GORI, Georgia — Members of European Command's Joint Assessment team, accompanied by officials from the government of the Republic of Georgia, toured the embattled city of Gori to assess the level of damage, the status of relief efforts, and the return of displaced persons Aug. 25, 2008.
Gori, Joseph Stalin's former hometown, ironically came under fire by Russian forces on Aug. 8, 2008 and suffered damage to its transportation, energy, government and residential infrastructure.
Gori sits 65 km north of the Georgian capital of Tbilisi and 15 km from the break-away province of South Ossetia. Russian forces vacated the city two days ago, making it safe for Georgians to return, but, according to reports, remain only 7 km to the north.
Lt. Col. Otto Fiala, a member of the civil affairs team from the United States that traveled to Gori, explained the purpose of the visit.
"We're here today to do our initial assessment of the damage here in Gori," stated Fiala. "Then [we'll] work with USAID and the United States government to go ahead and support the government of Georgia and the rebuilding of this area."
The team was also joined by Member of Parliament and Deputy Chairman of its Legal Issues Committee, Akaki Minashvili. He expressed his thanks to the United States for its current support and further expanded upon what he feels the government of Georgia should request from the international community.
"So far we have the Russians in the Poti port - they're controlling some major economic engines - and we hope that they will leave this country," said Minashvili. "The major help is the economic help and the political help is also significant for us. And military rehabilitation as well. We have to rehabilitate all we lost from Russia because it is very important in this region when you have a neighbor like Russia that you should be able to defend yourself."
During the assessment, significant fire damage was observed at an apartment complex where 16 Georgians were killed and 13 injured. Additionally, the assessors were taken to the central square where two reporters lost their lives due to mortar fire.
They also saw a completely destroyed national guard facility and school, a vandalized and burned artillery base, and locations where Russian missiles had landed yet remain largely intact - one in a shed and another in a family's master bedroom.
According to Mr. Minashvili, people are systematically returning to Gori, taking advantage of government-funded bus transportation. Yesterday, approximately 5,000 of an estimated 130,000 displaced persons returned.
While there is significant damage to some parts of the city, there are also signs of improvement and normalcy.
Banks and shops are open; new windows in some places have been installed; repaving of a main thoroughfare is in progress; and general clean-up efforts are well underway.
Lt. Colonel Lawrence Tubbs, also with the civil affairs team and a liaison to the Georgian government was impressed by the energy and resiliency of the people of Gori. "You know, the first thing that strikes me is I'm impressed by the amount of activity here in Gori and it seems like the people of Gori, the local government, have committed themselves to cleaning up as quickly as possible because there is activity all throughout the city," Tubbs said. "[They're] cleaning up all the damage that had been done recently, so, I think that in and of itself is a good sign and that will probably facilitate also a lot of returns back to Gori."
The assessment team will now evaluate today's observations and share them with the lead U.S. agency for distributing aid, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Additionally, working in conjunction with the government of Georgia, a determination will be made on what level of military civil affairs response should be requested.