Georgia: inside the villages

On Tuesday Shamili Okropiridze’s slippers were still lying inside the front porch. In the kitchen his plates were neatly stacked. On the table lay a photograph album with black and white snaps of him showing off his muscles and relaxing on the Soviet Black Sea coast.

But the only remnant of the man himself was the dark bloodstain on his front gate and the lingering smell of death.

Russians or Ossetians, it’s not clear who, shot Okropiridze dead on August 12. He had heard the rumble of approaching tanks and peered out into the street. Russia’s war machine swept through his village Tkviavi last week, just a few kilometres away from the breakaway republic of South Ossetia.

Someone had broken into his bedroom — putting a neat shot through the glass window, not far from the photographs of his parents hanging in the living room.

”His body lay on the street for a week. It turned black. We wanted to bury it but the Russians wouldn’t allow us,” said his neighbour Rusvelt Metrikuli (63), adding: ”Shamili lived alone. His daughter was in Tbilisi. He just looked out and they killed him.”

Metrikuli said the South Ossetian and Chechen paramilitaries, who had advanced on the town of Gori, returned, looting, burning and killing. ”People were scared. We ran away. I’ve been hiding in a field for the past 14 days.”

The scale of ethnic cleansing in the district 14,4km north of Gori was strikingly apparent this week, as an aid convoy threaded its way along a dirt track towards the few residents who had stayed. Many houses along the road had been burned and looted; most locals had fled. The village shop had been ransacked. In the next hamlet of Karbi, 3km away, Jemal Saginashvili (72) showed where a Russian cluster bomb had landed in his apple and plum orchard. His trees had been charred and blackened; bits of the bomb — serial number 1086119767 — laid scattered.

The roof of his bedroom had been staved in while the walls of the neighbouring house had been sprayed with shrapnel. ”My relative Dodo got a large piece of metal in the lung. She was covered in blood. We summoned an ambulance to take her to hospital but she died,” Saginashvili said.

On Tuesday a few elderly men and women appeared on the streets, some crying and at least one drunk. The first humanitarian supplies were arriving in three yellow buses including sacks of flour and noodles.

Back in Tkviavi, Russian soldiers were laughing and skinny-dipping in the Patara Liakhvi River, their khaki tents spread out along a willow-lined bank. Others were digging trenches, reading or smoking. In Gori, as elsewhere in Georgia, there was no sign of the pullout promised by Moscow. Armoured vehicles blockaded roads and there were checkpoints in and out of the city.

”They have taken dozens of new positions. They are in control of the main entrances and exits of the city. This is an occupation, no doubt,” Alexsandre Lomaia, Georgia’s national security secretary, said.

Asked why the Russians kept on promising to leave, but failed to do so, he said: ”They give different answers depending on how much vodka they have had to drink. I’m serious.”

In many Georgian villages north of Gori there were signs of destruction: looted petrol stations; the upturned ribcage of a dead cow; dumped tractors. At the crossroads in Tirdznisi were the remains of a minibus shot up by a South Ossetian gang. The bus lay on its side; a corpse had been dumped on the grassy verge; nearby were shoes, broken glass and abandoned passports. ”The bus was going to Tbilisi. The Ossetians stopped it and took some people hostage. Others­ escaped,” Tariel Gulisashvili said.

Others said their village Eredvi had been razed to the ground in an apparent attempt to drive Georgians from the land they had occupied for centuries. Tkviavi and neighbouring villages, says Moscow, lie in a ”security zone” which Russia intends to occupy indefinitely.

On Monday soldiers finally disposed of Okropiridze’s corpse, burying him in his garden beneath a trailing vine. Inside the house, his bag had been packed ready for a quick departure.

”There used to be 2 000 of us here, including Shamili,” Metrikuli said. ”But now there are just 20 of us left.” —

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