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Destitute and traumatised, the refugees forced to flee South Ossetia

The human cost of the short, vicious conflict over South Ossetia can be seen at the building of the former finance ministry in Tbilisi. Dozens of shabbily dressed Georgians, from mothers cradling crying babies to shrivelledold women with walking sticks, sitdejectedly on the steps and stare blankly into the middle distance.

The building – an abandoned shell with bare, grimy offices, musty corridors and peeling paint – now functions as one of several makeshift centres for Georgian refugees who have fled their homes in South Ossetia. Technically, they are not refugees but "internally displaced persons", because South Ossetia is still officially part of Georgia, but it is a distinction that matters little – their suffering is the same.

Mzia Revazeshvili came with 11 relatives, from a village near Gori. She does not know if her house is safe from reported looting. They did not witness any atrocities but her three children are nevertheless traumatised. "Every time they hear the noise of a car, they think it is a Russian plane," she said.

There are about 500 Georgians in this building, which has no running water and few toilets. Two floors have no electricity. No one has showered in days and they sleep on pieces of newspaper laid out on cold, dirty floors. The building is not stuffed with suitcases or bags of hastily assembled belongings usually associated with refugee camps. Most people came only with the clothes they were wearing as they fled the advancing separatist forces.

One man said he was watching television in the morning in his slippers when he had to flee – he had not even had time to put on shoes and socks.

Many people here are from the village of Tamarasheni, which is inside South Ossetia and less than a mile from the capital, Tskhinvali, but until last week was controlled by Georgia.

Last year, the Georgian government flew in the 1970s pop group Boney M to the village to give a concert and boost morale. Locals remembered the concert, when the strains of "Ra Ra Rasputin" were audible in Tskhinvali, with fondness. Today in Tamarasheni, it is a different scene. There are reports of looting and burning by separatists, but many of the refugees refused to blame the Ossetians, saying they had always got on well.

"This is the fault of the Russians," said Georgi Mendiashvili, 66. "They were the ones that started this. But the Georgians were also at fault – they mined the road before we could get out; the whole village left in a convoy and three or four cars exploded. Innocent Georgians were killed by Georgian mines."

One man, who did not want to be named, had defiantly waited at home, refusing to be pushed out of his village. But then looters, who he claimed were irregular Chechen paramilitaries searched the house as he hid in his cellar, stealing everything of value, firing random shots around the rooms and setting fire to his car. He later escaped on foot through a forest.

Tengiz Maisuradze, 56, has the unenviable status of being a "double refugee". He was born in Tskhinvali and spent his first three decades there. After the 1991 conflict, he was forced to move to an outlying village under Georgian control. Last week, he fled his home as it came under Russian fire. Like the rest, he left behind his documents, money and belongings.

Yesterday, there were 72 centres like this in Tbilisi alone, according to Dwayne Mamo, a Western aid worker. By tonight, the number of those staying at such centres is expected to rise to about 20,000, and this excludes the many more Georgians who are staying with friends or family and have not officially registered.

Dmanisi is 60 miles out of Tbilisi, far away from the fighting. Four hundred of the town's 5,000-strong population were refugees from the 1990s wars in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Now another 90 people have arrived from the current conflict.

Dali Kvitsiani is co-ordinating help for new arrivals. She herself is a refugee from Sukhumi, the de facto capital of Abkhazia, and fled after the first war. "Until last week, we always had the hope of returning one day," she said. "Now, it seems we have lost that hope forever."

The peace plan

* No recourse to the use of force

* Definitive cessation of hostilities

* Free access for humanitarian aid

* Georgian forces to withdraw to theirnormal bases

* Russian forces must withdraw to the pre-conflict lines. While awaiting an international mechanism, Russian peacekeepers will implement additional security measures

* Opening of international negotiation on the modalities of security and stability in Abkhazia and South Ossetia

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