Looting and ethnic cleansing against Georgian enclaves
TBILISI, Georgia: As the conflict between Russia and Georgia enters its second week, there is growing evidence of looting and actions in a number of villages throughout the area of conflict that some are calling ethnic cleansing.
The attacks - some of which were witnessed by reporters or documented by a human rights group - include stealing, the burning of villages and possibly even killings. A number of attacks appear to have been ethnically motivated, while at least some of the looting seemed to be the work of profiteers in areas from which the authorities have fled.
The identities of the attackers vary, but a pattern of violence by ethnic Ossetians against ethnic Georgians is emerging and has been confirmed by some Russian authorities. "Now Ossetians are running around and killing poor Georgians in their enclaves," said Major General Vyacheslav Borisov, the commander in charge of the city of Gori, which is occupied by the Russians.
A lieutenant from an armored transport division that was previously in Chechnya said: "We have to be honest. The Ossetians are marauding."
The hostilities between Russia and Georgia started last week when the Georgian military marched into the breakaway region of South Ossetia and the Russians responded by sending troops into the pro-Russia, separatist enclave - and then into Georgia proper.
Dozens of houses were on fire in the northern suburbs of Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, this week. Reporters saw armed men moving on the streets, carting away electronics and other household items. It was not clear who the men were. They did not appear to be part of the Russian forces, but the Russians were not stopping them.
"We're not a police force, we're a military force," said a Russian lieutenant colonel in response to a reporter's question. "It's not our job to do police work."
Still, there was some evidence that the Russian military might be making efforts in some places to stop the rampage. A column of 12 men with their hands on their heads, several wearing uniforms, were marched into the Russian military base in Gori on Thursday afternoon. The identities of the men were unclear.
Human Rights Watch issued a report Thursday that documented attacks by ethnic Ossetians in and around Tskhinvali on Wednesday. Researchers saw a number of houses on fire in the town of Java. They quoted a South Ossetian intelligence officer as saying that his fighters had burned the houses to "make sure" that the Georgians could not come back.
The findings of the report also seemed to indicate that early Russian accounts of casualties, which in the first days of fighting reached 2,000, were far too high. In the South Ossetia capital of Tskhinvali, where the heaviest fighting took place, the local hospital received 44 corpses and 273 wounded people from Aug. 6, after clashes between separatists and Georgians, to Aug. 12, the report said, citing a doctor.
The report quoted the doctor as saying that the majority of the wounded were affiliated with the military, although it was not clear if he meant the Russian or Georgian armies or Ossetian fighters. As of Aug. 13, none of the wounded remained in the hospital, the report said. Many were transferred to mobile hospitals of the Russian Emergencies Ministry.
An elderly woman from the village of Kurta who gave only her first name, Elene, said she had been forced to walk three days to safety after Russian-speaking men broke into her house. An Ossetian man was with them, she said. "They entered the houses, took whatever they liked, and burned everything." They threatened to shoot her after taking her valuables, but her neighbor, a Russian woman, intervened on her behalf.
"She said, 'Please don't do this,"' the woman said. The men shot at the ground several times and then left; she fled.
Five villages in her area were looted and people were driven out, she said. She also said that in one of them, Oreti, she saw the bodies of two women decomposing. The walk was terrifying. She spent one night in an empty house.
She was reminded of the violence that took the life of her husband in the early 1990s, when Ossetians and Georgians fought an all-out war. "I wish I'd died soon after my husband," she said. "There are so many deaths."
A Georgian official said some of the worst ethnic cleansing was in the towns of Eredvi, Ditsi, Tirdznisi and Kuraleti. A man from the village of Karetezhvyari said he returned to check his house on Thursday, only to discover several houses on fire.