By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 25, 2008; A01
TBILISI, Georgia — It was evening, and Manana Rodiashvili had just milked her cow. The disputed region of South Ossetia had seen skirmishes in recent days, but her village was calm.
And then, suddenly, tanks appeared in her street.
“They began shooting all around,” said Rodiashvili, 55, an ethnic Georgian. She crouched in her cousin’s basement as men speaking Russian entered the house. Then she hid for five days in the countryside.
Like many of the tens of thousands who have fled their villages since the war between Georgia and Russia began more than two weeks ago, Rodiashvili doesn’t have a clear sense of whose airplanes she saw, which soldiers came or what date it was. During those chaotic days, people fanned out into the countryside, hiding in orchards and living off plums as they watched their villages burn.
Almost immediately, officials on both sides claimed wild and improbable death tolls. Russian officials accused Georgia’s government of committing “genocide,” saying 2,000 Ossetians had been killed. Georgian officials spoke of summary executions and announced that “most” ethnic Georgians in South Ossetia had been killed or put in detention camps.
It will probably take weeks to sort out who died and how. Witnesses and nongovernmental organizations say that although widespread looting and some detentions occurred, far fewer civilians died than originally reported. In fact, on both sides it has been hard to find people with firsthand knowledge of deaths in a war that sparked the biggest crisis in Russia’s relations with Europe and the United States since the Soviet Union collapsed.
What no one disputes is that villages emptied quickly.
Aid groups and Georgian officials estimate that as many as 158,000 people have left their homes, including 30,000 ethnic Ossetians who went north to Russia. About 100,000 who fled South Ossetia and the Georgian city of Gori went to Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, and 22,000 to other towns.
As they fled, rumors rose like smoke and clouded the air: Cossack, Ossetian and Chechen “irregulars” had razed Georgian villages, committed mass rapes, rounded up all the young people and marched them off to a concentration camp. Women vowed to drink poison rather than be captured alive.
On the other side, Ossetians and Russians said Georgian shells had leveled Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, and targeted Ossetian villages for destruction, killing thousands.
Exaggerated claims from both governments fed the panic.
In the days before the war began, Ossetians seemed aware that something was about to happen. On Aug. 5 and 6, Ossetian officials sent 36 buses to take women and children to Russia.
“Those who were afraid got out,” said Eteri Kudzieva, 50, a resident of Tskhinvali.
Most Georgians initially stayed in their villages, figuring that the sporadic fighting of recent weeks would not affect them.
Georgian forces began shelling on the evening of Aug. 7.
“At first, it was like what we were used to sometimes before,” said Armen Bididov, 60, of Tskhinvali. “Then it just kept getting worse and worse and worse.” He pointed to stone shambles. “This was my house,” he said.
Some Georgian villages also appear to have been hit by Georgian shells that night.
The next morning, the Georgian army rolled through Ossetian villages, shooting randomly at houses and entering some to search for uniforms and weapons.
According to Ossetian villagers, they seemed surprised to find people still inside.
Most ethnic Georgians began fleeing south when they saw the Georgian army retreating the following day. At the same time, Ossetians fled north along a road where Georgian forces had bombed Russian troops.
While Ossetian residents reported sporadic instances of looting by Georgian soldiers — a DVD player here, an electric shaver there — there were few reports of violence, and most deaths among Ossetians seem to have been caused by shelling.
“Nobody told us about any mistreatment, any cruelty by the Georgians as they entered the houses,” said Anna Neistat, a senior emergencies researcher for Human Rights Watch, who spent several days interviewing witnesses in South Ossetia and Russia.
There were, however, detentions on both sides.
Georgian civilians have reported being rounded up by Ossetian militiamen, held in Tskhinvali and forced to bury the war dead. About 80 people released Thursday, including many women and elderly, said at least 75 men are still captive there.
Rita Bestaeva, an Ossetian, said she and several others were captured by Georgian soldiers Aug. 8 and held overnight on the Georgian side of the border. They were not physically abused, she said, and were released by a Georgian special forces member who sneaked them out and took them back to the edge of South Ossetia in his jeep. “What he did was brave and kind,” she said, “but after what I have seen, I still think the Georgian army is shameful.”
Nor did Georgian residents in South Ossetia report serious misbehavior by Russian soldiers.
The worst violence was committed by the “irregulars” — South Ossetian militiamen and others who joined the Russians as they came in.
South Ossetia has a small official army of 2,500 to 3,000, but most young men consider themselves warriors, according to Neistat.
