Passing along the road to Tkviavi, the lush green fields, bountiful orchards and gentle slopes of the Caucasus foothills give off the air of a sleepy rural paradise. But the scorched earth and burnt-out shells of cars that litter the roadside are clues that all is not right here, and the silence gripping the town that two weeks ago had a population of 1,300 is eerie.
Tkviavi is the closest town inside Georgia "proper" to the border with South Ossetia and its capital, Tskhinvali. Its residents watched as Georgian troops poured up the road three weeks ago in their ill-fated push to regain South Ossetia, and they watched as the army fled, leaving their village undefended. Along with them went the young of the town, scared of counter-attacks. Only the elderly and sick remained.
Then, on 12 August, Russian jets bombed the village, destroying dozens of homes. For a week afterwards, the feared maradyori – marauding gangs of South Ossetians and other irregular militias – surged down the road from Tskhinvali in an orgy of looting, torching and killing.
Now, its people are stuck in limbo. The Russians have established a checkpoint further down the road at Karaleti, preventing those who fled from returning to help their elderly relatives.
But while there was initial fury among the residents at the "Ossetian dogs" who had robbed and trashed their homes, now the target of the anger in Tkviavi seems to be changing. There is a corresponding backlash against President Mikheil Saakashvili, for bring misfortune upon them.
"Please tell everyone in Russia, in the world, that we want to be with Russia, we don't want Saakashvili. He has brought us nothing but trouble," implored Karaman Goguashvili, 77. "We don't need Nato, we don't need America, we need to be friends with Russia."
When asked if they agreed with this, the other villagers in the group nodded vigorously. "We're all people who have been through a lot in our lives, we're not easily scared," added Mr Goguashvili, pointing out the garden where he and his wife hid during the looting raids. "But now we are all scared. Many people have died here. Who will defend us? Who will look after us? We are left here all alone."
In one area at the edge of the town, some houses are razed. Debris and twisted bits of metal litter the ground. A large group of villagers showed us round their destroyed houses, each one recounting a tale more pitiful than the last.
Inside another house that had only light bomb damage, two elderly men sat in stained white vests. They sat in silence, their hands clutching a rail in front of them and shaking uncontrollably. When questioned, neither man even registered the question or the presence of a stranger in the house. They simply continued staring at the wall, their scrawny hands quivering. "He's been like this ever since the bombings," wailed the distraught wife of one. "We don't know what to do. We need medicines, doctors. But nothing is coming."
The Russian bombing attacks on Georgia have mostly targeted military infrastructure, and where they have missed, such as in Gori, there were obvious military targets nearby. But there is nothing of military importance in this village, and the bombing raids came days after the Georgian army had fled.
One shopkeeper said he had only voted for Mr Saakashvili because government officials told him his shop would be closed down if he did not. "Russia protected Georgia for hundreds of years; we've always been close to Russia," said another resident. "The Ossetians behaved like dogs, but if Russia is our friend, then the Ossetians will be our friends, too."
There were more nods of agreement. "We are just simple people, we are peasants," rejoined Mr Goguashvili. "Perhaps all the intellectuals in Tbilisi who want to be with America are far cleverer than us; perhaps they understand the world better than we do. But we are the ones left here who have to live with this," he said, with a mournful gesture towards the wreckage behind him.Reuse content