There is a cease fire on paper. There isn’t a cease fire in reality. Russia’s moving toward Tbilisi. Russia isn’t moving toward Tbilisi. Tomāto. Tomato. Potāto. Potato. Let’s call the whole thing off because checking CNN for updates on Georgia is liable to make your head spin. Every small Russian action is instantly viewed as part of a larger design. The latest evidence that sparked fears of an assault on Tbilisi? A Russian convoy that was heading toward the Georgian capital but then turned off the road back to South Ossetia. Saakashvilli interpreted this as Russian forces “encroaching upon the capital.” Thankfully, even CNN is starting to not be so easily fooled. CNN Correspondent Matthew Chance was traveling with said convoy, and though he couldn’t say where it was going, he did report that it didn’t get any
resistance from Georgian soldiers, and it was possible that the Russians were on a scouting mission to choose a buffer zone between the breakaway region of South Ossetia and Georgian territory. Chance described the flag-waving Russians as relaxed.
Not the atmosphere you would expect for soldiers mounting an assault.
Still Saakshvilli was persistent, perhaps trying to save face from a military debacle and that embarrassing video of him running for cover in Gori out of fear that he was the target of Russian bombing. “This is the kind of cease-fire that, I don’t know, they had with Afghanistan I guess in 1979,” he told CNN. “There is no cease-fire, they [Russian forces] are moving around.”
Perhaps the Russian forces aren’t the ones Georgians should be worried about. The real worry should be the so-called “irregulars” that are wreaking havoc in the wake of Russian armored columns. The Guardian‘s Luke Harding reports that these irregulars, who according locals are comprised of “Chechens, Cossacks and Ossetians,” are engaging payback.
“Eyewitnesses say they are looting, killing and burning. These irregulars have killed three people and set fire to villages. They have been taking away young boys and girls,” said Harding, watching smoke rise from another village, Karaleti.
He said he had witnessed people fleeing in the direction of Tbilisi. “For three hours there were people fleeing in cars, I saw one with 11 people and a Lada with eight people in it.” He had also seen people fleeing on a horse and cart and a tractor.
Though the Guardian adds that “eyewitness claims could not be immediately verified,” I wouldn’t be surprised if irregulars, especially Ossetian militias, are extracting some vengeance. The last few days have produced a Manichean atmosphere where violence is quickly becoming a whirlpool of reciprocity.
Human Rights Watch confirms these reports of Ossetian vengence:
Numerous houses in the villages of Kekhvi, Nizhnie Achaveti, Verkhnie Achaveti and Tamarasheni had been burnt down over the last day – Human Rights Watch researchers saw the smoldering remnants of the houses and household items. The villages were virtually deserted, with the exception of a few elderly and incapacitated people who stayed behind either because they were unable to flee or because they were trying to save their belongings and cattle.
“The remaining residents of these destroyed ethnic Georgian villages are facing desperate conditions, with no means of survival, no help, no protection, and nowhere to go,” said Tanya Lokshina at Human Rights Watch.
In the village of Nizhnie Achaveti, Human Rights Watch researchers spoke to an elderly man who was desperately trying to rescue his smoldering house using two half-empty buckets of dirty water brought from a spring. He told Human Rights Watch that the vast majority of the residents, including his family, fled the village when active fighting between Georgian forces and South Ossetian militias broke out on August 8, but he decided to stay to look after the cattle. He said members of the South Ossetian militia came to his house on August 11, and tried to take away some household items. When he protested, they set the house on fire and left. The man said he had no food or drinking water; his hands were burned and hair was singed – apparently as he was unsuccessfully trying to extinguish the fire – and he appeared to be in a state of shock. He said that there were about five to ten elderly and sick people left in the village, all in a similar desperate condition, and many of the houses were burned.
In the village of Kekhvi, many houses were set on fire between 6.30 pm and 7.30 pm on August 12 – they were ablaze as Human Rights Watch researchers moved along the road. Two elderly women from Kekhvi were weeping as they told Human Rights Watch about what happened in the village. One of them explained that the members of South Ossetian militias passed by the village and stopped at her house and “threw something” that set it on fire. She did not manage to rescue anything from the house and at the time of the interview could not even enter the house as it was still burning. She had no money on her and did not know if she could survive in this situation.
