South Ossetia one year on: Georgians wait in fear for Russians to
return
A year ago, the Kremlin shocked the world when it sent troops into
Georgia. Today, the war clouds over South Ossetia are gathering once
more.


By Adrian Blomfield in Gori

Daily Telegraph/uk
01 Aug 2009


Clambering up a steep hill outside the Georgian city of Gori, they fix
a borrowed pair of binoculars on the gutted cottages that, until a year
ago, they called home.

Russian shares rise as conflict is haltedCloser inspection is
impossible. Though Eredvi is just a few miles away, it lies in the
breakaway province of South Ossetia and their way is blocked by Russian
troops and the local militiamen who burned their village down.

Though his eyes are weak and his body wracked by illness, Tengiz
Razmadze occasionally makes the trip to the top of the hill, listening
as his younger son Zaza describes the ruins of the little house at the
end of the village.

Mr Razmadze has no need to see for himself. He lived through the
destruction of his home, refusing to leave even as the roar of Russian
bombers filled the skies during five days of war last August, killing
his neighbours and striking his house.

It was only as Ossetian militiamen, bent on revenge, embarked on
drunken looting sprees in Georgian villages like Eredvi that lay on
Ossetian soil, that he finally decided to flee.

He reached Gori, a supposedly safe sanctuary deep in undisputed
Georgian territory, only to find that his older son Zviadi had just
been buried, after being killed in a Russian air strike.

Zaza Razmadze saw the explosions that killed his brother. Running
through the choking dust and smoke that darkened the sky above Gori, he
stumbled on his body in the forecourt of the block of flats where Zvio,
as his family knew him, lived.

It was here that The Sunday Telegraph came across Zaza Razmadze,
cradling his brother's head in his arms and imploring him to live as he
ripped off his own shirt to try to staunch his wounds.

Photographs of his grief were to become the defining images of the
short but brutish war Georgia and Russia fought a year ago, images so
compelling that the Kremlin sought to dismiss them as fabrication.

In the garage where the two men worked together, Zaza Razmadze has
built a shrine to the brother he loved, a small fountain above which he
has carved the word's "Zvio's Stream".

Jerkily he recalled that hot August day, explaining that ` unbeknown to
him ` as he tended Zvio's body his brother's wife, eight months
pregnant, was also dying in the flat above.

"They had left the previous day," he said with quiet but forceful
bitterness. "I still don't know why they came back."

The only person who could answer that question is his nephew,
eight-year-old Dito. Wounded in the blast that killed his parents, Dito
is still to traumatised to speak of what happened.

Two months ago, Zaza Razmadze got married. But any happiness that
brought remains clouded by grief and anger, emotions that are caused to
burn more deeply by a conflict that was frozen but never resolved ` and
by talk of a new war.

"If war resumes, every citizen of Gori will fight," he said. "Even the
women will fight, even my new wife. We have nothing to lose."

In the 12 months since a war that stunned the world, Georgia has
slipped from its consciousness.

Yet tensions remain high. At least 28 Georgian policemen patrolling the
administrative boundary have been killed by sniper fire or remotely
detonated mines since the end of the war. At border crossings, now
sealed, Georgian and Russian guns remain trained on each other.

Less than 100 yards separate the Russian and Georgian flags that
flutter above identical dugouts, protected by sandbags and concrete
barriers at the crossing of Ergneti.

Capt Zura, the officer commanding the Georgian side of the line,
pointed out Russian sniper positions on the roof of an abandoned hotel.
"The Russians make a lot of trouble, especially at night when they are
drunk," he said.

Later that evening, Georgian officers at a nearby crossing said they
had come under fire, claiming that a rocket-propelled grenade had
exploded above their positions.

Such is the instability that the International Crisis Group, a leading
conflict prevention think tank, warned in June that "extensive fighting
could again erupt."

A European Union investigation is still trying to establish who was
responsible for last year's war, which ended in a humiliating
battlefield rout for the Georgian army. But western diplomats in Tblisi
say it is fairly clear that Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia's pro-western
president, walked into a carefully laid Russian trap by launching a
massive assault against the Ossetian rebels, who had long enjoyed
Moscow's support.

Some military analysts in Moscow say that Russia is now contemplating a
new war to oust Mr Saakashvili, whose determination to seek Nato
membership for Georgia has consistently infuriated the Kremlin.

Remarkably, the Georgian leader has defied widespread predictions that
failure in the war would cost him his job ` despite four months of
protests called by Georgia's fragmented opposition.

But elsewhere, the omens do not look good. Since recognising the
independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another Kremlin-backed
rebel enclave in Georgia, Russia has deployed thousands of troops in
both provinces and has begun building new military bases.

The Russian defence ministry angrily declined immediate comment on its
troop levels in the two provinces and accused The Sunday Telegraph of
failing to respect its dignity.

The Kremlin has also forced the withdrawal of two international
observer missions from the conflict zone and, in breach of its
ceasefire commitments, has prevented the third, the European Union
Monitoring Mission (EUMM), from operating in either South Ossetia or
Abkhazia.

