Shaun Walker witnessed the terror of war in South Ossetia. A year later, he has returned – to find that anti-Georgian feeling is as strong as ever
Workers were yesterday erecting a stage on Tskhinvali's central square, festooned with Russian and South Ossetian flags, in preparation for a memorial concert and vigil to mark the year anniversary of the Georgian assault on South Ossetia and subsequent Russian counter-strike.
Families strolled in the hot August sun eating ice creams, and the mood was almost festive, as the breakaway statelet prepares not just to commemorate its losses but also to celebrate its subsequent recognition by Russia as an independent country.
The atmosphere was rather different from the last time I was in this square on 10 August last year at the height of the Russia-Georgia conflict. The Georgians had finally been flushed out of the city that morning, Tskhinvali was still burning, and having blundered into the epicentre of the vicious war, I was being held at gunpoint in the back of a battered Mercedes, wondering if I'd make it out alive.
Returning to a quiet and languid Tskhinvali a year later, it's hard to believe it is the same place where Kim Sengupta, also of The Independent, and myself had such a terrifying experience. But at the same time, those same tensions and hatreds that were laid out like raw wounds on that day last August still bubble under the surface.
It was at the border post of Ergneti, on a hilltop overlooking Tskhinvali, that we first got into trouble last year. We had driven up from the Georgian city of Gori, the birthplace of Stalin 20 miles from Tskhinvali, which would later be occupied by the Russians briefly. It was the early afternoon of 10 August, as the Georgian Army was retreating from Tskhinvali in disarray. Other journalists we encountered in Gori warned that the front line was shifting, and part-way up the road their cars had come under fire from snipers and they had been forced to return. We set off to investigate rather warily, but vowed to turn back at the first sign of trouble.
We found the road eerily quiet, and drove past several Georgian villages, abandoned save for a few pensioners, that would in later days be brutally raided by Ossetian irregulars. We kept going, unwisely as it turned out given the Georgian ethnicity of our driver Merab, and eventually found ourselves at the hamlet of Ergneti, overlooking Tskhinvali burning in the valley below.
At a checkpoint a South Ossetian flag was flying. It was manned by soldiers who looked like comedy bad guys from a Russian movie, dressed in ragged fatigues with white armbands. But they weren't friendly, they pointed their weapons at us and beckoned us forward; there was no turning back. We were thoroughly searched before being accused of being Georgian spies, and told we were not allowed to return to Gori. Instead, we would be driven into Tskhinvali where our fate would be decided.
Two heavily armed Ossetian soldiers drove our Georgian driver, Kim and I into the city, where we were handed to another group of fighters, one of whom pulled out a knife and traced it across the skin of our driver's throat. They told us that Merab was "finished" and that their commander would decide what to do with Kim and I. That's when we were handed over to Alik, an aggressive, wild-eyed soldier in his late twenties, who was to be our guide of sorts for the rest of the day.
So began a tense three hours of waiting, and driving around the ruined city, attempting to find the commander among the chaos of war. Ossetian women and children were beginning to emerge from their cellars, and tanks driven by wild Ossetians waving the red-yellow-white tricolour of South Ossetia rolled through the streets. Buildings were still burning, and the shell of a Georgian tank was smouldering near the main square.
A year later, very few of the damaged and destroyed buildings in Tskhinvali have been properly renovated, despite aid flowing in from Russia. Reconstruction work has been slow and residents whose houses were damaged say that nothing has been done to help them, with some questioning just where all the aid money has gone and alleging corruption. When the Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, visited the region for the first time last month, it is believed he told the South Ossetian President, Eduard Kokoity, that the reconstruction money must be spent faster and more efficiently. Last week the local Prime Minister was fired and a Russian businessman appointed in his place.
While Russian money may heal the physical scars in Tskhinvali, the psychological scars from those days in August when the Georgians assaulted Tskhinvali are unlikely to heal for many years to come. When the shelling began, 54-year-old Galina Karsanova gathered friends and relatives in the cellar she used to keep supplies of pickled vegetables and homemade wine.
"I thought it was just the usual Georgian provocations, and that it would all be over in a couple of hours," recalls Ms Karsanova a year on. "But it went on and on. People came from neighbouring houses to ask if they could shelter in the cellar, and before long there were 14 of us."
The group of people spent three days huddling in the damp cellar, before emerging on the morning of 10 August, a few hours before Kim and I arrived. Other residents of the street were not so lucky. Over the road, a father and his two young children had been shot dead in the street, claim Ms Karsanova and other residents; their bodies were later burned by Georgian soldiers.
"Even after the first war in the 1990s, I didn't hate the Georgians," says Ms Karsanova. "But now, they have just crossed all boundaries. We can never live together again. They behave in a way that even Hitler couldn't have imagined."
But while the Ossetians sustained heavy civilian losses from the indiscriminate Georgian attack, their vicious response involved the complete destruction of the pockets of Georgian territory that were dotted across South Ossetia, in an indiscriminate orgy of fire and looting.
