South Ossetia: This wicked, dirty, bitter war…
TSKHINVAL, SOUTH OSSETIA (Alan Tsorion for RIA Novosti). – It is evening of August 7. The South Ossetian capital is quiet. After so much shelling and endless gunfire it feels like the silence can be smelled and breathed.
A deep breath fills the lungs, and straightens your insides crumpled in the fist of war like the cellophane wrapper from a cigarette pack. I breathe in the calm. The silence is only broken by mice stirring somewhere between the ceiling and the garret. It is hard to believe that anyone can go about one’s daily chores at such a time.
The rodents up there are busily moving things, rolling from place to place as if they know that several hours ago the Georgian president promised not to shell the Ossetian capital any more. If there is to be no shelling you can go back to your daily chores.
However, the rodents and I have only five more minutes to attend to our household chores. At 10.05 p.m. the “mice” play comes to an end: Mikheil Saakashvili breaks his word. Rockets and shells rain on the city, shaking the walls and windows. It is as if every blast chips away parts of the sky and hurls them against the window. Along with several other people we rush to the basement of the house in Stalin Street (now probably destroyed) in the center of Tskhinval.
We are dressed in what the raid caught us in – slippers, bathrobes and shorts… Many had already gone to bed when the Georgian shells started raining on the city, and all the agreements and promises flew away with the chunks of house foundations and twisted metal that used to be cars.
“Ma tars, ma tars…” (Ossetian: “Don’t be afraid”), a mother calms her son Batradz. The boy, aged about 8, has buried has head in his mother’s lap and, jolting with every explosion, asks her: “Mum, why are they shooting, don’t they know that the Olympics start tomorrow? Why doesn’t anyone tell them that there should be no fighting during the Olympics?”
At around 11 p.m. the lights go out in the basement where we are hiding, like in the whole of Tskhinval. Your senses become sharper when it is pitch-dark. Like a blind man you distinguish the slightest shades of sounds, which immediately translate themselves into pictures before your mind’s eye.
Up on the surface, the black night sky is illuminated by the white flare of exploding shells, momentarily making it look like a huge photograph negative. Splinters whiz by like bumblebees flying close to the ground. Bullets emit a strange whistle as if somebody has shaped his lips to whistle but instead just breathes air in. The gun of an armoured vehicle goes “ta-ta-ta… ta-ta-ta”.
“Iratta razma!” (“Come on”), a focused, almost businesslike voice comes from the street. Quick steps of six pairs of military boots on broken glass and splinters of brick and plaster.
“Ma tars, Batradz. Ma tars,” the mother’s words are drowned out by the deafening echo of a shell which blasts a neighbouring block of flats to smithereens. It is as if somebody banged a heavy door close to your ear. Pieces of concrete fall from the basement ceiling…
But even the howitzers in nearby Ergneti and Nikozi do not sound as terrifying as the salvos of the Georgian Grad (Hail) artillery rockets fired from much further away, in Gori. As the rockets zero in on the target they emit a sound like a flame on gigantic arrows with burning tips. The Grads are fired at random so that the clouds of “arrows” fall on the roofs of Tskhinval’s peaceful houses.
As the shelling goes on, people get ready to spend the night in the basement.
…The morning of August 8, 5 a.m. The bombardment of the city from Georgian positions is in its seventh hour. My cell phone shows that the battery is about to die, leaving me with no communications. I ring the editorial office in Moscow to say that communications are about to be cut because I have nowhere to recharge my cell phone.
The battery in my phone is dead by 9 a.m. It is already light in Tskhinval. Remembering the great rule that “in war he who runs survives,” I leave the basement to move to another place. I run along hugging a wall, my head drawn into my shoulders. Bullets and fragments hit the road raising little fountains of dust. In the city Georgian commandos and Ossetian fighters are exchanging fire. I hear the Ossetian OMON fighters shouting: “Come on, quick! A ‘box’ [armoured vehicle – A.Ts.] is stuck on Hetagurova Street.”
Insensible to fatigue, I’m running very fast and turn the corner. “Bang!” – I fall on my stomach after being hit in my ears and eyes. Clouds of dust rise over the ground, approaching my feet. They are caused by a grenade that exploded five meters away. I get up and run, spitting out dust. Moving in my direction on the other side of the street are four Ossetian fighters. One of them reloads his automatic rifle as he runs. The oldest looks no more than 23. A few more steps and I dive into the entrance of a five-storey block of flats.
