We are on our way to Avnevi, a big Georgian village in the south west of South Ossetia which over the last three weeks has been burnt to the ground. Or almost. Some of the houses are still standing - or were five days ago. The vineyards along the dusty road, dotted here and there with yellow or red cherry plum, the bridge, the shell of the school and the police station building with its charred red walls. Empty burnt-out houses and fresh fires. Actually there aren't very many new fires - one month after the war in this, as in other, enclave villages almost nothing is left to burn. But there are dozens of elderly Georgians who didn't leave the enclave villages when the population was fleeing before the war. The nights are chilly already and in another month they will be very cold indeed. These people have no homes, no means of getting warm and what is left of their kitchen gardens will soon no longer provide enough food for them. They can't last long. If, however, they are handed over to the Red Cross, they will be sent to Gori and put in hospital. Any relations they may have in Georgia will be located, but if there are none....God knows, they still can't stay here.
On our way from Tskhinvali to Avnevi we are accompanied by Timur. Just recently he was hunting down Georgian tanks at the entrance to the city: he is still laughing at the fact that that he, a respectable man of fifty, should have had to do such a thing. Timur has his own reason for wanting to go to Avnevi: he wants to check if the house of his close friend is still standing. But how can this be? An Ossetian warrior friends with a Georgian, the ‘sworn enemy'? Timur laughs. "I never had any problems with Georgians. Of course, there were shootings and killings...but never any real problems! True, it was kind of difficult to explain things to the children. My youngest said to me recently ‘I hate the Georgians, they can all drop dead.' ‘What about Uncle Mishiko, him too?' I asked him. My boy thought for a bit, then said ‘He's no Georgian, he's absolutely one of us. He loves us!'"
At this point I can't help remembering the story of the boy from the Chechen village of Alkhan-yurt. He was taken as far away from the war as possible, to the Tver region of Russia. When the time came for him to go home again, he was almost in tears. "I don't want to go back. Let's stay here. It's good here - there are no Russians!" The only Russians he knew were drunken soldiers in camouflage uniforms with machine guns; the people he saw around him in this small Russian town could in no way come into that category. They were completely peaceful and kind - friend, not foe.
"Our" Georgian Misha has six children. He took his family to Tbilisi as his wife comes from there and they somehow managed to find a place to stay with her relatives. But they have a big family: there is not enough room for everyone and Misha is embarrassed at adding to the burden. At the very end of August Timur went to see what had happened to Misha's house. It was untouched, although everything around it was burning. Timur wrote on the wall that he house belonged to an Ossetian. He had a word with the local militia and with the looters to ensure that they didn't touch it. He said he was taking over the house himself, and hoped that all would be OK.
A week later, however, only the charred shell remained. Anything with any value at all had been taken and the rest set alight. In the deep, damp cellar Timur found some old rags and a few old cooking pans. The spacious courtyard was hung about with vines. Some of them are burnt: the leaves are black and withered and the fruit baked to raisins. Dark, heavy roses are still blooming by the fence. Timur mutters to himself as he carefully picks the tomatoes that have survived the fire. He brings a couple of jars of cherry preserve from the devastated cellar. Why should good things go to waste? On our departure Timur says over and over again, more to himself than to us, that he has done everything he could, but not managed to save the house. But Misha has so many mouths to feed, how can he possibly find the words to tell him....?
The house was probably set alight yesterday to judge from the greasy soot and the overwhelming smell of burning. Timur feels that it can't just be the looters - he had, after all, come to an arrangement with them! No, he is absolutely sure the authorities issued an order to destroy everything that was still standing. Who knows? In the Georgian enclave villages to the north of Tskhinvali, which have been practically razed to the ground by fire, tractors and bulldozers have already started to clear the charred shells of some of the houses. Here too, in Avnevi, two columns of smoke curl up into the sky at the other end of the village. Whether by design or by chance, it is clear that the last remaining houses have just been torched.
