- Russian troops have pulled out of Gori itself and positions overlooking the town, and Georgian police are back
- Visiting Georgian officials say "illegal checkpoints" remain and diplomatic efforts will focus on "internationalizing" the peacekeeping force
- Gori's streets are "full of life," with residents sharing news and emotions, municipal services functioning, and Georgian flags waving in crowds and hung from balconies
- Georgian and international media arrive, and a beleaguered citizenry begins to tell its story
August 22 -- 11 p.m. local time (7 p.m. GMT)
This is the first night since this crisis broke out that Gori's streets are full of life. Some people are hanging Georgian flags from their balconies to celebrate the Russian forces' withdrawal -- and the return of Georgian police.
Authorities will now be concentrating on de-mining areas where Russian forces were stationed. Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili is in Gori -- a short while ago he briefed journalists (they're here now, too), saying the Interior Ministry is in full control of the Tbilisi-Khashuri highway. But he warns citizens that they will not be allowed to drive on that highway tonight, since it must first be cleared of mines.
National Security Council Secretary Alexandre Lomaia also spoke to the press about today's developments. He says calm and order will be restored swiftly in Gori and its surrounding areas. He also says an agreement was reached with Russian forces so they would not interfere in the work of Georgian police.
Lomaia also lays out what he knows about the future positions of Russian checkpoints. He says that initial agreements stipulate that Russians won't be stationed on the highway nor inside any populated area. He also says a man named Aleksandr Lenskoi will replace Major General Borisov and Kolpachenko to represent Russian forces from now on.
Lomaia says talks on bringing international peacekeepers to these areas will take place very soon.
Just to make the current situation perfectly clear, I should repeat: All checkpoints have been removed from Gori and from the main highway, but the checkpoints located to the north -- in the direction of Karaleti -- are still in place.
The mayor of Tbilisi, Gigi Ugulava, is in Gori, and I interviewed him for the RFE/RL Georgian Service's evening program. I wanted to know what he thought about the Russian side's statement that the pullback of their forces from Georgia proper was complete.
"Only Gori and the central highway are free from the occupiers," Ugulava says. "There are still illegal checkpoints left. This will become the subject of discussion -- we are not going to let them stay here." Ugulava stresses that in contrast with several others, the checkpoints he has in mind are not permitted under any agreements -- old or new -- so they must be closed. Ugulava also says the primary task that Georgian diplomats will concentrate on now is the internationalization of peacekeeping forces.
So that's where we stand. The Russian forces have left Gori. The town is now full of journalists -- both Georgian and international. I guess there's no more need for this kind of reporting, this blog to chronicle our town under siege.
Hopefully this weekend will see a final phase of normalization. Gori is full of people again, and my kids will be coming back to town, too. So I look forward to a return to family life -- and normal journalistic work.
August 22 -- 7:30 p.m. local time (3:30 GMT)
Georgian police have arrived in Gori. At last!
Gori's return to normalcy is truly palpable. Cars are moving, public transportation is working, people are walking on the streets. Right now I'm watching a priest talk to a group of people on Gori's central square.
Everyone's talking about the latest developments -- including how relieved they are that the Russians have left. People have been preparing to greet the Georgian police, once they arrive.
Interestingly, several Willy-type jeeps that belong to Russian forces are still moving around the streets of Gori -- they must be adding the finishing touches to the whole withdrawal process.
Overall, like I said, things are really calming down.
August 22 -- 4 p.m. local time (noon GMT)
I learned about an hour ago that a truck had arrived in Gori carrying 25 inhabitants of villages in the Patara Liakhvi and Didi Liakhvi valleys: Eredvi, Vanati, Dzartsemi, and others. They had fled their own villages on foot. They're mostly elderly people, and they tell stories of brutal looting that they blame on Ossetian paramilitaries and irregulars from the North Caucasus. These people weren't taken hostage -- they were simply expelled from their homes.
I rushed to see them. One old man tells me that last night alone, three different groups of looters raided his village. He says the first group took personal property, furniture, and cattle. The second group stormed in and expelled people from their homes -- kicking and beating some of them, telling them never to return. The third group lit their homes on fire. This elderly man says he watched with his own eyes as his house was set ablaze. The villagers fled through forests and fields, and finally reached the village of Ditsi, where the truck driver let them board before bringing them here.
They all look utterly devastated and helpless. It's not easy to see the pain on their faces as they relate their stories. After a short time in Gori, they were put on a bus bound for Tbilisi, where, I presume, they'll be housed in makeshift shelters.
August 22 -- 3:30 p.m. local time (11:30 a.m. GMT)
At this moment, I can tell you that not a single Russian soldier or piece of military hardware remains in the town of Gori. Some two hours ago, they started their withdrawal from checkpoints that were set up on nearby mountains. Then, around half an hour ago, the last checkpoint was removed in Gori, too.
One of the most important issues now is that of the "buffer zone" and its boundaries. When the secretary of the National Security Council, Alexandre Lomaia, was here, he told us that the Russians would now be stationed at so-called "peacekeeping positions." However, he said the Georgian authorities did not have much information about where exactly those positions would be located.
The only thing they know is that one of them will be stationed at the exit of Gori, on the Gori-Tskhinvali road. So, yes, I guess it is possible to say that the "buffer zone" constitutes one of the most pressing and, at the same time, unclear issues at this moment.
August 22 -- 1:20 p.m. (9:20 a.m. GMT)
From the outskirts of the city, we can hear the sound of engines, which we take to mean the Russians have begun their pullout. They withdrew from positions they had established in the Kvernaki and Tiniskhidi hills.
The helicopters this morning caused some panic among local residents. But I've since heard from Alexandre Lomaia, the head of Georgia's National Security Council, that the operation had been coordinated with Georgian authorities and was needed in order to assess the situation on the ground.
At this moment I don't have any information about the villages to the north of Gori.
Lomaia confirmed that all Russian positions around Gori should be gone by this evening, and that the next step will be to clear all checkpoints inside the city. A checkpoint in Igoeti is also due to be removed by the evening.
I'm now outside the Gori military hospital, where the prisoner exchange has just taken place. About 100 Georgian civilians were supposed to have been returned today by Tskhinvali as part of the prisoner exchange. But in the end, there were only 17 -- it's not clear why. Almost all of them were from the villages of Kheiti and Sveri, in the Didi Liakhvi Valley.
If you compare these people with the group that arrived yesterday, the people today are younger. Yesterday we had one man who was over 90, and most were approaching that age. Today, most of them are between 40 and 60, mostly male. There is just one woman, and one very young girl, whom I didn't see because she didn't want to talk to reporters.
A special group of workers is traveling to Tskhinvali today to begin exhuming Georgians killed in the fighting in that city -- both civilians and soldiers. They'll be returned to Georgia for burial. We don't know the exact number.
Doctors from the hospital are bringing the Georgian returnees something to eat and drink. Many of these people have bloodstains on their clothes and cuts and bruises on their faces. But all of them, except for one, insisted they had not been beaten -- they said they got injured before they were detained, that they fell down or something like that. It's obvious they're very frightened, and just one of them told me that he was in fact beaten with the butt of a machine gun and with wooden clubs. One of the men was in such a state of shock that he didn't realize he had been brought to Gori; he thought he was still in Tskhinvali. The doctors later said he had a concussion.
