“If the Russians hadn’t arrived, we would all be dead by now”. Valentin throws the stub of his cigarette among the debris that covers the floor of his apartment, on the top floor of a large block on the outskirts of Tskhinval. Walls and ceilings are blackened by fire and gutted by Georgian cannon-shot. The flames have consumed everything, leaving only the twisted wreckage of bedsteads and broken shards of pottery. “This building was hit by Grad missiles, aerial bombs and tanks. The Georgians used every weapon in their arsenal against us. Two people from this stairwell alone were killed. For three nights and three days, two hundred of us lived in the cellars, without light, food or water. And we were lucky: in the town centre, the Georgian soldiers opened the trap-doors of the shelters and threw grenades inside”.
In the courtyard of the apartment block, where a few women are washing dishes in the water from the well, we meet Murat. Hanging from the pocket of his shirt a black ribbon. He show us a photo of his son, Fiddar. “He was a fighter, he was killed near here by the Georgians while he and his comrades were trying to liberate some civilians who had been taken hostage”. He ushers us to his apartment in the building in front to show us the framed picture of his son, ready for tomorrow’s funeral ceremony. Forty days have passed since the attack by the Georgians, and throughout South Ossetia the traditional ceremonies to commemorate the hundreds of victims – most of whom are civilians – have begun. It is still too early to begin counting them, their number increases by dozens every day as corpses are exhumed from the improvised graves. There are more than fifteen hundred dead and missing people.
“The ceremony for my son Fiddar will be the day after tomorrow. Now I’m going to another one, in memory of his friend, Sergi. Do you want to come?”
We get into his old Volga and drive to the courtyard of a little building, swarming with at least two hundred people: elderly men in caps, well-dressed ladies, young and not-so-young men in camouflage fatigues, and old women with black scarves on their heads. Many of them wear pictures of their loved ones pinned to their chests. All are silently weeping, handkerchiefs clutched in trembling hands. Only the children play and laugh as they run between the legs of the people who are embracing each other and exchanging condolences. In a corner, enormous cauldrons full of meat for the banquet are bubbling away. The heart-rending lament of Sergi’s mother can be heard from the stairs, getting louder as she approaches the door, through which she passes dressed in black and showing everyone the photograph of her son, killed at the wheel of his car by the machine-gun of a Georgian tank. Her despairing sobs are taken up by all the women standing around her in a tragic chorus that forms the background to her husband’s speech, condemning the barbarity of war and of the Georgians. Then the family members get into cars and make for the cemetery while the guests remain behind, taking their places around two long tables groaning under mountains of dishes of meat piroghì
and hundreds of bottles of red wine and vodka.
Vecislav, an old friend of Murat, insists that we sit at the men’s table and invites us to come next day to the ceremony in memory of his niece Elina, who smiles happily from a little black-and-white photo pinned to the button-hole of his jacket. “She was burned alive with her mother. Their house was struck by a Georgian Grad. Now nobody lives within those walls, because her father and brother had already been killed by the Georgians in the ’91 war”.
A different house, that of Soslan in the central Stalin Street, is another scene of friends and relations gathering for one more commemoration ceremony: this one for Soslan’s mother Liana and his grandmother Elena, wiped out by a Georgian Grad as they returned from the shelter to the house to get some food. They are buried under a little pile of earth in the vegetable-garden behind the house. “There was fighting in the city, we couldn’t bury them in the cemetery. We will do it today”. Everything is ready for the disinterment: shovels, wreaths and two large wooden orthodox crucifixes. Only the coffins are missing.
Despite the speed with which the hundreds of men and women from Chechnya working for Russian building contractors are rebuilding and cleaning up the city, more than a month later, Tskhinval still bears all the scars of the Georgian attack. Most of the buildings in the centre – three hundred civilian houses, schools, kindergartens, universities, libraries, and government buildings – have been completely destroyed by the bombs and the flames, and are covered by green tarpaulins that seem to be trying modestly to hide the violence suffered. All the other edifices are pockmarked with machine-gun bullet holes or have gaping chasms from the cannon-shots. The asphalt of the streets in the city centre, now bristling with dilapidated cars and Russian military vehicles, has been lacerated by the caterpillar tracks of the Georgian tanks, of which, by now, only a few broken hulks lie here and there. The wreckage includes the turret of a tank that was hit by a rocket-launcher; the force of the explosion blew the turret into the air and it landed vertically with the cannon embedded in the ground. Even the city’s trees are wounded: branches broken, trunks riddled with bullets, many burned or felled.
