By Tony Connelly, Europe Correspondent
In a virtually derelict building which once housed the Soviet Institute for Food Hygiene 37-year-old Khatuna Chitishvili stirs rice in a large pot for her four children.
Salome (14), Nutsa (8), Khatia (7) and Archil (3) gather round for this most basic of meals.
The family, who are ethnic Georgians, had been living a contented, if simple, existence in South Ossetia, in a village called Akhalgori.
‘It’s been very difficult for the children here, they were depressed in the beginning – they’re getting used to the conditions little by little but it’s still very difficult,’ says Khatuna.
The family are among the 40,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) whose lives are still in limbo following the six day war between Georgia and Russia last August.
Both sides still dispute who was responsible for the starting the hostilities, but there are few doubts that after Russian forces took control of Abhkazia and South Ossetia, numerous ethnic Georgian villages were looted and their inhabitants driven south, their homes torched.
‘I think it was the Russians who were responsible,’ says Milena Bugianshvili from the village of Kheiti. ‘We have lived with South Ossetians for many years with no problems.’
Moscow has denied being responsible for any alleged ethnic cleansing during the August war, but international organisations like Human Rights Watch have accused South Ossetian irregulars of torching homes and driving the occupants out, all under the watch of the occupying Russian forces.
Whoever is to be believed in this conflict of claim and counterclaim, the reality of a harsh winter in grim conditions still faces people like Milena and Khatuna and their children.
The building they live in is in a poor state of repair, power and water supplies are intermittent, and rubbish heaps are gathering along the entrance.
The families are surviving on pasta, rice, beans, flour and vegetable oil, as well as a donation of $20,000 from Irish Aid. Medical help is available and the children attend a makeshift school in the upper part of the building.
The Kremlin has always denied being the aggressor in Georgia, despite the widespread anger in western capitals at their invasion of a sovereign country in August.
It now claims that the western media has begun to question persistent claims by the Georgian government that they only responded to Russian aggression when they launched missiles against Tskinvali, the capital of the breakaway enclave of South Ossetia.
But Georgia publicly, and many western governments privately believe that Russia deliberately provoked an escalation of the frozen dispute in order to assert its authority on its borders.
And key to the future of Georgia, and its territorial arrangements, will be what happens to ethnic Georgians who want to return to their villages inside South Ossetia.
‘Whenever you have Russian troops and South Ossetia militias still occupying those villages then people will fear for their lives if they return,’ Georgia’s foreign minister Eka Tkeshalashvili told RTÉ News after a meeting with her Irish counterpart Míchéal Martin.
But if they never return home then Russian, and therefore South Ossetia, control over the two enclaves will be consolidated at the expense of Georgia’s territorial claims, claims that every EU member state supports.
Fractious talks on these issues are underway in Geneva behind closed doors under the aegis of the EU, the OSCE (a European security monitoring organisation), the UN and the US.
Even getting the talks underway has been difficult, since Georgia didn’t want to recognise any officials claiming to represent South Ossetia or Abkhazia. Only Nicaragua and the Kremlin have recognised the two enclaves as independent states.
There is also some dismay in political circles that the EU has shifted ground in its attitude to Russia, from a more assertive one in the aftermath of the conflict, to one which has become more pragmatic.
The EU has just agreed to resume talks on a Strategic Partnership Agreement with Russia despite the reservations of Poland and Lithuania. Russia is a vital energy supplier to the EU and many member states, especially France, Germany and Italy, are anxious not to antagonise Russia.
Minister Martin has been visiting Irish members of the EU military monitoring mission near the area of Akhalgori which straddles the disputed boundary between both sides.
Mr Martin said it was hoped that Russia would eventually agree to allow the 300-strong monitoring mission to move throughout the enclaves in order to verify Russia’s compliance with the 6 point cease fire brokered by the EU in August.
The Government believes that the EU needs to keep engaging with Russia to resolve the conflict, despite the reservations of some member states that the relationship is returning to business as usual.