Andrew Osborn








Reporter's Notebook: Viewing wasteland of war --- Treacherous journey into Georgia revveals toll of bitter conflict

The Wall Street Journal Europe, 28th August 2008 16:25

By Andrew Osborn

TBILISI, Georgia -- The trip began in Vladikavkaz, home to Russia's feared 58th army, and ended in Gori, the Georgian town where Josef Stalin was born. It traversed Russian, South Ossetian and Georgian territory, taking a beeline through what was recently a war zone. Undertaken in a variety of vehicles and on foot, I met soldiers, irregular fighters, looters and refugees.

On display: the deep well of ethnic enmity that exists between Ossetians and Georgians, as well as the armored fist of Russia's armed forces. The trip revealed the depth of civilian suffering on both sides from just five days of fighting, from the shell-battered South Ossetian town of Tskhinvali to the bulldozed ethnic Georgian villages on its outskirts.

It began on the banks of the River Terek in Vladikavkaz, a Tsarist-era fortress town where Russia still garrisons its troops. A small group of foreign journalists and their ever-vigilant Kremlin minders set off for Tskhinvali, in my case for the seventh time.

Soon, the bus was climbing toward Russia's border with South Ossetia, motoring along roads etched into steep mountain passes. Russian army units rested by the roadside and grimy-faced young soldiers could be spotted trying to get some sleep. Curled like cats on the top of their stationary T-72 tanks, they were oblivious to passing traffic.

At the border, dozens of trucks were backed up, filling the air with fumes. The trucks carried timber, roof covering, bread and propane gas for South Ossetia's reconstruction. Interspersed among them were private cars and minibuses -- returning South Ossetian civilians.

We crossed the border and before long were passing through the almost four-kilometer-long Roki tunnel, one of many tunnels that slice through the Caucasus. Lit by halogen lamps, the tunnel has an unfinished feel to it, and the air is short on oxygen. It was through here that Russia sent its tanks.

When we emerge, we are greeted with a picture-postcard view. Before us is a green valley crisscrossed by a narrow road that winds its way downward like forked spaghetti. In the distance, snow-capped mountains glisten in the sun.

A long column of Russian armor is making its way toward the tunnel while other armored columns and trucks are parked on higher ground. As we speed along, I notice red graffiti daubed on roadside stones and abandoned buildings: "Spasibo Rossiya!" -- "Thank you Russia!"

We pass large, color posters declaring Ossetia's "indivisibility" and a lonely bust of Vladimir Lenin standing in a dusty parking lot in front of a filthy WC.

Just outside the village of Java, we are held for more than an hour to allow a military column to pass. The road is empty at first, but then we hear the rumbling of tanks and it starts: A stream of more than 200 vehicles -- tanks, trucks, armored cars and howitzers -- trundle past, kicking up plumes of dust. Groups of from three to eight Kalashnikov-toting soldiers cling to the top of each vehicle like barnacles, determined not to be shaken off.

As they pass, some wave while others pump their fists into the air triumphantly and smile. The traffic is sometimes three abreast and includes civilian cars driven by Ossetian men who grin like they are having the times of their lives.

At one point, a truck carrying heaped bales of hay passes, catching a Kremlin minder's eye.

"Why do they need hay?" he asks, shaking his head disapprovingly. "They're looters," he adds, before checking himself. "Maybe the hay is for the tanks."

Next comes a string of ethnic-Georgian villages that have been targeted by Ossetian militias. The villages were in a bad way on previous trips -- almost every house was roofless and gutted. Now it is worse. A largeCaterpillar bulldozer is at work and many of the houses are just piles of rubble.

Spoils of war are being claimed: A car has dark-wood furniture lashed to its roof. In another ethnic-Georgian village, windows of a big electronics store are smashed; a couple of white refrigerators lie beached like whales.

In Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, the cleanup has begun. The streets have been cleared of burned-out tanks. Civilian cars and pedestrians have returned and a few small stores have reopened.

But it still looks bad. There is little water, no electricity and the downtown area is a collection of shell-pocked and burned-out buildings. I don't linger -- staying just long enough to be accused of spying by a Russian officer who says he has seen me here too many times.

Cab service hasn't restarted but I spot a car with a taxi sign and tell the driver I want to go to Gori inGeorgia. "Poyekhali!" -- "Let's go!" -- he says, and we drive toward Georgia. After what seems like a short distance, we hit a checkpoint.

A man clutching a long sniper's rifle asks for my documents. Then four others surround me -- local Ossetian militia. "We're not letting any cars pass," says a short, overweight man who calls himself Yuri. "Why would anyone go in that direction," he asks, rhetorically. "Only to loot."

At that moment, a jeep carrying Russian military police pulls up and the document check starts over. My taxi driver says he is leaving and hurriedly drives off. Requests for a lift are rebuffed. "If you were Russian it would be different," Yuri says. "Gori is 28 kilometers by foot."

I start walking. Somebody will give me a lift, I think. But for the next three hours, there is hardly any traffic in what I realize has become a dead zone. An occasional Russian military truck and the odd civilian car roar past; nobody stops. I pass a pair of dead pigs rotting in the sun, a discarded Russian soldier's cap and heaps of abandoned possessions, rejected perhaps by picky looters. A large Russian military base looms on my left -- two sentries look through me as if I don't exist.

The area used to be populated by ethnic Georgians. A shredded poster of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili hangs forlornly from a telegraph pole. Machine-gun shells litter the road and chickens peck in the dust. I pass dozens of houses but nothing stirs.

Then a truck that has refused me a lift disgorges a woman. She is Salima Goyeva, a 65-year-old Ossetian who says she works in Tskhinvali's main drugstore. She is trying to return to her mixed Ossetian-Georgian village with medicine for her neighbors. We walk for a few kilometers past shell-crumpled cars, charred houses and ghost villages.

Suddenly people -- Georgians -- appear, albeit in tiny numbers.

In the village of Tkviavi, we meet four old women seated on a bench outside their house. They bring us water and we drink and talk.

"We hid in our garden when the Ossetians came and burnt our houses," says Nino Tshashashvili, one of the women.

None of them speaks Russian, and none relishes the prospect of their village being subsumed into Russia. "If it becomes part of Russia they won't let Georgians live here," Ms. Tshashashvili says.

Ms. Goyeva heads off for her village soon afterward and I carry on. In the center of Tkviavi, two men sit in a bus shelter waiting for a bus that will never come. Both are drunk. "Please take a photograph of my house," one says, "so that I can prove the damage."

A little farther on, a white Lada jeep with four occupants suddenly screeches to a halt. "Get in," says the elderly driver, whose smile flashes with gold teeth. The Lada roars off at breakneck speed.

"Have a peach," the man says. He won't take no for an answer. I soon have six peaches in my bag. The men are Georgian and say the car is looted. They are looking for their own car that they say was looted by Ossetians. Soon we find it, in a ditch with no tires, its windshield shattered. This doesn't depress the looters. We part company as one of them rummages through the pockets of old clothes on the recovered car's backseat. As I walk farther, I pass more burned-out houses, apartment blocks and wrecked shops.

An old Ford transit van stops and I hop in with a few locals, also looking to get to Gori. The driver, Vasi Pavlashvili, is returning from a visit to his home in Tkviavi. He says he approached his house but fled when he saw gunmen in his garden.

"They were sunbathing in their underwear like on the beach," he said. Minutes later, we reach the last Russian checkpoint before Gori. "Open up so I can have a look," a Russian soldier barks. The door slides open and the soldier conducts a brief search. "Can we pass?" asks the driver. "Da," says the soldier.