Two Eye-witness Reports on the Battle in S. Ossetia

August 13th, 2008 - by admin

Alan Fisher / Al Jazeera & Tom Parfitt / The Guardian – 2008-08-13 01:37:15

Reporter’s Diary: Assault on Gori
Alan Fisher / Al Jazeera

GORI (August 12, 2008) — The town of Gori has come under sustained bombardment in recent days. I watch from the edge of the town as Russian planes, too high to see, circle the town and drop their bombs. From my vantage point I can see them hitting the centre as well as the outskirts of the town.

As the bombardment continues, vehciles race away from the area. In the distance , a family with no transport desperately try to hitch a lift away from danger.

People stop near us, the worried looks clear on the faces, the nervous gestures and clear give away of the trauma they’ve been through and still carry now. All agree it’s to dangerous to go back.

The bombardment suggests Russian troops have not taken up permanent positions in the town, as they would be close to any attack.

Then just as the danger appears to have past, there’s another loud crack as the bombs fall once more. The target – a hill on the north side of Gori.

At the very edge of our camera’s zoom, several kilometres away, it just possible to make out Georgian army positions – and slightly above them – a huge crater still smoking, left by the bombing.

From this distance we can tell if those in the trucks are alive or dead.

Now fires are raging on the hill, as the cornfields burn.

On the edge of Gori, there’s a burnt-out tank and two army trucks which have crashed head on, the remanants of Monday’s panicked retreat by the Georgian army.

Georgian defences

As we drove from Tblisi to the edge of Gori there were few signs during the 60km journey of any Georgian defences.

It was in marked contrast to the scenes on Monday night – when soldiers manned checkpoints on the edge of the capital. Hundreds of them stood prepared, wondering if the Russians were coming.

Huge queues formed at petrol stations, people panic buying as worries mounted about how long supplies would last.

Shops stayed open until the early hours of the morning to allow people to stock up on essentials like water and bread.

This was a city in fear, fuelled by rumour. By the morning things seemed back to normal, the fear didn’t seem so great, the threat not so immediate.

‘I’ve Never Heard anything so Monstrous as People Shelling a Hospital’
Tom Parfitt / The Guardian

TSKHINVALI (August 13 2008) — A convoy of three buses and an escort of armed Russian Special Forces soldiers travelled across the border with Russia into South Ossetia yesterday, in a trip organised by the Kremlin for foreign media to witness first hand the destruction in Tskhinvali.

At the village of Dzhava 20 miles beyond the border a huge queue of Russian military hardware stood pointing south, testament to the might of the resurgent Russian state.
Several truck-mounted rocket launchers were a sign of Moscow’s intent to hold Tskhinvali at all costs.

Approaching Tskhinvali, the group of reporters was transferred to armoured personnel carriers because of the risk of fire from Georgian snipers, said the Russian officers leading the trip.

In villages close to the city there were many burned out houses, and others were still ablaze. In the city itself it was clear that claims the city had been levelled to the ground by artillery were exaggerated. However, it was also evident that while some neighbourhoods were intact, there were patches of terrible destruction.

At a crossroads in the north of the city there was evidence of a fierce fire fight. Three destroyed Georgian tanks were slewed across the road, a mess of ash and twisted metal. The heavy turret of one tank had been tossed across the street, falling through a shop front. Nearby on the ground lay a human foot.

Colonel Igor Konashenko of the Russian army said: “There were Georgian attacks overnight but our troops are in full control of the city. So far we’ve had no orders to move south into Georgia.”

Hearing of a ceasefire yesterday, civilians began to emerge from bunkers and basements. At the crossroads, Izolda Deppiyeva, 50, looked out on the scene of ruined ground floor apartment in a block riddled by gunfire. She recalled the moment when Georgian artillery first hit the city.

“There was a great wave of pressure which twisted me and flung me against the kitchen wall.”

A former theatre stage actress, Deppiyeva said she had lived for four days in a cellar with her relatives without food and water.

“I could not leave,” she said. “This land is my body, my home. We are a proud beautiful people and we are not leaving. I survived, I am alive!”

In the yard behind the apartment block a group of Ossetian fighters were seated at a wooden bench eating mutton and drinking wine: “We are raising a toast to those who are left,” said Ruslan Kostoyev, 33. “Those tanks in the street, we hit them with rocket propelled grenades from the basement.”
Kostoyev accused Western leading countries of arming Georgia in the conflict: “A Georgian only knows how to ride a cow,” he said, “the aeroplanes which destroyed the building were Ukrainian,” he said.

Another fighter said: “The Georgians were 30 times stronger than us. They wanted to kill us to destroy everything. But we held them off.”

Outside in the street, a priest in an immaculate black cassock walked through the scene of devastation. Saurmag Bazzate, an Ossetian prior, arrived in Tskhinvali on Monday. “I came to be with my people,” he said. “Those who perpetrated this horror are criminals who must be punished by God. This war is a result of Georgian fascism, which has flourished with the support of the West.”

Russian officials in the city say their main aim is now to contain a humanitarian disaster by repairing water supplies insuring that bread factories are working and re-establishing an electricity supply.

Close to the centre of the city Russian officers led the group to the city’s main hospital which was hit by small arms fire and shells during the first days of fighting. Doctors at the hospital said they had been forced to carry out operations in corridors and the basement of the building without electricity, water or light.

Tina Zakharova, one of the doctors, pointed out chunks of shrapnel which had hit the building.

“This is the humanitarian aid that Georgia sent us,” she said, “and that,” she said, pointing at a field hospital nearby, “is the help we received from Russia. Which do you think we should chose?” She added: “I’ve never heard anything so monstrous as people shelling a hospital.”

In total, said Zakharova, 224 injured people had been treated at the hospital and two people had died there. Just south of the city centre a group of reporters were shown a street entirely destroyed by a Grad missile attack. Homes along the 100m street had been reduced to rubble.

One man showed the Guardian the metal casing of a Grad rocket lodged in the ruins of his home: “We managed to escape to the shelter just in time,” he said, pointing at the mouth of a cellar protected by huge chunks of concrete.

Colonel Konashenko said: “The Georgians could not get tanks through these narrow streets. So first they turned it to ruins with a Grad attack and tried to punch through here to the centre of the city. There was heavy fighting in the streets. I think more than 500 bodies were pulled out of this part of town.”

Asked if there had been atrocities against civilians the Colonel replied: “I personally saw one man beheaded lying in the street and others say they witnessed civilians who had been finished off with a shot to the back of the head.”

Back at the hospital there were sounds of gunfire and then the crump of mortars landing somewhere in the city. First one explosion, then a second. When a third hit, sounding louder, the Colonel said: “It’s time to move. Let’s go.”

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