“Essentially, every male is a militia member,” she said. “The majority of the young male population has fatigues and automatic weapons under their beds. So essentially these men, as soon as the shelling started, fled to the woods” and became soldiers. It was an instant army of 15,000 to 16,000 Ossetians, she said, under no one’s command.
According to witnesses, the Ossetian militias began widespread looting. “They ask for access to the house, and if there’s any protestations, they shoot them at the door,” said Marcus Bleasdale, a freelance photographer who has traveled to villages in recent days, adding that he had seen several bodies in doorways.
In the Georgian town of Tkviavi, residents said 12 people were killed, several of them shot in their homes by roving Ossetian militias. Residents pointed to the fresh grave of Shamili Okropiridze, 60, who they said was shot in his front yard from a passing car, likely driven by an Ossetian militiaman.
In Eredwi, another Georgian village, Spiridon Mamisashvili, 62, said he hid in his garden as militiamen shot seven of his neighbors. “In one family, they shot the wife and the husband,” he said, standing in the doorway of a refugee center in Tbilisi. “In another family, only the wife.”
Mamisashvili trudged through the countryside all that night, joining others fleeing toward Gori. But that city, too, was gripped by terror. The Russian bombardment had begun several days earlier, destroying several apartment blocks and other buildings.
According to Georgian officials, as many as 90 percent of Gori’s residents fled in the early days of the attack. Nukri Jokhadze, who heads Gori’s main hospital, said that in the first five days, 27 civilians were killed and about 1,200 wounded, mostly from cluster bombs.
A doctor standing in the hospital’s front yard at 2 a.m. on Aug. 12 was killed by a blast from a helicopter. “I don’t know how they attacked this building,” Jokhadze said. “It has a giant red cross on the roof.”
Many of the wounded were transferred to Tbilisi, where hospitals have reported 70 civilian deaths. Gori hospitals have reported 64 deaths, and in South Ossetia, the Tskhinvali hospital has reported 44. Still uncounted are the bodies buried in gardens or lying where they fell.
Tariel Sikinchilashvili, a priest, said the Georgian Orthodox Church collected 42 bodies from villages last week and was expecting 40 more. This past week, reporters saw a few bodies rotting in the sun, and in Gori, the smell of corpses wafted from bombed buildings.
In the wake of the fighting, a few facts have become clear. Tskhinvali was not flattened by the Georgians, though in recent days, an unknown number of Georgian villages in South Ossetia have been burned. Sozar Subari, Georgia’s ombudsman, said his office has yet to talk to anyone who was raped. After a public backlash, the Russians seemed to clamp down on the militias, but about 160 forced detentions have been reported in Tskhinvali. A large number of unexploded cluster bombs have been found.
Russian officials adjusted their figures last week to 197 dead — 133 Ossetians and 64 Russian soldiers. Georgia now says 400 Georgians were killed, half of them in the military — with 150 to 180 soldiers still unaccounted for.
Some foreign observers and Georgians have wondered if the Georgian toll might be higher, and whether the government may be minimizing it to avoid a public criticism of a war in which Georgia was so badly pummeled.
Such a tactic could backfire, warned Hans Gutbrod, regional director of the Caucasus Research Resource Centers program in Tbilisi. “If it turns out in two weeks that they badly fudged the casualty figures, it breaks the trust. You have to get the bad news out fast.”
Georgia’s deputy minister of defense, Batu Kutelia, dismissed the idea that there were hidden military casualties but said the numbers are still being tallied.
For now, the process of sorting out the living has begun.
In Tbilisi, more than 500 schools and other public buildings have become refugee centers. While people who fled Gori have now begun to return home, those who left South Ossetia cannot. They have shelter and bread, but nerves are raw, and fights occasionally break out as they sit in the muggy heat.
Many have received no word from those they left behind. In the gymnasium of School No. 161, Nana Jikhashvili, 49, sifted through a mountain of donated clothes. She fled Achabeti, leaving her husband to feed their chickens and rabbits.
“I took my children out,” she said, “but I wish they’d told me” that war was coming. Kneading a salmon-colored knit vest between her fingers, she grimaced. “I would have brought my clothes.”
She has not been able to contact her husband — perhaps he has been unable to charge his cellphone, she said.
On Monday, a man who arrived at the refugee center told Jikhashvili her husband was dead. But by now people here have heard a lot of stories, and Jikhashvili said she doesn’t believe it.
Correspondent Jonathan Finer in Gori and South Ossetia contributed to this report.
Cut down 9 lbs of stomach fat every 2 weeks by obeying these 10 rules.
World Experts Speak on the Politics Policies, Econ & more of Iraq War
Light a Candle w/ Me & Express Your Ideas. Learn More Here.