By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 18, 2008
GORI, Georgia, Aug. 17 -- Russia pledged Sunday to begin removing its troops from Georgia on Monday, but the streets of this occupied city reflected a broadening, not a waning, of Russia's military incursion.
President Dmitry Medvedev vowed to "begin the withdrawal of the military contingent" starting Monday. Russian leaders have made contradictory and at times clearly false statements about their troops' plans and positions ever since the Georgia operation began. On Saturday, a top Russian general told reporters that his country had no troops in Gori.
During a reporter's 24-hour stay in the city this weekend, Russian soldiers roamed the streets in armored personnel carriers and waved Kalashnikov rifles to prevent entry to a captured Georgian military base that is now the Russian headquarters. Russian soldiers dug fortified positions for tanks along highways east and west of Gori and trucked in television and radio equipment to begin broadcasting in their own language.
"We have stopped firing -- be glad about that," a young Russian captain said when asked whether troops would soon withdraw.
Meanwhile, Gori's few remaining Georgians endured pat-downs and vehicle searches when moving around town. Some residents gave shelter to fellow Georgians who arrived from villages to the north with accounts of continuing ethnic violence there. At least 27 civilians have died here in scattered incidents of violence since the Russian troops arrived, medical officials said, including a doctor killed in front of a hospital by helicopter fire.
Other deaths are not yet recorded, such as those whose acrid smell still wafts from the rubble of some of the 10 or so buildings that were crumpled by Russian airstrikes in the western part of the city before the ground troops arrived.
The long-simmering conflict escalated 10 days ago. Georgian troops crossed into South Ossetia, a Georgian region that separatists have held for the past decade and a half. The Georgians were quickly repelled by Russian forces who then advanced out of South Ossetia to Gori and other undisputed parts of Georgia.
Most of Gori's remaining residents, an estimated 7,000 out of a population of more than 70,000, have settled into what one described as "a version of regular life." Looters no longer plague the residents at night. Few new ruins have been added.
Two women have taken refuge in a small garage behind their former apartment building, which had been struck by a rocket, killing a woman and her young son. "Luckily, I was in the stairway when the explosion hit, but they didn't make it," said Elena Zevekize, 76, who began to weep.
Over a late dinner of cheese, sliced meats and cherries picked directly through a kitchen window shattered during last week's shelling, the Gverdtsiteli family used carafes of souring wine to toast the dead on both sides, their Orthodox church's patriarchy and, at the urging of four guests (stranded journalists), their own hospitality. Over coffee, they passed around a jagged shard of rocket shrapnel that had landed in their yard.
While Gori has stabilized, residents of villages to the north, just outside the border of South Ossetia, report that ethnic attacks have continued there.
On Sunday, Badri Meliauri, 48, was brought to Gori's hospital with his wounded 70-year-old mother. He said Ossetian militiamen had killed his mother's father and uncle in their home in the village of Tkziavi. She said she had spent the past several days in a room with their bodies, which officials buried Sunday.
Other displaced people said that Russian troops had come to their villages and blared a message over loudspeakers: "If there are any Georgians here, come out and we will take you to safety." Russian troops loaded them onto a bus to Gori, where they clustered on child-size beds in a ramshackle kindergarten.
"My family doesn't even know if I am dead or alive," said Manana Galegashvili, 53, an auburn-haired teacher from the South Ossetian village of Achabet. "I was watching my house burn, and a Russian soldier put his gun on me and said, 'Don't look -- just go away.' My dog barked and an Ossetian shot him. So I got on the bus."
After cursing the Russians, whom she blamed for inciting the South Ossetians to violence against them, she said she was glad they moved her to safety relatively unharmed and said they did not mistreat her after she got on the bus.
She said she was furious with Mikheil Saakashvili, the Georgian president, who the Russian government says sparked the conflict by sending troops into the breakaway territory. "He did this on his own," she said. "And who suffers? We do."
With movement severely restricted by the Russian soldiers guarding the main roads into and out of Gori, shortages have developed in recent days.
Increasingly rapacious crowds have greeted aid shipments, such as eight busloads of rice, beans and other staples from the Turkish Red Crescent that arrived Sunday morning under a statue of Joseph Stalin -- the Soviet dictator who is Georgia's most famous son -- in Gori's main square.
As relief workers sought to distribute Sunday's load, throngs of residents shouted and tore at the white sacks through bus windows.
Marina Chalauri, 53, was shoved aside by a middle-aged man. "They are not starving, they are thugs," she said. "Sure, we don't have much, and some are very hungry, but it's not so bad that people should act like this."
Later, with a bent cigarette smoldering toward his lip, Nukri Jokhadze, a doctor, sat in front of this city's military hospital and took stock of six days living under Russian control.
More than 1,200 wounded have passed through the clinic he runs, he said, including a Russian general's aide.
"I am exhausted, but this is my profession. I have no right to be soft," he said. "I never thought I would have to ask Russians whether or not I could enter or leave my city. Now I ask them every day when they will leave, and every day, they go nowhere."
Special correspondent Temo Barzimashvili in Gori contributed to this report.