Accounts Of War
Georgian victims reflect on the actions of Russian intruders
It was the evening of August the 14th. The streets of Tbilisi were heavy with thick, dry air; tense, frightened people wandered about without aim or destination. Suddenly, out of nowhere, clusters of refugees appeared on the streets, split into groups of ten to twenty, mostly women and children, dressed in what they had on when the bombs started falling. These people were even more scared than the Tbilisi residents, however agile or awakened by the survival instinct. They were pacing towards the shelters, set up in schools and kindergartens. The radio announced fifty thousand, though it seemed as if the whole town had been taken over.
Anguished by fear and impotence, we decided to do something. It didn’t take much effort to find where help was needed; a couple of blocks from my apartment, a new wave of refugees was setting up camp in a kindergarten. On the front porch, women were busy hushing their babies, toddlers were attended by older children, and all were being watched from the landing by men and older women, seated on the tiny chairs from the kindergarten. A rather odd air of harmony governed the place, and greatly relieved the tension we were all feeling. We had envisioned a completely different atmosphere inside the shelter. These people were not furious; they were devastated.
We let several six to eight-year-olds hop onto the back seat of the car, so they could pick out stuff from the supermarket. I was about to take off when a small, oval face appeared in my window. His blue eyes were looking down as he spoke, calm, reserved.
"I’m sorry, may I come along? I’ll make sure the kids behave." He introduced himself as Beka, age 11. Despite the shyness in his tone, he was first to break the uncomfortable silence.
"We are getting much more support from private citizens than from the government," he said. He sounded older than his years. "They finance our needs and provide us with supplies. We couldn’t survive without people like you." He was very well mannered, and remarkably articulate for his age. There were more surprises to come; at the supermarket Beka did not put a single thing for himself into the basket, asking instead for things for other children from the shelter. Beka knew how many babies there were in the shelter, what their ages were, and which diapers and food they needed.
We returned to the shelter anxious to meet the mother who had brought up this remarkable kid. His sharp traits contracted as he saw his mother holding a cellphone to her ear and wiping the tears gushing down her face.
"They took everything", she said with her lips trembling, "the jewelry, the television. They even found your computer, Beka." The looters had been there.
Beka’s mother was a woman in her 40s, with a kind face, and it was painful to see her cry. She showed us to their room, thanking us incessantly on the way. A small classroom was refurnished as a bedroom by several little desks joined and covered with blankets. We were impressed by Beka, we told her.
"He’s the pride of his school and the hope of our family." It was his cousin speaking, with a voice that was friendly and sad at the same time. "Thank you so much for what you are doing, and we will return your kindness as soon as we get back to our village."
Beka Golijashvili fled his village Garejvari, lying 15 km south-east of the South-Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, together with his family, but leaving his grandparents behind to look after the house. One man, a school teacher, was wounded by a shell, his grandmother, Mrs. Nargiz Dvalishvili, recalled. When the bombardments stopped, the looters appeared in the village, at around noon.
"They were dressed as civilians and spoke Georgian with a heavy Ossetian accent. They were the only ones I saw," Nargiz said. The looters robbed the houses and set them on fire. "My husband put out the fire in our and several other houses; otherwise we would have been left homeless".
The Russian tank division entered the village a day later. Nargiz counted 50 tanks. Devastated by stress and despair, Nargiz realized she was not afraid anymore.
"I went out and stood on their way. Why are you ruining our lives? I shouted. When will you leave us in peace?" A young soldier answered her: "Do not worry grandma, we are here to make peace, and protect you from the looters, we will do you no harm." Nargiz described the tank division as consisting of "boys" of all nationalities: Russians, Chechens, Uzbeks, Kozaks. Most of them didn’t even speak Russian. "They paid us $1,800 and we will do anything they tell us to do," said one of the soldiers. The commander of the regiment turned out to be Georgian. He had been serving in the Russian army for 19 years. He denied accusations of treachery, by saying that he was there to preserve peace.
The soldiers took all the produce from the fields. "They would come and ask for food and wine, and we gave it to them," she said. Several times drunken soldiers were wandering around and shooting in the air. "But they never did anything worse than that."
To Medea Mezvrishvili, a resident of Karalety a larger village next to Garejvari, it was like living through a nightmare. "Out of 500 families only 30 of us stayed in the village. We lived through shelling for four days," she said. "We all had panic attacks. We were hiding in the fields when the lootings took place, scared to death."
According to reports from other residents of the villages, there were two cars stolen from Garejvari and 10 from Karalety. There were allegations of civilians being beaten and taken as prisoners. A police officer was murdered while patrolling the Georgian controlled post at the end of the village; the incident was covered on television. According to the accounts of the villagers, there were lootings by Russian soldiers as well as others, but the tank divisions restored order when they came in.
The reports of the witnesses generally coincided, sharing a heightened awareness in how they were told. "I do not want to commit a worse sin by accusing someone of something they had not done," said Medea, echoing the sentiments of many. The members of this rural community, dedicated to a set of Orthodox-Christian worldview, were very careful not to accuse falsely.
From the accounts of the witnesses of the Russian occupation of the Georgian villages, it was clear that there were all kinds of people among the intruders; some robbed and abused; others kept order.
There was one case where soldiers allegedly broke into a woman’s house while she was making cheese, yelled at her and shot the pot out of her hands. Another woman reported that soldiers regularly purchased cheese and other products from the villagers at a fair price.
Shortly after returning to his village, Beka came back to Tbilisi to bring us fine wine and food. It was hard not to be impressed with the charm, decency and the dignity of his family and so many of the villagers we had met. Their courage and kindness gave hope that Georgia has a future; thorny, perhaps, and set with traps and pitfalls. But on the other hand, whose path is strewn with rose petals?
Salome Porakishvili assisted on the reporting for this article.