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Rights Groups Say South Ossetian Militias Burning Georgian Villages

Russian troops in South Ossetia usher ethnic Georgian Tariel Basishvili into the back of a truck bound for Tbilisi on September 5.
Russian troops in South Ossetia usher ethnic Georgian Tariel Basishvili into the back of a truck bound for Tbilisi on September 5.
By Brian Whitmore
In ethnic-Georgian villages across South Ossetia, the stories are disturbingly similar. Paramilitary irregulars roll into town, pack their cars and trucks with anything and everything of value, burn all the houses to the ground, and move on.

Nadia Terashvili, a resident of the Georgian enclave of Beloti, had heard what happened to nearby villages, and knew what to expect when South Ossetian militias showed up. After a harrowing escape from the smoldering ruins of what was once her hometown, Terashvili ended up with other internally displaced persons in the city of Gori.

"Eredvi is burned down. Vanati is burned down. Satskheneti is burned down. And then they came to our village and burned it down as well. They destroyed everything and after taking whatever they could take, they burned each and every house down," Terashvili tells RFE/RL's Georgian Service. "We fled with just the clothes on our backs, lost our way, and spent three nights in the forest."

A 93-year-old ethnic-Georgian man who was handed over to Georgian authorities as part of a captives exchange near Gori in August
Human rights advocates who have been monitoring the situation in the pro-Moscow separatist region since the conflict ended say stories like Terashvili's, combined with satellite images, show that the destruction of Georgian villages in South Ossetia is methodical and organized.

"For a month we have observed the systematic destruction of houses in Georgian enclaves and villages in South Ossetia," says Tatyana Lokshina, a Russia researcher with Human Rights Watch (HRW).

HRW has also released satellite images that show "widespread torching of ethnic Georgian villages" in the breakaway region. 

According to an release on HRW's website, the images, which were provided and analyzed by the UN program UNOSAT, show that "the damage depicted in five ethnic-Georgian villages shows the destruction of these villages around the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, was caused by intentional burning and not armed combat."

Classic Case Of Ethnic Cleansing?

Prior to the outbreak of armed conflict on August 7-8, ethnic Georgians made up just less than one-third of the population of South Ossetia. The region was a patchwork of Georgian and Ossetian villages that existed side-by-side in an uneasy peace.

Aleksandre Lomaia, the secretary of Georgia's National Security Council, tells RFE/RL's Georgian Service that South Ossetian separatist authorities and their patrons in Moscow are now trying to permanently alter the ethnic makeup of the region.

"We are dealing with classic case of ethnic cleansing. Not only is a specific ethnic group, in this case Georgians, being driven out from a specific territory, but their homes are being destroyed afterward in order to make it difficult, or even impossible, for them to return," Lomaia says.

The South Ossetian authorities are not denying that ethnic Georgians homes are being burned down. News agencies have quoted de facto South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity as saying that Georgians would not be able to return to the region because their homes had been destroyed. He added that Ossetians were not allowed to return to Georgia proper following the separatist war in the early 1990s.

Supported by Russia, South Ossetia fought a brutal war to secede from Georgia in the early 1990s after the breakup of the Soviet Union. A 1992 cease-fire ended the fighting and established a peacekeeping contingent comprised of Russian, Georgian, and Ossetian forces. The agreement did not resolve the question of South Ossetia's final status, and it remained formally part of Georgia but enjoyed de facto autonomy.

On August 26, Russia formally recognized the independence of South Ossetia and another pro-Moscow breakaway Georgian region, Abkhazia. The only other country in the world to have followed Russia's lead, however, is Nicaragua.

Detainee Abuse

In addition to the burning of Georgian villages, HRW has documented cases of arbitrary detention, forced labor, torture, and extrajudicial executions of Georgian civilians and military at the hands of South Ossetian forces during the conflict.

"We have learned that hundreds of civilians from Georgia were detained in holding cells in South Ossetia. These included women and the elderly," HRW's Lokshina says. "We know that these people were held in inhuman conditions, crammed together in one space. They were practically not fed. They were forced to work. They cleaned streets. The men were forced to bury the corpses of Georgian soldiers."
A Georgian woman at a refugee camp in Gori, central Georgia, in early September

According to a September 21 report posted on HRW's website, detained Georgian soldiers were punched, kicked, beaten with hammers, machine-gun butts, and metal rods, and were burned with cigarette lighters, starved, and threatened with execution. At least one soldier was executed with a shot in the back of the head and other detainees were forced to carry and bury his body.

"After fleeing our village, we spent a week hiding in the forest," Jemal Khetagashvili, a former civilian detainee, tells RFE/RL's Georgian Service. "But then the Ossetians found us and arrested us. We spent 10-12 days imprisoned in Tskhinvali. They forced us to work, to clean the streets and sidewalks."

At least one Georgian civilian was also executed after being pulled from a car while trying to flee the Russian-occupied Gori district.

Human rights activists also say the situation is increasingly dire for Georgians in the "buffer zones" that Russian forces have set up in Georgia proper around Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Lokshina says they have become lawless areas where militias regularly terrorize local residents.

"We are extremely worried about the situation in the so-called buffer zones, where the Georgian police do not have access and cannot bring order and where South Ossetian militias regularly harass local residents and burn down their houses," Lokshina says. "The Russian armed forces are not trying in any way to provide security for the civilian population and their property in the buffer zones. It is an absolute vacuum as far as security and law and order goes."

