The other day I addressed the looting and mayhem Ossetian militias on waging on Georgians. It is still difficult to assess the scope of this violence but Gori appears to be a center of activity. Russian troops, according to one report, have cordoned off the city, virtually locking out Georgian police. Unconfirmed eyewitnesses reports say “bands of South Ossetian armed men have been breaking down the gates of homes and stealing families’ cars” and there have been “break-ins in which the Ossetian men kidnap women in addition to taking the car.”
Most reports in the Western press report incidents along the lines of the following:
“It’s impossible to live like this, with this fear,” said one old Georgian man yesterday, nervously wheeling a wooden barrow stacked with his family’s meager belongings out through the Russian cordon that ringed Gori and towards the Georgian lines.
“What you have seen in the town is nothing, believe me,” he insisted. “With your own eyes you must see the evil they have done in the villages, burning and killing.”
Time and again civilians abandoning their homes around Gori give similar accounts. How, having survived firefights and shelling between Georgian and Russian forces, they were then subjected, they say, to a frenzy of murder, rape, looting and the torching of their property by roaming bands of crazed militiamen, many of them drunk. Most insist the militias’ actions were carried out under the gaze of the Russian Army.
Idrak Abbasov, a journalist for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting provides this interesting anecdote from Gori:
On August 15, there were reports that the Russian military remained in the Black Sea port of Poti, the western town of Senaki and the central town of Gori.
The previous day, I was able to get into Gori and saw terrifying scenes of exultant pro-Russian fighters rampaging through a city apparently empty of civilians.
I got in quite by chance. A Russian tank commander I spoke to befriended me because we both come from the same city, the Azerbaijani capital, Baku.
That afternoon, I took my chances walking past the last Georgian roadblock on the road to Gori. I was stopped by Russian soldiers and brought to their commander.
The commander checked my documents and learning that I was from Baku said he was born there himself. He returned me my documents and my camera and told the soldiers, “Don’t touch him, he’s my compatriot.”
The officer asked me about Baku, how life was there and how the city had changed.
Then he escorted me into Gori on his tank and warned not to wander off.
The city was burning and the firing was continuous. There were lots of Russian soldiers there and even more irregular fighters with white armbands.
I was told that soldiers had been brought here from Chechnya. There were fighters of several Caucasian nationalities. I didn’t see a single civilian. All around was smoke and the smell of gunfire. Everyone was celebrating victory, congratulating one another and asking each other loudly when they should advance.
My mobile phone rang. My editor was calling from Baku. Because of the non-stop firing and rumble of tanks, I couldn’t hear anything and I moved away from my protectors in the tank by 20 or 25 metres to talk to him. I sheltered in some bushes and began to talk to my editor.
At that moment, some men with white armbands seized my phone. They threw me on the ground and levelled their guns at me and shouted, “Who are you? Whose side are you on?”
I was saved by my minder from Baku who arrived on the scene and told them that I was “one of us”. A few seconds later and it might have been too late.
After that I was released, my attackers turned friendly, returned my phone and even asked to borrow it to call home. They thanked me by treating me to Pepsi and giving me cigarettes and a lighter.
One of them was a well-built tall North Caucasian in his thirties with white armbands on both arms. He was unshaven and unwashed and spoke with a strong accent. He told me, “The Georgians say we are raping women in Gori – but there aren’t any here! If they had been here, we’d have done it with pleasure!”
As to the criminality of Ossetian militias, he reports this scene:
Three Niva vans came out of Gori, full of armed men with white armbands. They got out of the cars and ran towards the journalists, firing several shots in the air and even some at the journalists.
Journalists began to run again. The militiamen stole three of the journalists’ cars. Tamar Urushadze, a correspondent for Georgian public television, had been talking live on air and was lightly wounded in the arm.
The people in the UNHCR vehicles also ran away and hid in the wood not far away.
All this happened in full view of the Russian soldiers who had introduced themselves as peacekeepers.
A few minutes later, remembering their peacekeeping role, the Russian soldiers did finally intervene and stop the irregulars with white armbands stealing the UN vehicles.
About an hour later, the Niva belonging to Imedi television channel was completely wrecked.
Finally, a Russian officer told him what I suspect is the case. “One Russian officer said that the Abkhaz and Ossetians were taking revenge on the Georgians. “They are doing just what you did in Tskhinvali and we cannot stop them,” he said.
In South Ossetia, authorities have announced a curfew for Tskhinvali and the death penalty for any “marauders.” “By laws of wartime, pillage is punished by execution,” an Ossetian enforcement officer told Kommersant. Two such marauders were gunned down in Java on Thursday. Attempts by Kommersant to get the names of those killed have been unsuccessful. Finally, the paper warns, “The bad news is that this effort against the pillagers could be used as pretext for killing those who disagree with today’s leadership of the breakaway republic of Georgia.”
IWPR is also reporting that about 8,000 of the estimated 30,000 Ossetians have returned to Tskhinvali to assess the damage to their homes. One refugee named Tatyana recounted her story to IWPR correspondent Alan Tskhurbayev. Tatyana, a kindergarten teacher in Tskhinvali, spent four days in a cellar to escape the Georgian assault. On the fourth day, a lull in the bombing allowed her and six other women to leave their shelter. They found a scene of the death and devastation. Their homes destroyed and bodies littered the streets. Luckily, a truck was picking up women and wounded and taking them to North Ossetia. Their journey north, however, was not easy. The truck came under attack but no one was hurt. “It’s no longer possible to live there, out homes are destroyed, as well as our lives,” she told Tskhurbayev. “I don’t know what will happen next, I just don’t understand.”
The numbers of how many Ossetian volunteers have joined militias are difficult to pin down. But Tskhurbayev reports the following:
In North Ossetia, volunteers started to sign up to go to South Ossetia as soon as the conflict broke out last week. Anyone aged between 20 and 45, who’s served in the Russian army, could be recruited. Around 500 volunteers crossed over to South Ossetia on the first day of the hostilities. Several days later, 10,000 volunteers were registered in Vladikavkaz. Many have been killed or wounded.
The casualty toll since 7 August is still to premature to say with any accuracy. North Ossetian hospitals have officially admitted 178 wounded, including 17 children.
The claim that 1,600 – 2,000 people were killed in South Ossetia is being questioned by Human Rights Watch. During a visit to Tskhinvali Regional Hospital, a doctor told the organization that 273 wounded, both military and civilians were treated there. Only 44 bodies were brought to the hospital since fighting broke out. The doctor “was adamant that the majority of people killed in the city had been brought to the hospital before being buried, because the city morgue was not functioning due to the lack of electricity in the city.” HRW did not make any estimated of total casualties and only reported what it could verify.
Finally, Human Rights Watch has charged the Russias with using RBK-250 cluster bombs, each containing 30 PTAB 2.5M submunitions. According to HRW, bomb craters, wounds, and photograpgic evidence all point to their use. Russia is not the first to use cluster bombs. The Israelis used used them during the Labanon War in 2006. In two years, the UN has only managed to clean up half of unexploded orginance that riddles southern Lebanon. So far 207 nations have adopted the Convention on Cluster Munitions which bans the use, production, trade and stockpiling of the ordinance. Sadly, the countries that are the biggest users and stockpilers of cluster bombs are not party to the convention. Those countries are the United States, Russia, China, India, Brazil, Pakistan, and Israel.