But the most shocking sight is the only hospital in the city; it, too, half-destroyed by cannon-fire and Georgian machine-gun fire. “Not even the Nazis fired on hospitals on purpose!” fumes Tina, the elderly head nurse, her piercing blue eyes bloodshot with tiredness. Showing us the damp basement where hundreds of wounded were ferried for treatment during the bombing raids, she tells us of her experiences of those days. “We were working without equipment and in darkness, with very little medicine. All through, the bombs kept falling above us. I didn’t stop working for a minute, I never slept; there wasn’t time. But now I don’t feel very well”, she begins to cry softly. “When we came up from that hell-hole – her broken voice continues – there was one thing that hurt us more than the bombs: discovering that the international television stations were only referring to Georgia and not saying a word about the tragedy that we have suffered here. I beg you, yourselves at least, please tell the truth”.
The rage of the South Ossetians over the way the August war has been covered by the western mass media is more than justified. Adding insult to the silence that greeted the Georgian war crimes is the injury of the distortion of the truth. In the former Jewish quarter of Tskhinval, razed to the ground by the Georgian artillery stationed on the facing hill, an old woman sees us filming the ruins and approaches us, imploring us not to do as a certain European television station had done and broadcast the dramatic footage of the ruined district but calling it Gori, in Georgia.
Josiph, a law graduate, used to work for the Osce. “The Georgians even fired on the headquarters of the organization and their vehicles. There were twenty foreign office workers. On the afternoon of the 8th, the Georgians granted them permission to leave the city and, on their arrival in Vladikavkaz, at a press conference, they declared that they had no information on what was happening here! But why have your governments supported the fascist and criminal regime of Saakashvili? Why are your well-informed public opinion makers not demonstrating against the Georgian aggression levelled at us?” asks Josiph with sincere interest and to our great embarrassment. “Do you realize that the Georgians have committed serious war crimes? They carpet-bombed a city full of civilians in cold blood. No, worse, it was a betrayal, because an hour before, they had said that they would never attack. What’s more, they did it at night, while the people were sleeping in their beds. When they invaded the city, they deliberately opened fire on civilian targets: homes, schools, and hospitals. They tossed grenades into the shelters. They used tanks and snipers against the lines of cars filled with civilians trying to leave the city: loads of people died like that! Doesn’t it suggest anything that the name of the Georgian military operation was Clean Field? They wanted to exterminate us, cancel us as a populace! And they would have succeeded if it hadn’t been for the Russians!”
Alan is a member of the South Ossetian Special Forces. He smokes a lot, but he doesn’t drink vodka. “The Georgians entered the city on the morning of the 8th of August, after a full night of bombardments. They arrived in force aboard American Scorpion armoured vehicles and brand-new Ukrainian T-72 tanks, armed with M-16 rifles and other American weapons. We came face to face with them by ourselves at the gates of the city and then in the centre. After hours of fierce combat, we managed to halt their advance, saving at least the most northerly districts from destruction. At around five in the afternoon they began to fall back towards the border and the shelling started up again, lasting until the following morning, when some of their commandos tried to infiltrate the city. Finally, towards midnight of 9 August, the Russian army entered the city and chased the Georgians to the gates of Tbilisi. The Georgians were better armed and prepared for attack, but not for defence, because they had thought they would win immediately and that Russia wouldn’t have intervened. Otherwise, their first move would have been to bomb the Roki tunnel to block off access to the Russian forces”.
Malvina’s two-storey house in the centre was completely demolished by a georgian Grad missile. Her husband Pavel lifts the carcass of the deadly ordnance and shows us the only room left intact: a windowless box-room, now arranged as a bedroom. “That evening of the 7th of August – recalls Malvina – we were eating and watching television: the Georgian president Saakashvili was speaking, live, saying that he would never order an attack on his fellow citizens. An hour and a half later, around half past eleven, all hell broke loose. We bolted for the cellars. The earth didn’t stop shaking, the explosions were continuous. This went on until late the following morning. When we came up, our house wasn’t there any more. Look here – she cries as she shows us pieces of broken plates and glasses – this was my daughter’s dowry: her wedding was to be celebrated on 17 August. Even her wedding dress was burned. It was beautiful. Now we have nothing”, she can contain her sobs no more.
