporadic shooting, she says, but no damage.
"From the beginning, we were absolutely at home, and then we began going out of the house just to talk to neighbors," she says in Georgian. "But we did not leave the house to go into the center."
She added: "For almost 12 days, actually, people shared food. Families shared food and some people baked, and this way people survived."
Gori's food supply has been dwindling. Over the weekend, a few bakeries were operating. The outdoor market has reopened, but there was little for sale beyond some peaches and plums brought from the gardens of nearby villages.
One fruit seller, who did not want to give his name for fear of retribution, criticized the government for failing to get enough humanitarian aid to Gori. He said the town's residents were hungry.
There does not appear, however, to be any serious long-term problem with getting food in the town.
The Russians made a conscious choice not to destroy the civilian infrastructure of Gori, which had electricity and running water throughout the crisis.
On Sunday, however, a thundering explosion at a nearby railroad line left residents with jangled nerves. A fuel train apparently hit a land mine and blew up, resulting in a huge fire. No one was killed, but many Georgians worry that this is not the last of the crisis with Russia.
Although Russian troops pulled back from the main east-west highway that runs through Gori, some remain at a checkpoint a few miles north on the road to South Ossetia, the breakaway territory where this short conflict started.