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11 Aug 2008 07:06
Refugees continued to pour out of South Ossetia on Monday, risking snipers, aerial bombardment and tanks to reach safety across the border.
In the centre of Vladikavkaz, the capital of the neighbouring Russian republic of North Ossetia, refugees crowded on to buses to be dispatched to hotels and sanatoria on the Black Sea coast.
There were women holding infants, children and pensioners in nightclothes who fled as Georgian troops entered their villages.
Many had travelled hours across rocky roads through the mountains to escape the war. Alisa Mamiyeva (26) a teacher at the arts lyceum in the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, said: “I came in the boot of a car.
Georgian snipers were firing at us from the forest.
“My brother stayed to fight. Our grandparents’ home was turned to rubble. We don’t know where they are. Nothing is left of their village. It was totally destroyed by rockets and tank fire.”
The Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, visited refugees near Vladikavkaz on Sunday, declaring a “humanitarian catastrophe” had taken place. He said 22 000 Ossetian refugees had crossed the border into Russia. Tent camps and a field hospital manned by surgeons and psychologists have been set up close to the border.
Anatoly Gabarayev (65) a registered schizophrenic who lived alone in Tskhinvali, stood waiting near a bus with two crumpled plastic bags at his feet. “It’s a living hell there,” he said, looking blankly into the distance. “I got out this morning. A friend found me and brought me out on the back of his motorbike. I was already waiting for death in my basement. The city is in ruins. There are bodies lying in the street.”
He added: “All I have left is the clothes I’m standing in and these two bags. My house was wooden; it was turned to splinters by the shells. I climbed out of the ruins. I don’t know where I will go. I don’t know what to do.”
A woman dressed in a nightgown and slippers from Khubis Ubani village said: “I saw our house in flames as we ran. There’s nothing left for us to go back to. Our lives are ruined.” As she spoke, her elderly husband collapsed to the ground, suffering from a heart condition. Police called an ambulance and he was driven away.
Aelita Dzhioyeva, a lawyer who fled South Ossetia on Thursday, said she had managed to call relatives in the city on their cellphones. “The situation is dire,” she said. “People have no water, no electricity, no gas and no food.“She added: “My relatives told me Georgian soldiers burnt to death a family of seven people in their apartment. An 18-year-old boy who climbed out into the street for a few moments was shot dead by a sniper.”
At a registration point in the North Ossetian town of Alagir several hundred refugees had gathered, mostly women, many with infants in their arms.
Luize Dzagoyeva (36) a hairdresser, said she had left Tskhinvali at dawn in the back of a truck which came under mortar fire as it travelled north. “We sat for four days in a cellar, without food and water,” she said. “When we came out we saw the whole street had burnt down. The city was gone - only ruins were left. It was a slaughter. First they bombed and shelled us. Then the tanks came in and levelled the city to the ground.”
“I don’t know what I will do now. My town no longer exists. My brother is still there fighting.”
Marianna Chibirova said she had fled to Tskhinvali from her village and hid in a basement. “When the firing died down I ran out to the home of my relatives on a different street,” she said. “I saw that the city hospital was completed destroyed, and around it lay corpses and injured people, a lot of them. And the injured lay there dying for three days because no one could get to them.”
At a field hospital close to the registration point surgeons attended to wounded soldiers. One South Ossetian serviceman was furious that Russia had not intervened to help earlier.
“Where was Russia?” he shouted. “Where were the Russian troops for the first three days? Now they say on television that Russia defended us, they saved South Ossetia, but that’s rubbish.
“Russian tanks only came this morning when we had already pushed the Georgian forces out of Tskhinvali. We did it—Ossetians, ourselves, at the cost of many lives. And Russia came only at the end to take up positions that we had already won. And now I’m lying here and my friends go on dying there.”
In a suburb of northern Vladikavkaz, hundreds of volunteer fighters gathered at a temporary dispatching point to be loaded onto minibuses bound for Tskhinvali.
In a reference to Georgian traders working in Russia, a sign on the door read: “Ossetian patriots! First let us cleanse our markets of Georgian spies! Then forward to liberate the homeland!”
“We are sending men who have done military service so teenage lads don’t go to die,” said an army colonel helping coordinate the recruitment process. As he spoke a group of 30 tough-looking fighters in camouflage and webbing trooped out of the yard.
Sasha Khugayev (48) said he had left South Ossetia on Friday: “In Tskhinvali you can’t find one brick standing on top of another. The city is still disputed. There are Georgian strong-points on the hills surrounding it. I’m going back to fight tonight. I’ve got my own team of guys.”
Nearby stood Gennady Dzhioyev (38) unemployed. He said: “My cousin came from Dmenis village last night. He got two bullets in the back. We’re going to go there and slaughter the Georgians like the fascist pigs they are. If the Russians let us we’ll smash them all the way to Tbilisi. We are a warrior race, we know how to fight.”
To one side Alan Kokoyev (48) an Ossetian Cossack, calmly cleaned his teeth with a flickknife. “I got here from Tskhinvali this morning,” he said. “The Georgians hit our positions with Grad missiles. They surrounded us but we managed to break out. If I’m needed I’ll be heading back.”
Rumours circulated among the men of atrocities in the war zone, whipping up their desire for action. “A 78-year-old woman with an infant under each arm was crushed by a tank!” cried Kazbek (45) who also claimed Georgia had released hundreds of criminals to fight in the conflict.
Most volunteer militia are getting to the war zone through the 4km Roki tunnel, the only link between Russia and South Ossetia.
But one man in Vladikavkaz said he and friends had commandeered a private helicopter to fly them in to Tskhinvali. “A lot of volunteers are getting held up in the north of the republic but we wanted to get straight to the action,” said the man, who called himself Vadik.
Fighters from other warlike north Caucasus republics, such as Chechnya and Dagestan, are though to have crossed mountain passes to join regular Russian troops battling Georgian forces.
Russia on Sunday continued to move military hardware towards the conflict zone. In the morning, a a kilometre-long column of more than 60 tanks and armoured cars plus scores of military trucks and tankers were moving along the road that joins Chechnya to North Ossetia. - guardian.co.uk
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