South Ossetia: Tskhinvali’s Apocalypse

About the author
Tanya Lokshina is Russia Program Director at Human Rights Watch

"Tskhinvali today, right?" I raise my head from the pillow, and try to open my eyes. At least one eye, my left... Over the past few days - I don't remember how many - we have been getting about three hours of sleep a night. The days blend into a succession of pictures in a viewfinder: armoured personal carriers, tanks, infantry vehicles, ‘Grad' emplacements, ‘Uragan' emplacements, shells, shards, rocket fragments, ruined houses, burning houses, houses burnt to the ground, broken glass, holes in walls, rockets flying up in flames into the bright blue sky... When the phone rings and a journalist asks how long we have been here, I ask after a brief pause what day it is. We flew to Ossetia on Sunday morning, the 10th of August... Is that only three or four days ago? It seems like a month or a year...

Tskhinvali yesterday, Tskhinvali today... As I finally manage to focus my gaze I see the round face of our hostess, and behind her - o God, not that, please, not in the morning! - an unshaven guy in camouflage gear with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder. I draw the blankets up: "Please, go away for a second! Let me get dressed!" "What?" the guy asks, "You need to go to Tskhinvali, don't you?" The hostess says reassuringly: "He's a good boy! He'll take you there!" Across the room, something's stirring. My colleagues blink sleepily: "All right! Let's get going! We'll have tea and get off right away!" The guy leaves the room, and the woman follows him. "What was that?" comes a voice from the bed next to mine. "I think the guy said he was prepared to take us for a ride..." I put one foot on the floor, then the other...

My jeans are so covered in dust and soot that they are actually rustling. Luckily, the tea-shirt is clean. It's the last one, though. The woman of the house comes back into the room, kneels by the bed, and brings out an AK-47 from under it. Then another one... She takes them on to the terrace, comes back, dives under the bed again, and delivers another four AK-47s.... The woman is tiny; she barely reaches my shoulder. "Wait, let me give you a hand!" I pick up the sub-machine guns and drag them out of the room. On the porch is yet another man in camouflage fatigues. This camouflage everywhere, it really blurs your vision, particularly when you haven't had enough sleep. He nods, smiles and takes the weapons. "The boys went off and asked me to hide the guns. Now they want them back," the hostess explains. Back in our room, I get down on my knees and look under the beds - are there any more down there? Luckily, the arsenal seems to be empty - there's nothing left but dust.

We get into a jeep with two Ossetian militiamen, who promise to take us to our destination. But after five minutes, at the nearest checkpoint, federal soldiers refuse to let us through. Well, not us, but our escorts. The purpose of this checkpoint is specifically to stop the Ossetian militias from entering Georgian villages on the Tskhinvali road. Its commanding officer, a Russian lieutenant colonel, shrugs phlegmatically: "We're trying to stop the looters. They steal and set fire to things. We've carried out the military operation in one direction, all the way to Georgia. We've done what we had to. Now it's only sensible to do the same thing in the other direction, on the way back. Otherwise this'll never stop. Given what the Ossetians are doing in those villages, there isn't a hope in hell that the others won't take revenge on them later on. I see no end to this."

A swarthy young major from Dagestan, perched on an APC, refuses to let the militia men through the checkpoint. "Who gave you the right? You're supposed to be helping us, but what are you doing?" they shout. He repeats: "I can't let you through. I've got my orders. If my superiors told me to shoot at women, I wouldn't do it. No. But otherwise I've got to follow orders." The man is dog-tired, and the heat is stifling. But he never raises his voice: "You can't be from the Caucasus if this is how you treat us!" "I am from the Caucasus. But I'm also a soldier. Just doing my job!"

