Gori: Russian Allies Triumphant as City Burns

An IWPR journalist, allowed into Gori on a Russian tank, witnesses exultant pro-Moscow fighters rampaging through the blazing city.

Gori: Russian Allies Triumphant as City Burns

An IWPR journalist, allowed into Gori on a Russian tank, witnesses exultant pro-Moscow fighters rampaging through the blazing city.

The Georgians have to understand that we’re not afraid of [United States President] Bush….threatening us with his marines and paratroopers,” insisted the Russian soldier who called himself a commander, tank captain and a member of what he says are Russia’s peacekeeping troops.

His tank was standing outside the Georgian town of Gori.

Russian president Dmitry Medvedev announced on August 12 that what he described as a peace enforcement mission in Georgia had ended. But Russian troops, assisted by North Caucasian irregular militias, have continued to rampage through Georgian territory.

On August 15, there were reports that the Russian military remained in the Black Sea port of Poti, the western town of Senaki and the central town of Gori.

The previous day, I was able to get into Gori and saw terrifying scenes of exultant pro-Russian fighters rampaging through a city apparently empty of civilians.

I got in quite by chance. A Russian tank commander I spoke to befriended me because we both come from the same city, the Azerbaijani capital, Baku.

That afternoon, I took my chances walking past the last Georgian roadblock on the road to Gori. I was stopped by Russian soldiers and brought to their commander.

The commander checked my documents and learning that I was from Baku said he was born there himself. He returned me my documents and my camera and told the soldiers, “Don’t touch him, he’s my compatriot.”

The officer asked me about Baku, how life was there and how the city had changed.

Then he escorted me into Gori on his tank and warned not to wander off.

The city was burning and the firing was continuous. There were lots of Russian soldiers there and even more irregular fighters with white armbands.

I was told that soldiers had been brought here from Chechnya. There were fighters of several Caucasian nationalities. I didn’t see a single civilian. All around was smoke and the smell of gunfire. Everyone was celebrating victory, congratulating one another and asking each other loudly when they should advance.

My mobile phone rang. My editor was calling from Baku. Because of the non-stop firing and rumble of tanks, I couldn’t hear anything and I moved away from my protectors in the tank by 20 or 25 metres to talk to him. I sheltered in some bushes and began to talk to my editor.

At that moment, some men with white armbands seized my phone. They threw me on the ground and levelled their guns at me and shouted, “Who are you? Whose side are you on?”

I was saved by my minder from Baku who arrived on the scene and told them that I was “one of us”. A few seconds later and it might have been too late.

After that I was released, my attackers turned friendly, returned my phone and even asked to borrow it to call home. They thanked me by treating me to Pepsi and giving me cigarettes and a lighter.

One of them was a well-built tall North Caucasian in his thirties with white armbands on both arms. He was unshaven and unwashed and spoke with a strong accent. He told me, “The Georgians say we are raping women in Gori – but there aren’t any here! If they had been here, we’d have done it with pleasure!”

Then my new friend from Baku took me back out of the town on his tank to the road back to Tbilisi.

My attempts to reach the city had begun the day before. You could hear shooting coming from there and it was hard to get access to the town.

Around midnight that night Georgia’s security council said that the road to Gori was now open. The next morning I decided to try again.

The road into the town was closed and Georgian soldiers advised journalists not to go any further. But we took the decision to try and see with our own eyes what was going on.

Gori is only 70 kilometres from Tbilisi in the centre of Georgia. On the road north out of the capital, we saw Georgian police and soldiers but armed only with automatic weapons and without any heavy weaponry. I counted 12 Georgian checkpoints.

The last Georgian post was three km from Gori. On the morning of August 14, the road was opened for a short time and journalists and international officials from the OSCE and UNHCR were allowed through.

Near the entrance to the town stood Russian tanks and armoured vehicles and artillery. Nearby were burnt Georgian armoured vehicles and tanks.

Suddenly a burst of firing came from the direction of the town and everyone on the road ran in panic.

A few minutes later, journalists regrouped and gathered again 10 to 15 km from the entrance of the town.

Not a sound could be heard from the town. Journalists began to talk to the Russian soldiers.

Then three Niva vans came out of Gori, full of armed men with white armbands. They got out of the cars and ran towards the journalists, firing several shots in the air and even some at the journalists.

Journalists began to run again. The militiamen stole three of the journalists’ cars. Tamar Urushadze, a correspondent for Georgian public television, had been talking live on air and was lightly wounded in the arm.

The people in the UNHCR vehicles also ran away and hid in the wood not far away.

All this happened in full view of the Russian soldiers who had introduced themselves as peacekeepers.

A few minutes later, remembering their peacekeeping role, the Russian soldiers did finally intervene and stop the irregulars with white armbands stealing the UN vehicles.

About an hour later, the Niva belonging to Imedi television channel was completely wrecked.

Then everything was quiet for two hours.

Around 4 pm, a group of Russian armoured vehicles suddenly moved out of Gori in the direction of Tbilisi, unimpeded by the Georgian military, which let them pass its checkpoints. Then, after passing several roadblocks, the vehicles suddenly stopped and went back in the direction of Gori.

Later, IWPR was told by the Russian military that this sortie had been specially planned to provoke a Georgian attack.

One Russian armoured vehicle broke down 150 metres away from their post. Journalists went up and began to ask questions. The Russian soldiers swore at them. Several of the Georgian women journalists answered back, saying, “What are you doing on Georgian territory, what do you need here? Go away, leave us in peace.” Then the Russian soldiers pointed their weapons at them, swore and shouted, “If you don’t go away and shut up, we’ll open fire.”

Around 5 pm, five Georgian police cars came up to the Russian roadblock and negotiated for a humanitarian corridor to be opened up to Gori. Journalists listened in on the conversation and asked for permission to carry on. “We cannot guarantee your safety,” said one soldier.

The Russians said that they did not control the town and there were irregular fighters there from Abkhazia and Ossetia. One Russian officer said that the Abkhaz and Ossetians were taking revenge on the Georgians. “They are doing just what you did in Tskhinvali and we cannot stop them,” he said.

What I saw in Gori confirmed that.

Idrak is a journalist with the Azerbaijani newspaper Ayna and a member of IWPR’s Cross Caucasus Journalism Network.

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