Georgians tell of ethnic cleansing

The graves were shallow, dug in haste. One was in a shed attached to a house, the stench overwhelming the building. Stones had been on top to prevent disturbance by animals. This was the grim evidence, locals insist, of murderous ethnic cleansing, which has accompanied this conflict.

The dead were Georgians trapped in enclaves inside separatist South Ossetia who had become prey to Ossetian paramilitaries trailing behind Russia's forces. Yesterday, the survivors described their terrible experience for the first time since this sudden war erupted.

"This is where they killed my neighbour Koba," said Zurab Razmadze pointing to a patch of dried blood on the concrete entrance to a house. "He was just looking out to see what was going on when they opened fire and he was hit three times. There was no reason for this, he wasn't doing anything."

Koba Janashvili, 37, had died on the day Russian troops rolled into the district, according to people in the village of Tkiavi, on the South Ossetian side of the border with Georgia. He died in the looting, burnings and killings which came after the troops, attacks that locals blamed on the Ossetians militia men.

"They were angry and they were very drunk," said 51-year-old Mr Radmadze. "They looted the main shop and then started shooting people." There were also bloodstains on a table where he had been laid while dying. Afterwards, he was buried in the floor of stamped earth in the shed.

Tkiavi has seen the killings of around 30 people, say residents. Nodari Jumberi was shot a few doors away, again the victim, say his neighbours, of an unprovoked attack. He had been buried in his garden . Georgi Alkhasvili, 48, said: "He had gone to see if he could find any food, it was a risky thing to do, maybe he shouldn't have gone out, but he had to feed his family. They killed him because he was a Georgian and a young man."

Roza Chikhinadze, recalled the terrifying visits by the militia. "They came in two cars – usually a military jeep at the front and a minibus at the back. It's usually young guys in their early 20s. They behave like they're on a hunting trip."

Many of the houses in the village had been looted and burned. In the square, a shop had been emptied and then torched. Charred boxes and slices of watermelon were littered across the floor. Matiko Elbashidze, 92, had come to Tkiavi seeking a place of safety.

As she sat slumped in a wheelchair drinking water from an old cola bottle, she recalled the four-day walk from her deserted village, Kurta, 20 kilometres away, sleeping in the forest during the night. "She doesn't have friends or relatives here, but we'll find somewhere for her to stay," said a local man.

At the next village, Karbi, Tenguiz Tevdorashvili, 70, was inconsolable with grief. Everything he held precious had been destroyed when his home was hit by a shell. The only relations he has, in a hamlet six miles away, are missing. "Look what they have done to my home", he whispered with tears running down his cheeks. "I am an old man, this is all I had. All the pictures of my family, everything, had gone. Now I have nowhere to live, who will look after me?"

But Kakha Lomaia, head of Georgia's National Security Council, said: "The Russians invaded, so they have to take responsibility for what happened on occupied territory. This is another Srebrenica."

A large billboard on the road out of Gori depicted resolute Georgian soldiers with the slogan "Join the reserves and be a patriot." Now a Russian armoured personnel carrier sat beside it as artillery was being dug into a field a quarter of a mile away. Meanwhile, at the port of Poti, around 20 Georgian soldiers were taken prisoner at gunpoint by Russian troops, blindfolded and driven away in commandeered US Humvees which had been sold to the Georgian Army.

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