Since agreeing to a cease-fire deal with Georgia Aug. 15, Russia has been under close scrutiny. Is it pulling troops out or not? Is it protecting smoldering villages or pillaging them?
Moscow has frequently said one thing while eyewitnesses have reported another during the conflict. Even after Friday's withdrawal, US officials said Russia – which left troops at military checkpoints ringing South Ossetia – had not gone far enough. Georgia blamed the weekend explosion of a train carrying crude oil on a Russian-planted land mine.
As someone who has lived in and reported from Georgia for six years, I knew how rumors could fly around here. I wanted to see for myself what Russia was doing.
The only trouble was, I couldn't get access to Russian-controlled areas without a Russian visa and press accreditation. Unless, that is, I joined a Kremlin-sponsored trip. So last Thursday, along with two dozen other foreign journalists, I signed up for a Kremlin-arranged escort to Tskhinvali. The administrative center of South Ossetia, it bore the brunt of Georgia's lightning offensive Aug. 7-8 to retake the breakaway territory. Russia, citing humanitarian concerns for South Ossetians – 90 percent of whom hold Russian passports – swiftly drove out the Georgians, and has occupied the city since.
"Meet under the statue of Stalin at 11 a.m.," Kremlin press attaché Sasha Mechevsky told us, referring to the monument in the Georgian city of Gori. Josef Stalin, revered by many Russians today as a strong leader who made the Soviet Union great – but under whom millions of citizens, many of whom were executed, languished in an extensive prison system – was born there.
Blocked by Russian troops, we waited for hours on the outskirts of Gori, sitting on the Mtkvari River bridge under an indifferent sun. Finally, Mr. Mechevsky arrived in an Army personnel carrier. Some of us were stuffed in the back of the truck while the rest piled in two of our hired cars. Georgians were not allowed to come.
The first stop was Karaleti, a few miles north. The village was mostly intact, although some buildings had been destroyed and shops looted. We were given 15 minutes to wander while Mechevsky explained why we had been barred from entering earlier.
"There is freedom of word and freedom of life," he declared in a rich English accent. "We protect the freedom of life first." He warned that we could be targets of Georgian provocation.
Journalists fired questions about the reported looting and kidnappings by South Ossetian and North Caucasus paramilitaries. Mechevsky retorted that many homes were burned by Georgians themselves.
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.
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."