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HRW Researcher Examines Brutality, Indiscriminate Use Of Force In Georgia Conflict

Anna Neistat is a senior emergencies researcher for Human Rights Watch
Two months ago, Russian and Georgian forces were engaged in a brief war over Georgia's pro-Russian breakaway region of South Ossetia. The armed conflict has since left hundreds of people dead and forced tens of thousands from their homes. RFE/RL's Georgian Service correspondent Salome Asatiani spoke to Anna Neistat, a researcher with Human Rights Watch (HRW) who investigated rights violations in the war-battered areas.

RFE/RL: Two months have passed since the war began in South Ossetia. How would you evaluate the whole conflict from a humanitarian perspective? How critical is the situation, and what have been the most pressing problems?

Anna Neistat: First of all, I have to say that from our perspective, from the perspective of Human Rights Watch, we are of course concerned about the serious toll the conflict has been taking on the civilian population. Up to this day, we are particularly seriously concerned about the situation in the so-called "buffer zone" -- the area north of Gori district, on the border with South Ossetia, where at the moment there is a clear security vacuum. We are really concerned about the civilian population in these areas.

Since the beginning of the conflict, HRW has been working in the region, in South Ossetia and in the rest of Georgia, documenting humanitarian law violations by both sides of the conflict. And I have to say that we did document indiscriminate use of force by both Georgian forces in Tskhinvali and neighboring villages and Russian forces in the Gori district. We were extremely concerned about the reports, as well as by things we saw with our own eyes -- namely looting, torching, [and] ethnically motivated attacks in Georgian villages in South Ossetia. These offenses were perpetrated mainly by South Ossetian militias, but we believe that it was, and remains, Russia's responsibility to maintain security of the civilian population in areas that are effectively under its control.

RFE/RL: Since the beginning of the conflict, there has been much controversy over the number of civilian deaths, with Russia initially claiming that the death toll rose into the thousands. HRW doesn't have exact data, but could you nonetheless give an approximate figure for casualties and injuries amongst the civilian population?

Neistat: First of all, Human Rights Watch does not really have the capacity or the mandate to collect exact data on civilian casualties. We are primarily looking into how people were killed or injured, because this is something that may amount to humanitarian law violations and war crimes. So from our perspective, even one civilian death can be a serious violation of humanitarian law. At the same time, very early in the conflict Russian and South Ossetian authorities gave figures that looked rather questionable to us. Just a couple of days after the conflict started, they announced that 2,000 civilians had been killed in Tskhinvali during the shelling by Georgian forces. Of course, when we traveled to Ossetia we sought to make sense of the numbers. And I have to say that the information we got from hospitals and witnesses definitely doesn't match this figure.

We don't have figures on civilian casualties. We have an assessment based on the information which we were able to get from the hospital, by interviewing people on the streets of Tskhinvali, and by comparing the numbers of the wounded, for which the hospital gave a pretty comprehensive figure: 273 people. It is possible that some people never made it to hospital or were treated in the basement in which they were hiding and then taken to the Emergencies Ministry's mobile hospital in North Ossetia. But at least we do have figures from the hospital which I think are pretty comprehensive. So we do end up with some conclusion about the real numbers, and these are very far from 2,000 civilian deaths.

By now I also think that it's not just the information provided by HRW. By now we actually have the official statistics gathered by the so-called Investigative Committee of the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office. And if you look at these figures, they also have nothing to do with the originally announced 2,000. I think the latest figure announced publicly by the committee was 137 civilian deaths. They always say this may be adjusted, but the range of numbers is very different, and much closer to [our assessment].

On the Georgian side, it's also very hard to assess. We know that many villages in the Gori district in particular were quite severely hit by rockets, by Russian shelling; cluster ammunitions, and other indiscriminate weapons were used there. There are certain areas where it's not exactly clear who used the cluster bombs, because we know that both sides had these weapons and probably used these weapons. But in general terms, we know that the civilian population suffered significant losses on the Georgian side. Again, it's very hard to talk about numbers, but we are definitely talking about dozens of deaths and hundreds of wounded.

RFE/RL: Would it be possible to somehow link the information, disseminated by the Russian media in the first days of the conflict -- on the 2,000 civilian deaths, and so on -- with the looting that occurred in Georgian villages? How much, do you think, those reports contributed to the fuelling or intensification of interethnic tensions between the Ossetians and the Georgians?

Neistat: The moment the Russians and South Ossetians announced -- which was like on the second day of the conflict -- that "genocide" is happening in South Ossetia, that 2,000 civilians have been killed, from our perspective that was extremely unhelpful and irresponsible. Even before we started looking ourselves into the range of numbers, trying to assess the actual damage done in South Ossetia, just making such statements with no evidence attached by high-level officials is very irresponsible.

