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Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta


The Order’s doctors among refugees in Georgia

Rome, 20/09/2008 

The doctors of the Polish Association’s humanitarian mission, present in Georgia since August 14th, are continuing their work in refugee camps in the cities of Tbilisi and Gori. In this latter city a health unit, the only one for some 1700 refugees, has been operational since the outset.

Returning from a humanitarian mission in Georgia where he has donated medicines, food and basic necessities, Prof. Marcello Celestini, Minister Counsellor of the Order of Malta’s embassy in Tbilisi, was interviewed by Marco Bellizi for the L’Osservatore Romano newspaper, published below.


by Marco Bellizi

In Georgia you need psychologists and psychiatrists who are able to take care of those children who were forced to flee from their homes following warlike events. And you need Europe’s urgent intervention, because the situation is still developing. Anything may happen. This is the appeal launched by Marcello Celestini, chargé d’affaires of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM) in Georgia, to the Italian doctors and to all those who may take action so that the local population may be brought to a situation of security. Celestini, a physiatrist himself, has just returned from Georgia, where he went to get an overview of the activities implemented by the Order, in particular by the Polish Association that has been working in Georgia since August 14th, and to get a picture of the refugees’ needs. “The Order”, so Celestini explains, “has not adopted a position in this conflict. Neutrality is important to us, but it is clear that the Order pays very special attention to all big events that require humanitarian action, whether it is warlike events or natural disasters”.

What is the result, up to this moment, of the Order’s intervention in Georgia?

I was impressed by the organization of this Polish group of knights of Malta, composed of a coordinator, the priest Henrik Blaszczyh, and by four doctors who arrived at the right time. They established their headquarters in the Polish embassy to Georgia, and from there they organized their actions in favour of the refugees arriving from Ossetia and from the city of Gori, which had been occupied by the Russians for some days. The refugees couldn’t take anything with them, they just had a few clothes on, they had come on foot and looked for shelter in some peripheral neighbourhoods of Tbilisi, such as Isani. These people consider themselves Georgians, and they fled after the Russian occupation. Today there are less than those 130,000 of the very first days, since after the liberation of Gori some of them have returned home. However, many of them (we don’t know the exact figures) have stayed. They come from Ossetia and from the areas still occupied by the Russians and are in need of everything.

What are the main urgencies in health care at this point?

People mainly suffer from respiratory pathologies, caused by colds, while the children have parasites. Then we have to deal with the psychological shocks produced by the trauma of having to abandon their homes, but most of all by the bombings and destructions. I’ve had contact with the association of young Georgian doctors who have asked me to launch an appeal to Italy, because their country lacks medical staff specializing in psychology and psychiatry for children and youngsters. It would be helpful to have volunteers there.

How is the general situation of the population fleeing from the war?

I must say that the people I’ve seen in almost all refugee camps are exemplary in their dignity. The refugees don’t have anything, but they are showing solidarity among them and one tries to help the other. The management of humanitarian aids has been entrusted to Caritas, which is very well organized and has strong roots in this territory with a great number of volunteers who go around in order to verify people’s actual needs. In Georgia there are no mattresses, no camp beds, no sleeping bags, no bed sheets, towels, water buckets, soap and tooth paste. Plates and glasses are requested the most. Another item that’s very much needed is medicines, and I must say that the Polish knights are distributing them in a very effective manner. In some cases, water mattresses have been requested to avoid decubitus ulcers. SMOM has made capillary interventions: Its envoys went to speak with the representatives of the refugee camps introducing themselves, reassuring and comforting people, telling them that they were them to help and to visit them. During the first days, they visited as many as 150 people per camp; little by little, the visits were reduced to 10 or 15 people per camp and per day. The actions implemented by the Order were highly professional, as was recognized by everybody, including by the Georgian deputy minister specifically designated for the refugee emergency. In particular, the presence in the big tent camp, set up in Gori after the Russian occupation, and in all of the city shelters has been highly important. Local paediatricians were hired to take care of the children. This was a very useful service, while the Italian Red Cross was mainly in charge of food, serving approximately 9,000 meals a day.

What judgement do you give on the international aids?

The work done by Alessandra Morelli, senior department head of the United Nations in charge of the refugee camp in Gori, of its security and of supervision over the same, is highly appreciated. Let’s not forget that there is a danger of alcoholism for older and younger men, so that aspect, too, had to be considered. Furthermore, a chapel was set up in one of the tent, and there’s a priest celebrating Mass there every day. We must bear in mind that only four kilometres away there still are Russian checkpoints with a corresponding Georgian line-up. There is no humanitarian corridor. The only person who may pass through is the orthodox bishop of Gori, and he’s also the only person authorized to carry and bring aids. Presently, neither the United Nations nor other organizations are let through.

Were the aids brought timely?

They were timely, and now they’re massive. We have received a plane full of goods provided by the president of the Polish Republic. The critical point now is to manage the aids wisely and rationally. The situation is not at all stable, and the possible developments of this conflict are not at all clear, even if international diplomacy has made excellent moves. However, we are waiting for the arrival of the European forces.

Have you received any news about abuses or ill-treatment suffered by the local population?

Not directly. There have certainly been actions of a certain kind in the conflict zone. I was told that until two weeks after outbreak of the war there were corpses lying abandoned in the streets, which were then burnt in the bread ovens. So, in these cases, respect for the dead people was certainly neglected. However, I was also told that during the occupation of Gori some trucks organized by Caritas were let through, and the bread was distributed both to the population and to the Russian and Georgian soldiers. Maybe the simple soldiers show a more positive attitude than the generals, as often is the case in situations of this kind.

What is the relationship with the (mostly orthodox) population like?

The chef de mission, Father Henrik, and the surgeon have adopted an extremely sensitive and intelligent approach towards the refugee groups of Tbilisi. They made them understand that the Order’s presence meant health care and aid. This “smiling attitude” was much appreciated by the refugees, in particular by their leaders. The humanitarian mission ended yesterday, leaving a strong testimony of the Order’s spirit and charisma. We took home the thankfulness of those who recognized in the eight-pointed cross of the Order a symbol of humanity and respect for the poor. Tuitio fidei and obsequium pauperum, as our motto goes.

(©L’Osservatore Romano 13 September 2008)

orders doctors among refugees georgia

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