In its September 21 report, HRW also called on Tbilisi to investigate allegations of ill-treatment of South Ossetians detained by Georgian forces.

Goga Aptsiauri of RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report from Gori
Crisis In Georgia
For RFE/RL's full coverage of the conflict that began in Georgia's breakway region of South Ossetia, click here.

 

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by: Anton from: Auckland
October 01, 2008 00:51
I guess they are worth each other, Georgians and Ossetians. Hardly anything can be done with ethnic cleansing without first making S Ossetia a signatory to all those old Geneva Conventions - but for this it has to be recognized first. So far it is a feral semi-state, a black hole and there is no international law recognized on its territory because it is not a part of international community :)

by: Emin from: Baku
October 01, 2008 16:46
Actually, S. Ossetia is recognized by the world community...AS A LEGAL PART OF GEORGIA! Recognition of S.Ossetia by Russia, which has no civil society or opposition to the dictatorial regime, and Nicaragua, which loves to jump at any initiative aimed at damaging the position of the US, you really have no valid cards on the table. More like Russians and Nicaraguans deserve each other(soon to be joined by Hugo Chavez of Venezuela).

by: Anton from: Auckland
October 01, 2008 18:02
Emin, things change in this world. USA was also a legal recognized part of UK, Hungary was a recognized part of Austria, Sudettenland, Silesia and Alsac were the legal parts of Germany, not saying about Kosovo being a legal part of Serbia. There is no point in accepting what is not existing anymore, specially given that at the moment Georgia is set to lose Adjaria to Turkey as well. Borders are changing, this is a historical reality. We must be flexible and adequate.

by: Paco from: Caracas
October 01, 2008 18:22
Sure, now will be Chechnya, Ingushetia, Daghestan, Tatarstan independent. Many new countries! Communist, no communist, always imperialist Russia...

by: Diana from: USA
October 03, 2008 16:16
You reap what you sow. Had Georgians strived to taken better care of their attitudes and relationships towards their minorities, perhaps things might not have taken this route. While admittedly I am happy for Abkhazians and Ossetians for having freedom from Georgian brutality, force, and attempts to annihilate their cultures, the Caucasian peoples would have been better off uniting under a federaation, be it political or economical or military, and help one another in the wake of foreign aggressive interest. But since we all know that when you put people like Sakaashvili,a US sympathizer, in power, the results tend to...speak for themselves.

by: Rasto from: London
October 03, 2008 19:31
ad;Diana<br />Please first than you start writing about sawing and reaping,please read something about the history of the conflict. Ossetians migarted to Georgia from North Ossetia 250 years ago as a refuges from battles. They were accepted as a guest. 100 years later (at the end of 19th century and in 1920) they started to fight and they were fighting for joining the country from which they run every time they had a chance. Until they effectivelly stolen something that was for 2000 years Georgian land at the south slopes of Caucasus.

by: Ivo from: BG
October 04, 2008 10:10
'While admittedly I am happy for Abkhazians and Ossetians for having freedom from Georgian brutality (...)'<br /><br />You're also probably happy knowing that over 200K ethnic Georgians were kicked out Abkhazia and as this very article says now thousands are being kicked out of South Osetia, how exactly do you justify this human tragedy??<br /><br />Anton, yes, you're right, we should accept the changes of borders and all that. I'm all ears to hear the official recognition by Moscow of Kosovo, Somaliland, Western Sahara, Chechnya, Tibet, Western Turkestan, Kurdistand and so on and so on.

by: Anton from: Auckland
October 04, 2008 18:21
Ivo, international relationships are based on jungle law, despite all leaders appeal to some &quot;international law&quot; all the way. Small nations are never listened to if none of big nations can draw some profits from them, so one needs first to organize the pressure on Russia or interest it somehow for it to do these recognitions as you said. What counts is only the force, no matter how beautiful is the wording of the statements. I would rather imagine Russia recognising the Catalans, Basques, Ulster, Scotland, Flemish, Sardinia and other European separatists or even Quebec and Reconquista, as there is much more separatists in this world than on Russia's territory.

by: George from: Tbilisi
October 05, 2008 14:19
Here we go, Russia exercising once again with excellence its usual &quot;divide and conquer&quot; policy. As a Georgian with Ossetian maternal grandfather, I can attest to the strongest degree of affinity that reigned between Georgians and Ossetians throughout history, only to be played off against one another by the Russian imperialism, old and new! Russia is a real scumbag-state. Swedish FM Bildt pointed on it, drawing a parallel b/w ongoing campaign and Hitler's handling of a land-grab in Czechoslovakia 70 years ago, also under the pretext of protecting German minority. The only &quot;aggravating&quot; factor for Russians in this analogy is that the &quot;Russians&quot; in S.O. are artificial, through illegal passportization, so Putin even went further than his spiritual guru Adolf in &quot;contrivance&quot;.

by: Ivo
October 06, 2008 10:09
Anton, that's ridiculous, unlike the regions I've mentioned (we can also add Artzah (N Karabah) and N Cyprus), Northern Ireland is not aiming for independence, Quebec had two referenda and because of their outcome QC is still within Canada (WHAT IS THERE TO RECOGNIZE ANYWAY!?), something which unfortunately the Basques have been denied. Catalunya? Sardegna? There might be people with separatist tendencies there, but you can hardly compare them with the regions I mentioned which are occupied and really strife for independence. If Belgie were to separate they'll do it in the civilized manner Czechoslovakia split, at any rate you're comparing apples and oranges.

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