Despite the wretched prospect of having to wait in the scorching heat for a Russian military vehicle prepared to give three crazy civvies a ride to the wrecked Tskhinvali, one can only admire the perseverance of the soldiers. Yesterday in the Georgian villages on this road, these houses were being torched by the dozen. Armed men in fatigues had gone on the rampage stealing furniture, rugs, TV sets, vacuum cleaners and crockery left behind by the owners. Laughing and shouting, the looters piled the stuff into the cars. The road, jammed with armoured personnel carriers and assorted vehicles of the Ossetian militias, was thick with smoke from exhaust fumes and burning houses. Our Niva jeep got hopelessly stuck, and walking along the road with my camera I took pictures half-blindly, almost randomly. A hysterical Georgian woman, flailing her arms beside the burning remains of what had been her home just a few hours ago, was cursing both the Ossetian militia and President Saakashvili. A frail old man with burned hands and singed hair was hopelessly trying to put out the hissing, smouldering boards with water from a small plastic bucket... A dark-haired fighter in camouflage grimacing: "Taking pictures? We're burning these to make sure people have to houses to come back to. Otherwise, if they come back, there'll be an enclave here again, and we can't live with that. We answer blood with blood. What is happening here is an apocalypse. Do you understand? People are turning into animals. And there's no way back."

A drunken militiaman prods me with his gun: "Hey, are you Georgian?" Another physiognomist to deal with. Screaming over the roar of the tanks, I launch into a well-rehearsed string of obscenities: "Do I look like a f...ing Georgian, open your eyes, you moron, I'm Russian, f... it" As I expected, swearing works better than any identification document. Ten meters further on there is a ruined bank with the remains of a shiny cash machine - Georgia put loads of money into these enclave villages, clearly trying to show how good life could be if only South Ossetia put itself under Georgia's wing: modern shopping centres, cafes, tennis courts, even a swimming pool... Today, the vestiges of this former prosperity only seem to provoke the looters even more .

A young guy in a dirty shirt and camouflage pants waves frantically: "Come here!" "What for?" "Come here, I said! I won't hurt you!" The boy points to a wooden bench by the side of the road and sits down. "Are you a journalist? Take off your headscarf. You look a lot like a Georgian in it. They'll do you in, and that would be a shame..." Cursing through my teeth, I rip off the scarf wrapped around my hair to keep the soot away. If and when I get back to Moscow, I'll probably have to shave it all off. But better bold than dead, right? "Are you in the militias?" His eyes are focused on the ground and his fingers are performing a nervous dance on his knees: "I came from Vladikavkaz. Going home now. I've had enough fighting. On the day this started, I just had a shower, put on my fatigues and drove all the way over here with a bunch of friends. There were 70 of us." He falls silent and his eyes are glassy. "You probably have family here then?" The boy waves his hand and suddenly almost shouts: "I don't have any relatives here, no one at all. I just thought - how could I not defend my own people? The Northerners and the Southerners are one nation, right? But these highlanders - on both sides - they're like animals. The things they do to each other... In the city, you know how many corpses there are lying on the street? Have you ever seen a body that's been run over by a tank? Shredded to pieces, without a head, arms or legs... When I close my eyes I can still see them..." All of a sudden, the traffic starts moving. The Niva beeps, and I get up hurriedly to catch up with my colleagues: "Good luck! Safe journey home! Really hope you never have to fight again!"

Everyone is so pathetic. The Ossetian volunteers, who were teenagers just yesterday, and the Georgian student reservists (some soldiers they are - a few weeks of training, sing-alongs with a guitar, and then off to battle). Those corpses... Sure I saw them. This is August, and the temperature is over 30 degrees. The Ossetians buried their own, of course, but the Georgians were lying all over the city, naked and rotting. The very thought of that smell makes me feel sick.... A ‘Ural' military truck stops by the road-bloc. Are they taking us? Great timing! The soldiers move over to make room on the wooden bench. They look scared and very young. What are they, conscripts? Yes... They've been traveling from Rostov for four days now. Three months before demobilisation, now they're thrown in the middle of this mess: "What's happening in Tskhinvali at the moment? Is there shooting? A lot? How'll we manage?" Their eyes are bright with fear. Looking at them is unbearable.

