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European Rights Commissioner Paints Grim Picture Of Georgian Conflict Zone

Commissoner Hammarberg (right) in South Ossetia on August 24
Commissoner Hammarberg (right) in South Ossetia on August 24
Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights, recently completed a visit to Georgia to assess the humanitarian situation there. The trip included conversations with displaced persons and other victims of the conflict between Russia and Georgia over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, first-hand access that few Westerners have seen since the outbreak of hostilities in early August. Hammarberg spoke with RFE/RL Georgian Service correspondent Nino Gelashvili at the Council of Europe offices in Tbilisi, describing flattened villages and possible efforts at "Russification," aid efforts, and the seemingly dim prospects for many displaced persons to return to their homes.

What was your route on this most recent trip to Georgia?

Thomas Hammarberg: This time I was in Tbilisi, of course, [and] Gori; [I] met displaced people in various places. I was in [the South Ossetian capital] Tskhinvali and turned around in South Ossetia, visited many villages which have been under threat or destroyed. And I also went to Akhalgori. [Editor's note: Akhalgori is a South Ossetian town in which Ossetians and Georgians cohabitated peacefully for decades and which remained under Georgian control after South Ossetia's de facto partition in the early 1990s.]

RFE/RL: What did you see in Akhalgori?

Hammarberg: This is a place where quite a number of people have left -- about half of the population, in my estimation, has left. Some have returned; some have left again. I wanted to discuss the situation in particular with the Georgians there, and I had some different comments from them. I'm now going to Strasbourg and going to reflect [on] my own conclusions from these different voices. So that will be an important part of my report. But I don't want to say too much before I've really gone through the remarks I got. I think it was very important that someone went there and listened to people, because many people are concerned about the situation in Akhalgori.

RFE/RL: Akhalgori is of particular interest to South Ossetia's de facto authorities. Did you see any indication that they would be willing to give up this territory?

Hammarberg: I don't know that. And it's a bit outside of my mandate because it has a political implication. The impression I got is that the new administration there is determined to continue. They talked about major projects, the roads are extremely bad, the water situation is bad, the hospital is almost in ruins, and so on. They talked about a massive development program there, which did not indicate that they were planning to leave.

RFE/RL: You said you're not a politician -- you're not in that game. Does that make you more acceptable to the [respective parties to this dispute]?

Hammarberg: Yes, I think so. I think I'm one of the few international representatives who [are able] to assist on both sides -- when it comes to exchanges of prisoners, for instance. There is an advantage of dividing responsibilities within the international community. Some people have to deal with the diplomatic work, to try to find political solutions. Others have to deal with the purely humanitarian work, and I'm on that side.

RFE/RL: According to some media reports (including Russian media), there are villages in that zone, in South Ossetia, that are absolutely destroyed. Have you seen those villages?

Hammarberg: Yes, the Georgian villages between Tskhinvali and Java, just north of Tskhinvali, are empty and very, very massively destroyed.

It would take time to rebuild them and also for people to move back there. Other villages are less destroyed. But you see -- here and there -- houses that have been torched or destroyed. Tskhinvali itself is, of course, damaged by artillery and other war activities, still quite a lot; but rebuilding has started.

RFE/RL: Who is rebuilding it now; who is working there -- soldiers or construction companies?

Hammarberg: Not the soldiers. Soldiers are doing military work. There are companies that have been invited to go there and assist in rebuilding. My assumption is that these companies are from North Ossetia.

RFE/RL: When South Ossetian authorities claim that they agree to let people return to their villages, do you know if they mean those villages north of Tskhinvali?

Hammarberg: I think, yes. The principle is there. Then, of course, there will probably be a discussion about the implementation of the principle -- if that is going to happen for everyone, or if there are any reservations when it comes to individuals. But the principle has been established, which, I think, is an important first step in that discussion.

RFE/RL: The IDPs [internally displaced persons] -- those who wish to return to their homes, hope to get well-grounded and realistic information about safety guarantees in case they return -- do you think international community could give real guarantees of safety in the buffer zones?

Hammarberg: In the buffer zone it ought to be possible after some time because there will be a massive presence of European Union monitors. And the ICRC -- the Red Cross Committee -- will be there. They are already doing important work. And the UN High Commissioner for Refugees is also patrolling that area. After all, this is not such a large area. So I think it should be possible for the international community, actually, to guarantee safety there.

The dilemma will [lie in] what happens just across the administrative borderline. And probably there will be a need to have some kind of contact across the border between those who are south and those who are north of the border. At the moment, the Russians are there. And if that cooperation or contact does not work well, there may be gaps there in the security. But that is something that will be discussed now between the parties.

RFE/RL: I know that [during your last visit] you were told that you should not have come to Tbilisi through Vladikavkaz and Tskhinvali because it was illegal. Does it matter in this kind of situation, which way a High Commissioner for Human Rights chooses to enter a country in which there is a conflict?

Hammarberg: It shouldn't matter, because the purpose of our presence, our visits, is only to assist constructively. We may be critical, but the purpose of criticism is to have solutions. If we are limited by strict policies about which direction we should come [through] and what direction we could leave [in], it does complicate our work considerably. And I'm happy now that all sides accepted that on one occasion I came from the north and passed directly down to the south, and the next time I did the opposite. I hope that sets an example that the governments and other political decision-makers should be more generous to humanitarian organizations.

RFE/RL: But what was the reason? Was it possible for you to visit those villages north of Tskhinvali and Tskhinvali itself only if you came from that direction? Was that the reason?

Hammarberg: The first time, I wanted to sort of see all different aspects of the IDPs; and at that time there were about 30,000 IDPs in North Ossetia. I wanted to interview them as well, because very few international representatives had done that. And from there it was very logical to go via the [Roki] tunnel down to Tskhinvali. I was very grateful to the Georgian government that they did not cause trouble [over my] "unusual" entry into this country from Roki. And the next time I did the opposite -- I went from [Tbilisi] up. And, in fact, through these discussions about exchanges of prisoners I've gone up and down several times -- formally against the rules but with very good moral support from both sides, which I'm happy about.

RFE/RL: You talk a lot about security issues. How safe is it for you personally to travel through this territory? Who protects you?

Hammarberg: When I'm on the side that is controlled by the Russians, they take responsibility for the security. So, when we go by car, there is protection [provided by the] Russian military, and when I'm in the present buffer zone, it's the same: Russians would take responsibility for [my] security. And south of that, of course, the Georgian police [take responsibility for my security]. When I travel, there is always one party that controls the area, leads the little convoy that we have. But when I go out and talk to people, then I am very keen to be alone -- with only the interpreter. Otherwise, all of my work would simply be poisoned by propaganda and politicization.

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