Village's scars illuminate Russians' views --- South Ossetia locals blame devastation on Georgian attack
The Wall Street Journal Europe, 25th August 2008 11:38
By Andrew Osborn
KHETAGUROVO, Georgia -- Grigory Mamiyev says his father, Pyotr, was standing in front of his two-story house in this tiny Ossetian village when shrapnel from a Georgian shell tore part of his head off, killing him instantly. His father's blood still stains the sidewalk outside.
Locals say an elderly woman named Tamara Mamiyeva (no relation) was burnt to death when another Georgian shell ignited a fierce fire in her home, opposite the Mamiyevs'. The squat brick house where she lived is now a blackened husk.
On the next street in this sleepy village of 150 houses, Eteri Dzhioyeva mourns her husband, Aslan. She says shrapnel hit the pensioner in the back of the head, killing him about a meter from the cellar he was trying to reach.
As the world wonders why Russia and the tiny pro-Russian statelet of South Ossetia are so sure the fierce blows Moscow dealt Georgia this month were proportionate, the devastation wrought in this village offers important clues. A visit to Khetagurovo, just eight kilometers from Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, turned up evidence of indiscriminate shelling of civilian targets and accounts of the kidnapping of noncombatants. Some of the survivors' stories were independently confirmed; others couldn't be.
"We have a saying," says Mr. Mamiyev, standing amid the ruins of his home. "Build a home, plant a tree, and raise a son." Now, he says, there should be a new line: "And then the Georgians come along and turn everything into ash and cinders."
Locals say eight villagers were killed in a Georgian attack that began Aug. 7 and triggered the massive response from Russia. That number couldn't be independently confirmed, though several freshly dug graves were found in Khetagurovo's cemetery, set in the grounds of a handsome 12th-century stone church. The churchyard is littered with Georgian soldiers' empty ration packs, Georgian cigarette packets and shell casings.
In an interview, Giga Bokeria, Georgia's deputy foreign minister, denied civilians had been deliberately targeted. He said that Khetagurovo had been hit because it had been an artillery "fire point" used by Ossetian militia to fire on three predominantly Georgian villages. "We're sorry," he said. "We obviously regret any loss of civilian life." He confirmed that Grad missiles had been fired at the area around the village but insisted Georgian soldiers hadn't committed any atrocities there. The only people who had been taken prisoner were combatants and Ossetian spies, he added. Ossetian claims that women had been seized were, he said, "a complete lie."
South Ossetia, an enclave in the shadow of the Caucasus mountains, is a patchwork of ethnic Georgian and Ossetian villages. The war was the latest bloody chapter in years of ethnic conflict between the groups. After Russian troops drove Georgian forces from the area early this month, vengeful Ossetians burned Georgian villages like Avnevi to the ground. Five ethnic Georgian villages to the north of Tskhinvali have also been systematically bull-dozed, burnt and looted.
Khetagurovo's dusty, unmade streets are filled with the detritus of war. Cars lie crumpled like paper, metal fences are riddled with holes torn by shrapnel and bullets, and trees are scorched and split. The roof of the village school is adrift, and at least 30 houses appear to have been totally destroyed. Villagers' kitchen gardens and roads are pocked with large craters where shells fell, often close together. Shrapnel has torn through bedroom walls and lodged itself in wardrobes and everyday objects such as wheelbarrows and pots and pans.
Standing outside his windowless shell-damaged house, Gamlet Gigolayev, a member of the local militia, says the attack began with small-arms fire and was followed by sustained shelling with Grad missiles. Then, he said, came the tanks.
"You could only hide," Mr. Gigolayev says.
As his mother picks up pieces of roof covering and shrapnel from the front porch behind him, Mr. Gigolayev wonders where he is going to live. "This is it, there is nowhere else," he says. "I don't know how, but we have to fix this place up before the winter sets in." Nearby, his car, a Soviet-era white Lada, is a heap of twisted metal partly sunken in the sidewalk.
The village is still dangerous, as it is littered with unexploded and abandoned ordnance. In the backyard of a house nearby, locals force open a crate of Georgian hand grenades with a crow bar before filling their pockets. Mr. Gigolayev's garden is a no-go zone. He points out three large antitank shells nestling in the undergrowth. "They could explode at any minute," he says.
South Ossetia's prosecutor, Taimuraz Khugayev, singles out Khetagurovo as a place where Georgian soldiers committed "war crimes." He says it was occupied on Aug. 7 and 8. "When we liberated the village, we found a car filled with spades abandoned in a field," he says. "We assume the Georgians wanted to organize a mass burial."
Georgian soldiers took civilian hostages from the village, residents say. Mr. Mamiyev says he was one of six hostages taken to the Georgian town of Gori and then on to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. He says he was released unharmed.
Sitting in her yard drinking coffee with friends, Rita Tegkayeva, another resident who says she was taken hostage, says she is still waiting for news of her husband, Oleg, a colonel in the statelet's traffic police. "I haven't heard any news of him since Aug. 9," she says. "Only rumors." She says she hopes he may be released as part of a prisoner exchange. Locals say they are holding three Georgian soldiers to barter.
In about a dozen interviews, locals say the attack has strengthened their resolve to become part of Russia. "How many years have we been suffering?" says Ms. Dzhioyeva, who lost her husband.
She says Russia is South Ossetia's only chance of a peaceful future. "Who else will fight the Georgians?" she says.