For four days, 68-year-old Meri Basishvili trudged through the woods of South Ossetia to make it from her home in Kurta, an ethnic Georgian village there, to relative safety in the nearby Russian-occupied city of Gori.
"We thought that it would calm down after some time, but then they [marauders] stole everything from my neighbor's house and burnt it. Along with four others, I decided to run," recounted Basishvili, who is now living in a shelter for Internally Displaced Persons in Tbilisi. "[I]t was impossible to stay there."
Basishvili says that she passed numerous dead bodies on her way through the woods; their stench, mixed with the smell of smoke from nearby burning villages, left an indelible impression. "None of the dead were in military uniform. All of them were civilians, and there was no one to bury them," she told EurasiaNet. "But my bull saved me because when we were stopped by some men who were Chechens or Cossacks they just patted it and let us go."
Stories of torture, rape and brutal murders abound in the schools and government buildings where over 100,000 displaced persons from throughout Georgia now live. Many do not have any information about the husbands, parents or relatives who stayed behind in areas now under Russian and separatist control.
As Russian troops continue with their fitful withdrawal a process that the commander of Russian forces in Georgia, Gen. Vladimir Boldyrev, stated on August 21 could take 10 days to complete one haunting question lingers on what role, if any, did Russian forces play in expelling ethnic Georgians from breakaway South Ossetia and Abkhazia?
The Georgian government charges that the violence committed against both regions' civilian populations amounts to a deliberate Russian policy of ethnic cleansing. It has appealed to two international courts to seek redress: the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, and the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
The first case concerns Russia's alleged violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. The second, scheduled for a hearing on September 8, goes further. In a 32-page lawsuit, Georgia claims that Russia's violation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination dates to the early 1990s, when fighting with Russian-backed separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia led to the deaths of "thousands of civilians" and the "forced displacement of over 300,000 people."
Russia's August 2008 intervention in South Ossetia and Abkhazia put the final stamp on that policy, the lawsuit alleges. "In light of the grossly disproportionate scale of Russia's military actions, the true purpose of its conduct is clear: to secure both South Ossetia and Abkhazia as ethnically homogenous client States free from Georgian political, social or cultural influence, and to prevent the return of ethnic Georgians and others who would resist Russia's de facto annexation of the territories," the Georgian government argues.
Moscow, for its part, categorically rejects the charges, and counters that Georgia's August 8 attack on Tskhinvali, the capital of breakaway South Ossetia, amounted to an act of genocide that led to the deaths of 2,000 people. The international organization Human Rights Watch has rejected the figure as inflated. Tskhinvali's city hospital, the group found, had only registered 44 dead. A Russian commission has since lowered the number of civilian deaths to 131.
Despite the discrepancies in casualty figures, the Russian Foreign Ministry has announced plans to file complaints about alleged war crimes committed by Georgian forces in South Ossetia with the International Criminal Court. Russia is not a signatory to the Rome Statute establishing the ICC; Georgia, however, is.
Local human rights analysts say that Georgia should be prepared for a long slog through international courts. "I think it was such a large-scale war that Russia will also have some evidence to back its accusations against Georgia," projected Ucha Nanuashvili executive director of Tbilisi's Human Rights Information and Documentation Centre, "But definitely there are many more violations that have been conducted on the Russian side."
Like other Georgian human rights groups, Nanuashvili's center relies on phone calls and conversations with displaced persons from the Gori region to collect information. Travel to the affected areas remains impossible for such local organizations, as well as for most international aid organizations.
Georgian President Saakashvili has stated that the government has received 1,400 reports of ethnic cleansing against Georgians. Hot lines run by local human rights organizations, the Office of the Public Defender and the Ministry of Justice are collecting much of the information.
To date, though, the details remain under wraps. The Ministry of Justice, the government body handling the two lawsuits, declined to provide EurasiaNet with any information about the suits or evidence to support the government's arguments.
What evidence has been made public appears to concern mostly Russian-backed Ossetian fighters; not Russian ground forces themselves. Most Ossetians from separatist-controlled South Ossetia, however, carried Russian passports; Georgian officials charge that they fought in conjunction with the Russian army and Russian peacekeepers.
Cases cited by the Office of the Public Defender illustrate the difficulties involved in linking acts of violence against ethnic Georgians specifically and consistently to the Russian chain of command, rather than to the random brutality of war.
Public Defender Sozar Subari said that his office to date has seven documented cases of civilian murders and additional cases of kidnapping. The office defines a documented case as one in which either the victim or an eyewitness can provide testimony.
Most of the cases come from the narrow strip of territory separating Gori from South Ossetia and from within formerly Georgian-controlled areas of the South Ossetia conflict zone itself. Ossetians are primarily named as the perpetrators.
On August 8, in the village of Kvemo Achabeti, an armed Ossetian, roughly 40 years old, reportedly shot and killed an 84-year-old ethnic Georgian after he said that he had no guns to give them.
In Tkviavi, an ethnic Georgian village within South Ossetia, some 20 "armed men in military uniforms" shot and killed one homeowner and then burnt his house with the body inside. The eyewitness reported that the group spoke Georgian with an Ossetian accent.
In Karaleti, a village not far from Gori, a group of "Ossetian and Russian armed men" reportedly killed two men in a car-jacking, then burned down two houses and drove off with two tractors and a car.
The accounts echo an August 13 report from Human Rights Watch about four previously ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia that are marked by "terrifying scenes of destruction" with their residents left stranded. In an August 17 report, the organization called on Russian officials to respond swiftly to "end Ossetian militia attacks on ethnic Georgians in the Gori district of Georgia."
The Georgian government has cited the inability of Tbilisi-based international aid organizations to travel into Russian-occupied areas to the north of Gori and in South Ossetia as further evidence supporting their claim of ethnic cleansing.
Nina Akhmeteli is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.