Behind checkpoints, a look at Russian actions in Georgia
Our correspondent describes a tour led by Kremlin press attaché Sasha
Mechevsky through Russian-controlled villages and the South Ossetian capital
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The truck driver honked the horn. Mechevsky shouted he would leave stragglers behind. We passed vehicles incinerated or flattened by tanks. Dark puffs of smoke rose on the horizon. In villages full of activity two weeks earlier, no one could be seen. The United Nations says that the conflict has produced more than 160,000 refugees.Skip to next paragraph
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Finally, we arrived in Tskhinvali. Little rehabilitation had been done since a brutal 1991-92 civil war, and the city felt like it was in a Soviet time warp.
Contrary to reports, Tskhinvali had not been leveled, but nearly every building along main streets appeared to have been hit directly or damaged by shrapnel.
Ossetians, who have seen Georgians as aggressors for 17 years, spoke bitterly of Georgia's assault. "What was our fault? Look what they did," grieved Zalena Kokoyeva, whose house was almost entirely destroyed. "Georgians shot at us and now I live on the street. How can we ever live peacefully with them?"
At a victory rally in the city center blanketed by Russian flags, two South Ossetian soldiers, Raul Valiev and Atsamaz Bichelov, explained that Russia is the region's guarantor of stability.
"We are a small country. Europe doesn't listen to us, but Russia does," said Mr. Bichelov, a lawyer. The two men didn't deny that plundering of Georgian villages occurred. "Look what they did to our city. They stole our things, kidnapped men, and killed children," said Mr. Valiev, a doctor.
Many cars were spotted in the Tskhinvali area without license plates. One driver of a Mercedes without plates said he had just bought it and that such things take time.
We visited scenes of destruction and interviewed people who were angry, devastated, bewildered. Some blamed the US for supporting Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who launched the offensive. Others blamed former President Zviad Gamsakhurdia for fanning nationalism. Xcar Biguliev, his house shredded by shrapnel, blamed nobody. "We want peace, not this," he lamented.
We returned to Tskhinvale for a concert by a St. Petersburg-based orchestra, conducted by Valeri Gergiev of the London Symphony Orchestra. While Georgian villages smoldered a few miles away, Mr. Gergiev, an Ossetian, told the audience in Russian and English, "We know how much people have suffered.... I hope we will see peace for many generations to come."
While looking for a bathroom, Jonathan Littell of Le Monde stumbled upon a group of about three dozen Georgian young men, locked in a large cage 100 feet or more from the concert perimeter. From there they could hear Dmitri Shostakovich's famous symphony, the "Siege of Leningrad."