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After Russian Withdrawal, Georgian Town Regroups
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After Russian Withdrawal, Georgian Town Regroups

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After Russian Withdrawal, Georgian Town Regroups
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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Now, to the country of Georgia, where thousands of people are returning to their homes. They had fled during the short but violent conflict with Russia. Gori was the largest Georgian town occupied by Russian forces. They ransacked and blew up two Georgian military bases there.

But as NPR's Mike Shuster reports, the returning Georgians have found much of Gori untouched by the fighting.

MIKE SHUSTER: There's a short stretch of Sukhishvili Street, on Gori's east side, where half a dozen Soviet-style apartment buildings have been scorched and wrecked from Russian bombing runs. Residents of Sukhishvili Street straggled back over the weekend to take a look at the damage. Among them, a distraught, elderly Elena Zavakidze.

Ms. ELENA ZAVAKIDZE: (Through translator) I really don't know what to do. The first bomb just hit our building and all walls are just kind of broken. There are no windows. I don't know what to do. I don't know where the government can take us.

SHUSTER: 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 inhabitable. The death toll is unclear. Local hospitals report more than 60 civilians killed in Gori.

Zaza Babutidze, a 33-year-old house painter, could only stare blankly at the wreckage of his apartment. He witnessed the Russian attack.

Mr. ZAZA BABUTIDZE (Painter): (Through translator) I was at home when it was being bombed. My neighbor was killed, like next to me. After the bombing, I left.

SHUSTER: Is your apartment completely destroyed?

Mr. BABUTIDZE: (Through translator) It's impossible to live there.

SHUSTER: Gori was a town of about 35,000 residents and many of them did not flee.

Dana Dalakishvili, a physics teacher, lives on the Gori'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.

Ms. DANA DALAKISHVILI (Resident, Gori): (Through translator) From the beginning, we were absolutely at home, and then we began going out of the house just to talk to neighbors. But we did not leave the house to go into the center.

SHUSTER: And so, for how many days did you have to rely on the food that you had in the house?

Ms. DALAKISHVILI: (Through translator) For almost 12 days, actually, people shared food. Families shared food and some people baked, and so this way, we survive.

SHUSTER: 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.

Unidentified Man: (Through translator) They were so little that he was kind of angry and he said to take back because they were very little.

SHUSTER: Are people hungry in Gori?

Unidentified Man: (Through translator) Yes, they are hungry.

SHUSTER: But there does not appear to be any serious long-term problem with getting food in the town. And the Russians made a conscious choice not to destroy the civilian infrastructure of Gori, which had electricity and running water throughout the crisis.

Still, on Sunday, 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 like Dana Dalakishvili worry that this is not the last of the crisis with Russia.

Ms. DALAKISHVILI: (Through translator) Since Russia has (unintelligible) that much, it took (unintelligible) it will do some more. I'm afraid.

SHUSTER: Although Russian troops pulled back from the main east-west highway that runs through Gori, there are still Russians at a checkpoint a few miles north on the road to South Ossetia - the breakaway territory where this short, little conflict started.

Mike Shuster, NPR News, Gori.

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