"TKVIAVI, Georgia — The men who came to Gulnara Militaura's house seemed to know what they were looking for. They entered her kitchen and shot her husband and his brother in the head. For the next five days, as attacks and looting raged outside, she cowered at home, sprinkling vinegar on the bodies to try to keep them from rotting.
Now that the fighting between Georgia and Russia over the breakaway region of South Ossetia has subsided, killings like those will be grist for competing claims of ethnic cleansing.
Ms. Militaura, an ethnic Georgian, is accusing South Ossetians, who ally themselves with Russia, of killing her husband and his brother.
Ethnic cleansing has haunted the borderlands of the old Soviet bloc.
It is a weapon that was wielded with devastating force in Bosnia and Kosovo.
But a dozen interviews with those who fled the fighting, and a trip through seven Georgian villages just south of the fighting, indicated the killing this month was not that systematic, nor on that scale — based on what is known so far.
Georgia's military campaign ripped through a city just north of here last week, prompting Russia to strike back and opening a way for South Ossetians to sweep into Georgian villages for revenge.
Still, the victims seemed marked by their ethnicity in a vicious, if short, war - itself fought over competing claims to the same patches of ground by different groups. Villages had been burned and houses broken; unburied bodies lay rotting; fresh graves were dug in gardens and basements.
Much remains unknown. Because journalists have only limited access to Russian-controlled areas, most of the victims interviewed have been ethnic Georgians. The only access for foreign journalists to the Russian-controlled areas has been with Russian minders, impeding efforts to assess how severe the damage in the north.
On Tuesday, a photographer on a Russian tour of the northern area saw what appeared to be a concerted effort to raze some of the villages completely.
Homes were ripped apart. Sections of courtyard walls lay crushed next to the road. Dozens of men dressed in mismatched fatigues stood on the main road, watching an orange backhoe rip the facade off of a burned stone house.
In a swath of villages in central Georgia, some killings were carried out for revenge, since feuds in this lush farmland go back generations. Some were outright cases of theft. And in still other cases, the message seemed that the power balance is shifting, away from ethnic Georgians to the Ossetian separatists and their Russian backers.
The death tolls do not appear to be what each side is claiming.
Russia has said that 2,000 civilians were killed by Georgian troops. But in three hospitals visited by a reporter in Vladikavkaz, the Russian city that has taken most of the wounded, only 259 patients were being treated, suggesting a far lower death toll, since in most conflicts there are far more wounded than killed.
Georgians are saying 213 soldiers and civilians were killed in the fighting. But Georgia has blocked access to morgues, a precaution to protect journalists from angry families, said Alexander Kvitashvili, the country's health minister. The death count, he said, is expected to rise as access to Russian-controlled areas begins to increase.
The grave of Ms. Militaura's husband, Misha, covered with fresh dirt near a rose bush in the garden, was one of six that reporters counted on Tuesday among what local residents said were 11 shooting deaths in this village of about 3,800 people.
Like many elderly Georgians, Ms. Militaura, who is a language teacher in her 70s, decided not to leave her house during the initial attacks. One neighbor's house went up in flames on Aug. 12. Then another. It was too late to run. She and the rest of her family sat and waited.
When the men came, she tried to joke with them. She was from Tskhinvali, the capital city of South Ossetia, which she assumed was their area, and she knew people there.
"They said, 'We don't have time to deal with your acquaintances,'" she said on Sunday, the day she was rescued, surrounded by 17 members of her family in her daughter's home in Tbilisi.
Then, in another room, more men shot her husband and his brother, Zakaria. They took a tractor, a Soviet-era car, shoes and glass jars, and they left.
Several days later, a group with different accents came. They took vodka.
"I sat alone all night and cried," she said. "I thought, 'There are no men left here. How will I bury them?'"
There were other killings in the village that day.
Shamil Okropiridze, in his 60s, was shot as he opened his front gate to look at a commotion outside, said Zurab Razmadze, a resident. His corpse went unburied for days, and his yard still smelled sour from the rot.
Koba Chashashvili, 38, was also shot on sight. Mr. Ramadze tried burying him in the yard, but looters were everywhere, so he had to quietly bury him in a basement.
Another victim, Nudar Batauri, appeared to have lived for a while.
On Tuesday, there was still a rag clutched in his left hand, as if he had tried to stanch the bleeding before dying. Someone had dragged his body to the outdoor washroom and covered it with a beach towel.
In some refugees' accounts, people knew which Ossetians from which villages burned theirs.
Murat, a Georgian from Eredvi living in an empty education building on the outskirts of Tbilisi, said Ossetians from Sarabuki and Osuri Prisi had burned part of his village. They had fought each other in the previous war in the 1990s, he said. The second wave of looters were strangers. They shot his neighbor dead when she begged them to spare the house. Her body was still there days later.
Ossetians suffered too, though more from intense bombardment than from revenge killings. In Tskhinvali, Olga Valieva was hanging her wash when a rocket crashed near her garden, knocking her to the ground and destroying part of one wall. Several hundred people hid for four days in the basement of a building in the Jewish quarter.
Ethnic rage was on display.
Timur Kiguradze, a 22-year-old journalist who was wounded by Ossetian soldiers on Aug. 8 outside Tskhinvali, said he felt nervous in the hospital there when wounded Ossetian soldiers discovered that he was Georgian. Tskhinvali was nearly empty of Ossetians on Aug. 9, he said, but the Georgians never took the city completely, and the next day, Russian troops rolled in.
"They said, why are you being treated?" Mr. Kiguradze recalled. "They should take you out and shoot you."
An Ossetian woman from Kurta, one of the worst-hit Georgian villages and one that did not appear to have been protected by any Georgian soldier, said she had walked for days and was finally picked up by a car, but she said the Ossetian men inside kicked her out when she tried to help an elderly Georgian woman.
"Why are you sorry for those Georgians?" they told her.
Nona Tsotsoria, Georgia's representative at the European Court for Human Rights, who visited the area on Tuesday on a convoy with journalists, Georgian officials and aid workers, was forming her own opinion.
"It was more serious than just stealing," she said. "Nobody is here anymore."
In the majority of refugees' accounts, Russians have not been a hostile force. Nina Albakidze, a 70-year-old from Kurta living in a Tbilisi kindergarten, said she had waited for days in hopes that the Red Cross would come get her, but decided to take matters into her own hands on Aug. 13. When she left her house, everything was on fire. Dead cows were starting to stink.
She and two other elderly women helped carry her husband, who is partly paralyzed. Twice she begged Russian soldiers for help. They refused but sent some Russian military meals after her in an ambulance later.
"A soldier said, 'Grandma, what are you still doing here?'" she said, sitting under color cutouts of squirrels in a kindergarten classroom. "'It's dangerous for you here.' I asked why. He said others were coming."
In other cases, it seemed the targets were simply powerful people. Ms. Albakidze's son worked for the Georgian representative of South Ossetia, Dimitri Sinokeyev. Ms. Valieva, the Ossetian, had a son who worked as a body guard for the local Ossetian president, Eduard Kokoity.
"They went to the houses of people who were community leaders," said Alexandre Lomaia, head of Georgia's National Security Council.
Ms. Militaura was rescued by her son, Badri, who went on a convoy with the Georgian government, because access is still denied by the Russians. She had eaten nothing for four days. They wept together and then buried the bodies. A grape trellis shades their graves.
"They were Georgians," said an old man one house down, who was leaning on a cane. "They're not here anymore.""
San Francisco Sentinel
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