And largely, I think, the tragic side of it was that it was taken for granted by the population of South Ossetia. People there -- especially those who weren't in Tskhinvali themselves, or even those who were -- treated whatever Russian news channels were saying as complete and ultimate truth. And from our perspective -- and from what we heard from the people in South Ossetia -- that in some way contributed to the way they were treating ethnic Georgians in Ossetia, to what they were doing in ethnic-Georgian villages in South Ossetia.

We tried to talk to some of the South Ossetian militias, asking them very simple question like: "Don't you feel sorry for these elderly [Georgians]? They are not really combatants, they are not the enemy you are supposed to be fighting -- just desperate elderly people in the Georgian villages." And their response was that in a way they were "taking revenge for the 2,000 Ossetians killed in Tskhinvali." And when we asked them how...they [got] this information and numbers, they cited the news reports by the Russian media.

And, of course, from our perspective, it was extremely worrisome -- and we tried to do our best to at least disseminate some facts and figures that we were able to get, to make sure that at least people ask questions, that people don't take for granted everything they hear on Russian news channels.

RFE/RL: The Russian media was also disseminating information about Georgian forces -- those that entered Tskhinvali and neighboring villages -- mistreating and abusing Ossetian civilians. Did you find any evidence to support these claims?

Neistat: I would say as much as we did collect sufficient information about indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force by the Georgian forces in Tskhinvali and in some neighboring villages, we did not find proof of numerous rumors circulated in South Ossetia about the brutality of Georgian forces as they entered the villages. There was significant shelling, tank fire, and infantry fire in some of these villages, but as we interviewed people, for instance, in the village of Khetagurovo -- where Georgian infantry entered on the morning of August 8 -- we have not heard any significant complaints from the residents about any brutality or any mistreatment by the Georgian forces.

People, of course, were very scared, but they told us very clearly that the Georgian forces were looking for uniforms, for weapons, but they did not assault or loot the houses. That's definitely the information we got in this particular village. There were some reports from other villages as well, and I do not exclude that things like that happened. But at least we did not find confirmation of large-scale brutality by the Georgian forces as they entered the villages in Ossetia.

We did not find confirmation of large-scale brutality by the Georgian forces as they entered the villages in Ossetia.
To continue on the topic of human rights violations committed during this conflict. If I were to ask you to give me a list of these violations committed by each of the sides -- Georgia, Russia, and South Ossetia, or perhaps we should group South Ossetia together with Russia -- what would the list look like?

Neistat: In terms of the list, just very briefly: On the Georgian side, we definitely have cases of indiscriminate shelling, in Tskhinvali and in neighboring villages, with civilian objects attacked, all of which amounts to violations of humanitarian law. And incidents of disproportionate use of force; by this we mean that South Ossetian militias were present in the area attacked by the Georgians -- so in some ways the attack was justified. But at the same time, the force used by the Georgians was disproportionate to the [aim] of the operation.

And when we talk about violations by Russian forces and Ossetian forces to a certain extent, again, we are talking about indiscriminate, disproportionate use of force, and that would be primarily [the town of] Gori and numerous villages around Gori that were shelled and bombed by the Russians. And the ethnically motivated attacks by the South Ossetian militias in the areas controlled by Russia.

So I would not put South Ossetia as a separate party to the conflict here, because we do think that all of what South Ossetian militias did was happening on territories under Russian control. It was, and is, Russia's responsibility to ensure that things like that don't happen. However, here we are talking about massive burning and looting of Georgian villages in South Ossetia, and large-scale violations in the so-called buffer zone. Something that -- to the best of our knowledge -- continues to date, on a much lesser scale; but still.

Villages in the buffer zone were left with no protection, Georgian police were not allowed there, and Russian forces withdrew. Peacekeepers were not really actively present in the area, and civilians there were left at the mercy of South Ossetian militias, coming from the border with South Ossetia, looting and burning houses, and attacking civilians. It's not just burning and looting we are talking about, we are also talking about killings and beatings.

Villages in the buffer zone were left with no protection, Georgian police were not allowed there, and Russian forces withdrew. Peacekeepers were not really actively present in the area, and civilians there were left at the mercy of South Ossetian militias, coming from the border with South Ossetia, looting and burning houses, and attacking civilians.
And finally, during the conflict, dozens of people were detained by each side. Some of these people were POWs [prisoners of war] -- combatants, captured by each side. And in their case, we were extremely concerned about reports of violations. I have to say that we have...most of these reports come from the Ossetian side -- Georgians who were detained in Ossetia reported beatings and torture and mistreatment by South Ossetian forces. We do have several -- not too many -- reports on mistreatment by the Georgian troops, but not too many. In addition to that, there were cases where civilians were detained. And that, of course, was absolutely impermissible.

