‘It was days after the ceasefire had been signed and the facts on the ground went square against what President Nicolas Sarkozy of France had intended’
Tskhinvali, South Ossetia
Georgians will tell you that Tskhinvali has always been a smugglers’ town in the foothills of the Caucasus. Yet the Ossetian paramilitaries, languishing in the heat in their mismatching combat gear behind a checkpoint on the road into town, will tell you something else. For them Tskhinvali is the capital of the Republic of South Ossetia.
This is a country under occupation. Just 13 miles from Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, I came across the first checkpoint, where most of the western media were hanging around. Only by pretending to be from Gori did I get past the Russian “peacekeepers” and into the closed military zone. An hour later, I found myself picked up by an open-backed Russian military truck, grabbing whatever journalists it could find, to show them the Kremlin’s side on a tightly controlled but cack-handed press tour.
On the evening I arrived in Tskhinvali, you could still hear explosive echoes in the hills as the Russian army cleared ordnance. Under the poplars that lined the main road, evocatively named Stalin Street, panes of glass lay smashed on the ground. Evidently, South Ossetians had yet to start the clear-up operation. Militias hung around on street-corners, inspecting slightly damaged cars. Half of these had no numberplates and their windscreens were cracked, indicating that they had been looted from nearby Georgian villages and driven off during the fighting. The Ossetians were celebrating their victory: laughing, back-slapping, passing around plastic bottles of kvass, a fermented rye drink, and cheap cigarettes.
“We gave it to them .?.?. They deserved it.”
Gayuz is in his early 20s, has a bandaged arm and sits atop an old looted Lada. He tells me he was there, in the fighting. His gear is filthy, muddied combat trousers and an ill-fitting standard camouflage jacket, and his breath heavy with drink. “They bombed Tskhinvali and we gave it to them,” he insists. “Blood for blood.”
“What were you fighting for?”
Gayuz sways a little, slips off the front of the Lada and points to the poster displayed in front of the bombed-out government buildings. Ossetian and Russian tricolours merge into one. “Recognise the union with Russia,” the poster declares. He asks me for a lighter, lights his cigarette and then ostentatiously decides to keep it.
As you wander down Stalin Street, the damage becomes more extensive and the poverty deepens. Tskhinvali is not so much a town as a large village, with a strip of provincial Soviet administrative buildings. Stuck in a mid 20th-century time-warp, the isolated “capital” of South Ossetia had stopped developing long ago, when the rot set in for what was then the USSR. By the edge of town, you find a few streets of shacks and hovels that have been the worst hit. The corrugated iron sheets that were makeshift roofs have been blown off into piles of debris. This is what indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets looks like: a few streets simply aren’t there any more. A middle-aged woman notices me inspecting her damaged home and comes out to make me leave. She speaks no Russian. Her 12-year-old son darts out and takes over.
“It’s OK if you’re a journalist .?.?. Mummy is frightened .?.?. She’s Georgian by birth. We used to all live together here .?.?. before I was born. She doesn’t want to talk.” Are other Georgians still in Tskhinvali? The little boy replies: “There were.” Then he slams the door.
After nightfall, the Kremlin minder who had accompanied journalists into the enclave is attempting to shepherd an unresponsive crowd of reporters together in front of the burnt-out parliament. This is no normal night in Tskhinvali. The Kremlin has decided to put on a victory celebration and has flown in the perfect man to lead the show. Valery Gergiev, the principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, is close to Vladimir Putin and a native Ossetian. He has arrived to conduct a defiant concert in front of the wrecked seat of the South Ossetian government.
Hundreds are pressing into the small stand, surrounded by armoured vehicles, ringed by barbed wire and encircled by soldiers. The excitement rises as the soldiers begin to distribute small ribbons bearing the Ossetian and Russian flags. Clumsily, they begin to knot these round their wrists and climb on to their vehicles, standing to attention during the performance.
“You need a hand, brother?” A trooper pulls me atop an armoured vehicle as the first mournful bars of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony begin to play. He is still struggling to tie his Russia-Ossetia ribbon to his sleeve. I ask him, “How do you feel?” “Tired. Very tired. We’ve been very busy.”
Crews of Russian cameramen are making sure they have the whole scene just right for a perfect broadcast across the Federation. The atmosphere seems to encapsulate Putin’s agenda. As the marching tunes of the symphony begin to play, the message is simple. The Ossetian leader, Eduard Kokoity, a former wrestling champion, tells the crowd: “I believe we deserve the name of a Hero City, like Stalingrad.” Gergiev himself uses the same turn of phrase. For the Russian masses, the glory of the Soviet Union still breathes and Putin and Medvedev are resurrecting it.
“How do you feel?” The music is marching towards its climax, and the soldier beside me on the armoured vehicle seems surprised I even asked. He smiles. “Just like my grandfather must have felt.”
The fighting had just ended as we drove into Karaleti, a Georgian village then deep inside Ossetian-held territory. We were being escorted on a makeshift press tour on the back of a Russian military truck, and one of the Italian journalists whistled. “You smell that – that’s dead.” They’d all smelt it – the stench of rotting human flesh.
