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In Georgia, refugees wait for promised US aid

Many wonder if Congress will honor its $1 billion commitment if amid the financial crisis. Some lawmakers were already opposed to the deal.

By Dan Catchpole / October 3, 2008

Refugee: Nano Davitashvili fixes her daughter Nano's hair in a refugee center in Tbilisi.

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TBILISI, Georgia

Maria Davitashvili lives in an office in a defunct printing building, sharing the space with her brother and his wife and two children. Their homes were burned during Georgia's brief but disastrous war with Russia and South Ossetian separatists in August.

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"Our village doesn't exist anymore," she says.

Like other refugees here, they're making do – a handful of donated dishes and clothes, discarded office furniture. There is no heat in the building.

The children have adjusted, using the hallway as a playground. But the adults are uneasy.

"How can life be good here?" asks Ms. Davitashvili's brother, Dato.

US and Georgian officials have been discussing that, negotiating how to dispense the $1 billion in assistance pledged to Georgia by President Bush.

But aid was promised before the US markets imploded, and some here wonder if America will deliver.

Headlines say, "$1 billion for Georgia, and history will show you that those headline figures aren't really followed through," says Jonathan Puddifoot, CARE International's Georgia director.

Foreign aid makes up 90 percent of CARE's Georgia budget, he says, and will be key in meeting the needs of some 54,000 refugees from the conflict.

The money has been approved by Congress, but $435 million will have to be allocated next year.

Both Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain support the pledged aid.

But in early September, members of Congress from both parties criticized Mr. Bush for bailing out a country many thought provoked the invasion.

Assured by Asst. Sec. of State Daniel Fried that the US warned Georgia against an attack, Rep. Brad Sherman, (D) of California, asked, "Then why is Georgia going to get a huge amount of funding ... [for] ignoring the loudest and most specific warnings from the United States?"

US and Georgian officials have not publicized aid details, and the silence concerns watchdog group Transparency International (TI). Closed discussions weaken oversight of how the money is used, says Tamuna Karosanidze, who heads TI's Georgia office.

Petty corruption that flourished in Georgia has been cleaned up since Mikheil Saakashvili was elected in 2004. However, allegations of officials prospering from foreign investment and government contracts exist, according to TI.

While Davitashvili has faith in Mr. Saakashvili, her brother is more reserved.

"He promised he will restore things, but we don't know when," he says.

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