TBILISI (Reuters) – Leila Inauri laughed grimly at the irony of her situation.
“The Russians have driven us from our homes and now we end up as refugees here in a building that used to be the base for Russian soldiers serving in the Caucasus. It is an irony of fate,” the matronly 48-year-old teacher said.
Inauri is one of some 1,500 refugees from Russian-occupied parts Georgia now living in a cavernous, 10-storey building on the edge of the capital Tbilisi which served as a garrison for Soviet troops in communist times.
Now, its dusty corridors and rusty stairwells are filled with refugees hugging loaves of bread, carrying sacks of humanitarian aid or trying to cheer up listless children.
Outside the decrepit, peeling building, a line of old men sit dazed and despondent, refusing all comment, while women fill plastic bottles with water from makeshift taps nearby.
The refugees have tried to recreate some semblance of home in the bare dormitory rooms furnished with fold-up beds and old tables provided by international aid agencies.
“Things are not so bad here but we all just want to go home, as soon as the Russians leave,” said Inauri, who came to Tbilisi a week ago with three of her four children from the central Georgian town of Gori, still occupied by the Russians.
Nora Midodashvili, 44, was less optimistic about returning to her village in South Ossetia, the breakaway Georgian province at the heart of the conflict between Tbilisi and Moscow.
“We escaped with our car and left everything else behind. This is my lovely house. We don’t know if or when we will see it again,” she said, opening her cellphone to show a photograph.
“We had to leave my mother-in-law behind, she is 80. We don’t even know if she is still alive,” said Midodashvili.
The conflict erupted when Georgia’s pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili sent troops to recapture South Ossetia, outside Tbilisi’s control since 1992, triggering a huge Russian counter-offensive that has created tens of thousands of refugees and severely strained ties between Moscow and the West.
Russia says it will pull its troops back behind a buffer zone skirting rebel South Ossetia by Friday but will also keep some troops in the enclave.
It says Tbilisi should forget about ever recovering that territory or Abkhazia, another Moscow-backed rebel province on the Black Sea coast.
“We don’t know if our house is still standing because everybody in our village fled,” said Jana Pekhshvelashvili, 25, cradling a one-year-old boy as she described how she fled heavy Russian aerial bombardment of her village.
“We can’t live here. We have water and food, but we sleep on the floor. There is no gas or electricity so we can’t even cook the rice and pasta they provide,” she said, speaking Georgian through a Russian translator.
The refugees all blamed Russia and its leaders for their flight, saying Moscow wanted to subjugate Georgia and oust their leader Saakashvili.
“This is genocide and Russia is to blame. We are a small democratic country and Russia is the aggressor,” said Inauri.
Revaz Pitskhelauri, 33, a soldier who fled here with his family, said: “Saakashvili had no choice, he had to respond sooner or later to the Russian provocations. What is clear is that the Russians wanted this war all along.”