People are watching the Russian personnel vehicles move by, and the mood is starting to lighten. Major-General Vyacheslav Borisov, Russia's so-called "commander of Gori," has forbidden his staff to speak to any journalists today, and he himself isn't speaking to anyone. We got just one comment from him: "You Georgian journalists are seeing me here in Gori for the last time."
August 22 -- 11:15 a.m. local time (7:15 a.m. GMT)
I just got the first signs of some positive news. Russian officials say they are waiting for the final prisoner exchange of Georgian civilians for Ossetian fighters to be finished -- this is a process that began yesterday and will finish today. Once that's over, they say they will begin the withdrawal.
August 22 -- 11:00 a.m. local time (7:00 a.m. GMT)
No changes. The three checkpoints remain in the center of the city. Some 15-20 minutes ago, there was a helicopter circling overhead, and I assume it was trying to assess the situation on the ground in and around Gori. Half an hour ago I received a call from David Rcheulishvili, the director of Gori's cement factory, who was finally allowed to enter the grounds of the factory for the first time since Russian troops entered the city. He said that all of his technical equipment and all of the mixers had been set on fire and burned out; everything was destroyed.
August 22 -- 09:15 a.m. local time (5:15 a.m. GMT)
Nothing has changed. None of the checkpoints in the center of town have been dismantled, although I heard from contacts in the surrounding villages that checkpoints there were gradually being abandoned. All of the entrances to Gori remain blocked. At 6 o'clock in the morning, I was woken up by automatic gunfire, and immediately after that I heard an explosion. I spoke to the regional governor, Vladimer Vardzelashvili, a few moments ago and he told me that Russians are continuing to destroy the remaining Georgian military hardware. Major-General Vyacheslav Borisov, the man in charge of Russian troops in the area, promised us yesterday that by 10 o'clock tonight there wouldn't be a single Russian soldier left in Gori. Of course, we still have the whole day ahead of us, but at the moment we don't see any movement in this direction.
Yesterday, Borisov had a fairly heated discussion with Vardzelashvili about the so-called buffer zone. Borisov had all kinds of maps out, and was referring to the 1992 agreement [on a cease-fire between South Ossetia and Georgia], which stipulates that the conflict zone included quite a lot of villages north of Gori in Gori district -- including two villages that are located along the main east-west highway, Shavshvebi and Agara. So if we go with that agreement, it would mean that the so-called peacekeepers who would replace the regular Russian troops will have the right to control the main highway, and even establish checkpoints. Vardzelashvili's argument was that the Georgian state had not been formally established in 1992, that it was being ruled by dubious personalities like Jaba Ioseliani and Tengiz Kitovani, and that we should not have to abide by agreements made under their tenure.
I have to say, having witnessed all these discussions about the issue, I have the feeling that neither side has a good understanding of how to proceed. For instance, yesterday when Vardzelashvili tried to make the argument that the main highway of a sovereign country cannot be controlled by troops from another country, Borisov, who was quite drunk -- I was standing right next to him and I could smell it on him -- tried to calm him down by saying the troops wouldn't actually stand on the highway or hinder traffic, that they'd just stand off to the side. I managed somehow to have a look at the maps, and it's clearly marked at Shavshvebi and Agara that the buffer zone crosses the highway. So this is what they have on their maps.
August 21 -- 10:15 p.m. local time (6:15 p.m. GMT)
It's another unusually quiet evening in Gori. People have gone home already. Russian checkpoints remain in place. Everyone is waiting for tomorrow. General Borisov has promised that all Russian soldiers will leave Gori by tomorrow evening. As for their complete withdrawal from the region -- this, Borisov says, will take approximately five days, or even a week, as a lot of heavy machinery and forces remain stationed in villages around Gori.
I saw something very important today -- photos of military bases that used to station Georgian forces prior to this war. The artillery brigade base, for instance. Someone with an excellent camera and impressive zooming capabilities managed to photograph what these places look like now. There are explosives everywhere – even wrapped around the walls. The buildings are mined, and it is perfectly possible to imagine that once the Russians have left, these bases will be blown up.
Again, I'm mostly talking about the artillery brigade base now because, as you are aware, the tank brigade base has already been bombed several times. First, it was bombed by air, and then the Russians planted explosives there and then detonated them. All of this is part of their efforts to destroy Georgian military infrastructure.
On a different note, I want to say that the situation in Gori is returning to normal. The television station, which operates thanks to a transmitter that was brought into Gori a couple of days ago, runs information about grocery stores and different services that function in town. Hospitals and pharmacies have opened, and the ambulance is working. They say public transport is going to resume operation tomorrow. The town has water and electricity now; natural gas remains cut off, due to reasons which I have explained in my previous entries.
So, yes, things are gradually returning to normal.
Bakeries have opened throughout the town -- two of them even gave out bread for free. These two bakeries are supplied with free flour by the government, so that they are able to help the poor. In other bakeries, where bread is sold normally, prices have not increased.
The town still largely lives off the humanitarian aid packages that are being distributed. The content of the packages varies from day to day -- they include oil, grains, pasta, salt, potatoes, eggplant, onions, beans, peas, and tomatoes. Gori residents also receive hygiene products -- soap, and so on. Baby food and diapers were also available. People who work in the local administration were the ones who sorted out and distributed the aid. Mobile groups were set up to take the packages to the disabled and the elderly, as they were unable to come and pick them up themselves.
The number of people who are returning to Gori visibly increases every day. Today, around 7 p.m. to 8 p.m., the streets of Gori were full of people again. People keep calling us and inquiring about the safest and easiest routes for getting into Gori. They want to know which roads have the least number of checkpoints so that they experience minimum hassle when coming back.
I know that many more Gori residents are planning to return tomorrow. So for now, the most important thing is for the police forces to come to town, once the Russians are gone -- and, once again, they should be gone by tomorrow this time.
Today, I saw several children on the streets of Gori for the first time in a long time. They had obviously recently returned to the city. Some were playing, others were riding bicycles. It felt very nice to watch them play, to hear their cheerful voices.
I really miss my own kids. I hope it will be possible to bring them back home to Gori soon.
August 21 -- 5 p.m. local time (1 p.m. GMT)
I'm in the courtyard of the hospital where many of the 63 Georgians who were part of today's swap are being treated.
The Georgian side has revised down the number of "fighters" that were actually handed over to five -- the other three are expected to be released tomorrow, for whatever reason. A Georgian regional police chief, Vladimer Jugeli, is here and is talking to the Ossetians as we speak. They're discussing nearly 100 more Georgians being held by the Ossetian side, which is being represented by the South Ossetian ombudsman, David Sanakoyev, and hopefully they'll be handed over tomorrow.
Sanakoyev tells me that they are asking the Georgian side to release 14 people who are in Georgian prisons on the basis of sentences handed down prior to the outbreak of this conflict this month. Those prisoners were sentenced under Georgian law for crimes that include conspiracy to commit terrorism, kidnapping (Marek Dudaev, a notorious Ossetian criminal is among them), and counterfeiting (of U.S. dollars). Givi Targamadze, the chairman of the Georgian parliament's Defense and Security Committee who has been in Gori today, tells me that "the possibility of releasing hard criminals who were sentenced for grave crimes" is "out of the question." But, he says, for the others a solution will probably be found.