It was men like our captor Alik who would later go on the rampage in the Georgian villages, and our afternoon with him gave an insight into the mood among the Ossetian fighters. Alik was a man on edge, who had run into us just hours from fighting a war. He claimed not to have slept for six days. While never friendly, his mood was volatile, changing from uninterested to furious in an instant. Staring into his brown, vacant eyes was truly terrifying, and he would periodically start on rants about how Europe and America had abandoned South Ossetia for years. He spoke using elaborate cocktails of Russian swear words more vicious than I thought linguistically possible, often directed at us personally.
Merab, the Georgian driver, was subjected to endless obscene diatribes about the cowardice of Georgian men, the promiscuity of Georgian women, and the general uselessness of his race. His responses were an exercise in measured stoicism; never rising to the provocations and quietly disagreeing when it got too much, saying there were some good Georgians and some bad ones. His stunning degree of calm, even when people were repeatedly telling him that he was "finished", probably saved his life.
Other Georgians were less lucky in the face of this hatred. A year on, the villages in enclaves formerly controlled by the Tbilisi government now stand silent and abandoned; the empty shells of hundreds of houses torched to ensure residents can never return. In Eredvi, a village of around 500 people close to the Georgian border, the only people left are a smattering of Ossetian families. Their gates and walls are daubed with "Iron" ("Ossetian" in the Ossetian language) in jagged white letters; painted during the last war to spare the houses from the fire and wrath of the Ossetian vigilante groups. No other houses survived.
The carcass of the three-storey school, painted pink and refurbished just before the war, is a tragic reminder of the human aspect of the conflict. The floors are littered with torn exercise books, art projects, and homework painstakingly completed in the beautiful swirling letters of the Georgian alphabet.
Most of the residents of these villages have been rehoused in vast refugee settlements inside Georgia proper, and these children and their families are unlikely ever to return to their homes.
Possibly the scariest moment of our day in Tskhinvali last August came when we were driven down a sidestreet into a deserted courtyard, and ordered out of the car.
"England, get over by that wall; India you stay here", barked Alik, motioning at me with his gun while holding Kim back (Kim, due to his Indian heritage and features, was getting slightly better treatment than me, as Alik and the other Ossetians had decided that he had also suffered at the evil colonial hands of the British).
I didn't like the sound of the command to move to the wall, and wondered if that might be the end. But when I had gingerly stepped up to the wall, instead of shooting me, he barked at me to walk across to a truck that was parked with its back to the wall and ordered me to look inside. I climbed up and peered in, rather apprehensive about what might be there, but all I could see was wooden crates, stacked on top of each other.
"Georgian ammo," spat Alik. "Given to them by you. America, Britain, all of you bastards."
A year later, there is no doubt that in general Western journalists are still not particularly welcome in Tskhinvali. Many people have asked me how my "colleagues in the Western media" can sleep at night after "working for the Georgians" last year. While much of the Western television coverage did rely heavily on information provided from the Georgian side, the Ossetian anger is also down to a concerted Russian campaign to portray the Western media as complicit in a vast, sinister anti-Russian conspiracy.
Alik never did find his commander on that afternoon a year ago, but we ended up outside a house, where I was asked questions about our driver Merab: Did he work for The Independent? Was he on a contract? Aware that I might be deciding his fate, I lied that he'd worked for us for years and was employed directly from London, even though we'd only met him that morning. After much discussion they told us they wouldn't shoot Merab, but would keep him as a hostage; we were free to go. Our protests that we wouldn't leave without him fell on deaf ears.
We were driven back to the edge of the city where an argument broke out between the Ossetian fighters. They spoke fast and angrily in their native Ossetian, unintelligible to me, and then asked Merab in Russian to get out of the car. I thought they might shoot him on the spot, but instead they handed him his car keys and told us to be on our way.
We made the drive back to Gori in surreal silence, broken only by my profuse apologies to the heroic Merab for bringing him into Tskhinvali. It was a remarkable escape and I'm still not sure what happened to change the soldiers' minds.
With tensions in the region rising, however, it may not be the last wartime trip to Tskhinvali.
Last summer, both sides used lies as propaganda tools during the war. Now, half-truths and rumour are again fuelling suspicion and mistrust.
"At night the Ossetians get drunk and shoot into the air, but we haven't responded," a Georgian soldier told me at the Georgian side of the Ergneti checkpoint when I visited last month.
"At night, the Georgians get drunk and shoot into the air, but we haven't fired back," say the Ossetian and Russian border guards at the Russian post just 30 metres away.
With no international monitoring mission inside the region, it's impossible to know who to believe. But with Russia desperate to remove Mikheil Saakashvili from power in Georgia, and up to 30,000 Georgians ethnically cleansed from their homes in South Ossetia, it seems unlikely we have seen the last chapter in this tragic, vicious fight between neighbours.