19:54 Mecca time, 16:54 GMT
|South Ossetia’s wrecked villages|
| By Nazanine Moshiri in South Ossetia |
In the summer, under Russian escort, I drove past South Ossetia’s Georgian enclaves, and witnessed the burning and bulldozing of homes.
At that time I was unable to report from the villages, as I was barred by the authorities.
The first thing that strikes you is the absolute silence. Almost every home has been ripped apart and courtyard walls are crushed.
It is hard to believe that this used to be a bustling community with its own schools and businesses.
Some of the destruction is clearly ethnically motivated, but some of the looting is probably the work of profiteers.
There really was not much left to take, so we were surprised when we heard banging in the distance.
As we approached the noise we saw a man in mismatching fatigues using a hammer to tear off the metal frame of a gate.
They were clearly not happy to see us, and threatened us with violence if we refused to leave.
One of the men, who seemed less concerned than the others, agreed to speak to us.
“I am from a neighbouring South Ossetian village,” he said.
“The Georgians who used to live here have gone, and I don’t want them to come back.”
When asked who burnt this village down, he admitted: “It was the Ossetians.”
We asked him if he was sorry about what happened. “No,” he replied.
This Caucasus region has a long and dark history of ethnic violence that flared up again during August’s Russian-Georgian war.
Both sides accuse each other of human rights violations, and there is no doubt that both have a strong case – hundreds of civilians on both sides were killed.
International observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe have been left in the dark about exactly what happened to the Georgian enclaves of South Ossetia, because up until now they have not been allowed inside.
Most of their information has come from journalists and human right workers such as Tatiana Lokshina from Human Rights Watch.
As a Russian national, Lokshina has been able to access the villages and speak to some Georgians who have chosen to stay.
At her Moscow office she showed me pictures she had taken of the elderly Georgians who had remained behind.
“Despite being sometimes the only person in a burnt-out village, they prefer to risk their lives and stay,” she said.
In Tskinval, the new name the administration has given to South Ossetia’s capital, whose Georgian name was Tskhinvali, there is little sympathy for the plight of former ethnic neighbours.
A man wearing a sweatshirt that carried the word ‘RUSSIA’ across his chest said: “They killed so many people here there’s no way they should come back.”
Their views come as no surprise really, as more than 100 civilians were killed here when the Georgians used missiles to shell the town.
It is difficult though for anyone to justify what happened here in Avnevi.
As we come across a fire still smouldering, it seems the local militia has not finished with the village yet.
Ossetians are not only destroying all signs that Georgians ever lived here, they seem to be making sure they can never return.