Georgians grow weary as Russian troops seem set to stay

Georgia Materials 18 August 2008 20:23 (UTC +04:00)

Residents in the central Georgian city Gori expressed growing despair on Monday as Russian troops appeared to entrench their positions at check-points in the region over the weekend rather than preparing the promised pull-out of troops, dpa reported.

President Dmitry Medvedev pledged to "begin a withdrawal of the military contingent" from Monday, but a Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa correspondent behind Russian troop lines over the weekend saw only signs of an expanding military presence in Georgia proper.

Instead of moving north towards the border, convoys of hundred of Russian military vehicles continued to rumble along the north-south highway through the separatist region of South Ossetia towards the occupied territory.

They were belying the assertion by Russia's top military brass in Moscow that no Russian troops were on the ground in the strategic city of Gori, 75 kilometres west of the capital Tbilisi.

"Look, they didn't even take the (Georgian) flag down," Russian Lieutenant Colonel Andrei Vobrum shouted into the empty main square, where Josef Stalin was born and where Russian armoured personnel carriers were now patrolling in front of Stalin's granite effigy.

A Georgian security checkpoint at the border commanding the only approach to South Ossetia was flying a Russian flag, fresh against a landscape of smouldering corn fields.

Soldiers of Russia's 58th army, which pushed back Georgian forces from its rebel province of South Ossetia, carried their Kalashnikovs with the relaxed ease of occupiers as they shrugged off the pleas of the few elderly residents left in the deserted city.

"I asked them if they were going to shoot us. But in my soul I don't believe them, they've kept me from going back for 18 years," said Tsyana Taratadzhe, 55.

She showed an internally displaced persons' identity card issued to her when she fled from South Ossetia amid reprisals on Georgian enclaves after a war that won the region autonomy in the early 1990s.

"I am asking how long they are going to stay," another resident Vassily Chaknashvili, 53, said as a crowd gathered to question two Russian soldiers from Moscow.

"We are talking about how Georgia and Russia have always been friends," one of the soldiers cut in with impunity, declining to give his name.

An elderly resident, unable to express herself in Russian, shook her wrinkled fists and mimed a pounding heart with tears in her eyes to show her fear of the Russian occupiers.

Gori residents were subjected to searches as they left their houses and moved in groups around the city in search for hand outs of bread that local Orthodox priests said they, rather than Russians or international aid workers, had organized.

"I'm thirsty and there is no gas or electricity," said Aza Nadibaidzhe, 50, while chopping dough to toss into a basement brick oven. The Russians "go here, there, all around the city. It's uncomfortable," she added.

But many also said nighttime looting by South Ossetians and irregular fights had stopped since the Russian troops settled over the weekend.

Elderly Georgians evacuated by Russians from burnt-out villages in South Ossetia amid ethnic violence bent to fit into children-size beds at the city's primary school or in empty apartments.

Buildings in the abandoned city centre were torn from bullets and shelling, broken glass littered the streets, and some remaining residents led journalists to see the evidence of rockets and shards of shrapnel around the city.

A rotten smell still hung in the air from Russian airstrikes. The corpses of Georgian soldiers had been lying unburied along the road until they were collected by residents. By several accounts at least 27 died in bombings before the Russian ground troops arrived.

"We lined up the bodies in the main square," said Chalova Kheadashvili, 66, said as he led the way up the crooked steps of his two-storey red-brick house to where a cluster bomb had crashed through his bathroom ceiling. The pink tiles were shattered by shrapnel.

Back in his front yard he picked pears, plums and tomatoes to share with fellow Georgian refugees from villages outside the city.

A farmer from a region near the separatists border with Tskhinvali, which had been wrecked by marauders, was worried about his crop.

"They must be taking all the fruit up in the hills, if they're not burnt," said Ortar Chavchavadze.

The 57-year-old said he was thankful to the Russians for evacuating him.

But blaming them for the looting in the region, he added: "They should never have come here in the first place."