About five minutes ago, I spoke with Major General Borisov and he was quite candid. (He smelled of alcohol, which I suspect had something to do with his candor.) "Russia is a superpower that will not allow anyone to intimidate it," he told me, and added, "Let the Americans try to arm you again, and we'll see what happens to them."
An OSCE delegation headed by Terhi Hakkala visited Gori today. I spoke to her, and she was quite shocked by what she saw in the region; and she was very upset that the cease-fire agreement is not being fulfilled. She expressed concern at seeing Russian troops still in Gori and told me that Borisov promised her that Russian troops will leave tomorrow.
I also met an Ossetian woman, Marina Khutsistova, who has spent the entire time since this conflict broke out living with her son's godmother, an Ossetian who lives here in Gori. I met her while she was receiving humanitarian aid at one of the distribution centers. She told me that she'd been treated very warmly by all the neighbors that she'd met. She left today for her home in Tskhinvali, where she promised to tell everyone that the ordinary people of Gori have nothing against Ossetians.
August 21 -- around 2:30 p.m. local time (10:30 a.m. GMT)
After I'd posed a few questions to Russian Major General Borisov about topics that included the detention of the French ambassador, he stopped me in mid-sentence: "I'm supposed to go release him, and you're keeping me here with your questions." With that, I let him go, of course. He went in the direction of Khashuri, and Ambassador Alain Fournier was released soon afterward. The ambassador went directly to Tbilisi without stopping in Gori.
August 21 -- around 12:30 p.m. local time (8:30 a.m. GMT)
Major General Borisov is back.
He just turned up at Gori's main square. He says he's "back to restore order" in Gori. "My bosses told me, 'Go back, because everything is paralyzed.' "
Then he leaves in the direction of the village of Khashuri, where Russian troops have apparently detained French Ambassador Alain Fournier. Governor Vardzelashvili says the ambassador was detained on his way back after accompanying an aid shipment to Sachkhere, in western Georgia. My French journalist colleagues are confirming that version.
Meanwhile, Lomaia's negotiations -- which, it turns out, included at least one official from South Ossetia -- were successful, and 63 civilians were handed over today in exchange for eight "fighters" captured during the early stages of the conflict, one of whom is said to be seriously wounded; some or all of the Georgians have been admitted to Gori's hospital. (Editor's note: The identities of the captive "fighters" has been unclear, although the suggestion has been that they are Ossetians; the circumstances of the detention of the Georgians also remain unclear.)
August 21 -- around noon local time (8 a.m. GMT)
Firstly, I'd like to debunk Russian news agency reports this morning that 40 pieces of hardware (armored vehicles, etc.) had left Gori. Around 10 minutes ago, I spoke to regional Governor Vardzelashvili, who says there have been no changes since last night. Reestablished checkpoints are still up, and troops are still in Gori.
At this very moment, Lomaia is at the checkpoint at the entrance to the town, where he's holding talks with the Russian side about a possible exchange involving seven Russian soldiers (ed's note: this was subsequently revised to eight "fighters," presumably Ossetian and one seriously injured) and 63 Georgians.
Meanwhile, there are two French TV crews here, and one "Le Monde" journalist, plus a Japanese journalist. About eight in all, as far as I know. As for Georgians, it's only one journalist from the Georgian public broadcaster (GPB).
August 21 -- 9 a.m. local time (5 a.m. GMT)
Compared with the previous night, when there was a lot of activity all night, last night was much quieter. Just a lot of noise around 3 a.m., when we heard the roar of the military vehicles' engines. And there were no explosions, like the night before.
The checkpoints that were reestablished late yesterday -- including in town -- are still operating. I should note, though, that the number of soldiers manning those checkpoints is down.
National Security Council Secretary Aleksandre Lomaia and regional Governor Vladimer Vardzelashvili spent nearly the whole night patrolling the town in their own cars. From time to time, they stopped at checkpoints to speak to the Russians.
It had gotten so that I could recognize most of the Russian soldiers' faces, and I knew when there were troop rotations and so on. So I can say with near certainty that all of those troops who arrived yesterday -- a few hours after what first looked like a pullout -- were new to Gori. After the local authorities contacted them, they said most of them are ethnic Chechens -- Russian army regulars, of course, but Chechen units; they claim they're just here to protect the town.
I was particularly interested in finding out who was commanding the Russian forces since Major General Vyacheslav Borisov -- who liked to refer to himself as the "Commander of Gori" -- announced he was leaving the region and disappeared.
Lomaia and Vardzelashvili wanted to know, too, and repeatedly asked the Russians whose orders they were following; the troops never gave an answer. Someone named Karpachenko was said to be his replacement, but quite a number of incidents -- like when Lomaia was prevented from accompanying some humanitarian aid -- happened soon after Borisov had left. And then even contact with Karpachenko was lost.
At one point, a junior officer ("Tatayev") told Lomaia and Vardzelashvili that he had no permission to say who was in charge so the Georgian National Security Council secretary and the Gori governor should simply come to him with any problems.
In the end, they didn't find out who was in charge.
August 20 -- 11:30 p.m. local time (7:30 p.m. GMT)
It's true, the Russians are back.
The checkpoint at the Mtkvari bridge has been restored, and some 40 soldiers are stationed there; the one at the Liakhvi River is also back, with its two armored vehicles. A third, toward the Gori-Tbilisi highway, is also back up, and houses 40 servicemen. Russian soldiers keep driving up and down the streets of Gori in their Willy-type jeeps.
Representatives of Georgian authorities -- National Security Council Secretary Aleksandre Lomaia, regional Governor Vladimer Vardzelashvili, and others -- are standing in front of the administration building and watching the Russian forces' movements. It's still unclear who is in charge of these forces. We know that after Major General Vyacheslav Borisov left, a certain Aleksandr Kolpachenko was supposed to take over from him. But it has been impossible to verify whether that's true -- moreover, the Georgian authorities have been unable to establish any kind of contact with that purported new commander. When asked, the Russian soldiers refuse to provide any information about who's in command.
Obviously, people are very curious to know why the Russians left Gori, only to return a couple of hours later. When I spoke to Lomaia, he offered his own version of what happened. He thinks the Russians wanted to repeat what they did in Poti yesterday. There, we understand, the Georgian side was deeply concerned about the port being left unprotected, so the huge amount of goods that is stored there -- some destined for Georgia, some for Armenia, some for transit to Central Asian countries -- was left out in the open. According to Lomaia, Georgians asked the Russian forces to allow for some sort of protection, and the sides agreed to let 20 Georgian police officers go in and start guarding the port. But once those officers actually entered the port, they were followed by Russian armored vehicles. The police officers were arrested, disarmed, and taken to Senaki. Negotiations for their release were continuing until this evening. (Lomaia wasn't aware whether any agreement had been reached yet.)
Tonight, the National Security Council secretary is convinced that the same trick was planned for Gori. When the Russians took down their last checkpoint inside Gori at 7 p.m. tonight, Lomaia says they expected the Georgian authorities to bring in police forces. And had that really happened, Lomaia thinks, those police forces would have shared the fate of their colleagues in Poti -- i.e., the Russians would have returned to town and disarmed and detained them. Lomaia thinks the Russians would have claimed that some kind of provocation was being planned against them by those armed police officers, or that they were armed groups posing as police officers, and so on. The result would be to prolong their withdrawal and "justify" a Russian presence in Gori.
