By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
MERETI, Georgia, Aug. 19 -- There are seven men missing from this small village, residents said Tuesday, providing aid workers with the names and ages of those allegedly snatched by militiamen while fleeing the advancing Russian army.
In nearby Karbi, Tengiz Teodorashvili picked through the ruins of his crumbled home, smashed by a Russian shell that wounded his wife while she cooked dinner.
And a few miles away in Tkviavi, where two-thirds of the buildings are burned black, at least 12 people died during the peak of the fighting, residents said, including one buried by a friend under the soft earth of a garden shed.
"I put him here because I was afraid to dig outside," said Zurab Razmadze, displaying the shallow grave of Koba Jashashvili, 37, who Razmadze said was shot to death.
This region near Georgia's northern border has suffered greatly from the conflict ignited 11 days ago, when Georgian troops moved into the disputed territory of South Ossetia and Russian forces then pushed them back.
But a trip here by reporters, who were accompanying the first humanitarian aid convoy to reach outlying areas, also undermined some of the most incendiary allegations advanced by Georgian officials. Mereti, site of the alleged abductions, is the same village where government officials had recently said three local women were raped and murdered. At least eight residents said Tuesday that no such attacks had occurred.
Georgians living in several of the villages said the Russians occupying their land had treated them well, done nothing to encourage them to leave and offered the only protection available from the South Ossetian militias they feared most.
"I am most worried when I don't see Russians around," said Tina Grimradze, 68, whose house in the village of Arbo was ransacked Sunday, her belongings either strewn or stolen.
Almost totally cut off from the rest of Georgia by Russian checkpoints, residents of the northern villages -- controlled by Georgia's central government until the current conflict began -- said they were running low on basic necessities. Some expressed anger at the Georgian officials who led the convoy. Three yellow buses carried white boxes of staples such as rice, beans and cooking oil.
"If you were not prepared for a war, why start one?" Eteri Gvaramashvili, 70, shouted at a member of Georgia's Parliament in the village of Ditsi, throwing back her head and turning her palms to the sky. "There is nothing left in some villages but earth and sky."
While the Russian army had turned away some earlier aid shipments, or confined them to certain villages, Tuesday's proceeded largely unrestricted by Russia's army. Russian Gen. Vyacheslav Borisov, who commands forces in and around the Georgian city of Gori, including the villages visited Tuesday, even provided four Russian soldiers for security.
"We will feed the people. It is my job," said Borisov, who Georgian officials frequently describe as duplicitous, as the vehicles prepared to depart from Gori just after noon.
The troops' only intervention in the convoy's itinerary was to discourage organizers' from entering the village of Ksuisi, which was razed to the ground early in the conflict, according to several former residents encountered in villages to which they had fled.
As the convoy rumbled to a halt to deliver supplies, villages often appeared completely empty. Then, residents tentatively peered out from behind curtains or garden gates, emerging only when they realized there was no threat.
While many inhabitants of the region have evacuated to Tbilisi and other, unoccupied Georgian cities and towns, most of those left behind were either elderly, infirm or both.
In Tkviavi, Valina Chikhladze, a 70-year-old widow, was operating what she called a makeshift "refugee camp," for those who fled villages farther north. Two days earlier, she had found one of her guests, a frail, 92-year-old woman who seemed unable to speak, stumbling in the road outside her home. Another guest bore an inflamed, golf ball-size bulge on her upper chest that she said was a cancerous tumor.
"They have nowhere else to go," Chikhladze said as she rolled dough for bread loaves on a splintery wooden table. "Other people have worse conditions than we do. Some still haven't buried their bodies or had to burn them in their yard."
While providing aid was the convoy's primary mission, Georgian officials also sought to gauge the extent of the physical damage and the death toll -- eight in Karbi, according to residents, and a handful or fewer in several other villages, in addition to the dozen in Tkviavi -- since they had been unable to visit many places since the fighting began.
While Russian military vehicles cruised up and down the main highway leading between Gori and the South Ossetian city of Tskhinvali, the side roads were largely unpatrolled. At one point, when a white, Russian SUV passed by slowly, residents of Tkviavi ran for cover. Locals said such vehicles were often used by South Ossetian militias, blamed for many of the attacks against Georgians.
Georgian officials faulted the Russians for allowing such violence to occur, even if they were not directly responsible.
"The occupying force has the obligation to protect the local population," said Alexander Lomaia, head of Georgia's National Security Council, who helped lead the aid convoy. "It is clear that, at least for awhile, they didn't do that. Was it negligence? Implicit revenge? All I know is too many people died."