The view from the war zone: Hours before the ceasefire, border city feels force of Russia's final onslaught

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The Independent Online

Dr Georgi Abramishvili had treated the injured in Russia's first attack on a Georgian city. Yesterday, he died in the last one. The young surgeon was killed in the early morning, a missile from a warplane smashing into the grounds of Gori's hospital, streaking past the Red Cross flag put on the roof in a vain attempt to deflect such attacks.

Over the next three hours, before the Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, ordered a ceasefire, Gori was hit in a ground and air attack. Eight people died before peace supposedly broke out, among them Dr Abramishvili and Stan Storimans, a Dutch journalist.

Gori, the birthplace of Stalin and a focal point in the campaign, had to a large extent already emptied before this assault. By yesterday, only a few people were left to wander along the deserted streets strewn with shattered glass, amid the acrid smoke billowing from burnt buildings and cars. A pool of blood marked the spot where Dr Abramishvili died, walking across to the main building of the clinic complex.

The few patients still left in the hospital yesterday morning were hastily evacuated. "We managed to get them away but this is a terrible loss of a very talented life," said Professor Gurami Guasalia. "Georgi was one of our best young doctors. He could have left but chose to stay behind to do his job and help the sick. We are a hospital and we would treat anyone, Georgian, Russian, we are here to save all human life. I don't know why they chose this place. The outside world should be told what is going on here."

Mr Storimans, a cameraman with the television channel RTL, was trying to do just that when he was killed by a Russian shell. His colleague Jeroen Akkermans, a news correspondent, was seriously injured.

Yesterday, the main road to Gori from the capital, Tbilisi, was virtually free of traffic and dotted with bombed Georgian army tanks and cars. Patches of fields on either side were ablaze from Russian helicopter gunship fire, the villages between them bereft of people.

Just a half-dozen miles north-west of Gori, however, were people who thrive at a time of violence and lawlessness: a band of men, most in civilian clothes, some in assorted combat fatigues, all carrying guns. Locals were guarded about the men's activities but were of the opinion that come nightfall they would go into Gori to loot abandoned homes and shops damaged by bombing.

This is now the legacy of this unexpected and brutal conflict with seemingly no one in control. The Georgian army panicked and fled from Gori on Monday evening amid rumours of a Russian advance – a "strategic withdrawal", according to the government, to set up a "ring of steel" around Tbilisi.

Another legacy of this war is the hatred it has sown among Georgians for their South Ossetian neighbours and their Russian allies. Jujona Merabishvili's home, a second-floor apartment in a residential block, was gutted by a bomb. "I was actually inside with my son when this happened, there was a huge noise and the place caught fire, we were thrown across the room, my son could have died," she said weeping. "Anyone who could have got away has done so. But I had nowhere to go, and now I do not even have anywhere to live. It was the Russians and Ossetians who did this, I will never forgive them."

Two men were killed in a missile strike on Gori's main square, which is dominated by a huge statue of Stalin. "It was them over there," said Alexander Khochisvili, waving in the direction of South Ossetia. "They are using the Russians to murder our people. They have chosen to be our enemies, they want to take over our lands. But we shall get revenge for what has been done." There was also anger towards the PresidentSaakashvili. "He has led us into this war we could not win," said Mr Khochisvili, "and he must now bear the responsibility. He has let us down and he now must go."

Outside Gori a line of cars was heading towards Tbilisi, swelling the numbers of refugees already in the capital.