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Georgian villagers feel trapped in a danger zone

Behind Russian lines, residents say they are at the mercy of militiamen who loot, burn and kill.

August 24, 2008|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

TKVIAVI, GEORGIA — When cars come this way, through the deadened air of this half-abandoned town, the residents shiver and slip into their homes.

They've buried their dead in shallow graves in their gardens and orchards. They've hidden from roving bands of militiamen who they say have repeatedly tramped through town. And now they wait for somebody to come and put an end to these days of lawlessness and anxiety.

In the sprinkling of farming villages behind Russian lines, the war drags on and the future is clouded. Georgian residents say they have been subjected to repeated rounds of ethnic violence at the hands of militiamen from breakaway South Ossetia and Russia -- looting, arson and even killings.

"With violence, they're trying to force people to flee," said Nunu Kirkvalishvili, a 40-year-old woman in the village of Marana. "We don't even bother to hope anymore that somebody will come to protect us."

These Georgian farmers live in the so-called security zone that Moscow has pledged to maintain outside the Russian-backed republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Out of their government's reach, they are stuck in a deadly power vacuum even after the shadow of Russian occupation has lifted from much of Georgia.

"They don't come out and say they want us off the land, but they are forcing us off," Lily Giguashvili said. "They say we will have to get Russian passports."

Giguashvili is a slight, tremulous woman, dragging on Saturday from one house to the next with a dusty leopard-print bathrobe thrown over her clothes. The circles under her eyes are so deep they look like bruises. It's been a week since militiamen abducted her husband, along with 14 other men from the town, she said.

The gunmen forced the men to lie down in the road with their hands on their heads, witnesses said. Then they ordered them all into white minivans and drove away, telling residents the men were needed to help dig graves for the South Ossetian dead.

They haven't been heard from again. "I don't know if he's alive or dead," Giguashvili said, her eyes clouding with tears.

A few days after her husband was abducted, three militiamen burst into her house. They took everything Giguashvili owned, right down to her tea kettle.

"They put a Kalashnikov to my chest and said, 'Do you have money, gold or a car?' " Giguashvili said. "I started crying and one of them said, 'Don't worry, we won't do anything wrong to you.' "

Now Giguashvili and the other villagers sleep in the orchards. They figure they're safer in the woods and fields than in the houses that are steady temptations for the militias.

"The militias are still coming, they're still driving through and robbing us," said Zayra Chikhladze, 55. "When cars come through, we're just hiding. There is nobody to protect us, and we're very scared."

The villages seemed stuck in an eerie limbo. There was little food, only the fruits and vegetables growing in gardens. Hot winds blew through the deserted streets, banging torn sheet metal against half-burned houses, stirring tangles of wildflowers along the roadsides.

In Karaleti, on the outer edge of the newly Russian-held territory, 21-year-old Beso Bibilashvili named two people who, he said, had died at the hands of the militiamen. As he spoke, Russian army trucks rumbled past, but they didn't bother to stop, and the soldiers hardly seemed to take notice of the smattering of townspeople crouched along the roads.

"The soldiers don't say anything to us. They only enter in houses and ask for food and drink," Bibilashvili said. "Who has anything to give them? But what they can find, they take."

The grocery store in Karaleti is a smashed shell. After being looted clean by the militias, there is nothing but a handful of dried macaroni and a scattering of spent ammunition cartridges on the floor.

The beauty parlor is a charred hulk, a huge black dog lies dead on its side in the doorway, legs jutting out. The smell is terrible, but nobody dares to be seen cleaning up after the militias.

Homes have been looted and burned; at least two men were shot dead, villagers say.

"They were looking for young men," said Maru Mestumrishvili, a 57-year-old woman in Karaleti. "They were entering into yards and making inquiries, and if they found them, they shot them."

Here in Tkviavi, Tamaz Kareli found his neighbor gunned down at the gate of his house. The body was already starting to rot in the summer heat. So Kareli hauled the hefty corpse into his backyard, past the plum trees heavy with fruit and grapes ripening to rusty purple on the vines, and dug a shallow grave.

"It was horrible, of course, but I told myself I had to do it," Kareli said. "I tried to keep myself together."

When the family comes back, he said, they'll give him a proper burial, in the cemetery. The smell of death is already seeping up from the ground.

"We'll put him in the cemetery one day," Kareli said. "The time will come."

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megan.stack@latimes.com

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