It's possible that such a scenario was being planned -- the Russian side has been busily referring to some kind of "provocation" that Georgians are allegedly planning. So the situation is pretty unpredictable.
The journalists will go home now, as there's no need to stay vigilant in an effort to protect the town from potential looters. Some people are even saying that, despite everything, to some extent it's actually good that the Russian soldiers are here overnight, because now they are directly responsible for Gori's safety.
I'll be heading home now, too, along with two French journalists I've offered to let stay at my place overnight. Other Gori natives will be taking in other guests for the night. Like I said in my previous entry, Gori is virtually empty; everyone's at home. People might have gotten a bit scared at the sound of tanks and armored vehicles rolling back into Gori, but hopefully most of them managed to go back to sleep.
Everyone is exhausted. Someone even told me that one group of Russian soldiers discovered a pile of tires next to their checkpoint and went to sleep there. Another long and difficult day looms.
August 20 -- 9:30 p.m. local time (5:30 p.m. GMT)
The Russian Army checkpoints that were set up inside Gori are gone. They have retained their checkpoints at all entrances and exits of the town-- as well as on the central highway -- but the center of the town is now free of them.
Major General Borisov has also left Gori. I found out that he called Governor Vardzelashvili on the phone, and told him he was leaving. Some other general is going to take over and be in charge, apparently. I don't know his name yet, but will find out soon.
But this coming night might actually turn out to be a difficult one. It looks like we will stay awake until dawn. It has to be said that the Russian forces remain responsible for everything that might happen here -- like I said, they are still stationed at the entries to the town, and looters can't just fall from the sky, they will have to come in somehow.
The administration has set up a hotline for people to call in case of trouble. Swift action is promised -- but in the absence of police, it's going to be members of the administration and us journalists who will actually take that action. Unarmed people will confront armed groups -- if they indeed come to loot, that is.
The streets are virtually empty, people are staying in their homes. They have become used to the curfew, and even though it is really unclear whether technically it is still in force, they still go home at 8 p.m.
Oh, wait. I have breaking news: Just as I was about to finish this entry, someone called me and said the Russians were back inside Gori, and had restored their checkpoint at the bridge over the Mtkvari River. This seemed hard to believe, but then I heard the unmistakable sound of their armored vehicles rolling in. As you can see, things keep changing every hour in Gori. I'll find out as much as I can for my next entry.
August 20 -- 5 p.m. local time (1 p.m. GMT)
A number of rapid developments. First, Russians prevented Georgian National Security Council Secretary Aleksandre Lomaia and international journalists from entering the village of Karaleti -- no one knows why. They allowed humanitarian aid to go in, but Lomaia and the journalists were asked to turn around and go back.
One of the most important events was a visit by a Council of Europe delegation headed by PACE Monitoring Committee co-rapporteur Matyas Eorsi. The delegation met with Gori Governor Vardzelashvili, who told them about the situation in Gori. He told them everything -- stories of how Russian soldiers walk around drunk, how they disturb people, knocking on doors and asking for alcohol.
After the meeting, Eorsi left to see buildings that had been bombed by Russian forces. He saw burned-out houses and bombed buildings. One bomb had fallen in the yard of a kindergarten. Eorsi also saw places devastated by looters -- two banks among them -- and stressed that under the Geneva Convention, the occupying power is accountable for every crime that is committed during the occupation -- so, Eorsi said, Russia is to be held responsible for everything that went wrong here.
Eorsi also indicated that at some point, people will be ready to discuss what happened in Tskhinvali. But right now, he said, Russia must provide an explanation of what their soldiers have been doing in Gori, as well as on the highway that connects Gori to Tbilisi, and why they have not let Georgians return to their homes.
Governor Vardzelashvili also informed Eorsi that during today's morning meeting with Major General Borisov, the Russian commander presented a map that depicted around 50 Georgian villages near Gori, north of the central highway, as being under Russian control. I also saw that map briefly. Vardzelashvili says there are some black lines drawn on that map, and it looks like the Russians are trying to ensure control of parts of the central highway, as far as the villages of Agara and Shavshebi.
The Russians evoke the 1992 agreement that, they say, defined the "conflict zone" in such a way that it extended all the way up to those two villages. Like I said, the map leaves Gori, as well as one part of the central highway, out of the "conflict zone," but the Russians appear to want to establish control near Agara and Shavshvebi. The Georgian side maintains that the lines must be drawn according to the status of August 6, 2008, and that the Russians must return to their positions on that day. Nothing is clear yet, so we'll see how far south the Russians are able to extend their zone of control.
Some checkpoints appear to be truly gone, though -- the one at the Liakhvi bridge was taken down in the morning and troops haven't returned since then; two checkpoints have been removed in Gori, too.
But on the Igoeti-Gori and Gori-Khashuri segments of the highway, checkpoints remain, making it impossible for Georgian police to enter Gori.
This is actually a very big problem. Because if police haven't returned yet and, at the same time, Russian checkpoints are removed in Gori, then the Tskhinvali-Gori highway is left wide open -- and paramilitaries and looters from South Ossetia would have a clear line into Gori. There are no law enforcement officers in Gori. Governor Vardzelashvili even noted that it is us -- ordinary citizens -- who have become unarmed police officers.
Matyas Eorsi has been informed about that potential danger. But he has already left Gori.
August 20 -- 3:30 p.m. local time (11:30 a.m. GMT)
We've now got the details of an incident this afternoon that highlights obstacles to the smooth delivery of aid, as well as the raw nerves over what looks like Russian foot-dragging.
Governor Vardzelashvili was called in after Russian troops at one of the checkpoints between here and Tskhinvali halted an aid shipment. When he arrived and demanded that they allow the supplies to go through, the exchange got pretty heated. The Russians then placed Vardzelashvili in detention, accusing him of using inflammatory language. It took a phone call to Major General Borisov to get the governor released, about half an hour later.
Otherwise, we're hearing that seven of the 15 earlier checkpoints are left. But one thing we know for sure is that the Gori section of Georgia's main east-west highway remains closed. And journalists certainly face major problems trying to get to Gori.
August 20 -- 1:30 p.m. local time (9:30 a.m. GMT)
A few minutes ago, Gori regional Governor Vladimer Vardzelashvili concluded a meeting with humanitarian aid organizers, including representatives of the UN World Food Program. The group also included German and Norwegian delegations, German Ambassador Patricia Flor among them. The governor briefed them on the situation in Gori.
The visitors ended up splitting up into smaller groups in order to cover as much of the city as possible -- observing and noting the damage, including figuring out how much of the city has been left uninhabitable by bombing, looting, or other destruction.
Here's some of what Ambassador Flor said: "What I saw here confirms that this war is a terrible catastrophe for Georgia, especially for regions that were directly affected, like Gori. And for Germany, the main task is now to help the victims. We've already transferred 2 million euros to the UNHCR and the Red Cross, so that it's possible to deliver food, medical supplies, and toiletries and water canisters, and so on. I'm accompanied here by a delegation that's arrived from Germany, because we've already started to think about the next phase. A lot of houses have been demolished. Many others are damaged. And so it's necessary to restore those buildings as soon as possible, so the residents can return and spend a normal winter there."
