Georgians Left in South Ossetia Pressured to Flee
For the third day in a row, more homes in deserted ethnic Georgian villages were apparently set ablaze, sending clouds of smoke over the foothills north of Tskhinvali, capital of breakaway South Ossetia. One Russian colonel, who refused to give his name, blamed the fires on looters.
Those with ethnic Georgian backgrounds who have stayed behind like Chebataryeva seem increasingly unwelcome in the region.
As she stood sobbing in her wrecked apartment near the city center Wednesday, Chebataryeva said a skirmish between Ossetian soldiers and a Georgian tank had gouged the two gaping shell holes in her wall. The blasts bashed in her piano, and tore through her other furniture.
Janna Kuzayeva, an ethnic Ossetian neighbor who said she works for the government, said the Georgian tank fired at Chebataryeva's apartment without provocation, and hinted there were sinister motives behind Chebataryeva's version of events.
"We know for sure her brother spied for Georgians," said Kuzayeva. "We let her stay here, and now she's blaming everything on us."
Russia and Georgia accuse each other of human rights violations during the war - with the Russians, who have fought on the side of South Ossetia, saying the Georgians targeted South Ossetian civilians.
Russians and South Ossetians in particular point to the Georgians' fierce attack last week on the center of Tskhinvali with volleys of Soviet-designed Grad missiles, which can inflict widespread destruction.
But Chebataryeva's account appears to suggest that fighting between Georgians and Russian and South Ossetian troops was responsible for some of the damage. Chebataryeva, who is half Georgian and half Russian, said Wednesday she was preparing to sell her apartment last week when the fighting erupted. A group of Ossetian soldiers broke into her apartment, she said, and started firing at a Georgian tank. She pointed to her broken door as evidence.
The tank returned fire, she said, and left her apartment a shambles. The Ossetian soldiers, she said, likely did not know of her ethnic background.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates 100,000 people have been displaced by the fighting, including several thousand who have fled from South Ossetia to Georgia.
A number of former Georgian communities near Tskhinvali have been abandoned, including a string just north of the capital. "There isn't a single Georgian left in those villages," said Robert Kochi, a 45-year-old driver from the South Ossetian town of Java. "Only one crazy old woman sitting there."
But he had little sympathy for his former Georgian neighbors, whom he accused of trying to drive out Ossetians. "They wanted to physically uproot us all," he said. "What other definition is there for genocide?"
Rustam Koyev, a burly 6-foot-tall soldier with the South Ossetian military, recalled the rocket attack on the city. He, too, was critical of South Ossetia's Georgians. "They smile at you while they dig a grave for you behind your back."
According to the Russian military, some 2,000 South Ossetian civilians have been killed in the fighting.
Igor Kopashenkov, a spokesman for the Russian military, was in the city center Wednesday when shooting broke out in the distance. "The cleanup is still going on," he said. "Perhaps some mad and wounded Georgians woke up" and started fighting again.
He predicted that clashes in South Ossetia with small bands of Georgians would persist over the next two weeks.