Yesterday was Tskhinvali. Today is Tskhinvali. Ruined houses. Two women in black on Geroev Street, crying their eyes out. In the night of August 8, their father died under Georgian fire. He looked out of the cellar, saw the roof of his house aflame, lost his head and ran to put the fire out. He was wounded in the hip by shrapnel. A few hours later the old man died from loss of blood in the arms of his wife. They ran out of rags to stop the bleeding and there was nothing to use as a bandage. And a few days later, when everything was over, his daughters buried him. Soon after the funeral their brother sat on a bench by the house to rest, cried out suddenly and fell to the ground. It was a heart attack. He was rushed to hospital, but it was too late. The priest is now saying prayers over his body. The red velvet lid of the coffin leans against the wall of the shed. From the bushes you can smell the sweet stench of rotting flesh, and a swollen dead arm of a Georgian soldier sticks out. And nearby, on the balcony of a multi-story building, a half-dressed man is throwing out debris left over from the shelling: fragments of brick and glass.

Dozens of civilians died in the city. Hundreds of people have nowhere to live. There is no water, electricity or anything at all. For two days or longer, women and children shivered in cellars while Tskhinvali was bombarded by rockets and artillery fire. Some panicked and tried to escape with their children after the fighting started, on the 8th of August. Cars carrying refugees were fired at. Children cried. Mothers writhed in hysterics. Ossetian volunteers armed with knives and sub-machine guns attacked the Georgian tanks. How many militiamen died is unclear. Russian military losses are 74. Over 200 Georgian soldiers were killed. Dozens of civilians were also buried in Georgia. There are unexploded shells on both sides which could detonate at any moment. So it isn't over yet.

Next to the house in the Ossetian village of Dzhava, where kind people gave us shelter, two 500-kilogram bombs glitter in the grass like gigantic, monstrous flowers. They were dropped from the air on a Russian tank column, but missed their target. And now they are lying here, and will probably continue to do so for some time to come - one on a hill, another in a ravine. Minesweepers shake their heads. They can't detonate them -the bombs would destroy half the village at least. But they can't remove them either - if the bombs blow up when they're being moved, the result will be the same, and some soldiers will be killed too. Leaving the bombs alone isn't an option either. This is an area of seismic activity. Only last night there were some tremors, which could've easily set the bombs off.

I don't know what is right under the circumstances. But surely there must be some kind of solution? But all I really want is to get some sleep. Even next to this iron monster in the shade of a plum tree, even just for half an hour...

The setting sun paints the sky a tender pink. A tiny yard on the outskirts of Tskhinvali is quiet. The walls of the house are dented by shrapnel. A new car, the pride of its owners, is only good now for scrap. A fluffy dog runs around waiting to be petted. On a wooden table next to the porch, there is a bowl with slightly overripe cherry plums and a plastic canister of homemade red wine. As she talks about her experience in the bombardment, imitating the sound of the rockets, the mistress of the house pours the wine. Suddenly in the distance, a few kilometers away, there is a low and terrifying crash. The dog squeals and hides under the bench. "Yes," smiles the woman, "Belochka has been with us all these days, and as soon as shelling starts, she is always the first in the cellar. God won't forgive those Georgians! May their entire vile nation be wiped from the face of the Earth..." She sighs and offers a full glass to a neighbour who has come just to visit. The elderly Georgian drinks it in one gulp and wipes her mouth. "Damn that Saakashvili to hell. We had such good lives..." Another neighbour, a young Ossetian girl, talks excitedly about Georgian infantrymen who came into their yard, and how she was afraid that they would kill the children and rape the women, but they turned out to be mere teenagers. They just stood there and blinked in amazement: "We thought everyone had fled a long time ago, that there were only soldiers left! How did you survive the bombardment? Don't worry, we won't do anything bad to you. Do you think we want to kill or die? If it weren't for Kokoity, Putin and Saakashvili, we wouldn't be here at all! Who needs this war?!"

There are many mixed marriages here. And almost everyone has relatives and friends in Georgia. Although some Georgians in South Osssetia were detained, imprisoned and are now being exchanged for Ossetian prisoners, there are still many elderly Georgians in the city who have been left alone. They have been living here for a long time. They are clearly locals. And who would dream of offending these people who were also shaking with terror in the bombardment, who when their turn came, ran to fetch water for all the others? The woman of the house pours out more wine, and we drink a toast that the war will end once and for all. That people will, surely, reach some agreement.