THE TIMES OF LONDON
Monday, August 18, 2008
By Tony Halpin in Gori
“The soldiers told us they had an order from Putin - leave or be killed.” Manana Dioshvili showed no emotion as she described how Russian troops forced her to flee her home. Her former neighbours nodded in agreement, huddled together in a kindergarten whose windows had been blown out by a Russian bomb.
“That's how they explained themselves to us,” she recalled of the moment they fled the ethnic Georgian village of Kurta, near the capital of South Ossetia, Tskhinvali.
“They said, ‘Putin has given us an order that everyone must be either shot or forced to leave'. They told us we should ask the Americans for help now because they would kill us if we stayed.”
Vardo Babutidze, 79, was not lucky enough to be visited by Russian soldiers. Her husband Georgi, 85, was shot twice through the chest by an Ossetian paramilitary who came to their house to demand weapons.
“We didn't have any guns, so he shot Georgi in front of me without saying a word,” she said. “A neighbour helped me to bury him in our garden and then I just fled.”
Manana Galigashvili, 53, whose husband Andrei stared vacantly from a bed behind her, said that Ossetian soldiers had returned later and torched the house. They, too, had left after a soldier threatened to slit their throats.
Frightened refugees told similar stories all over the city of Gori yesterday as the Russian army extended its reach deep into Georgian territory despite a ceasefire agreement signed by President Medvedev that requires them to withdraw.
Troops and tanks moved to within 25 miles (40km) of the capital, Tbilisi, setting up roadblocks and digging in defensive positions in the hills above the highway. A line of tanks faced towards Tbilisi outside the village of Kaspi, a day after soldiers had blown up the railway line linking the capital to Georgia's main port of Poti.
Six Russian checkpoints have been set up on the road from Tbilisi to Gori, starting at the village of Igoeti, the closest to the capital that occupying troops have been since the conflict started on August 7. Troops searched the few cars that were allowed on to the road by Georgian police, who blocked the highway three miles away and fumed at the latest indignity heaped upon them by the Russians.
The heavy military presence all along the route offered no indication that Russian forces were preparing to comply with President Medvedev's promise by withdrawing today. However, convoys of aid from the International Red Cross and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees were allowed to travel into Gori.
Alexander Lomaia, Georgia's National Security Council secretary, stood in the shadow of Stalin's statue in Gori's main square and admitted that he had no idea when or if the Russians would go. He said he had been unable even to obtain assurances that they would not enter Tbilisi, a prospect that has left many Georgians in a state of panic.
“If they are not staying here, why did they blow up our TV centre and bring their transmitters to broadcast their own TV and radio? It looks very suspicious,” he said. “It is a matter of fact that they have expanded geographically since yesterday.
“We feel legally bound to the commitment to cease fire that we have made but it looks like they don't feel committed to this agreement. After the ceasefire, they exploded the bridge and went deeper into our territory ... they have cut the country in two.”
The regional governor, Lado Vardzelashvili, has returned to Gori but the Russians still refuse to allow Georgian police into the city.
Mr Lomaia said: “We have two options - either we attack them to get into the city or obey the rules that they impose ... They say that the moment they see any Georgian police cars in the city they will shoot.”
Although many buildings in the main square have suffered bomb damage Gori remains largely intact, contrary to Georgian government claims that it had been destroyed. But food supplies are running low.
Behind the shattered glass walls of Gori's “Complex Sports School”, refugees screamed and jostled each other as local officials tried to distribute boxes of food supplied by the Turkish Red Crescent. Each box contained packets of flour, rice, beans and pasta.
Outside, a group of women complained that profiteers had been selling aid. Nana Piekrishvili said: “They organise lines and tell us to come at a particular time but then they have nothing to give us. There are men walking away with aid boxes and we get nothing. They are also coming to people's homes and looking for humanitarian aid to take back so that they can start selling it on the streets.”
Despite refusing to allow Georgian police into Gori, there were few Russian troops visible inside the city, though tanks blocked a road about 500 metres from the main square.
Locals said that the army had withdrawn to the outskirts of Gori but patrolled the streets in armoured vehicles at night and had imposed a 10pm curfew. Everyone is now waiting to see if the Russians will leave.
Mr Lomaia seemed highly sceptical. He said: “I think they will ask for some concessions and will be bargaining hard. That's why they are taking as many places as they can now.”