Following a trail of tears left by war's death and destruction

 

Stalin's home country will never be the same again, writes Lara Marlowein Gori

THERE WAS something Biblical about the three old men who hobbled down Georgia's national highway, a few kilometres southeast of the battered town of Gori. Perhaps it was the grey beards, walking stick and leather sandals.

"I have nothing to say. You cannot help us," said the first man. Houshangi, the second old man, wore a black beret and carried a small cloth bundle. He hoped the fleet of ambulances that had just sped by - to collect the morning harvest of dead and wounded from the daily bombardment of Gori - would pick him up on their way back to Tbilisi.

"We started walking yesterday morning, from Khourtha, in the Liakhvi Valley, near Tshkhinvali [the 'capital' of south Ossetia]," Houshangi recounted.

"We walked 50km already. The grads [missiles] drove us out. In the village next to ours, there were 10 dead people, and no one to bury them. There was a whole family of five killed with their animals." Houshangi pulled a plaid handkerchief from his trousers pocket and wiped tears from his gentle, weather-beaten face.

Despite the 30-degree heat, he wore three shirts under his wool jacket. "I thought we'd have to sleep outside," he explained. "I rested under a tree, but I couldn't sleep. I was the last man to leave my village."

A farmer, Houshangi already missed what he called his "good house" and fruit trees.

Tensions with his Ossetian neighbours started nearly two decades ago, he said, when the Soviet Union began disintegrating.

"Four years ago, Ossetians kidnapped men from my village and cut them into pieces. I left everything, because I am afraid the same thing will happen to me."

The trail of tears continued. Elen and Shekmadin had walked for two hours. They pointed towards their village of Kheltubani, in a grove of trees east of Gori. "See The World," said the cheap carrier bag they set down beside them, over an image of the Brooklyn Bridge and an American eagle.

"We're just afraid of the shelling," said Elen. She spoke in short sentences, between sobs. "We had to leave our horse and cow. We'll sleep in the hills tonight, and try to go back tomorrow."

Gia, a bachelor farmer with a peeling, sunburned face, walked with Elen and Shekmadin. "I left my mother and father behind, because she is ill and cannot walk. I didn't want to leave, but she made me go, and I feel guilty," he said.

"I'll return as soon as I can. The last thing the told me was: 'Take care of yourself. Don't worry about us'."

When the war started, Gia was called up by the Georgian army. For three days, he guarded Georgian positions in Ossetian villages.

But the Georgians were driven back, and he was demobilised. Was he sorry that the army gave up?

"It's better not to have more people killed," Gia concluded.

In Moscow, President Dmitry Medvedev had just announced the end of Russian operations.

Someone cried out. Three Russian attack helicopters darted up the valley, like dragonflies over water. Blinding flashes shot out of each chopper: rockets apparently aimed at electricity or communications pylons. The freshly cut hay, some of it in bales, caught fire in surrounding fields and burned for hours.

Two men rode by on a tractor. Four others perched atop a lorry carrying bedding, an electrical generator and a television.

"I volunteered for the army, but they didn't want me," the driver told me.

Around the next corner, I found further evidence of the Georgian army's debacle: armoured personnel carriers by the roadside, hatches open. Abandoned artillery pieces.

Two army lorries straddled the road where they'd collided in panic during a bombardment. More lorries, one with its bed stacked with munition boxes. An abandoned fuel tanker. The charred remains of a tank and civilian car hit by a Russian missile on Monday.

"JStalin's Home Country," said the sign at the entrance to Gori. Both Ossetians and Georgians claim "Uncle Joe" as their own. It was he who created the problem, by "giving" South Ossetia to his native Georgia.

The Stalin museum, birth cottage, private railway car and Saddam-like statue stand untouched.

But the town has nonetheless taken the brunt of Russian bombardment, for three reasons: it sits astride Georgia's main east-west highway, is home to three military bases and is within striking distance of Tskhinvali, the even worse destroyed "capital" of South Ossetia.

War fell suddenly upon Gori last Friday morning.

"Everything was normal. The cafes and restaurants were open. Nobody imagined these things could happen outside the combat zone," a university student who fled the town told me.

Yesterday, Gori was a ghost town, save for a horseman galloping down the main street and a crazed old man who warned us, "The Russians are coming". Three times, Gori was reported to have "fallen" to the Russians, who have not in fact entered the town.

Two ageing couples sat beneath a grape arbour, in front of an old house on Gori's main street. "There's no bakery, nothing to eat, no electricity, no news. When they shell, we go to the cellar," Levon, (77) summarised the situation.

Jagged panes of glass lay in the flowerbeds, among the marigolds. "There's absolutely no problem whatsoever between Ossetians and Georgians," Levon said - a dubious assertion I've heard many times here. "It's the Russians who make trouble between us."

On the main square, one half expected to see blood or hear screams - some sign of the deaths of five people, including the Dutch cameraman Stan Storimans, in what appears to have been a mortar bombardment two hours earlier.

There was broken glass and rubble at the post office, town hall, university and television station. Two houses burned next to the theatre. In silence.

On the way out of Gori, I saw people siphoning petrol from the reservoir of an abandoned station.

A few miles down the road to Tbilisi, I turned down an offer to celebrate Mr Medvedev's ceasefire with farmers, over a bottle of Georgian wine. They may have raised their glasses too soon. The Georgians accused the Russians of shelling four villages yesterday afternoon.