Kim Sengupta: Villagers caught in front line become victims of atrocities

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The Independent Online

Tension had been rising in the area for days and Nona Bakarashvilli, 51, an ethnic Georgian with four children, was increasingly worried. She, along with her husband, Georgi, left their home in the breakaway enclave of South Ossetia to seek a place of safety.

Six hours after leaving their village, Mrs Bakarashvilli was shot at a checkpoint by a drunken militiaman. She died of her wounds – one of many civilian casualties in the atrocities which are now coming to light, say humanitarian groups, on both sides of this conflict. Mr Bakarashvilli, 58, and the couple's children managed to reach the home of a relative inside Georgia proper, but not before losing all their money and the few belongings they had brought with them to the gunman.

Now the village where they have ended up is also at the mercy of marauding Ossetian, Cossack and Chechen paramilitaries who have come into Georgia behind Russian troops. They know that they must move on again from the danger.

The Bakarashvillis lived in a hamlet between Ksuisi and Kurta with a few other Georgian and Ossetian families in neighbouring areas. But the mood, which was always friendly, said Mr Bakarashvilli, turned ugly in the last few months with the arrival of paramilitaries from the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali.

"It was the outsiders who started causing trouble," he said. "I did not have any problems with the Ossetians who lived near us, we sometimes worked on farms together. But these men who came began insulting us and saying that we were Georgian and we should not be there. My eldest son is 24 and they kept asking where he was and I told them he was in Tbilisi."

Other Georgians in the area began to leave and the Bakarashvillis left their home last Friday – the day Georgian forces launched their attack on South Ossetia – in the family's old Opel car, to stay with one of Mr Bakarashvilli's cousins. They were stopped at a checkpoint east of Tskhinvali by uniformed men.

"There were about 10 of them and a few were not Ossetian, I could tell by the accent, some of them were drunk," he said. "They took everything and they said they were going to take the car. My wife started arguing saying how can we go such a long way on foot.

"They pushed us with the barrels of their rifles, and then one of them opened fire and she was hit in the stomach. One of the men then drove us to Tskhinvali. My wife was bleeding very heavily. Then he dumped us from the car.

"My wife died there. We waited for two days and then set off again. Now the children cry all the time. I feel very sad about what has happened, but I am also afraid because I know we are not safe."

There has been a rising toll of civilians killed and injured in this conflict either by being caught in crossfire, bombing or in targeted sectarian attacks. The Independent has seen the result of the violence in both South Ossetia and Georgia since fighting began at the end of last week.

A Human Rights Watch report issued yesterday gave further details of atrocities being committed and "expressed deep concern over the apparently indiscriminate nature of the attacks that have taken such a toll on civilians."

In Tskhinvali a woman, eight months' pregnant, was shot as she looked out of the window. She later died. A house was destroyed when it was hit by a Grad rocket, with six people – four women and two men – injured when they were thrown out of the window by the blast. They crawled to the basement of the building and hid there with neighbours treating their wounds and providing food.

The hospital in Tskhinvali, the only place for medical treatment in the city, had at one stage come under fire for 18 hours during which two sisters working there had been killed. One doctor said that the bodies of 44 people killed in the South Ossetian capital were taken there, along with 273 injured.

On the Georgian side, Gori came under Russian ground and air attack. Keti Javakhishvili, 25, was injured when she went with a neighbour to get bread from a shop. "I heard an explosion and dropped to the ground," she said. She suffered massive trauma to her liver, stomach, and intestines. Another victim, Nodar Mchedlishvili, 54, was injured when he went to the municipality building to get food to feed eight people displaced from South Ossetian villages.

"In a couple of seconds from everywhere I heard what sounded like massive gunfire. We fell on the ground and some people never got up," he said. Mr Mchedlishvili sustained shrapnel wounds to his leg. He was driven to Gori hospital in a car with six other victims as part of a convoy of the injured before being transferred to Tbilisi.

Georgia has filed a law suit citing ethnic cleansing against Russia at the International Court of Justice, set up in The Hague to rule on disputes between nations. "The Georgian ambassador to the Netherlands filed a law suit to the ICJ called 'The state of Georgia against the state of Russia' because of ethnic cleansing conducted in Georgia by Russia in 1993 to 2008," the secretary of Georgia's Security Council, Kakha Lomaia, said.

Separately, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the prosecutor for the International Criminal Court that was set up to try individuals for war crimes and genocide, said he had been contacted about South Ossetia and may launch a preliminary investigation.

Additional reporting by Stefan Kolenko in Variani

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