Russian officials wanted to present Karaleti to the media as a town under control and to refute what the Georgians were saying about atrocities there. My mind was racing as I smelt the stench. Earlier, I had reached one resident of Karaleti, who asked not to be named, by phone: “There were mostly Ossetians in Karaleti just burning, pillaging and destroying houses. They took out almost 20 of them and burnt a small block of flats. An old woman guided them around as they did their terrible work. And we heard them do it all from the bunkers we were hiding in.” As I drove in, I counted the houses she had described.
The truck pulled to a stop at the roadside in Karaleti. A group of Russian conscripts had dug into foxholes, under a grove 200 metres from us. It was days after the ceasefire had been signed and the facts on the ground went square against what President Nicolas Sarkozy of France had intended.
It was silent, the summer sun perfect as a film set. The journalists paired off into the wreckage. Destruction is in the details. It’s the bits of torn clothing under slabs of collapsed ceiling, the broken plates under the shards of glass, the buried documents and the torched children’s toys under sheets of fallen plaster and brickwork. It was if these homes had been through blenders. Only the press pack was making a noise. “Watch out for cluster bombs .?.?. Watch out.”
Our Kremlin minder was a short, stocky man, with dark skin. Alexander Machevsky, one of Putin’s chief aides and his first spokesman, was shouting down his mobile. He wasn’t pleased, and by the sound of it he’d had to scrap his summer holidays to try and shore up Moscow in the propaganda war. Standing in front of a torched block of flats, he began his oration. It was the same block my friend had told me had been burnt by Ossetian paramilitaries as the Russians averted their gaze.
“Our troops back there have been protecting this property,” Machevsky began. “But none of this damage was done by them. What you are seeing is arson .?.?. This is what happens when there are gas-leaks, cases of theft, lights are left on and sabotage takes place, those houses over there were attacked by Georgian special forces?.?.?.”
He was cut short by the screaming. A reporter from France 2 shouted out: “There’s a weeping widow!” The pack scrambled and pushed into the carcass of this small block of flats. Gingerly, we stepped over broken glass and singed household items, following the sobs.
“Get out of there! Get out!”
Nobody was listening to Machevsky. She was on the third floor, wearing simple floral peasant clothes, with scarred arms and deep black rings under her eyes. I found it hard to take in at first. Her mouth was opening and closing uncontrollably, and what sounded like a wail came out. Eight cameras bore down on her. The camera flashes echoed and the light bounced off the walls. And then she began to scream. I ran, paying no attention to the glass that crunched under my moccasins.
As the thaw in the frozen conflicts of Georgia began to freeze over again, with Moscow redrawing the map and stationing its forces deep inside Georgia, I travelled south to Armenia to investigate if similar bloodshed could happen along the other unresolved frontiers of the Caucasus. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Armenians and Azeris had fought a savage war over the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, inside the newly independent Azerbaijan.
When the conflict petered out unresolved in 1994, more than 17,000 people had been killed, 55,000 wounded and hundreds of thousands displaced. With the proximity of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline and Russia as an ally of Armenia, while Turkey and possibly Iran are backing Azerbaijan, the region remains volatile.
In central Yerevan, there were rumours of a new war. Several hundred people had gathered to protest. The crowd shouted out the country’s name and the leaders bellowed through megaphones about what the opposition would do when it took power. I talked to Raz. He liked to think of himself as quite “cool” and had just finished his military service, engaged in action along the borders of Nagorno-Karabakh. He knew what it was like to be on the faultlines of the Caucasus. He spoke slowly, precisely. “Let me tell you what I saw when I was on the frontlines in Nagorno-Karabakh. You know, every day there is shooting.”
How much? He paused for a second and reflected. “A lot. During the election crisis, we heard the amount of shooting beginning to rise in intensity. It grew louder and heavier. And then we saw them. There was a group of Azeri officers, wearing many stars to show their seniority, that attacked our position.
“We repelled them. But it’s coming. Sooner or later there will be war here. I’m not sure when. I don’t know what the war in Georgia means for Armenia. But then again – do you know what it means for Britain?”
The wooded mountains that make up the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh fell away into a dusty valley. As I arrived in a crowded minibus a Karabakhi policemen sitting next to me tapped me on the shoulder: “Look how beautiful our country is. These are the ramparts of Armenia.” He smiled, happy to be home. Stepanakert had an eerie calm. Its streets were swept clean, its surfaces restored after the devastating war of the early 1990s by the wealthy Armenian diaspora in faraway Los Angeles, Paris or Moscow.
That afternoon I sat down with Garik Djamarian in the Ministry of Defence. On the wall was a large map of the Caucasus, a colourful piece of cartography showing not three but six independent Caucasian states, including South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh. “Call me Gary,” he said. “Think of me as something like a commissar in our army.” He gestured to a photo display on his wall such as a headteacher might have of a sports team, only these boys were armed. Did Moscow’s recent attack on Georgia change the picture? He turned his head back to look briefly at the map. “We are not like them in Ossetia or Abkhazia. We are more independent. But things are very unsettled now. These are dangerous times in the Caucasus.”
Soviet-era leftovers littered his bureau, from yellowing books on the marshals of the USSR to the design of his uniform. The frozen Caucasus conflicts had been reignited when the Russians were forced to pull back behind the mountain range.
In Georgia the fires have just gone out but in Nagorno-Karabakh you can still smell the smoke.