August 11, 2008
We helped in Iraq - now help us, beg Georgians
As Russia forces its neighbour to retreat from South Ossetia, the people of Gori tell our correspondent of betrayal by the West
As a Russian jet bombed fields around his village, Djimali Avago, a Georgian farmer, asked me: “Why won’t America and Nato help us? If they won’t help us now, why did we help them in Iraq?”
A similar sense of betrayal coursed through the conversations of many Georgians here yesterday as their troops retreated under shellfire and the Russian Army pressed forward to take full control of South Ossetia.
Smoke rose as Russian artillery fire exploded less than half a mile from the bridge marking South Ossetia’s border with Georgia. A group of Georgian soldiers hastily abandoned their lorry after its wheels were shot out and ran across the border.
Georgian troops looked disheartened as they regrouped around tank lines about 2km from the border. Many said that they had been fighting in Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, until the early hours when they were suddenly ordered to withdraw from the breakaway region.
“They told us to come out – I don’t know why – but some of our guys are still out there in the fields,” one soldier told The Times. “I want to go back. If we lose South Ossetia now, it won’t be for ever because we will never surrender our land.”
President Saakashvili of Georgia has ordered a complete ceasefire and offered talks to the Russians. Despite this, the sound of gunfire and shelling could be clearly heard along the border zone last night.
Terrified civilians have fled in their thousands, convinced that Russia will not stop at the border but sweep into Georgia. Some fear that the Kremlin is intent on establishing a buffer zone to guard South Ossetia against future incursions.
Gori, normally a bustling city of 50,000 people, is largely deserted after Russian airstrikes at the weekend. Scores of people were abandoning their homes and loading possessions into vehicles or carrying what they could on foot. “There is a lot of panic. Many people have left and I am thinking of joining them. My bags are already packed,” Georgi, a 56-year-old resident of Tirdznisi, said. “We are afraid that the Russians will come here and kill us. People would not go if we had a strong army but they don’t believe in our army any more.”
Iago Jokhadze abandoned his village of Ergneti, close to Tskhinvali, after it was bombed by Russian jets yesterday. Fighting back tears, he said: “I have left everything, I don’t even have another shirt. If the Russians stay, then I can never return. We’re afraid of what the Russians can do.”
Miriyan Gogolashvili, of Tkviav, said: “The Russians will be here tomorrow. They want to show us and the world how powerful they are. Tomorrow it will be Ukraine and nobody in the West is doing anything to stop them. Why were our soldiers in Kosovo and Iraq if we don’t get any help from the West now?” he asked.
The Georgian Government is recalling its 2,000 troops serving in Iraq to confront the threat at home. Many Georgians will be reluctant to send them back after this war ends. Their despair was in sharp contrast to the confidence on the other side. At a base near the border, Russian peacekeepers appeared sure they would soon be joined by comrades from the regular army. “We are operating normally; nobody has disturbed us at all,” said one.
In Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, refugees from the fighting told how Russian helicopters bombed homes in Tshkinvali and neighbouring villages. Some spent days in basements before emerging to discover that their communities had been obliterated. Mzia Sabashvili, who hid for three days, said: “I know that lots of my neighbours are dead. I have no idea who is left.”
The Russians paid little heed to those in their way. A vehicle carrying observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe was shot at by a sniper near Tskhinvali. The bullet cracked the toughened glass of the passenger window, where a British officer had been sitting.
In Gori, where a statue of Stalin, the city’s most famous son, still stands in the main square, relatives scoured lists of the wounded put up outside the main hospital. More than 120 people were admitted yesterday in addition to the 456 treated since fighting erupted on Friday. The chief surgeon said that three civilians, including a pregnant woman, had died of their injuries.
Scores of soldiers milled around on the road outside. One said that they had all been in Tskhinvali but were now preparing to pull out of Gori. “The situation was very bad there but we were ready to stay. Russia is the enemy of the world,” he said.