That house over there, for example, is burning so intensely that the heat scorches our faces. The beams are cracking, the roof buckles and collapses before our eyes and a wall of fire flickers in the windows. Behind the house, a bit further down the path, there is a dilapidated little hut. I don't know why we look that way, possibly surprised that it is still standing. Inside, among the buckets, pots, bowls, the carefully arranged squash and potatoes there is a tiny ancient woman with a thin, dark face. Elena Zoziashvili. Elena....her son is in Tbilisi, but she doesn't remember his name. She is half blind and very hard of hearing. She smiles quietly at the group of strangers. There are two grey cats at her feet and five half-grown kittens tumbling about in the corner. "Granny, we'll get the doctors for you and they'll take you to Tbilisi." She keeps smiling and spreads her hands helplessly, looking about her in confusion. At last she grasps what we are saying. "No, I don't want to...." she repeats, stroking the fluffy cat with a hand that is covered with scratches and gnarled with arthritis.
At the other end of the village we find a house that has miraculously survived. Next to it stands an old man of about eighty. He has a tube in his throat from a tracheotomy long ago and can't say a word, but writes on a scrap of paper for us that his name is Vakhtang Durgishvili and he is completely alone. Mobiles don't work properly here and calls to the Red Cross are continually cut off. We go to the edge of the village and suddenly see some more people. Georgians? Not very likely....
A lively Ossetian woman of about sixty is talking incessantly. Zalina is married to a Georgian, but what are they to do? How can they leave for Georgia proper when they have lived all their lives in Ossetia? She clasps her hands together. "All sorts of pro-Georgian officials came here and said ‘You must leave, there is going to be a war. When we are victorious, you can safely come back to your houses.' But my husband and I did not give the idea much thought. The thing is that our house is set apart a bit and I didn't notice that people were starting to leave. I didn't even see our daughter leaving with the children. I went to see her one day, but she wasn't there. There was no one there at all!"
A gaunt, stooped Georgian with a black moustache appears from the back of the courtyard with a pile of small peaches in the hem of his shirt. He smiles timidly and comes up to us. Here, he says, have some of these, you are welcome to whatever we have! "We have had a lot of trouble from looters recently," he admits. "They pester us....they took our cow." "And they almost set fire to the house!" interrupts Zalina. "We were kissing their hands, anything, as long they left us in peace. But they take first one thing, then another. Our neighbour Anna Stepanovna lost all her money to them, down to the last kopek."
Anna Stepanovna is a wizened dark-skinned school -teacher with a white scarf tied over her greying hair. She comes running up to make our acquaintance. She, poor thing, had been saving for a year to pay for crowns on her teeth, which are indeed in a bad state. She had amassed quite a tidy sum, as much as one thousand five hundred roubles ($60), and they took it all, even threatening to burn down her house. Her husband is, after all, a Georgian.
Nearby there live some Ossetian women with Ossetian husbands. The husband of one of them, Tamara, was wounded during the shooting and the Georgians took him with them to Gori, where they apparently put him in hospital. But who knows how he's faring? There are no communication links at all. Electricity is down so you can't charge your mobile, and if you go into the city to make a call, your house will be completely destroyed while you are away. So Tamara has no information at all about her husband. The husband of another woman, Elizaveta, had a heart attack during the shoot-out, so the Georgians took him away too. She was on the point of starting the mourning process, sure that he was dead. But the day before she had nonetheless decided to leave her house and managed to get through to some relatives in Georgia on telephone. They told her he was alive and even getting better. But Elizaveta is so scared on her own, especially at night. She sits and shakes...her daughter's house has already been burnt down. The looters are completely ruthless and the fact that she is Ossetian will hardly protect her.