Governor Vardzelashvili says there are four grocery stores open in Gori, and four bakeries operating. Banks aren't open yet, so people have no access to bank accounts.
Some humanitarian problems have also reappeared, with some villages still cut off.
In one village on the way to Tskhinvali, called Tirdznisi, Russians were not only blocking aid deliveries but also checking IDs. Anyone without papers was taken to the military command post -- they're said to have detained a U.S. national. In response to that roundup, Governor Vardzelashvili contacted Major General Borisov and asked that those people be released.
More recently, the governor says Russian troops entered the village of Samtavisi, which is several kilometers from Igoeti, and started ordering people to evacuate the village. There was reportedly some panic, and Vardzelashvili has informed those UN visitors of that incident.
The general mood in Gori is that people seem more optimistic than yesterday, with the number of troops and vehicles decreasing.
What's perhaps most important now is to determine what Borisov means when he refers to "security zones," where he said Russian forces are "dealing with equipment. It's important for residents, first of all, to see Russian forces depart the town itself. But it's maybe more important that the main highway connecting eastern Georgia with western Georgia -- which runs through Ingoeti and Gori -- be unblocked. The fact that it's blocked is obviously paralyzing the country and damaging the economy.
August 20 -- 9 a.m. local time (5 a.m. GMT)
I have good news to report. Almost all night in Gori, you could hear the movement of heavy machinery. Just about five minutes ago, when I spoke with Gori regional Governor Vladimer Vardzelashvili, he confirmed that Russian armored vehicles and tanks are leaving the town -- although it's too early to say that they're pulling out completely.
In southern Gori, at a checkpoint that was established at the bridge over the Mtkvari River, the Russian forces dismantled the checkpoint and left the area. The same thing happened in western Gori, at the bridge over the Liakhvi River -- it was dismantled as well. From there, those Russian troops left in the direction of Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, to the north.
So for the moment, there are still two checkpoints in place -- at the northern entrance to the city, which leads to Igoeti, 12 kilometers away.
I can say that last night was the noisiest night since the bombing ended. Aside from the vehicles moving, you could hear fire from automatic weapons, and patrolling was intensified. They were patrolling in vehicles as well as on foot. I suppose they might have been trying to secure their flanks.
As I said last night, you could also hear quite a few explosions. Governor Vardzelashvili says they were blowing up the artillery brigade base outside Gori, which is near a highway exit in the direction of Tskhinvali. They also confirmed the destruction of a base in Osiauri. And the Russians seemed to be leaving Khashuri, the town nearest to Osiauri, as well.
The distribution of humanitarian aid is becoming increasingly organized. Three more distribution centers have been added, beyond those seven that were set up a couple of days ago. And aid is now being disbursed by neighborhood, so those areas get the proper amount.
Residents here are very happy to be receiving the Georgian-language programming from the makeshift broadcaster that I mentioned yesterday. It looks like someone smuggled in a transmitter and is broadcasting from an apartment somewhere. It's mostly showing Rustavi-2, the Georgian state broadcaster, but every three hours it's interrupting that programming to broadcast special updates and information for the people of Gori.
The first thing that was broadcast on that makeshift channel was a message from the bishop of Gori-Samtavisi, Father Andria. He urged people to stay calm, to be patient in this difficult time. Governor Vardzelashvili also urged the public to be patient, organized, and calm. He said it was just a matter of hours until the Russian military leaves Gori.
Unfortunately that TV transmitter isn't strong enough to reach surrounding villages, but the broadcasts are accessible in most of Gori itself. But now, since the routes to those villages are no longer blocked -- as they were in recent days -- information is reaching those villagers. People are getting the word out.
August 20 -- between 8 and 9 a.m. local time (4-5 a.m. GMT)
First thing this morning, I caught up with the Russian commander of forces in the area, Major General Vyacheslav Borisov, together with Gori Governor Vladimer Vardzelashvili for a quick joint interview. The exchange speaks for itself:
RFE/RL: How is the situation?
Borisov: Brilliant. We are working toward restoring the town's entire infrastructure.
RFE/RL: When are you leaving?
Borisov: In the coming days. We've already announced it: August 22. We are dealing with equipment in the security zones. We already started leaving -- a long time ago. Those [forces] in Tskhinvali, they're already going back. We [forces in the Gori area] entered first, so we have to be last to go. We've abolished quite a few checkpoints. I'm not at liberty to reveal this information.
RFE/RL: What about looting by soldiers?
Borisov: I was the first to enter this city, and half of the shops here were already looted and robbed -- by Georgians themselves. I even met one shopkeeper who said he'd been beaten and his shopped looted. Do you believe me, or not? I entered first.
RFE/RL: That was my last question. Thank you.
Borisov: We've already delivered 90 tons of humanitarian aid, food -- and we were even giving people our rations.
RFE/RL: [Addressing Governor Vardzelashvili] What's your attitude toward this general? Do you trust him?
Vardzelashvili: You know, some of the promises he makes, he indeed keeps. But the main promise has not been kept. Today he told me that the 22nd [of August] will be the last day that they'll see him here. And he says he has to maintain seven checkpoints that -- he says -- are necessary for security reasons....
Borisov says that, according to the document signed by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, "we need to return to the positions held prior to August 6." That means that all Georgian towns of South Ossetia that were controlled by Tbilisi prior to hostilities must be returned to Tbilisi's control: Tamarasheni, Kurta, Eredvi, Avnevi, Nuli, and all the others have to come under Georgian jurisdiction.
RFE/RL: Can you comment on Borisov's statement that there's no looting by Russian soldiers?
Vardzelashvili: How can Borisov know? There are hundreds of soldiers all around here, moving freely. And, for instance, yesterday we found three armed soldiers who'd lost their way and didn't know where they were. This is in their tradition. When they drink, neither Borisov nor God himself can control them.
August 19 -- midnight local time (8 p.m. GMT)
Some explosions rang out about two hours ago. I spoke with regional Governor Vladimer Vardzelashvili, and he told me that Russian forces were blowing up the base of a Georgian artillery brigade near the Gori exit on the highway. We also know that they're blowing up a military base at Osiauri. None of that should be mistaken for bombardment, though; the Russians are just destroying military infrastructure. Those facilities are located pretty far from populated areas, so the explosions shouldn’t pose any threat to civilians.
Also around 10 p.m., some heavy armored vehicles were seen traveling on the streets of Gori. It’s become a pretty familiar routine – the trucks and armored vehicles make their rounds, then they’re followed by the foot patrols.
Then intense shooting erupted about 15 minutes ago. That’s around the time the Russian foot patrols generally begin – with the streets under curfew. I can’t say who was firing or why – the gunfire seemed pretty chaotic.
A couple of hours ago, I spoke with Georgian National Security Council Secretary Aleksandre Lomaia as he emerged from a closed-door meeting with local authorities. Lomaia said residents are in constant fear of attacks from looters and under constant stress because of the presence of the Russian Army.
What's more, due to the damage to the TV tower, they've been in an information vacuum, unable to use mobile phones; that’s contributed further to a deterioration of morale. Lomaia said he was glad some television broadcasting had been made available, calling it one of the day’s "very important events." (More on that in a minute.)
Lomaia said he keeps in regular touch with Russian Major General Borisov, and that the timing of Russian forces' withdrawal remains unclear. During the first half of the day, when the POWs were exchanged, Borisov had told him that their withdrawal would come in a "matter of hours." But nothing happened.
