By Alex Rodriguez | Tribune correspondent
3:08 AM CDT, August 14, 2008
SAGOLASHENI, Georgia — Georgians in the tiny village of Dvani awoke Wednesday to the sound of doors being battered down.
When they looked outside, Russian-backed soldiers from the separatist enclave of South Ossetia were pillaging the village, home by home. From the local school, they hauled away computers, from the grocery store, virtually everything.
En masse, villagers fled. They ran down the street with just the clothes on their backs, fleeing a wholesale ransacking of their farming hamlet. A few minutes later, when Merab Merakishvili looked back toward Dvani, he saw his village engulfed in flames.
"I was at my neighbor's house and looked out the window and saw a soldier breaking into my house," Merakishvili said. "They were shouting and screaming, so I ran. Now I'm homeless and don't know where to turn. We'll just go to Tbilisi and find some empty buildings to live in."
The looting and burning of Dvani and several other villages near Georgia's border with the breakaway enclave of South Ossetia were stark evidence that, despite the cease-fire reached between the Kremlin and Georgian leaders Tuesday, the war continued to take a devastating toll Wednesday on civilians caught in the middle.
In Gori, seized at least temporarily by Russian troops Wednesday, the few Georgians who stayed behind have little food left. Masked South Ossetian separatist fighters who accompanied Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers in Gori have been looting the small city, sending fearful Georgians fleeing.
And in Georgian villages just outside South Ossetia's border, a chaotic, brutal scene of wanton destruction is unfolding.
Villagers reported that South Ossetian separatist soldiers, at times accompanied by fighters from Russia's North Caucasus region, have looted homes and set them ablaze in Dvani, Tamarasheni and Shindisi.
According to a report released Wednesday by Human Rights Watch, a similar pattern of looting and burning of homes is taking place in ethnic Georgian villages within South Ossetia.
Houses belonging to ethnic Georgians in the villages of Kekhvi, Nizhnie Achaveti and Verkhnie Achaveti were burned down Tuesday, researchers for the New York-based rights organization reported. The few people who stayed behind were either incapacitated or stayed to save their belongings and livestock.
"The remaining residents of these destroyed ethnic Georgian villages are facing desperate conditions, with no means of survival, no help, no protection and nowhere to go," said Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch.
On the Georgian side of the South Ossetian border, along the dirt roads that connect these hamlets at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains, Georgians have been fleeing toward a nearby main highway, where they desperately try to flag down any car in hopes of getting to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.
Under a large tree in the village of Sagolasheni, villagers from Dvani and another looted village, Dirbi, massed and waited to learn whether relatives and friends were able to escape. Some held plastic bags containing whatever they could grab in the few seconds available before they had to run. Others, like Vano Bezhanishvili, 37, simply started running.
"They are coming to our villages, burning our houses and killing people—so we had to leave," Bezhanishvili said, his face dripping with sweat. "I have no job now, no money, no belongings. So how do I build a new life?"
Dzhoni Patriashvili, 37, said the separatist militia fighters came in two trucks into Dvani. One man was gunned down when he looked out his window and shouted something to the fighters, Patriashvili said, adding that he barely escaped being gunned down himself.
"I was walking through the village, and the Russians who occupy a church up on a nearby hill saw me and began shooting at me," Patriashvili said. "I crawled down a ridge, saw the trucks coming and decided it was time to escape."
Aysa Mekarishvili, 68, fled Dvani three days earlier, but on Wednesday she sat with other villagers and waited to see whether her 69-year-old husband, Anzor, would make the 11-mile trek from Dvani to Sagolasheni. She had no idea whether he chose to flee or stay.
"I'll wait two more hours, and then I'll go get him," Mekarishvili said, wiping away tears. "I don't care how dangerous it is, I want my husband."