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SOMICO, Georgia, January 15 (UNHCR) - Ema Maisuradze's best friend is her dog, Butkhu. He keeps the 48-year-old spinster company in her tumbledown home and acts as her eyes and ears in this hilltop village in northern Georgia's stunning Racha region where she lives, alone and far from the town in Abkhazia she was forced to flee 20 years ago.
She certainly needs this help. Blind and unable to use her right arm, Ema lives in damp, unhealthy conditions. She more or less has to fend for herself in a seven-square-metre space that acts as dining, living and bedroom. The outside lavatory is a hole in the ground with a couple of wobbly planks of wood covering it.
Clearly it is unsuitable for a woman in her condition, but she has been living alone like this since her father died three years ago, and none of her three sisters want to bring her to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, to care for her. The neighbours occasionally help with cooking and cleaning, but Ema must go herself by taxi to buy provisions with her meagre allowance.
There are still 65 internally displaced families living in Racha's villages, most from the disputed Abkhazia region, which Georgia still claims. UNHCR is particularly concerned with the most vulnerable cases, including Ema, whose needs will only increase with age. The refugee agency first came across Ema during a mission last year to assess the needs of internally displaced people (IDPs) still living in the remote and hard to access villages in Racha's wonderful wilderness.
Now, with funding from the Netherlands, the refugee agency has begun providing direct assistance to the most vulnerable IDP households, identified around Georgia by needs assessment missions like the one that found Ema in Racha. The aid includes cash grants and a range of non-food items ranging from folding beds to kitchen sets. When UNHCR returned recently to Racha with a truckload of aid for the most vulnerable - including those with mental or physical health problems, those unable to care for themselves and those without family or community support - Ema was the first person they called on.
She was delighted. "I was hoping that you would return with some help, but I didn't expect that it would be so soon or that you would bring all these things," she told UNHCR staff as they unloaded her aid. "I can't remember the last time I was so happy and received such presents, maybe when I was a child," Ema said, as she felt each item, working out what it was.
When she was handed a cash grant, she smiled. "I will [now] be able to buy some food, warm clothes and firewood for the winter, and if there is something left I can buy a new set of teeth so I can eat and smile properly." But she was overjoyed that UNHCR had brought her a radio/CD player, explaining that she loved music and "when I'm listening I don't feel as lonely and sad, I just think about good things."
The music takes her back to her youth in the Abkhazia town of Gudauta on the Black Sea, when she had her sight, was surrounded by loving friends and family, and was full of plans for the future. That all came crashing down in 1992, during the Abkhazia conflict, when she was badly injured by a bomb explosion in Sukhumi - five years later, after fleeing from Abkhazia, she was completely blind. She moved to Somico, her grandparents' village in Racha, in the late 1990s, still young but with a bleak future.
The UNHCR team, happy to bring a small ray of light into her darkness, also helped Ema by cutting up firewood, cleaning her room and storing her new bedding, blankets, kitchen set and other items in her home, before moving on to help other IDPs in the Racha region.
Such as Caca Gugeshashvili, a widow who fled to nearby Borco village from Abkhazia with her late husband in 1993 and now lives alone. The 76-year-old cries when she talks about fleeing her home. "I have been an IDP for 20 years and this is the first time that I have received real help," said the mother of two adult children, clearly moved by the UNHCR visit.
Her neighbour, 87-year-old Tamara Gugeshashvili, an IDP from the Abkhazia capital of Sukhumi, also received assistance. She has been paralyzed since suffering a stroke three years ago, but she at least has her son Merab and daughter-in-law to take care of her. "Our mother needs assistance that we can't afford... and now, with your kind help, we will be able to do a lot of things for our dearest suffering mother," said Merab.
In the village of Glola, UNHCR called on Lola Maisuradze, who lives in a house she built stone-by-stone, but is now confined to a wheelchair because of acute arthritis. The 74-year-old said the aid was "never expected, but needed so badly... it's the first time in our lives that my husband and I have received money and assistance without hard work and sweat."
The UNHCR team discovered many more in the isolated region in need of help, especially during the harsh winter. While the government provides basic aid packages to the needy, it is often not enough and UNHCR has been trying to help the most vulnerable. "What UNHCR would really like to see is a joint effort of all concerned partners to bring sustainable development to this region," said Simone Wolken, UNHCR representative in Georgia.
The IDPs still dream of returning to Abkhazia, which they fled when young or middle-aged. But their numbers in the Racha region are diminishing as there's not much a future here for most young people and security is an issue because of the proximity to South Ossetia, another breakaway region of Georgia. This all makes life tougher for those who do stay as it is difficult to access agricultural land and water sources near the border.
Some worry that they will be forgotten again soon. "International organizations come to us asking about our problems, but they never return with support," said one villager. "Who knows, maybe you are different and you will come back with assistance and protection." UNHCR is commtted to their welfare and Ema knows that Butkha is not her only friend.
By Nino Kajaia in Somico, Georgia