Georgia: the aftermath
Published 21 August 2008
As Russian forces begin to withdraw, we are learning more about the events of the short but brutal war over South Ossetia. Matt Siegel reports from Tskhinvali and Gori, while local people give eyewitness accounts of the devastation
The air inside Tskhinvali General Hospital is damp and stale. The worn floors are empty. There is hardly a sound at all in-side the building where, a week ago, wounded civilians and bloody surgical gloves lay in heaps about the corridors.
Tinati Zakhorova, an exhausted doctor with kind eyes and a tangle of curly grey hair, is sitting alone in a small office, tallying up the dead and wounded in a faded old book. She knows what happened here in this tiny mountainous republic, she says, and who is responsible for it.
"This is the fourth genocide against the Ossetian people by the Georgians. How can we ever go back to living under them?" she asks, adding: "And may heaven open up and God strike the head of Condoleezza Rice."
It will be weeks, or even months, before any culpability can be assigned for this big war over a little country. We may never know the extent to which the Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili, informed his benefactors in Washington of his plans to retake the breakaway republic, or whether the Russians ordered South Ossetian militias to open fire on Georgian peacekeepers to goad them into a trap.
But amid the chaos of the war's aftermath, residents on both sides of the battlefield have already made up their minds. Zalina Ikoeva, 52, is lying in traction at a hospital in Vladikav kaz. Her leg was shattered by an explosion as she hid in her basement during the initial Georgian attack.
"I was lying there in the basement and I called my sister on my mobile," she said. "I asked her: 'Where are the Russians? They're going to kill us all.'"
On the shattered streets of Tskhinvali, where there is strong evidence that the Georgian military fired both tanks and artillery into civilian buildings, the Russians are viewed as liberators. Russian support over the past two decades is the only thing that has kept this isolated and resource-poor statelet from disappearing altogether.
It is Russian bottled water you see being handed out by the truckload and a brand new gas pipeline from Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia to Tskhinvali that you can see on the drive in. The Russian government has pledged $400m to rebuild the city, and the Moscow city government has promised another $100m. The Russian hearts-and-minds campaign trumps anything Georgia is putting out. The tactic is working.
As we roll through the city in a Russian armoured personnel carrier during one of the Kremlin's highly scripted tours, dozens of local residents, mostly elderly, flock to the soldiers to show their support. An elderly man stands and makes the sign of the cross as we drive by. Women blow kisses and shout their thanks as the Russians look down with benevolence.
The mood was summed up by a Kremlin official. "We are dealing with a psychotic dictator, an inadequate person whose actions cannot be foreseen whatsoever," he said. "It will take as many troops as possible for as long as possible to protect the citizens of South Ossetia."
Twenty kilometres across what used to be the southern border of South Ossetia, inside Georgia proper, the story changes. In the northern areas of Georgia now under the control of the Russian military, within the sights of Russian rockets aimed from the hills around Tskhinvali, the majority of the population believe that they are under occupation.
When the Russian aerial bombardment of Gori began, 80-year-old Sasha Berdize ran down to the river and hid along its banks. Walking back from a Russian-run food depot in the city centre, he stops to ask me where I'm from. I'm an American, I say. "Thank God you're here," he replies, his eyes filling with tears.
Gori, where Joseph Stalin was born, is now a ghost town. In the city centre, where block after block of High Stalinist architecture and a towering statue of the former leader dominate the skyline, there is hardly anyone on the street. It is likely, several residents said, that less than 1 per cent of the population is left here.
But Berdize thinks that these things happen. "Misha made a mistake," he says, using a popular diminutive form of Saakashvili's name. "People are allowed to make mistakes in this life." Many Georgians seem willing to cut their president a great deal of slack, even though his dangerous miscalculation and reckless personality have just cost them territory in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another disputed rebel enclave on the Black Sea.
Sitting around a picnic table behind an apartment building in the city centre, six friends pass around a plastic jug of home-made wine and a bag of halva. Although they don't understand why this whole mess started, they know how it will end.
"Everything was great with the Russians," says Soso Rusashvili, 57, "but now they've decided they want our land. What can we do about it? We're such a tiny country."
Rusashvili doesn't blame Saakashvili or George W Bush for his problems, but neither does he want to stay in a land under occupation. He makes me write his name in both Russian and English. Can I send him a letter of invitation so that he can move to America, he wants to know. He would work in construction or drive a taxi, he says - anything to get out of here.