Borisov has also indicated to Lomaia that once any withdrawal starts, forces stationed in and around Gori will be the first to go. But Lomaia noted that Borisov is obviously not the one ultimately making the decisions.
This evening, as humanitarian aid groups were exiting the town around 8 p.m., a friend of mine was also leaving for the capital, Tbilisi, following Red Cross vehicles. At one of the Russian checkpoints, he saw Red Cross workers being told they had to leave Gori before 7:30 p.m. every evening -- that otherwise they wouldn’t be allowed to leave town. So it looks like the curfew has gotten stricter, in place by 8 p.m. Yesterday evening was more relaxed, the restrictions started at 10.
August 19 -- 9 p.m. local time (5 p.m. GMT)
The situation inside Gori is largely the same as before. Russian soldiers and their vehicles remain at their posts. As I've been reporting, there are checkpoints set up at Gori's entrance and exit, as well as at crossroads and bridges.
But this cannot be said about Gori. On the contrary, here they keep moving around with armored vehicles and keep patrolling the streets. So yes, there has been some movement, but we cannot call this withdrawal, for they still remain in Gori.
I also spoke today with Giorgi Baramidze, the state minister for Euro-Atlantic integration, who kept stressing that right now, we should believe what we see with our own eyes. The Russian Army moves from place to place, but this should not fool anyone. A pullout cannot go unnoticed, he said, but for now the Russians are not even considering it.
Baramidze also talked about the terrible things that have been going on, as he put it, "because of the Russian occupation" -- killings, rapes, kidnapping, looting. He said all of this is still continuing. He also mentioned the group of civilians, some of them women, who have been captured by the other side, and are being kept in awful conditions, forced to work like slaves. It is heartbreaking to listen to such things.
On a different note, I also want to mention something that I found out some time ago -- it turns out that last night, somehow, some people managed to bring in a small TV transmitter to Gori, and it became possible to broadcast Rustavi-2 in town. I even spoke with the man who was in charge of this. He did not specify exactly how the transmitter was brought in, saying that it was a gift to Gori residents to somehow counter the information vacuum they have been in. So now it will be possible to watch at least one Georgian television channel. And this is good news.
August 19 -- 6:30 p.m. local time (2:30 p.m. GMT)
An hour or so ago, in the center of town, there was the movement of those two armored vehicles I mentioned in my last entry. And of course a Reuters report suggesting a movement might be imminent.
I asked Gori regional administration head Vladimer Vardzelashvili directly whether or not there were signs of a pullout. He told me that there were indeed some movements on the outskirts of town, and that some Russian heavy equipment is moving toward the mountains (not in the direction of Tbilisi). He also said the number of Russian troops in the city is decreasing. But he added that all the checkpoints inside the city are still in operation; armored vehicles are also still in place.
In fact, for some time, they've been driving around on patrols every two or three hours and then returning to their positions.
For residents of Gori, one of the big differences today has been that, two days ago or even yesterday, one was likely to be searched for whatever reason by Russian soldiers. That's not the case today. No such searches. You might be asked for identification or documents at one of the checkpoints -- and of course that is intimidating and takes a toll on nerves -- but it's no longer any problem to move around within the city.
And it appears that humanitarian aid corridors have been established to some of the areas well outside Gori. I've received word from Tkviavi -- a bombed village that hadn't been accessible -- that the residents there are getting humanitarian aid, as well as medical supplies and assistance. And those residents who were in particularly poor condition were evacuated to Gori's hospital.
There was another instance of local residents being robbed by a car -- with Russian plates -- that hadn't been seen before: a Lada. Two people inside that car were armed, and they stopped to rob several groups of residents in different parts of the city. Local officials were informed by a citizen, and the local representatives went to complain to the Russian officers. The Russian officers came to the local administration building and promised Governor Vardzelashvili that they'd do everything they could to prevent such incidents. (One local official told me that one of the perpetrators was a Russian Army enlisted man of Chechen origin with an automatic weapon, but that's something I most certainly can't confirm.
August 19 -- 5 p.m. local time (1 p.m. GMT)
Two armored vehicles are driving in the center of town around with soldiers in them. Otherwise, I'd describe the situation as relatively "normal." A few minutes ago, they were in front of the local administrative building (where I took this picture). But they refused to talk to journalists.
They drove on, making another circle around downtown, and then they parked at one of the checkpoints. I just saw a Reuters report of signs of a Russian pullout, but what I'm seeing is that all checkpoints are still in place on the main intersection. And, moreover, no new journalists have been in since those reporters escorted by Russian special forces came and left -- which seems to me an indicator that the checkpoint at the entrance to the city is still in place. So I'm pretty certain that all routes into town are still blocked.
August 19 -- 3:30 p.m. local time (11:30 a.m. GMT)
I've visited some of the shops that finally reopened. In the center, the prices are not much higher than before the war broke out. But in the outlying parts of town, a friend says prices are high of goods like cigarettes.
There has been no change at the checkpoints.
Humanitarian aid has just arrived from the UN World Food Program. WFP workers are accompanied by representatives of the European Commission. They've brought two huge KamAZ trucks full of aid to Gori. After consulting with the local administration, the decision was made to send those trucks to Bojuri valley, to the villages of Bobnevi and Bojuri, where most Gori residents sought refuge.
About a half-hour ago, I saw three minivans with foreign journalists arriving -- apparently Western and Russian journalists. They were accompanied by the Russian special forces servicemen. They took pictures, talked to the locals. The most frequent question I've heard those journalists asking locals is: How are the Russian soldiers behaving in Gori?
The residents have been sharing stories of looting incidents. Everyone recalled the looting of the TBC bank office a few days ago.
August 19 -- 1 p.m. local time (9 a.m. GMT)
The situation is the town is relatively stable. Russian soldiers remain at their posts. The soldiers I mentioned earlier -- the ones who entered Gori's regional administration building -- have left, accompanying humanitarian aid, which at the moment is moving in the direction of Tkviavi village. As I mentioned at the time, it was impossible yesterday to deliver supplies to that village, since the Russian side had not opened any aid corridor.
Ambulances have also left for those villages. And I've learned that local doctors are to deliver medication and treat people there. Several Georgian members of parliament are also here, and are also traveling to the villages -- taking part in aid distribution. I really can't say that tension is on the increase here. Aid distribution has become more organized; people know where to go to pick up their allotments.
Russian soldiers remain at their posts. Russian commander Borisov was here some time ago, together with National Security Council Secretary Aleksandre Lomaia. They had a brief meeting, at which those Russian soldiers were assigned to accompany aid distribution.
Several of Gori's shops have opened, although prices are quite high in some of them. The town's market has not started to function yet. Bread is being baked; there are water and electricity supplies. Natural gas remains cut off because, as far as we are aware, the main pipeline is located near the apartment blocks at the entrance of Gori that were bombed and it is still dangerous to pipe gas through that line -- so the Georgian authorities have decided to keep it off for now.
One cable television station has started to operate again, and a limited number of people receive Georgian Rustavi-2 and Ajara TV. But on the whole, most of Gori's residents are still largely relegated to watching Russian state channel Rossia.
