Dumbstruck and downtrodden, refugees relieved to be in Russian hands


From Monday's Globe and Mail

August 11, 2008 at 4:18 AM EDT

ALAGIR, RUSSIA They're still in bathrobes and sweatpants, the clothes they were wearing when they fled the Georgian rockets and bombs that rained on their villages in a predawn attack no one saw coming.

Some cowered in their basements, others scattered to the forest. By morning, they began their journey northward to Russia, and safety. The adults carried children and old men and women on their shoulders. Most young men stayed behind to fight.

Hundreds of refugees from South Ossetia now are packed into camps in southern Russia, along the northern border of the breakaway Georgian region. Many were dumbstruck at the terror unleashed during Friday's surprise, predawn attack by Georgian forces on their tiny mountainous republic, which won de facto independence during a bloody civil war in Georgia 16 years ago.

Gogi Loloev, 77, hid in his basement with his 90-year-old mother all night. "When I first heard the bombs, I thought: 'This is the end of our life here.' We said goodbye to it."

By morning, when the shelling stopped, the retired collective farm worker joined hundreds of refugees fleeing his small village near the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali.

Mr. Loloev said he carried his mother for several kilometres before Russian peacekeeping trucks appeared on the road and drove them to a refugee camp across the Russian border, in North Ossetia.

"I had a nice house and four cows and now I am a homeless man," Mr. Loloev said as he sat beneath a tree in the makeshift refugee settlement, a one-time Soviet summer camp for kids called Holiday Hotel.

The refugees said they were relieved to be in Russian hands now. Most said Russian troops plucked them from the roads on the weekend and ferried them to camps and hospitals in southern Russia. The refugees described the troops as peacekeepers, but Russian military troops and tanks have moved en masse across the border.

Russian news reports, which the International Red Cross supported yesterday, said up to 34,000 South Ossetians have fled the republic, which previously had a population of about 70,000.

The conflict flared Friday when Georgia began an offensive to regain control over South Ossetia, launching heavy rocket and artillery fire and air strikes that pounded the regional capital of Tskhinvali. In response, Russia unleashed overwhelming artillery shelling and air attacks on Georgian troops.

Yesterday, a massive column of Russian tanks, armoured personnel carriers and trucks lined the highway south of Vladikavkaz en route to South Ossetia. The convoy, which in some parts took over the entire highway, contained at least 240 vehicles.

A soldier atop one of the tanks said: "This is a military operation."

In the makeshift camp, many refugees said they hope Russian troops drive out Georgian forces. Many, though, were simply grieving their destroyed lives.

In one quiet bunkhouse, a group of eight elderly women sat on cots, saying little. One stared numbly at the ceiling, another cried silently, unstoppable tears pouring down her weathered cheeks.

"They won't come down to eat," said Alla Pukhaeva, 37, of the elderly refugees. "They just sit here. We have to bring food to them."

When this reporter entered the bunkhouse, one woman demanded answers for the carnage and laid the blame with the United States, a Georgian ally.

"The old people couldn't walk, and in the [Russian peacekeeper] trucks, they were shooting at us," said Plieva Aza Georgievna, 71. "We are really a small nation. Why are they [Georgians] trying to eliminate us? Can't the U.S. see us sitting here?"

Ms. Georgievna said her only child, a grown son, remained in South Ossetia to fight.

Elsewhere in the camp, tempers flared and nerves frayed as many refugees - cellphones glued to their ears - tried to contact relatives back home.

Ms. Pukhaeva, who fled early Friday morning, said her four brothers stayed behind to fight and help trapped residents. But yesterday she couldn't reach any of her brothers in her hometown of Tsknivali.

"Please let the world know that what is happening in South Ossetia is disgusting," she said. "The Georgians are behaving like fascists."

Others complained that Western news coverage of the escalating conflict between Russia and Georgia had a pro-Georgian bias, neglecting to mention that Georgian forces attacked South Ossetia first, including civilians, in their bid to seize control of the rebel republic.

However, one Russian media outlet was observed yesterday manipulating the refugees' stories. A television reporter for a state-controlled TV station said he was ordered to find a story about a slain South Ossetian child. If the story couldn't be found he was ordered to report it anyway.

None of the refugees interviewed at the camp reported firsthand stories of relatives or friends being killed, only trapped or left behind. Some said they say bodies lying in the streets of Tskhnivali and other villages.

Most talked of the shock of having their homes shelled or flattened in the middle of the night.

Garik Gigoloev, 37, said he saw tanks enter his village of Dmenis at 11:30 Friday night. When an explosion shook his house, he ran into the forest in his sweatpants and T-shirt and stayed all night with a group of about 50 terrified villagers.

"We knew that if we stayed we would be killed," he said.

In the morning, the villagers walked in the direction of the main highway leading north to Russia, but they stayed in the woods as they walked.

They feared they would be killed if they were seen on the highway.

"We walked for about 20 kilometres in the bush," Mr. Gigoloev said. "The old people could barely walk."

Eventually, a line of buses with Russian soldiers appeared on the highway and carried them across the border.

"I left with nothing," Mr. Gigoloev said. "I have no documents, no money."



Commentary by the Ottawa Mens Centre in the Globe and Mail

August 12, 2008

Ottawa Mens Centre.com, from Ottawa, Canada wrote: Wow, Globe and Mail brave enough to print facts that Washington will not like. It was nice to see "Georgia began an offensive to regain control over South Ossetia, launching heavy rocket and artillery fire and air strikes that pounded the regional capital of Tskhinvali"
The story accurately described a "Georgian invasion" with a preemptive strike on civilians. Georgia knew what was going to happen. They committed genocide against thousands of women and children and knew Russia would respond. They knew they could immediately call a "cease fire" immediately after they did the genocide and ethnic cleansing and claim to be a victim of a Russian invasion by continuing to shell civilians from locations 20K inside Georgia. Russia had every right to go in to wipe out those areas and in my view, if those areas remain a risk to Russians in the future than that territory should not be returned to Georgia under any circumstances.
The Georgian president is a MASS MURDERER, he is an American puppet who supplied troops for Iraq. Now, American military forces have transported those Georgian troops back to Georgia to continue their fight one way or another. The western press has adopted a anti-Russia position that indicates the press is painting black as white. It is exceedingly reassuring to see the Globe and Mail as one of the view voices of the press willing to accurately report the facts and not the political message Washington wishes to portray. www.OttawaMensCentre.com


Nick Wright , thanks for the post. Well said.
When Georgians discover how their President Saakashvili gave the order for mass murder against fellow orthodox Christians, there is going to be a backlash. More to the point, there are now tens of thousands of highly motivated people in Georgia and Russia not to mention all the relatives residing in other countries who will wish to see him removed from power and we can expect that will happen in a similar fashion to the other dictators who engaged in mass murder and genocide. www.OttawaMensCentre.com