Andrew Osborn








Inside a Shattered City

16th August 2008 16:36

Burnt out Georgian tanks litter the streets, soldiers’ corpses rot under the hot sun, and shell-scarred apartment blocks look like they are about to collapse like a pack of cards.

Tskhinvali, the epicentre of a conflict that triggered Russia’s most powerful projection of force since the fall of the Soviet Union, is a shattered city.

Stripped of most of its 30,000 inhabitants, it is eerily silent bar the roar of diesel-fuelled Russian tanks and troop carriers.

Cows lie by the side of the road, the tiny number of inhabitants left can be spotted making minor repairs to their ruined homes, and on certain streets the odour of death mingles with the smell of charred timber.

A sprawling city surrounded by postcard-pretty mountains, it is hard to imagine that Tskhinvali, the impoverished capital of separatist South Ossetia, will ever be the same again.

Comparisons to Stalingrad are misplaced though. This is not a city that has been razed to the ground. Large parts of Tskhinvali remain intact and seem to have escaped some of the heaviest fighting.   

The sheer level of destruction is evidence, however, that maximum force was used by both sides with scant regard for civilian life or property.     

Near the town centre, two burnt out T-72 Georgian tanks stand at a cross-roads, a dark monument to Georgia’s failed ambitions triumphantly shown to foreign media by Russian officers. The gun turret of one tank can be seen lying outside a shop some 30 meters distant where it was thrown like a children’s toy. A nearby crater holds an unexploded tank shell; further on, a severed human foot lies among the debris that carpets the town’s pavements. The apartment blocks all around are riddled with bullets and have had holes punched in them by tank shells and rockets.

Alla Begayeva, a mother of three, says Georgian troops behaved like criminals. “They tormented women and children and fired at apartment blocks” she says, her voice cracking with emotion, and her eyes filling with tears. Like many others, she sought shelter in her apartment block’s basement waiting for the sound of war to go away. “When we were in our cellar they came into our homes, drunk tea, and then went out killing,” she alleges. “It was a nightmare.”

 Tucked away in off-street courtyards, some of the local men who fought the Georgians sit at long tables drinking wine and vodka in a daze. Many are drunk, angry, and look as if they are about to break down and fall to their knees sobbing at any moment. Dressed in camouflage fatigues, they also look like experienced fighters. Much of their fury is directed at Mikheil Saakashvili, the Georgian president who ordered his troops into their hometown. Many liken him to Hitler, equating his policies to fascism. But much of their spleen is directed at President George Bush and the United States that helped train the Georgian army. “What happened here was Bush’s fault,” says Valentin Djoev, an elderly man. “We should line three people up and shoot them: George Bush, Condoleezza Rice, and Mikheil Saakashvili.”   

The dusty unmade road that leads to what used to be the headquarters of Russian military peacekeepers in the republic is disturbing in the extreme. Traffic wends it ways round burnt out Georgian tanks and troops carriers as locals try to patch up broken windows apparently oblivious to the carnage around them. Nearby, the bodies of five Georgian soldiers bake in the fierce Caucasian sun. They have been stripped to their underwear and in some cases mutilated. Someone has poked a stick into the head of one soldier, with a handwritten note apparently attached to it. Further on, one of the Georgian corpses looks more like something from a grotesque science fiction film. Hideously bloated and grey in colour, the remains of a man who was once someone’s son now lacks arms and legs and has been disemboweled. Further on, the headquarters of the Russian peacekeepers stands on a hill, its windows blown out and its masonry shell-blasted. Russian officers say

Georgian tanks opened up on the building at point blank range. The charred remains of one Georgian tank are pushed up close to the building while other incinerated armored vehicles litter the compound. On the back of a military ambulance, someone has daubed in Russian a simple slogan: “We won.”

Tskhinvali’s Jewish quarter, already blasted in previous conflicts, is pulverized. Locals say a squall of Grad missiles levelled their homes. In many cases, only the front walls have been left standing. Minibuses and cars have been punctured with shrapnel like Swiss cheese. Konstantin Koblov, an elderly man who said he helped fight the Georgians, said they were tough adversaries. “They kept coming,” he said. “We’d stop a tank in its tracks, then an armoured personnel carrier, and then start taking out the soldiers,” he said. “One soldier would fall down and we’d kill another. But then the first one would get back up and keep coming. It was like they were on drugs.” Russian sources said this was because the Georgians were wearing U.S.-supplied Kevlar body armour. Russian officers said they had recovered “a sea” of U.S. military equipment from mortars and grenade launchers right down to U.S. army rations and compasses.

Tskhinvali’s hospital did not escape the fighting either. Bullet holes cover its white facade, while staff said a Grad missile had come in through the roof. Its basement, where many patients cowered and doctors tried to operate during the fighting, has yet to be cleared up. Dozens of old-fashioned iron beds are crowded into a darkened network of damp rooms, the air is thick with the smell of human waste, and the ground is littered with bloodied bandages. “How can you fire a Grad missile at a hospital?,” said Dr. Tina Zakharova. Cradling three pieces of shrapnel in her hand which she said had been extracted from the wounded, she said Georgia had a strange way of trying to win over people’s hearts and minds. “This,” she said “is the kind of humanitarian aid Georgia sends us.”