Zaira still trembles like a leaf: more than a month later, she is still in shock. She wanders wild-eyed among the ruins of her house, gutted to its foundations by a bomb dropped from a Georgian fighter jet. A two-metre-wide crater marks the spot where the kitchen was. “We lost everything, thanks to the Georgians. We survived only by a miracle. They are animals! I used to have a number of Georgian friends, but now I just can’t bear to see those people, I can’t stand hearing their language spoken!”.
Zaira’s harsh words are translated from Ossetian into English for us by Eika, a girl with an Ossetian father and a Georgian mother who attends the university in Tbilisi, where she has friends and relations. “This war has placed a bitter divide between Ossetians and Georgians. My father has even started arguing with my mother. And when I speak to my relatives on the phone, I avoid the subject because I fear what they will say. However, considering what these people have been through, you have to understand them. Hate springs from fear. It is through fear, for example, that after the war the Ossetians destroyed the villages in the Georgian enclave north of here. On 23 August - says Eika - a friend of mine, a South Ossetian soldier, called me from the Georgian village of Kekhvi as they were setting fire to the houses to tell me that they had found a bulldozer and could finish the job quicker. Those villages were abandoned: in the days leading up to the Georgian attack, the population was gradually evacuated. The enclave was occupied by the Georgians during the first war, in ’91. Since then, any Ossetians that tried to cross it were greeted with rifle fire”.
Fortunately, the poisonous seed of ethnic hate doesn’t seem to have taken root in Ossetian territory. “That Saakashvili bastard and his vile army trained by the Americans are one thing. But Georgians in general are another matter: the Georgian people, they are miserable wretches like we are”, says Jamal, a combatant in the Ossetian militia, who wears a ‘homemade’ uniform of Chinese workman’s overalls onto which he has sewn the flashes of the Russian police. “I have several Georgian friends. Many Georgians from Tskhinval and the villages fought at our sides during those days against Saakashvili’s army. Ask around!”
We find confirmation of this in Arkneti, about fifteen kilometres west of Tskhinval, one of the many ‘mixed’ villages where Ossetians and Georgians have always lived together. “Damn right I fought against the Georgian soldiers!” recounts a Georgian sitting at a table in the only bar in the village. He doesn’t want to give us his name, as he is afraid of being arrested by the authorities in Tbilisi as a traitor. “I am Georgian, too, but if they attack my village and my home, what am I supposed to do? I was born here, my life is here and my friends are here, Ossetians and Georgians”.
Inal is a local journalist and spare-time poet. “You westerners call us ‘separatists’, like the Georgians do. But if you look at the history of this conflict and at international law, it is obvious that it is the Georgians who are separatists, not us. In September 1990, when the Soviet Union was still in power, the autonomous region of South Ossetia, which at the time was part of the Georgian Soviet Republic, decided to remain part of the USSR. This resolution, completely legitimate and legal, was then sanctioned in March ‘91 by a referendum that was held throughout the Soviet Union. A month later, in April, Georgia declared its independence from Moscow, demanding to maintain sovereignty over South Ossetia even by force. Tbilisi declared a state of emergency and attacked us: more than a hundred villages were razed and over two thousand people were butchered. Thirty thousand civilians fled to North Ossetia. Not until January ‘92, after the collapse of the USSR, did South Ossetia proclaim itself an independent nation, in the hopes of protecting itself against Georgian aggression. However, harassment began after the second short war in 2004, and continued right up to the barbaric attack of August”.
The venerable Ilia, born in ‘24, a former professor of mathematics and physics who fought against the Germans in Odessa during the Second World War, is the living historical repository of this conflict. “After the October Revolution - Ilia speaks like a grandfather telling a fairy-story to his grandchildren - fifteen thousand South Ossetian Bolsheviks were massacred by Georgian Mensheviks. Sixty thousand of them fled over the mountains. Those that stayed, like my family, were always treated as second-class citizens: the Ossetians from Georgia were banned from having more than two children, from speaking our language and occupying positions in state jobs. Things only began to get better after Stalin died”.
The bell of the little Orthodox church of Holy Mary, the only one in the city, tolls a death knell. Inside, in the shadows and silence, the flickering light of thousands of candles lit in memory of the victims of this war illuminate the gilded icons that adorn the walls. The faithful give thanks to Saint George, who is widely worshipped in these parts: the saint who slew the dragon, which symbolizes evil. On the wall outside the church, freshly painted, are the words of a more down-to-earth thanksgiving: Spasìba Rossìa
, thanks Russia.