Human Rights Watch researchers also saw armed Ossetian militia members in camouflage fatigues taking household items – furniture, television sets, heaters, suitcases, carpets, and blankets – out of houses in the village of Nizhnie Achaveti and loading them into their trucks. Explaining the looters’ actions, an Ossetian man told Human Rights Watch, “Of course, they are entitled to take things from Georgians now – because they lost their own property in Tskhinvali and other places.”
Hopefully, this terror of the “irregulars” and Ossetian militias will not push things beyond control. That is assuming they haven’t already.
In Abkhazia, the Russian advance has embolden the Abkhaz military. Abkhaz forces have taken the initiative, without the aid of Russian forces, to expel the Georgians troops from the region. A symbolic turning of the tables has already commenced. “Entering the village, the Abkhaz military men first took off the Georgian symbols from the building of the administration hoisting the flag of the breakaway republic instead,’ reported Kommersant. Even Shota Utiashvili, the Georgian Interior Minister, was forced to admit that “Today, we’ve lost Kodori.”
According the Russia Today, Abkhazia was to be next on the Georgian list. A map found in a Georgia command vehicle are believed to show plans to invade Abkhazia.
Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergey Shamba apparently intends to make this Georgian loss permanent. The taking of Kodori occurred after Medvedev’s declaration to cease operations, a fact that irked the Georgians even more. But Medvedev’s order didn’t seem to matter much to Shamba. As far as he was concerned the Russian President’s words simply don’t apply. “The words of the Russian President regarded Russia’s armed forces. Dmitri Medvedev’s decrees have no power in Abkhazia’s army,” he said [Emphasis mine]. Again, this emphatic “have no power” is a reminder that this conflict includes two parties that seems to be excluded from all the diplomatic wrangling between recognized nation states. Namely, the South Ossetians and the Abkhazians. I would imagine that as long as they are excluded, their voices will sing the songs of retribution.
Then there are the journalists. War is always hell for journalists as their craft and lives fall victim to the chaos of violence. So far, Reporters Without Borders named four journalists who have been reported killed in Georgia.
Cameraman Stan Storimans of Dutch TV station RTL-4 was killed and reporter Jeroen Akkermans, the station’s Moscow correspondent, was injured during Russian bombing of the Georgian town of Gori last night. Earlier yesterday, a Georgian reporter working for the Russian edition of Newsweek and his driver were killed when a shell hit their vehicle in Gori’s main square.
Yesterday’s deaths came just a day after two other reporters – Giga Chikhladze, the head of Alania TV, and Alexander Klimchuk, the head of the Caucasus Press Images agency and a correspondent for Itar-Tas – were killed in the breakaway republic of South Ossetia, apparently in an attempt to pass a roadblock manned by Ossetian pro-independence fighters.
That is not all. Russian media reports that two Russian journalists, Vyacheslav Kochetkov, a photographer for Ekspert and Igor Naidenov, a correspondent for Russian Reporter, have disappeared in Georgia. Aleksandr Kots, a special correspondent for Komsomolskaya Pravda was wounded, as was Zadok Yehezkeli, an Israeli reporter for Yedioth Ahronot. He sustained serious injuries after being hit in the shoulder by a bullet. Two Turkish reporters were wounded after being attacked by Russian and Ossetian troops. Two Czech reporters had their car and equipment stolen by Ossetian soldiers. And what of the Ossetian and Georgian journalists?
The reporters looking for a safe story now have an outlet. The Russian military has reved up its PR machine with hopes to reverse the dismal portrayal of Russian actions in the foreign press. Enter Colonel Igor Konashenko. Today, Konashenko gave a guided tour of Tskhninvali for foreign journalists. “Look around you,” the Russian officer instructed the tour group. “A lot of women and children died here. Who do we blame? You know the answer.”
Indeed we do. And so do the Ossetian militias.