Russian-backed paramilitaries are “ethnically cleansing” villages on Georgian soil, refugees and officials told The Times yesterday.
South Ossetian militiamen have torched houses, beaten elderly people and even murdered civilians in the lawless buffer zone set up by the Russian Army just north of Gori. The violence, close to the border with the breakaway republic recognised by Russia this week as independent, has prompted a new wave of refugees into Gori, 40 miles north of Tbilisi.
People who had started to return to their villages in the area are now fleeing for a second time, joined by many elderly people who had refused to leave their homes when the Russians invaded two weeks ago.
A straggle of refugees gathered yesterday at the feet of a giant statue of Josef Stalin, Gori’s infamous native son, to register with the local authorities and the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, for emergency supplies and accommodation in three tent cities being built near a football stadium.
“They had no uniform — I think they were Ossetians,” said Siyala Sereteli, 73, who fled her village of Irganeteye the previous day when irregular forces arrived. Weeping, she lifted her sleeve to show a deep bruise inflicted by a blow from a rifle stock. “They took everything they wanted, even the fans. They beat up a man using sticks and a chair and then threw him in the river,” she said.
Other refugees were clustered in the shabby city hall, trying to glean news of relatives still inside the buffer zone, which Russia said it had established to prevent Georgian attacks on South Ossetians, many of whom hold Russian passports. A look of deep shock froze the face of Oliko Gnolidze when she managed to make contact on her mobile phone with an uncle, Nodari Jashiashvili, in Tkviai, about a 20-minute drive away.
“There is panic here, they are burning houses,” came the crackly voice of her uncle. “I don’t know what to do. Ossetians are in the village.” Ms Gnolidze, 38, said that in earlier conversations her uncle had told her that only a few people remained in the village, with Ossetian irregulars looting under the noses of Russian troops, described by Moscow as “peacekeepers”. She said the Russians had forced her uncle to cook a meal for them, after which he had fled and hidden in nearby woods.
Shorta Kharadze, a 45-year-old lorry driver, returned to Gori from Tbilisi, where he had sheltered during the fighting, after his mother’s neighbours from the village of Megheverizkevi told him that she had been murdered by South Ossetian militiamen.
Looking gaunt, Mr Kharadze said the neighbours had telephoned him to say that two men in uniform had come to the home of his 77-year-old mother, Oliya, and demanded to know why she hadn’t left the village. She had been wounded in the arm during the fighting in the area but had refused to leave.
“They beat her with an axe handle. There’s a pond in our yard — she fell near it and they pushed her in. I don’t know if she was still alive when they pushed her in or if she drowned,” Mr Kharadze said.
“It’s like ethnic cleansing, genocide,” said Koba Tlashadze, a council official in Gori, which was itself briefly occupied by Russian forces before last week’s ceasefire. “It’s a special operation codenamed Clean Field, because they are emptying the villages.”
The UNHCR has voiced its concern about reports of “new forcible displacement caused by marauding militias north of Gori near the boundary with South Ossetia”. It said as many as 400 displaced people had gathered on Gori’s square on Tuesday “after being forced to flee their villages by marauders operating in the so-called buffer zone established along the boundary with South Ossetia”.
Alessandra Morelli, a UNHCR co-ordinator in Gori, said that confirming the stories was impossible because Russian checkpoints had sealed off the buffer zone.
Farther west, in Borjomi, Georgia’s Environment Minister accused Russia of having deliberately started extensive forest fires in the country’s main natural park by firing incendiary flares into tinder-dry mountains. After a helicopter inspection of the still-smouldering area, Irakli Ghvaladze said an investigation was being set up into Russian strikes on the park — far from military operations — for almost a week during the conflict. “We have begun to investigate this ecocide,” he said. The fires had destroyed hundreds of hectares of forest, with fire-fighting helicopters unable to operate for fear of being shot down. “Who knows why the Russians did this? They destroy everything,” he said.