Georgians blame 'bandits' for acts of looting and murder


The anger of many Georgians is now being turned against their own leader, writes Peter Murphyin Gori

GORI REGION is no country for old people. Uall the young got out when they could. Food and fuel are scarce. Street lights are down, while the gas supply is bomb-damaged awaiting repair, time unknown. The rump of Georgian officials determined to maintain a token presence in the splintered town hall advise the estimated 10,000 remaining residents of a population of 70,000 to stay indoors from 8pm.

Nighttime brings complete darkness to the pockmarked town centre, save for some light from the town hall, which illuminates the backside of the Stalin statue on the main square. The silence is broken only by the rumble of passing armoured vehicles and the low babble of voices from a group on the town hall steps discussing the latest rumours.

A report comes in of a drunken Cossack soldier staggering around a back street waving a Kalashnikov. A team of locals is dispatched at speed to take pictures and videos. The show lasts for 10 minutes until the Russians get word and the miscreant is bundled into a jeep and brought back to base.

The only certainty here is that no one knows what will happen next. A Russian sergeant sweats in the searing late-morning heat watching cars stop at a checkpoint. "We are ready to go back north, we are ready to go to Tbilisi. We're waiting for orders."

Alexsandre Lomaia, the Georgian national security secretary is in town to lead the first humanitarian convoy through the Russian checkpoints to the isolated ethnic-Georgian villages which huddle along the South Ossetian border.

At 11am, Lomaia finally shows up, back from negotiating the first prisoner exchange. The convoy of authorised officials and three yellow school buses packed with flour bags, Red Cross boxes and cigarettes finally sets off.

A paratrooper sits sullenly in each bus chain-smoking. "This is all crazy. I just want to be back in St Petersburg in time to see Zenit play against Manchester," one quietly admits.

North of Gori is Georgia's orchard country. Apple and peach plantations dot the flatlands stretching towards South Ossetia, where the foothills of the Caucasus range begin rising steeply towards Russia. The picking season is approaching, but there is no one in the fields apart from the odd soldier gathering fruit for lunch or napping in the shade. The Georgians in the convoy warn of snipers. Shells of cars lie upturned in the ditches. Soldiers build campfires and stare at the passing parade.

On the afternoon of August 11th, Russian planes swept in from South Ossetia on their way to Gori and dropped bombs on this loop of villages.

Next morning, the militias rolled in. The aid convoy gingerly navigates its way through the largely abandoned settlements.

The scene of scorched and trashed buildings is repeated village after village. Several of the houses have fresh graves at the back. On one street the remains of a rocket lies in a puddle. Cowed locals approach the buses.

Georgi Khucishvili (55) in Tkviavi used to make a tidy living selling his apples in the market in Ergneti outside Tskhinvali. Georgians and Ossetians traded contraband cigarettes, fuel and vodka there for years until 2004, when Saakashvili closed down the market in a drive to legalise the economy.

"We were still shell-shocked by the bombing when we heard the sound of tanks. I looked out and saw tanks, huge tractors, even some Ladas. All with soldiers on top, most of them young, some in uniform, some bare-chested. I heard laughing and swearing in Ossetian and languages I didn't recognise. Then they began shooting."

Eight people were shot dead in Tkviavi through the windows of their houses, slain for their curiosity. Georgi and four others fled into a forest, where they hid out for four days before heading back. The militias had gone, but had left their calling cards.

One man in Karbi, Irakli Tkeshelashvili (59), his hand shaking violently, shows a box of cigarettes and swears at the convoy: "Nobody has helped us. No one cares about us. We have only fruit to eat. Look, I am even able to get cigarettes quicker from them than from our side".

A town hall official is berated by a man in his 80s: "We are glad the Russians are here, at least we have some protection".

"They may be doing that now," says Lomaia, "but for four or five days last week there was clearly damage, loss of life and ethnic cleansing in these villages under the Russian watch committed by Ossetian and North Caucasian bandits."

Further on in Mereti, Lomaia takes down the names of six men in their 50s who were forced into a car and taken north, while on the way back to Gori in Tirdznisi the convoy stops at an overturned minibus. Photos, clothes, and ID cards are spilled on the ground while the stench of a dumped corpse drifts out from the ditch.

The vehicle had been speeding to safety in Tbilisi when a band of Ossetians had stopped it. Some escaped, but the survivors had been taken hostage. The now empty buses limp back to Gori picking up villagers in need of medical help on the way.

An elderly woman sobs quietly at the back: "Saakashvili should have kept his mouth shut, look what has happened".