August 19 -- around noon local time (8 a.m. GMT)
A short while ago, while I was visiting Gori's local administration building, I witnessed Russian soldiers entering the building and causing quite a commotion. I had a chance to talk to one of those soldiers -- he had an automatic weapon in front of him -- and he told me that they were here to accompany humanitarian aid. There's no humanitarian aid stored in that building, of course.
But the soldiers are sitting in front of me now on the steps of the building, where they sat down -- one, two, three, four of them. And they're armed to the teeth. They have a heavy machine gun with them; one even has a grenade launcher. And I was just told that -- apart from these four -- three or four other Russian troops have already gone up to the third floor, where Gori region Governor Vladimer Vardzelashvili's office is.
Just a few minutes ago, Major General Vyacheslav Borisov, the man in charge of Russian troops in this area, was here, and I don't know what humanitarian aid they're supposed to be accompanying. There's no humanitarian aid in this building.
When I spoke with Major General Borisov -- shortly before the prisoner exchange in Igoeti -- I asked him when his troops would withdraw. His answer was simply, "I can say only one thing -- that we have taken a huge step forward." He was presumably talking about the prisoner exchange, which he said he facilitated for the Russian side.
When I asked him again when the Russian soldiers would pull out, he said: "I don't know. Honestly, I don't know yet. But soon."
August 19 -- 9:15 a.m. local time (5:15 a.m. GMT)
The night was more or less quiet, if you disregard several minutes in which there was a movement of heavy military vehicles (more on that in a minute). But Russian troops are still present and manning the checkpoints.
At the moment, I'm not hearing reports of looting or other serious incidents. Georgian National Security Council Secretary Aleksandre Lomaia is said to be in constant contact with Major General Vyacheslav Borisov, the commander of Russian troops around Gori. I should note that Georgian police still are not allowed to operate in the city, so Gori, for all intents and purposes, remains completely under the control of the Russian military.
I've witnessed Russian soldiers approaching local residents and asking them if they could spare fruit or any other food. It seems to me that the appearance and demeanor of those troops is less menacing or aggressive than in previous days. I've seen locals -- a number of times and on their own initiative -- offering food, cigarettes, or some of Gori's famous apples to Russian troops.
Overnight, around 2 a.m., flares went up from Russian checkpoints -- I suppose they were an effort to signal their fellow Russian units. And 10 minutes later, the hardware started to move. Those military vehicles moved around for a bit before stopping again. Around 3 a.m., there were some Russian foot patrols -- small groups of Russian soldiers -- apparently almost exclusively in the center of the town. According to residents, there were no patrols on the outskirts of Gori.
Municipal workers are again cleaning the streets, and Tbilisi apparently sent additional workers to help with that cleanup. Experts are expected to arrive soon to take water samples in an effort to determine whether water supplies are safe.
August 18 -- 11:30 p.m. local time (7:30 p.m. GMT)
It's nearing midnight and I've just arrived home. No one stopped me on the street to check my documents despite the curfew. The town is very quiet now.
Typically in the past week, Russian soldiers conduct their foot patrols at 2 a.m. They haven't appeared yet, and are quietly stationed at their posts.
I'm writing this on the balcony of my apartment. The town has electricity, but when I look outside, only a few windows are lit; residents are still afraid to leave lights on at night. There are no Georgian channels on television -- the channel that used to host Rustavi 2 now runs the Russian channel, Rossia. I guess the signal is coming from the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali. So right now, Rossia is the only TV channel that Gori residents can watch. Ideological warfare, I guess.
Everything is quiet in Gori, during yet another night in this extraordinarily difficult week. We'll see what tomorrow brings...
August 18 -- 10:15 p.m. local time (6:15 p.m. GMT)
I'm still in front of the local administration building; there are a lot of people here, even though the curfew technically came into effect 15 minutes ago. Representatives of the government are here, including the Georgian presidential representative in the region, Lado Vardzelashvili, and Gori's bishop.
Just a moment ago, Georgian National Security Council Secretary Aleksandre Lomaia also arrived. I spoke to him briefly, and he told me that the Russian army units have remained at all of their posts -- what's more, it turns out that they have opened another post on the outskirts of Gori. There are no signs of the Russian forces leaving yet, Lomaia said, calling that a gross violation of the EU-brokered agreement.
I also asked Lomaia whether the Georgian government had tried to get any clarification from the Russians. His answer was that they had been in touch with Major General Vyacheslav Borisov (who commands Russian troops around Gori) but that Borisov had avoided answering their questions directly. Lomaia stressed that -- despite all of the pledges from the Russian side that the troops were going to pull out today -- they have not left Gori or its surroundings, from approximately 40 kilometers west and east of Gori.
I asked Lomaia to speculate about why the Russian side appeared to be prolonging its withdrawal. Lomaia's answer was that they were continuing to destroy Georgian military infrastructure and block the roads (the railway is blown up, the highway is blocked) and each hour that the Russians spend here increases Georgia's economic loss.
In other words, Lomaia argued that there are two main reasons the Russians are dragging out their withdrawal: 1) they want to bring maximum damage to Georgia's military infrastructure; and 2) they want to inflict the maximum loss on Georgia's economy. Lomaia vowed that, while significant, such losses are nevertheless reversible and he predicted that Georgia would start rebuilding as soon as "Russia's occupying forces" left the country.
But for now, National Security Council Secretary Lomaia stressed that ensuring a Russian pullout is of primary importance.
August 18 -- 8:35 p.m. local time (4 p.m. GMT)
At the moment, we are standing near a checkpoint in a Gori neighborhood about 500 meters from the Stalin museum in the center of the city. The street has been sealed off by an armored vehicle and Russian forces are checking every single car that wants to pass. This checkpoint is located next to an abandoned Georgian tank unit, some 500 meters from Gori's center. I've seen many minivans with Russian license plates going in and out of the tank unit; no one knows what they're doing in there. I managed to stay here by chance, because of a curious incident that appears to be threatening residents in one part of the city. So with the curfew about 1 1/2 hours away, Russians are telling us we have to stay here and can't go home.
Approximately 15 minutes ago, local residents noticed a Russian soldier on a small street in the center of Gori. The soldier appears to be very drunk and quite disturbed, is armed with a loaded machine gun, and is saying he wants to go home. He is just running around the streets, armed with an automatic weapon. People tried to talk to him, but he wouldn't let anyone approach, and is threatening to open fire. Representatives of the government, including the Georgian presidential representative in the region, Lado Vardzelashvili, tried to establish contact with him. But the soldier aimed his weapon at them before moving toward a cul-de-sac.
The soldier is alone, and is on foot. The area he's in is nowhere near any checkpoint. He says he keeps seeing snipers everywhere, and is telling people that he wants to live and to go home. He is also shouting out his name. Local authorities notified Russian officers stationed at one of the checkpoints, and Russian officers and local government authorities were apparently trying to subdue the man. One of the Russian officers has summoned a two-man explosives unit, so I suppose the soldier could also possess a hand grenade or other explosives.
The incident is not the first time that seemingly drunken soldiers have roamed the town at night. But previously they've traveled in small groups, and have appeared more eager to loot vacant shops than disturb the residents.
August 18 -- 7 p.m. local time (3 p.m. GMT)
There are three hours to go until the so-called curfew, which was announced by Russian General Borisov, so people are going home. People have calmed down some since the initial chaos that accompanied the arrival of the international and Georgian aid shipments early today. I'm standing in the center of Gori, where people look like they're heading home with bags of aid supplies.
