Georgia: a week in a war zone

EVERY WAR has them, snapshots that are hard to forget. Short as it was, this one was no exception. The stench from a maggot-ridden body rotting by the roadside. An ice cream offered by refugees who had lost all that they possessed. A looter's truck full of booze. The haunted look on the face of a grandmother who had seen a mother and son crushed beneath the tracks of a tank.

Unlike most of the Georgians, Ossetians and Russians caught up in the blood-letting of recent days, I can move on, out and away from the shadow that such events and images will cast over the lives of the people here for years to come.

Standing by the side of the Tbilisi-Gori highway, watching Russian tanks chew up the sun-baked tarmac as they began their pullout on Friday, it was still hard to believe, let alone comprehend, some of the things that have happened in this picturesque region.

Arguably, by the standards of most wars, this was little more than a skirmish. But try telling that to the likes of Dali Aniashvili, a 60-year-old grandmother from the village of Tiniskhidi, near Gori.

It was in the early hours of the morning on August 9, as Russian troops and irregular South Ossetian fighters moved into the area, that Dali, her husband, three children and grandchild fled, along with their neighbours, at the beginning of a nightmare that will return to haunt them time and again.

"All around us there was the sound of explosions and gunfire, people unsure of where to run or hide," she recalls. "All I could think about was the children, especially when I saw one woman and her son run over and crushed by a tank, then I was sure we were going to die too."

As Dali recounts the events of that night, also stuck in her mind's eye is the image of girls being selected by Russian soldiers at checkpoints, the women ushered into the backs of trucks or personnel carriers.

"They took the young ones, the most beautiful, I can't bear to think what happened to them," she says.

Hiding in the woods by day and moving at night, Dali Aniashvili and her family took days to reach the safety of the Georgian capital Tbilisi. Now there, they sleep in parked cars in the grounds of Public School No 156 on the city's outskirts, not far from a main highway called George W Bush Avenue.

However, not everyone was as lucky as the Aniashvili family. I probably never will find out more about the man whose body we came across, decomposing among bushes by the roadside near the village of Tirdznisi, also near Gori.

Perhaps the woman in the black and white photograph, strewn on the ground along with his passport and pictures of religious icons, was his wife or girlfriend? It was impossible to tell.

Lying just a few yards from his badly damaged car, the man had evidently been taken out of the vehicle before being shot in the head.

According to human rights monitors there is mounting evidence of killings like this, apparently undertaken by all sides in this conflict.

A week ago today, shortly after arriving in Georgia, I found myself in the heart of the beleaguered town of Gori which, along with Tskhinvali in South Ossetia, has borne the brunt of the fighting.

What happened in each of these respective towns, argue Georgians and Ossetians alike, is proof that they were the victims, not the perpetrators, of this war. While each apportions blame, both communities have been virtually laid to waste, and any previous trust lethally poisoned.

The significance of Gori's plight meant getting inside the town was vital to those reporters following events from the Georgian side.

The Russians knew this too of course, with the result that a game of cat and mouse ensued that left myself and other journalists running a gauntlet of checkpoints or having to take dangerous rural backroads in order to slip into Gori and the surrounding villages.

At times the town felt like a place that had been visited by some invisible pestilence. Its inhabitants dead, disappeared, or simply gone to ground in what was left of their homes for fear of being blown apart, or shot by bands of roaming looters.

As the worst of the fighting subsided and the Russian occupation took hold, a few brave souls went to Sunday mass at the town's main Orthodox church. Elderly people mainly, too old to flee the chaos and carnage that had engulfed their community.

Then there were others for whom escape was quite impossible. People who even in peacetime find themselves ignored or dismissed. Those who lived alone, sick, infirm or disabled, who had no choice but to stick it out through those terrifying days.

One afternoon, near Gori's once-bustling marketplace, now eerily empty except for a few Russian soldiers sitting nearby on top of their tanks, I came across a beggar.

At some time in the past the man had lost both legs and was now reduced to propelling himself along on a small wooden cart inches from the ground.

As if his struggle to survive had not been bad enough in peacetime, here he now was in a city without clean running water or electricity and precious little food.

In the Ossetian city of Tskhinvali, too, from where my colleague John Follett has been reporting for the Sunday Herald, ordinary people - as in Georgia - have faced terrible hardship and suffering following the onslaught by Georgian forces at the start of hostilities.

With the Russian withdrawal only just having got under way these last few days, many Georgians are only now coming to terms with Moscow's devastating and uncompromising response to what they see as a grave political miscalculation by Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili.

Gela Ejoshvili worked as a technician at the Rustaveli Theatre in Tbilisi but his home is in the village of Mejuriskhevi near Gori. He too was forced to flee the Russian advance on the night of August 9.

Now, along with his family, he finds himself living at a rundown centre for displaced people near Tbilisi.

"I was born in Mejuriskhevi, I grew up there and I will return there," he insists. "This is all about politics and I blame the governments, both Russian and Saakashvili," says Ejoshvili.

"Even though I would fight for my president and my country, I believe he didn't think before acting in South Ossetia."

Many Georgians echo Ejoshvili's views, convinced they are paying the ultimate price for Saakashvili's political adventurism. However, it is not only the decision-making of their own leaders that they are now questioning. Many also want to know why Western leaders could not have put more pressure on Saakashvili to prevent the war breaking out in the first place.

Some observers have suggested that Washington sent out mixed messages to the Georgian government, suggesting a greater level of US backing for any military action than actually existed in reality.

The New York Times even quoted one US official as saying: "The Georgians figured it was better to ask forgiveness later, but not ask for permission first. It was a decision on their part. They knew we would say no."

Whatever the extent of Georgia's relationship with Washington, during my time here in the course of this short war, I could not help feeling that this is a country with the feel of those "frontline states" from which Washington fought its proxy battles at the height of the cold war.

Last week talk in Tbilisi was rife of certain hotels being full of US intelligence and military types, and few here would find reason to doubt such rumours.

For now, Georgia continues to reel from the shock of having Russian armour and soldiers advance to within 20 miles of its capital.

Georgia might have escaped the worst for now, but the internal political and economic fallout almost certainly will mean a day of reckoning for President Saakashvili in the not-too-distant future.

In a little over seven days, I met many ordinary Georgians indelibly scarred by this bitter little war. For some, their lives will never be the same again. Only time will now tell whether the same can be said of the nation's political psyche as a whole.

[Source: By Foreign Editor David Pratt, The Sunday Herald, Scotland, 26Aug08]

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