I see silhouettes of men in the doorway. Women and children are taking shelter in the basement beneath the staircase. I hear muted weeping from below. “How long will the bombing last? Let us raise our hands and surrender before they have killed us all. It looks like Russia has forgotten us,” a tired woman’s voice is heard from the basement. Surrounded by old people, women and children you cannot help feeling guilty. A young man’s place now is in the war, defending his people; he has no place among the elderly and the children.
There are about twenty people in the basement and hardly anyone dares to go up. Only an old man, Inal, a former peacekeeper who saw action in 1992, calmly strolls the street opposite the entrance while the shelling is still on. “F— the war, exercise is the main thing,” the veteran mumbles as two Ossetian policemen carry a fighter with arm and leg wounds towards the entrance.
…The wounded man has glazed eyes over which his long lashes flutter like the wings of a butterfly. He is dazed by pain. His fatigues are pierced in two places, and red arterial blood is streaming down his left hip. The fighter is carried into the entrance. A stocky policeman slings the rifle from his shoulder with a practiced movement and unwinds a bandage wound around the stock to twist a touniquet. Someone has brought ammonium chloride.
“Shai ho, kuyzh kuylyhai na maly” (“OK, a dog doesn’t die from lameness”), the policeman tells the fighter, who clenches his teeth in pain. That is the Ossetian equivalent of the Russian proverb “it will heal by the time you have your wedding.” The stocky South Ossetian policeman rubs the wounded man’s chest and face after dipping his huge work-beaten hands into a bucket of cold water. “OK, we have to go,” the policeman says grabbing the wounded man under his armpit.
“Where are you from?” the old man Inal asks me. “I am a journalist from Moscow,” I reply. “Let’s go and have a bite,” the former peacekeeper says in a voice hoarse from smoking. “War or no war, you have to eat.”
“The Russians will come today, they’ll help us,” says Inal setting fire to a piece of dry spirit which he puts on a gas stove: “I wish they would strike Gori and Tbilisi – I want nothing more.”
“Georgian tanks are already in town, it’ll be hard without the Russians,” the former peacekeeper says, sipping the freshly made coffee.
The best I can do is to keep silent. However, our silence is broken by two Georgian SU-25 planes. One of them opens fire on the house where we are – just for kicks. Inal and I hasten to the basement.
Once again damp darkness. There is a small hole where the pipes run through the wall. It faces south to where the Georgian commandos are advancing. Putting your head in the hole is dangerous: bullets come through the hole and hit the concrete basement ceiling with a hollow sound.
I catch myself thinking that my whole short life, the efforts of my grandparents who brought me up, my universities and the clever books I have read – all this was but preparation for this moment when shells explode over your head, you instinctively draw your head into your shoulders and sweat streaks down your spine. It looks as if death is nearby and it smells of dampness and the dryness of your lips. Now when the planes make another dive to fire on you, and you know that they will fire on you as the roar of the engines approaches, you feel that it may be your last day. This is not fear, but rather grief over what you might have said and done.
Suddenly the planes stop bombing and fly south towards Georgia. What’s happening? Within seconds a deafening chorus of a thousand voices shouting “Hurray!” comes from the street. A crowd is welcoming a column of Russian armored vehicles that have entered Tskhinval. “A-a-a! You have come, boys,” Inal shouts. “Now we will show them!”
I run into the street, the roar of Russian armour is heard nearby. The Russian soldiers are driving the Georgian troops out of Tskhinval. A man, his eyes bulging with horror, runs up to me. “Help me. What shall I do? I am Georgian, I worked here in Tskhinval. I am a worker, where shall I go?” he shouts in broken Russian. “Run,” I tell him, and again wonder at the wickedness of war in which innocent civilians are the first to suffer.
The clock shows 3 p.m.
At 7 p.m., when the shooting and shell blasts subside and the bursts of machinegun fire are petering out, I leave Tskhinval, engulfed in flames and sorrow. The Russian troops have driven the Georgians out of the city, but this is not yet the end of the war. There are still civilians in the city. Tskhinval is still in the grip of the dirty hands of war. A war unleashed without warning under the cover of night. A war whose victims were and will always be civilians. A war that seizes your soul and rubs it between its bloody palms like the cellophane wrapper of a cigarette pack.