By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 17, 2008
TSKHINVALI, Georgia, Aug. 16 -- The windows were blown out of the old synagogue here, and the wooden bimah splintered and partially collapsed. Shattered glass covered the floor, and parts of the ornately painted walls were ripped off.
But the old building held, and it protected 40 people who took shelter in its spacious basement as the neighborhood above them was reduced to rubble.
"Three days we were here, without water, without bread," said Zemsira Tiblova, 60. "We had 14 children with us."
"Unforgivable," said her husband, Georgi Bestaev. "It was inhuman to bomb us."
The war between Georgia and Russia was centered on this town of at most 10,000 people, and it cut a swath of destruction, severely damaging many homes and apartment buildings. Gaping holes scar five-story blocks of apartments, the detritus of what was once ordinary life blown onto shattered balconies.
In one neighborhood, along Telman Street, house after crumpled house was a scorched shell, bricks piled high in basements exposed to the sunlight. The area is about 200 yards from destroyed separatist government buildings in central Tskhinvali, an acknowledged target of Georgian forces.
A school, a library and a kindergarten were blackened and pockmarked from small-arms fire, as were the houses around them. And the city was strewn with the ruined armor of both Georgian and Russian forces.
At certain moments, in certain places, the smell of rotting corpses was in the air.
Here in Tskhinvali, there was no doubt that Georgia started the war with Russia and much bitterness about the rain of artillery and rockets that the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili used in its efforts to capture the city. The Georgian government said much of the destruction of Tskhinvali was caused by a Russian counteroffensive, but that argument carries no weight with residents here, some of them clearly traumatized.
People insist that a terrible barrage struck the city late Aug. 7 and continued into the morning -- accounts supported by Western monitors who were also forced into their cellars. Indeed, buildings used by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe were damaged, one severely.
"Grad came and hit us," said Garik Gabayev, referring to the fearsome BM-21 multiple rocket system employed by Georgian forces. "Grad" is a word that has entered the vocabulary of this town, cited by one resident after another as they described what they experienced.
Gabayev sat outside Saturday afternoon, just down the street from his father-in-law's pancaked home.
"I don't remember anything," he said, visibly shaking. "All the walls collapsed."
The scale of the destruction is undeniable; some streets summon iconic images of Stalingrad during World War II or Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, which was leveled in two wars between Russian and Chechen separatists.
But the number of dead remains in dispute. Mikhail Minsayev, the minister of interior in the separatist South Ossetian government, told reporters Saturday that as many as 2,100 people had been killed. When challenged on that figure by reporters, who cited statements by medical workers and human rights groups that there was no evidence of such a high death toll, he said people quickly buried the dead in their yards or took the bodies to North Ossetia in Russia for burial.
In conversations here, everyone interviewed said they had lost either no family members or one person. But those were interviews with people whose cellars had held. Many clearly had not.
Traveling here from the Georgian city of Gori and out to the Roki Tunnel that connects with Russia, the revenge taken by some of the inhabitants of South Ossetia was visible in the Georgian fields set on fire and the blackened, abandoned homes in Georgian villages north of Tskhinvali. Two homes in those Georgian villages were ablaze Saturday night.
Russian military officials blamed the destruction on marauding South Ossetian militias and said they are attempting to restore order.
The headquarters of Russian peacekeepers in Tskhinvali was destroyed. The barracks where 500 soldiers slept took direct hits from tank fire. A destroyed Russian tank sits by the barracks wall. The base's headquarters, dining hall and recreation center are ruined.
Vladimir Ivanov, deputy commander of the Russian peacekeeping force that was stationed here, said that 15 Russian peacekeepers were killed during the war and that many more were wounded.
Russian peacekeepers have been in South Ossetia since the early 1990s, when a cease-fire was declared after an earlier conflict. This breakaway province of Georgia has since had de facto independence from the central authorities in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.
Georgian officials accused the Russian peacekeeping force of backing the South Ossetian separatists and failing to rein in their attacks on Georgian villages and territory in Georgia proper.
The war has poisoned people here against any future connection with Georgia although the province remains within Georgia's internationally recognized borders.
"Georgia is finished here; they are never coming back," Bestaev said. "We cannot live without Russia. We must become part of Russia, because we can't handle the problem independently."