Andrew Osborn








Ossetians Jail Georgian Civilians

The Wall Street Journal, 18th August 2008 11:39

By Andrew Osborn

TSKHINVALI, Georgia -- Tamaz Barbikadze tip-toed out of South Ossetia's Interior Ministry Sunday flanked by three armed guards. A frail man of 69 years, he was given five minutes to describe to two reporters how he and more than 100 other civilians had been rounded up 10 days ago and thrown into prison. As he spoke, one of his Ossetian captors casually shifted his Kalashnikov from knee to knee.

Mr. Barbikadze's crime: He is Georgian. In South Ossetia, Georgians are regarded with visceral hatred after Georgian tanks rolled into this tiny pro-Russian separatist republic fewer than two weeks ago.

Mr. Barbikadze said that he and about 150 other ethnic Georgians had been locked up in the squat Interior Ministry building since Aug. 8, the day the tanks entered the city. Appearing terrified, he said he didn't understand why he had become a "hostage."

"We are not fighters, we are peaceful people," he said. "We want to go home."

The only time he and the other Georgians see natural light is when they are forced to help clean up Tskhinvali's dusty debris-strewn streets, he says.

South Ossetia's prosecutor general, Taimuraz Khugayev, put the number of Georgian civilian captives at 131. They have been locked up under martial law "for their own safety," he added.

For centuries, Georgians and Ossetians have shared this mountainous region, often tensely. In the early 1990s, warfare broke out when Georgia tried to revoke the autonomy that South Ossetia had enjoyed under Soviet rule. South Ossetian forces crushed the Georgian attack, and Russian troops have helped keep an uneasy peace since then. But that broke down when Georgian troops attacked Tskhinvali in the early hours of Aug. 8.

With the Georgian assault crushed by Russian troops, a string of ethnic Georgian villages between the Russian border in the north and Tskhinvali have paid the price.

A Wall Street Journal correspondent counted at least 200 roofless, burnt-out Georgian homes Sunday.

Russian officials have said they see no way South Ossetia, along with nearby separatist region Abkhazia, could return to Georgia. Eduard Kokoity, the Russian-backed president of South Ossetia, told a Russian newspaper Friday that "we've practically leveled everything" in the Georgian villages. "We don't intend to let anyone back there," he said.

Ossetian forces, he said, had created a "humanitarian corridor" for Georgians to escape.

Ossetian authorities refused to show reporters the conditions in which the civilian captives are being held in Tskhinvali. Instead, after much persuasion, they agreed to let Mr. Barbikadze speak with a pair of Western reporters for five minutes.

Mr. Barbikadze said the conditions in which he is being held are "normal." Yet his trousers were covered with grime and a strong smell of urine emanated from him. He said about 150 prisoners are being held with him, a mixture of women, children and old people. A guard said the youngest prisoner was a 12-year-old boy.

Asked whether the Ossetians had beaten the Georgian prisoners, Mr. Barbikadze answered only for himself. "No, no, no," he said, glancing nervously at his guards. "Nobody laid a finger on me." Asked whether his fellow captives had been physically abused he mumbled that he was "not sure" and winked.

Mr. Khugayev said that so far the Georgian authorities haven't responded to his efforts to broker a prisoner swap. "They have abandoned their citizens," he said.

Witnesses say they have seen Georgian prisoners clearing rubble and rubbish from the streets of Tskhinvali, which is now completely under the control of Russian forces.

Mr. Khugayev denied making the prisoners work. They had helped bury the bodies of Georgian soldiers the previous day, he said, but "nobody forced them to do this."

A guard at the Interior Ministry contradicted his account. The guard said Georgian prisoners had been out clearing the downtown area on Saturday and that some of them were now clearing other parts of the city. Mr. Barbikadze also confirmed that the prisoners were being put to work, saying younger Georgian prisoners had volunteered to help clear the city's streets because it was an opportunity to get out of the crowded jail.

In his office in a crumbling, low-slung whitewashed building, Mr. Khugayev said he was investigating "war crimes" against Ossetian civilians committed by Georgian forces during the roughly 24 hours between their initial arrival and being forced out by Russian forces. Georgian forces deny targeting civilians.

Mr. Khugayev said he had opened 200 criminal cases, having positively identified 200 civilian corpses. He gave the example of six young girls he said had been abducted and raped by Georgian forces in the village of Khetagurovo. He said that witnesses had seen them being forced into tanks on Aug. 8 and that they hadn't been seen again.

Prosecutors had found a car packed with "dozens" of shovels in a field outside the village. That, he said, suggested they were planning a mass burial.

"Georgia wants South Ossetia," he said. "But without the Ossetians."