Georgian Civilians Tell of Miserable Conditions as War Captives

By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 24, 2008

RUSTAVI, Georgia, Aug. 23 -- Georgian civilians captured and recently freed by Russian and South Ossetian forces on Saturday described beatings, forced labor and miserable living conditions in prison.

Georgian officials said that 79 Georgian civilians have been released over the past few days but that at least 75 civilians, almost all of them young men, remain in captivity in Tskhinvali, capital of the separatist territory of South Ossetia.

The former prisoners, half a dozen of whom were interviewed at a school serving as temporary housing in this industrial city, said they were seized from their homes or as they fled advancing Russian and South Ossetian forces. Some said they were held for as many as 12 days at a jail in Tskhinvali.

The detainees, many of them elderly fruit farmers from villages along Georgia's northern border, said male inmates were forced to clean streets and bury the war dead, and occasionally endured beatings that left them with bruises and welts. More than 100 men and women were packed into a cell with a single toilet, they said.

"I thought they would kill us. I was very much afraid," said Manuna Gogidze, 48.

Gogidze said she and 15 others were forced out of her neighbor's cellar on Aug. 8 and lined up against a wall. A South Ossetian militiaman was pointing a cocked rifle at them when another fighter intervened, she said. They were then loaded into a truck and taken north.

The inmates' stories could not be independently verified, though people interviewed separately gave consistent accounts. South Ossetian and Russian officials have in the past denied abusing Georgian detainees. A Kremlin spokesman, who would not give his name, said only that prisoners held by the South Ossetians were treated according to "acceptable standards." A spokesman for the South Ossetian government could not be reached for comment.

The conflict began Aug. 7 when Georgian forces invaded disputed South Ossetia and Russian forces swiftly pushed them back, seizing as much as a third of Georgian land. Despite Russia's withdrawal Friday from broad swaths of Georgian territory, major issues remain, such as the continued presence of Russian forces in Georgia, the future of South Ossetia and Abkhazia -- another section of Georgia seeking independence -- and the return of prisoners captured during the war.

Saturday also brought renewed warnings of further military conflict, as Georgian soldiers, ordered to bases outside the combat zone after being forced from South Ossetia by Russian forces two weeks ago, returned to the frontline Georgian city of Gori, which the Russians abandoned a day earlier.

With Russian troops stationed just a few miles north, it was the closest the two armed forces had come to each other since a cease-fire was reached more than a week ago.

"Georgian units are concentrated in the central part of the republic and are preparing for further actions," Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy head of the Russian general staff, said at a Saturday briefing. "Georgian special forces are setting up arms caches, in order, among other things, to carry out provocations on the territory of South Ossetia and neighboring districts."

Georgian officials denied any desire for further fighting. 'This is a false accusation trying to smoke-screen their military presence," said Alexander Lomaia, head of Georgia's National Security Council. "I categorically deny any regrouping of our troops."

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