RFE/RL: What is your information, have these civilians been released or is it possible to assume that some continue to stay in captivity?

Neistat: Officially, the exchange of prisoners in any way or form is done and completed. We don't have reports, but I would say we do have concerns, given the previous history of conflicts in the region, that unofficial hostage-taking or detention does take place, so I guess this is one of the areas that we are monitoring very closely, although we do not have any specific facts to say that some civilians are still being kept in captivity. To the best of our knowledge everybody has been released.

RFE/RL: As far as I know, HRW became a firsthand witness of the looting that occurred in ethnic-Georgian villages?

Neistat: On August 12 we were on the road from Java to Tskhinvali, and that's where we witnessed, with our own eyes, the burning and looting of ethnic-Georgian villages; that was happening right in front of us. Apparently it had started some days earlier, as some of the houses were already just ashes. But some of the houses were on fire as we were there, and right in front of our eyes Ossetian men in camouflage were taking pretty much everything they could take out of these houses, loading it on their trucks. We have photographs to prove that.

RFE/RL: Did you see any people there?

Neistat: Most of the people by then had fled, or were forced to flee. It's really hard to say what really happened to them. We interviewed some of them later, in Georgia, and they were describing what was going on when Ossetians entered these villages. But by that time there were just a couple of elderly people, in a completely desperate condition. We spoke to one man and two women in several of these villages. Probably the most horrific picture from this conflict was this elderly Georgian man, completely devastated, and trying to extinguish the fire on his house with two buckets of water. There was absolutely no help, no assistance at that point; nobody was taking care of them. We tried to mobilize the Red Cross and other organizations to get them evacuated, and eventually it happened. But at that point, it was quite horrific.

RFE/RL: What about the overall number of refugees/internally displaced persons?

Neistat: In terms of internally displaced persons/refugees, you know the definition "there is also a big question mark," but we know that thousands of people there have been displaced by the conflict, and the problem right now is that many of them, thousands, have no opportunity to return to their villages.

And here we are mainly talking about Georgians of course. Georgians who fled their villages in South Ossetia. You have to remember that these villages are burned to the ground, they have nowhere to return. But at the same time, the security situation there is such that it's absolutely impossible for them to go back. And it's a huge issue from the humanitarian perspective, that essentially their right to return in a postconflict situation, in areas that they had to flee during the conflict is...that at this moment, [it] cannot be realized. Probably there the presence of European observers will be something that can facilitate their return, but it also requires a very significant commitment on the Russian side, to ensure that people can safely return to their homes.

RFE/RL: You mentioned that the EU forces could play a positive role in facilitating the return of the internally displaced persons to their homes. Could you tell me more about this?

Neistat: I would say [that] right now we are extremely concerned about the situation in the buffer zone. The withdrawal of the Russian troops started on October 1, and European observers were deployed, or are being deployed. But initially, at least, they had serious problems with this deployment, they were not allowed into these "buffer zones" as of a couple of days ago at least. Of course, we keep our hopes very high that their presence will ensure the protection of civilians. But so far, I cannot say that these hopes are justified by what we see on the ground.

Again, the problem is that there has been no authority there for almost two months now, and the ease with which South Ossetian militias at least could penetrate these areas was extremely worrisome. It is unclear what kind of authority the European observers will have to stop the violations, rather than just report them. It is unclear whether any of them are going to be armed. The latest we heard was that it's going to be an unarmed force. And from everything we've seen in the area it's hard to expect an unarmed mission to be able to maintain proper security.

Initially, at least, [European observers]...were not allowed into these "buffer zones," as of a couple of days ago at least. Of course, we keep our hopes very high that their presence will ensure the protection of civilians. But, so far, I cannot say that these hopes are justified by what we see on the ground.
However, as always, some kind of an international independent presence is most welcome, and of course should make the situation somewhat better for civilians. But, once again, I have to emphasize that this area has been under Russia's effective control for almost two months. And it was and remains Russia's responsibility, as long as it is in effective control of these areas, to make sure that civilians there are safe, their property is safe, and that people can go back to their homes.

So far, most of the people who fled villages in the Gori district cannot go back, they are still in Gori or Tbilisi. They cannot go back because they do not believe it will be safe to do so. And from our perspective, from the perspective of a human rights organization, this is the right that has to be realized. The security in the region must be ensured so that people could go back to their homes.