KHETAGUROVO, South Ossetia (Reuters) - Georgian troops arrived Khetagurovo on August 8 in a storm of steel and bullets, killing eight people and badly damaging the village of ethnic South Ossetians.
When they left two days later, harried by the Russian forces that crushed Tbilisi’s bid to restore control over its breakaway region, locals say their took four prisoners with them and forfeited any chance of reconciliation.
Passions were still running high when Thomas Hammarberg, a European human rights official, arrived in the village on Sunday to witness the release of two Georgian tank crew as a goodwill gesture by the Ossetian authorities.
“Why are you releasing these bloody Georgians if they don’t release my husband who is held hostage there?,” village book keeper Rita Bestayeva shouted at Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner.
Russian soldiers held angry villagers at bay as the two Georgian servicemen — captured when Russian troops retook the village — were whisked away in a car in the direction of Georgia, a gesture Hammarberg said he would use his influence to push Tbilisi to reciprocate.
“I know that it is very difficult for people in this village to accept that those two prisoners have been released,” he told reporters during a break in the visit, which was closely chaperoned by the Russian military.
“I respect their reactions but I am convinced that this is a way to secure that those people missing from this village come back as soon as possible,” he said.
What remains of Khetagurovo, set in the hills of South Ossetia amid orchards and vineyards, bears the marks of war and the buildings still standing are pockmarked with shrapnel and bullets.
The conflict has left a lasting legacy in the minds of those like pensioner Yuza Khasiyeva, who saw one neighbor lying in his courtyard killed by a shrapnel head wound and another elderly resident lying dead.
The village is surrounded by a ring of ethnic Georgian villages inside South Ossetia, but asked if the two communities could live together after the latest conflict, she snorted:
“Are you mad? It’s better to die than live with them.”
“My grandparents told me that in the 1920s they were already killing us, so what we see now is already a third wave of their terror against the Ossetians.”
Ossetians say they were a target of ethnic cleansing in the years of Georgia’s short-lived independence after the collapse of the Russian empire in 1917. They backed Russia’s Bolshevik rulers when they moved to retake Georgia in the early 1920s.
The region broke from central Georgian control in the early 1990s with the breakup of the Soviet Union, and book-keeper Bestayeva agreed reunification was now out of the question.
“There can’t even be any talk of it. This is the third wave of genocide. Enough is enough.”
Hammarberg’s convoy drove through destroyed ethnic Georgian villages but did not stop in the largely deserted settlements.
“What I can see here now is the result of the madness of war,” Hammarberg told reporters after surveying the damage to the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali earlier.
“What happened here, a couple of weeks ago, shall never be repeated because this is an insult to people’s human rights,” he said after being shown around the so-called Jewish Quarter, a section of the town damaged by Georgian shelling.
In Khetagurovo, housewife Ofelia Dzhanyeva said she had lost her brother during the war in the early 1990s when South Ossetia threw off Georgian control, and after the latest conflict nothing would induce Ossetians to accept Tbilisi’s rule.
“None of the Ossetians is even thinking of reconciliation with Georgia now,” she said. “In 1991 our children turned into refugees. Now they have grown up to defend their homeland.”
Writing by Jon Boyle; editing by Myra MacDonald