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Devastated Georgia Begins To Rebuild After War

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Devastated Georgia Begins To Rebuild After War

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Devastated Georgia Begins To Rebuild After War

Devastated Georgia Begins To Rebuild After War

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Georgian soldiers march outside the newly rebuilt army barracks in the town of Gori. Russian forces destroyed the base and occupied the town during the war in August. Ivan Watson/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Ivan Watson/NPR

Georgian soldiers march outside the newly rebuilt army barracks in the town of Gori. Russian forces destroyed the base and occupied the town during the war in August.

Ivan Watson/NPR

A worker spreads mortar for the foundation of one of more than 2,000 houses that have sprung up in the last month. The homes are part of the Georgian government's program to house some of the 30,000 refugees from last summer's war before this winter. Ivan Watson/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Ivan Watson/NPR

A worker spreads mortar for the foundation of one of more than 2,000 houses that have sprung up in the last month. The homes are part of the Georgian government's program to house some of the 30,000 refugees from last summer's war before this winter.

Ivan Watson/NPR

Protesters demonstrate in front of the presidential palace on Nov. 7. The opposition protest was held on the anniversary of a violent government crackdown on demonstrators, which led to police seizing control of Georgia's second largest TV station. Ivan Watson/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Ivan Watson/NPR

Protesters demonstrate in front of the presidential palace on Nov. 7. The opposition protest was held on the anniversary of a violent government crackdown on demonstrators, which led to police seizing control of Georgia's second largest TV station.

Ivan Watson/NPR

Jujya Mebonya weeps over the grave of his son Gorgi, a provincial government official who was killed by a remote-detonated land mine last month, while investigating reports of artillery strikes near the boundary with the breakaway regions of Abkhazia. Ivan Watson/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Ivan Watson/NPR

Jujya Mebonya weeps over the grave of his son Gorgi, a provincial government official who was killed by a remote-detonated land mine last month, while investigating reports of artillery strikes near the boundary with the breakaway regions of Abkhazia.

Ivan Watson/NPR

It's been three months since the militaries of two former Soviet countries, Russia and Georgia, clashed in the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

The Georgians were quickly routed by the enormous Russian army, and three months later, Georgians are coming to terms with the consequences of their disastrous military defeat.

Columns of Russian tanks no longer rumble up and down Georgia's highways. For the most part, the Russian army has withdrawn to the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But it's still dangerous for the 30,000 Georgians who were forced to flee the conflict to go back home.

Rebuilding Begins

The all but empty Georgian villages around South Ossetia bore the brunt of the anger of South Ossetian militias, and human rights organizations have accused them of ethnic cleansing when they followed the Russian army as it advanced into Georgia.

Stray dogs howl in the abandoned Georgian village of Ergoeti. The farmhouses have all been torched and looted, and the grapes and tomatoes are dying on the vines. In the distance, about two miles away, construction equipment rumbles in the South Ossetian town of Tskhinvali, which is protected by the Russian military.

While Russia pours millions of dollars into rebuilding war-damaged South Ossetia, the Georgian government is building thousands of new houses for refugees.

On a flat plain near Tbilisi, armies of construction workers have built more than 2,000 small houses in a matter of weeks. This is just the largest of a number of similar housing developments that have sprouted up in the Georgian countryside since the war.

Gegita Sheresadishvili, a refugee who is building roofs here, says he isn't impressed.

"What is this?" he asks, derisively pointing at the unfinished house he is working on.

He says there is no room for the gardens and orchards many Georgians depend on to feed their families, and no source of employment for the thousands of refugees who may one day live here.

Sheresadishvili and his family have been living in a kindergarten in Tbilisi since they fled their homes in South Ossetia during the August war. His uncle stayed behind and was killed by Ossetian militiamen, Sheresadishvili says.

'We Are Not Crying Wolf'

Russia and Georgia agreed to a European-brokered cease-fire last August. But since then, there have been a series of mysterious explosions and shootings along the boundaries with the breakaway regions.

On a hilltop cemetery, relatives weep and perform the ritual of pouring wine on the grave of Gorgi Bebonya, a Georgian official who was killed last month near Abkhazia by a remote-detonated land mine. At least five Georgian police officers have been killed in separate incidents this month.

Deputy Defense Minister Batu Kutelia accuses the Russians of encouraging separatist militants in the two regions.

"The situation is quite tense, and what we see is that Russian side, together with separatists, are on a daily basis promoting escalation on the ground in different parts of Georgia," Kutelia says.

"The Russians want to consolidate their presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia," says Peter Semneby, the EU's special representative to the Caucasus.

"Russia probably does want to weaken Georgia as well. Russia wants to have a say in Georgia's strategic orientation in the future," Semneby says. "It's a game that is being played out at various levels."

The Europeans were instrumental in negotiating the cease-fire agreement that ended the war, but Semneby says Moscow still hasn't complied with key parts of the agreement.

He says Russian forces often refuse to allow European monitors to cross into South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and Russian soldiers continue to occupy a Georgian town barely 25 miles from the Georgian capital. Government minister Temuri Yakobashvili says the Russians still pose a threat to his country.

"We are not crying wolf. Wolf is here and sitting 40 kilometers from Tbilisi," Yakobashvili says.

Opposition Growing

Some Georgians are starting to blame their fiercely anti-Russian president Mikhail Saakashvili, for getting them into this mess.

A pensioner named Lily Lomidze was one of thousands of protesters attending an opposition rally earlier this month in downtown Tbilisi.

"Russia is, of course, aggressor. We know it, but you must think, 'You are president. You cannot do such a thing. We are a little nation. Georgia is little one, and it's big, our Russia," Lomidze says. "You must be diplomat. You mustn't say bad things."

The crowd assembled in front of a banner that read, "Stop Russia, Stop Misha," referring to Saakashvili's nickname.

The protest was held on the one-year anniversary of a highly-criticized government crackdown during which police attacked opposition demonstrators and seized control of one of Georgia's biggest TV channels.

The episode hurt Saakashvili's self-proclaimed image as a democratic reformer.

"We have noticed a low level of tolerance against dissenting opinion in this country, whether its media, or opposition or civil society voices," says Giorgi Gogia, a researcher from Human Rights Watch.

"Developing democracy without being secure is quite dangerous," says Alexander Rondeli, director of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic Studies. "The problem with Georgia is how to be secure, and who will give us this security guaranty."

Saakashvili has long dreamed of winning membership for Georgia in the NATO military alliance. But senior French and German diplomats say Georgia's war with Russia killed the small country's chances of being accepted into NATO's Membership Action Program.

Instead, Western donors have pledged to give Georgia more then $4 billion in aid to help rebuild after the war. But to get that money, Western diplomats say the Saakashvili government will have to work harder to re-establish its democratic credentials.

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