Even more worryingly, the EUMM came under attack for the first time
when an ambulance driver was killed in an assault on a monitors' convoy
near Abkhazia in June.

"It was a definite attack on the EUMM," said Steve Bird, a Foreign
Office official attached to the mission. "The mine used in the attack
was remotely detonated."

The EUMM says that Georgia has abided by the ceasefire agreements,
brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, that ended last year's
war, but the Russians have not.

In one of its most contentious moves, Russia used the days after the
ceasefire to seize control of Akhalgori, a largely Georgian district of
South Ossetia that had been under government control for over a decade.

Russia now allows buses to carry displaced Georgians to their homes in
Akhalgori, which ` unlike those elsewhere in Ossetia ` have largely
escaped the arsonists. But most are still too afraid to stay for long.

The Sunday Telegraph received a brusquer welcome at the Russian
checkpoint when it sought permission to take photographs of buses
crossing into Akhalgori. "Go and take your pictures in Georgia," the
Russian commanding officer said, before stalking off in a rage.

Observers suspect that Russia's tactics are partly aimed at laying the
groundwork for a new war. A pretext could be created, they say, either
by engineering a cross-border incident that results in Russian
casualties ` or by accusing Georgia of helping anti-Kremlin rebels in
Russia's nearby North Caucasus region.

In a potentially disturbing omen, Russia on Saturday threatened to "use
all available force and means" to defend its civilians after claiming
that Georgia had launched several attacks on the separatist capital
Tskhinvali in recent days. Georgia denied the allegations and the EUMM
said it had been unable to verify Russia's claims.

Last week it also claimed that North Caucasus rebels were operating in
Georgia's Pankisi Gorge.

"There is definitely a pattern to what the Kremlin is doing," said a
senior Western diplomat in Tbilisi. He said that Moscow wanted control
over Georgia, both to prevent the construction of a gas pipeline that
would reduce Europe's energy dependence on Russia and to find an easier
way of supplying its own troops in Armenia.

But with Russia unlikely to find a pliant successor to Mr Saakashvili,
the diplomat said a major war was unlikely. Instead, he predicted that
Russia would make creeping advances deeper into Georgian territory or
launch occasional bombing raids, as part of a campaign to destabilise
its neighbour.

"Georgia would protest to the international community but without
guaranteed success," he said. "The law of the strongest will apply."

In the meantime, for tens of thousands of Georgians uprooted from their
homes or scarred from those few days of war, daily life grows ever more
desperate.

Over three days last week, The Sunday Telegraph revisited villages in
Georgia that bore the brunt of the Russian advance and the brutal
reprisals by the accompanying Ossetian militias.

The border village of Ergneti has been all but abandoned, save for the
occasional family that ekes out an existence in the charred ruins of
their homes.

Ivane Dvalishvili showed us the rusted remains of his grandson's first
bicycle, almost all he had salvaged from the rubble. His 80-year-old
neighbour, Gaioz, had neatly swept his destroyed possessions into large
piles by the blackened walls of his house.

A year ago, during an intense Russian arterial assault, the Sunday
Telegraph took shelter with Makhvala Orshuashvili by the wall of her
garden in the village of Tkviavi, where she fed us peaches from her
orchard, shouting over the noise of the shells.

We found her where we left her, sitting on a bench outside the garden `
only this time she was wearing a black headscarf to denote mourning.

When the Ossetians came through, raping and pillaging, they came across
her husband returning home with bread. Telling him to run, they shot
him in the back and he died later of starvation after rejecting food.

Makhvala cowered in terror inside her house, listening as the drunken
soldiers played a stolen guitar on the street outside.

Back in Gori, stung by the financial crisis and the aftershocks of war,
Zaza Razmadze is lucky if he takes home more than £5 a day, half what
he earned before the conflict.

With that he must support the families of eight relatives who were also
forced out of Ossetia when the militias embarked on what the Council of
Europe has described as a campaign of ethnic cleansing against
Georgians.

The Georgians of South Ossetia, about 25,000, are now housed in
identikit camps that have mushroomed near the administrative boundary
with the rebellious province.

A small, whitewashed cottage in one of the camps now houses Zaza
Razmadze's father, Tengiz. Blind in one eye, his eyesight failing in
the other, Mr Razmadze ekes out an existence in his half-painted rooms,
furnished with only a narrow bed, a flimsy table and a small
television, on the £17 a month provided by the state.

Like other Georgians in South Ossetia, he was never rich. But the
fecund soil allowed them to create fruit orchards and vegetable
gardens. In their new accommodation, Ossetia's displaced can no longer
fend for themselves.

Tengiz Razmadze seems a broken man, much older than his 60 years. He is
trying to summon up the mental and physical strength to commemorate the
first anniversary of his son's death on Aug 9. But it will be a
struggle. "I don't know if I can survive the pain and sorrow again," he
said.