Zalina insists that we all sit down at the table on her terrace. She has managed find something to offer us, although she has had no flour for a long time and no oil. But on the table are things from better times: homemade cheese with holes, fruit from the garden, nuts and homemade wine. She chatters away. "All the houses were untouched on 10 August, only the school was burning. But after that it really got going and there seems to be no end. I am really sorry that all those Georgians have lost their houses. Many of them were good, simple people who absolutely did not want war. Their sons mostly worked in Tskhinvali. But I can understand the arsonists too. During the first war, in the nineties, Georgians burnt many of the Ossetian houses. Then everything went quiet, of course. But recently, when the Georgian police erected their posts in the area, they really tormented people from the Ossetian villages. To get from town to town you had to go through these checkpoints and they stopped all food bought in Tskhinvali, saying it was smuggled goods and that everything had to be bought in Georgia. They asked all sorts of questions and searched our things. This made life unbearable for so many people. I think that if there had been no Georgian police checkpoints and no harassment, there would have been no pillage and arson. There's a village not far from here, Archnetti, where Georgians and Ossetians still live side by side quite peacefully."
In ethnically mixed villages and even in purely Georgian villages without a pro-Georgian administration the situation is quite different than inside the enclave. Georgian houses in the Leninogorsk district, at the edge of the Dhava district or even here, west of Tskhinvali, are not burning. For instance in the village Zalina mentioned, Archnetti, ten of the sixty houses are Georgian. Here the Georgians sit as quiet as mice, demonstrating their loyalty to the Ossetian authorities, and they have so far been left in peace. In another village, Znauri, local Georgians were also left alone, but now the head of the administration is simply in tears - they are harassed, picked on and soon, if the Ossetian police authorities don't intervene, there could be bloodshed. But they don't seem in any particular hurry to do so.
Zalina insists on giving us a bag of nuts. When we promise to ask the Red Cross to bring her and her neighbours some flour, oil and other humanitarian aid, she suddenly says "My husband and I actually belong to a Christian organisation. Perhaps they might help us. When you go back to Moscow, could you find them and tell them about our troubles?" We ask her which Christian group in Moscow we should look for. She holds out an unusual-looking Bible in a black cover and says proudly "We have been Jehovah's Witnesses for 18 years, since we saw the light!"
Jehovah's Witnesses? God really does move in mysterious ways! The great thing is that it won't take much to find the Witnesses. At least once a month they come knocking at my door - I note cynically that they make a point of coming early on Sunday morning. The next time they come we'll have a good chat about how they should be helping their fellow brethren in a humanitarian catastrophe zone.
But joking apart, what should we actually do? Elena, who has almost lost her wits, and Vakhtang, who has lost his voice, will be taken by the Red Cross to Georgia, of course. But those mixed families, or the Ossetians, left behind in burnt-out villages? There's no one for them in Georgia: they live here. The looters have completely cleaned out the Georgian houses and are now high on arson and robbery, unable to stop. And finally....if in one hour we saw so many helpless people in Avnevi, how many more must there be in other burning enclave villages?
It would seem that if the Ossetian authorities provide no protection in the enclave villages for residents' property and the remaining old people, this should be taken on by the Russian army. After all, Ossetian territory is under their control. And quite recently things appeared to be moving in that direction. When villages to the north of Tskhinvali - Kekhvi, Achabeti, Kurta and Tamarasheni - had been burning for two days, the Russian military set up their checkpoints on 13 August, preventing Ossetian local militia and looters from passing through. The fires and robberies immediately decreased in number; the military found about a hundred old people in these villages and sent them with a convoy of peacemakers to Georgia. The army was really doing something essential and worthwhile. But less than a week later, the checkpoints were dismantled and everything returned to the grim status quo.
Why did this happen? What is preventing the Russian government from tasking the numerous Emergencies Ministry personnel and the military currently in the republic with taking the situation under their control? They should go through all those villages, looking into every courtyard and collecting up the old people who want to leave and have some hope of care and safety in Georgia. They should offer to protect those not prepared to leave and stop the looting, when all is said and done. There could be a solution for this problem and why Russia at the present time is not trying to solve it is a question that needs to be raised.
11 September 2008
Tanya Lokshina is Russia Researcher, Human Rights Watch