Those soldiers were photographing Gori's statue of Stalin. (Ed's note: Gori is Josef Stalin's birthplace and a large statue and museum are devoted to Gori's most infamous son.)
In the midst of some minor movements of troops, some of the people here began to hope that maybe the Russians were beginning to pull out. But what happened is that those vehicles with Russian troops simply circled the town, as if they were patrolling, and then returned to their positions at checkpoints where they have been stationed for some time.
Georgian and other reporters are apparently being kept out. Only a Human Rights Watch (HRW) representative managed to get into Gori, took some photos and left. Right now, there are no more international journalists in Gori, as far as I can tell. The town is being deserted because -- due to Borisov's order command -- at 10 p.m. the curfew goes into effect.
August 18 -- around 4 p.m. local time (noon GMT)
Some 15-20 minutes ago, a lot of armed people wearing masks entered Gori. They appeared to be from a Russian special forces unit. Their cars were at the front and back of a convoy that included two buses. All of a sudden, once the buses stopped, Russian reporters stepped out -- at least some of them appeared to be from TV-Tsentr and TV-Zvezda. They approached representatives of the Georgian government -- in particular, they started talking with State Minister for Regional Issues Davit Tkeshelashvili. Then it emerged that Russia's Ministry for Emergency Situations, together with the armed forces, had brought so-called humanitarian aid into Gori.
They drove this aid to a spot near a church, and opened the doors of the truck, offering it to people. Some Gori residents were confused initially, and began to take some of it. But soon they became aware that the goods weren't part of any aid distributed by the Georgian government, so many of them didn't take anything, saying they didn't need anything from a country that had bombed them and then sent in such humanitarian aid.
We know that the journalists who came to Gori from Vladikavkaz and Tskhinvali, escorted by the Russian armed forces, taped some footage showing Gori residents taking some of the aid supplies.
Then those same reporters moved to Gori's central square -- near Stalin's statue -- and started asking representatives of the Georgian government why those representatives weren't helping people or distributing aid. Tkeshelashvili responded that the Georgian government is trying to deliver aid to Georgian villages through humanitarian corridors, but that Russian army units, stationed at checkpoints, have not been allowing them to do so. Tkeshelashvili said Georgians were in no need of humanitarian assistance from the Russian government -- and that if the corridors were reopened, the Georgian government would be able to help its people.
August 18 -- 2:45 p.m. local time (10:45 GMT)
There are no clear signs of any pullout, and a senior local official accuses Russian forces of reneging on a pledge to open a humanitarian corridor.
In fact, we've seen some movements by troops of the Russian Army contingent -- they've been moving in trucks in the streets of Gori -- but it is difficult to say what the aim of those movements is. And Russian troops are still manning the checkpoints, and they're still digging trenches.
The heavy armored cars and equipment keep moving, and of course the Russian forces are not telling anyone what they're doing. But the local administration thinks they're either patrolling the streets or -- another possibility -- that they might just be rotating checkpoints.
The UN mission has brought in humanitarian aid, and the local administration apparently has decided to try to send a truck carrying aid to Boshuri Valley, which has some internally displaced persons. It's still impossible to communicate with some villages from Gori.
I spoke with Gori administration head Vladimer Vardzelashvili, and he told me that the Russians aren't keeping their word about opening a humanitarian corridor. So the international humanitarian organizations and Tbilisi haven't been able to deliver aid to the village of Nikosi, for instance.
Vardzelashvili also says that in the villages around Gori, looting is continuing.
You can see people on the streets, and the distribution of humanitarian aid has been taken care of. That's a big difference from previous days, when it was total chaos. In one case, a bus delivering humanitarian aid to a village near Gori reportedly delivered those supplies and then, on the way back, carried up to 30 people who'd boarded the bus and returned with them to Gori. But the elderly apparently stayed behind.
We're still under what is basically an information blockade, brought on by last week's bombardments. The TV tower is still paralyzed, and we aren't receiving a single Georgian TV channel or radio station in Gori.
Locals continue to come to the local administration building in the center of town. They say -- among other things -- that Russian soldiers are offering to sell cigarettes to them because those troops say they need Georgian money to buy items in those shops that remain open. Those soldiers particularly want to buy drinks and refreshments.
August 18 -- 1:45 p.m. local time (9:45 GMT)
Russia has promised a withdrawal, but we've seen troops today digging new trenches that could hint at a continued presence.
The checkpoints are still in place in the city as of right now. Last night, the Russians told me they would start withdrawing at 10 a.m. today, then they said noon. But now it's almost 2 p.m. and they're still here. In some places, Russian troops have even begun to dig new trenches. Almost an hour ago, at 1, I saw them carrying out what looked like a normal troop rotation of troops between checkpoints. Around Gori, there are quite a few checkpoints still in place, mainly at intersections and on bridges.
At the moment, the situation in the city is relatively calm. Humanitarian aid from the Georgian central government, international community, and the church is being distributed. Regional administration head Vladimer Vardzelashvili told me that there are seven distribution points around the city of Gori, and the residents are being informed of that fact. With other lines of communication shut down, one of the ways that authorities have tried to inform the public is by loudspeaker from cars. An information center was also established in the center of the city, and people are going there for information. Also, this morning -- for the first time since the conflict began -- municipal workers were out cleaning the streets. Two polyclinics also opened today, and medicines are being distributed in connection with the humanitarian aid drive.
Also today, deputies of the Georgian parliament arrived, together with the humanitarian aid, and accompanied the buses -- traveling with each bus to deliver that aid to villages outside of Gori. Shipments have definitely begun in three of the most affected villages, where looting was most intense: Karaleti, Variani, and Shindisi. Those journalists whom I met at the media center departed in the direction of those three villages that were receiving humanitarian aid.
While driving from a recently established checkpoint about 12 kilometers from Gori on August 17, our car was stopped seven times, and searched each time. When we asked what they were looking for, the Russian soldiers explained to us that they were trying to prevent any weapons or arms from entering the city.
In the evening, I saw an armored vehicle stop at a school building in Gori; the Russian troops inside quickly entered the building and then came out with a computer. During the night, from my apartment window, I could see Russian soldiers walking around, patrolling the streets with machine guns. I was told by Gori-region administration head Vardzelashvili that Russian troops also entered the regional police building, but I can't say what they might have removed from the premises.
Overnight on August 17-18, there were at least several instances of marauding and looting. I met people at the regional administration building today who were coming to file complaints about such instances. They said agricultural machinery was stolen from a storage facility: six brand new tractors. Also, two night watchmen from a vegetable and foodstuff depot came to report that that someone had stolen vegetables and other supplies from there.
And then there are the two cars -- one a Niva and the other a Lada (ed's note: these same cars were captured in widely broadcast video footage several days ago). Wherever those occupants see a group of people gathered, they're stopping and robbing them of mobile phones and other personal belongings. There are no police forces, and Russian forces have apparently done nothing to stop these bandits. The cars' occupants act very quickly -- they hop out and take whatever they can take from people in two or three minutes, and then they disappear very quickly, in the direction of Tskhinvali.
(photos by RFE/RL correspondents Koba Liklikadze and Goga Aptsiauri, and InterPress News)