First foreign journalists to enter South Ossetia since summer conflict find evidence of Georgian war crimes
The first unrestricted visit by a foreign news organisation to South Ossetia since the violent conflict that erupted in the breakaway Georgian province in August has uncovered evidence that the Georgian military indiscriminately targeted civilians during the unsuccessful attempt to re-conquer the territory.
Georgia said at the time that the assault was launched in response to increasing attacks on its own villages by militia groups in South Ossetia, although it later abandoned this explanation, claiming its actions were provoked by an earlier Russian invasion.
Journalists from the BBC were able to ascertain statements from eyewitnesses in the province’s capital Tskhinvali, many of whom described witnessing Georgian tanks firing indiscriminately into populated apartment blocks and seeing civilians being shot in cold blood as they attempted to flee the fighting, the news organisation reported on 28 October 2008. Indiscriminate use of force is a violation of the Geneva Conventions, and serious violations are considered war crimes. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev described the Georgian offensive in South Ossetia as “genocide”.
The mother of 21-year old dental student Georgy Tadtayev, who was killed during the fighting, told the BBC that her son had bled to death in her arms on the morning of 9 August after a fragment from a Georgian tank shell hit him in the throat as they were both sheltering from artillery fire in the basement of her block of flats.
Mrs. Sitnik said she subsequently saw the tank positioned a few metres from the building, firing shells into every floor, and BBC journalists reported that extensive damage to the five-storey block was consistent with her version of events.
According to Mrs. Sitnik, “They started firing not from rifles, but from heavy weapons. Shells were exploding. And we sat here on boxes. We thought it would end, but the firing got heavier and heavier. They went on firing all the next day without stopping. At some point there was a pause, and we saw Georgian soldiers going along the street in their NATO uniforms. Then they started firing again, even more heavily.”
She continued, “The Grad rockets were coming over all the time. How can you trust those people now? What possible friendship can there be? Let them all be cursed, cursed for the deaths of our children.”
These revelations are unlikely to surprise observers in Russia, whose government maintained from the outset that the conflict had started following a ruthless Georgian offensive targeted specifically at civilians and Russian peacekeepers stationed in South Ossetia, however many Western politicians outwardly rejected that version of events. Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin described the Russian invasion of Georgia that followed the attack on South Ossetia as “unprovoked” in an interview with ABC News. British Conservative leader David Cameron, who visited Georgia to show solidarity with its government immediately following the start of the conflict, stated on 27 August “We have got to confront that [Russian] aggression and take a series of steps to point out to the Russians the errors of their ways.”
British foreign secretary David Miliband visited the Georgian capital of Tbilisi soon after the start of the conflict, saying that Georgia had been offered a “route map to [NATO] membership”, and went on to state that, “In practical terms, NATO is offering close cooperation with the Georgian government and the Georgian military. That means helping the Georgians build up their [military] capacity.” Some within Miliband’s party questioned endorsing the Georgian government at a time when many international observers were accusing the former Soviet state of recklessness and of provoking the ensuing conflict with Russia. Miliband said he took allegations of war crimes “extremely seriously” and had raised them “at the highest level” with the Georgian government.
The Russian prosecutor’s office is investigating more than 300 possible cases of civilians killed by the Georgian military, some of whom may have been Ossetian paramilitaries, but the charity Human Rights Watch believes the figure of 300-400 civilians is a “useful starting point”, a figure that would represent more than 1% of the population of Tskhinvali.
Allison Gill, director of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch which has stated that it had researches on the ground in South Ossetia as early as 12 August, said: “We’re very concerned at the use of indiscriminate force by the Georgian military in Tskhinvali. We gained evidence and witness testimony of Grad rocket attacks and tank attacks on apartment buildings, including tank attacks that shot at the basement level. And basements are typically areas where civilians will hide for their own protection. So all of this points to the misuse, the inappropriate use of force by Georgia against civilian targets,” she affirmed.
It is of extreme importance to note that whilst human rights groups and charities condemned the Georgian regime for the brutality of its attack on South Ossetia, equally strong language was used to condemn the “disproportionate” Russian onslaught of Georgia that followed and led to a considerable number of deaths and many thousands of Georgians being displaced. Georgian officials confirmed that 188 Georgian civilians had been killed in the conflict and that a further 912 are missing.
Although HRW only spoke of a “possible” deliberate targeting of civilians by Georgia, eyewitnesses confirmed to the BBC that Georgian forces had targeted unarmed civilians.
Marina Kochieva, a doctor at Tskhinvali’s main hospital, says she herself was targeted by a Georgian tank as she and three relatives were trying to escape by car from the town on the night of 9 August. Ms Kochieva says a nurse from her hospital was killed while fleeing Tskhinvali in similar circumstances. Describing the attack on her car in response to being asked if it was possible that she and her passengers had been mistaken for combatants by Georgian troops, the doctor stated that “Fighters wouldn’t have gone away from town, they would have gone towards town. We were escaping like other refugees. The Georgians knew this was the ‘Road of Life’ for Ossetians. They were sitting here waiting to kill us,” she said.
Georgia’s Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili told the BBC, “I can firmly say that the Georgian military, on intention, never attacked directly any civilian object. Tkeshelashvili stated that an “in-depth military assessment needs to be done” before it can be ascertained whether any individual Georgian troops deliberately targeted civilians.
The BBC referred to what it called “the cycle of revenge” when describing the destruction of ethnic Georgian homes in South Ossetia by Ossetians in the immediate aftermath of the Georgian attack on Tskhinvali. One young man who said that he had been involved in the burning of ethnic Georgian homes was asked if he had taken part in ethnic cleansing and responded; “No, it wasn’t ethnic cleansing. No-one was killed there. We just let them go from our land. I don’t know whether they will return or not. But I did everything I could for them not to return. Never. You can call it ethnic cleaning, but I think I just did it to prevent a future war,” he said.
Thousands of Georgian opposition activists took part in a demonstration in Tbilisi on 7 November, their first major protest since the conflict, accusing President Mikhail Saakashvili of starting a war with Russia that Georgia could not win. “We are starting a new wave of civil confrontation, and we will not give up until new elections are called,” opposition leader Kakha Kukava said. Such a demonstration shows considerable courage; one year ago opposition rallies were broken up by police using rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons in a crackdown that ended days of protests but opened the Georgian government up to accusations of heavy-handedness.