The view from South Ossetia: Joy and thanks in the land that is now part of Russia

In a courtyard lined with rubble, trays of meat and bread are brought forth, and homemade, slightly bitter wine to wash it down. Hardly a lavish feast, but for the residents of this bombed-out building in the South Ossetian capital, this is a true liberation banquet.

Sons who had been off fighting are reunited with their mothers. Elderly residents who had spent days hunkering down in basements to avoid mortar shells and bullets emerge, squinting at the sunlight. They toast each other's health, the fact that they have survived, and the people they view as their liberators – the Russians.

As Russian tanks and trucks loaded with rocket launchers roll through the smouldering streets, the few civilians left in Tskhinvali repeat "thank you, thank you" over and over. Some have tears rolling down their faces, others salute and cheer. One elderly man simply stands to attention, closes his eyes and makes the sign of the cross.

Moscow may have earned worldwide condemnation for using "disproportionate force" and extending the battle beyond the disputed province of South Ossetia, into Georgia proper. Not in this town, where many hold Russian passports and use the rouble as their currency. Here, the Russians are saviours.

"It looks like a small Stalingrad, doesn't it?" says Teimuraz Pliyev, 62. "Barbarians! Look – this is Georgian democracy. If it weren't for Russia, we would already have been buried here."

"Georgians" and "Genocide" come up again and again in these crumpled streets, always in the same breath.

"I saw a Georgian soldier throw a grenade into a basement full of women and children," rages Sarmat Tskhovredov, 28, who joined to fight on the spur of the moment. "The young men ran, but the women and the infirm who could not leave were shot like dogs."

It is the Russian special forces who have brought a handful of foreign journalists from North Ossetia into South Ossetia, on an embed where movements are controlled and stops selected. The group starts off in a convoy of buses but 30 miles from the border, the Russians say they are still concerned about Georgian snipers and we are all moved into armoured personnel carriers. We hear the odd artillery explosions but the feared snipers never materialise.

As we get closer to Tskhinvali, plumes of black smoke are visible. South Ossetia is still burning. Either side of the road leading in from the north – the road that Russian forces would have travelled to retake the province – is utter devastation. There are few civilians to be seen, many have fled as refugees into North Ossetia and those that remain are elderly or young irregular fighters who joined forces with the Russians to chase the Georgians out of town.

Tskhinvali was in a sorry state before this last outbreak of fighting, still bearing the scars from the 1991-92 war when it broke from Georgian rule. Now in the town centre, buildings are still alight, flames shooting up from roofless shells. Those structures that are not burning are covered in bullet holes and shrapnel wounds, showers of glass from blown-out windows on the ground. Other buildings have simply collapsed.

In front of the university, where students once gathered, lie the mangled wrecks of three Georgian tanks – a barrel here, some tread track there.

At the hospital, the operating room was moved to the basement. We are told that 200 people were treated here. They have been evacuated, but the bloody walls, stained stretchers and hastily-abandoned dressings remain, as does the stench of human waste.

The corpses that were dotted about the streets at the weekend seem to have all been recovered. Residents say that some were hastily buried in backyards, deprived of proper rites because they were decomposing in the heat.

Other victims are now receiving a more traditional farewell. On a hill outside Tskhinvali, black-clad mourners gather around an open coffin to pay their final respects, as another Russian military convoy rumbles by.