What did the Georgian leadership hope for when they made a decision to use heavy artillery against Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, on the first night of the war? Of the many moves, and perhaps miscalculations, this has become a central question of the war.
The spokesman for Georgia's ministry of internal affairs, Shota Utiashvili, said: "Already in May we realized that the Russians began to build a railroad in Abkhazia and that the Russian army slowly and steadily will be moving towards our borders, and then to Tbilisi. We had a choice, either to capitulate and not use artillery, or fight and then capitulate." The Georgians chose to fight, he said.
Utiashvili explained that the tension was growing between the two states for two years, and that in May the Georgian government realized that war was inevitable.
On Friday, one week after the beginning of fighting, Russian troops advanced to set up a checkpoint in Igoeti village, 20 miles outside of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, moving the front line closer to Georgia's capital. Essentially, the West of Georgia is now cut from the East of the country. Tbilisi has registered 28,000 refugees from Georgian villages in the territory of Ossetia and Gori, with more expected to come. "If the situation grows worse, we might have a major humanitarian catastrophe on our hands," Utiashvili said. "We see reports that the forest outside Bordzhomi, a city of 35,000 people, is burning. Russian troops are very close to Kutaisi, Georgia's second largest city of 200,000 people."
Terrifying scenes of destruction were reported by Human Rights Watch in Georgian villages; Tskhin, Kekhvi, Nizhnie Achaveti, Verkhnie Achaveti and Tamarashen are said to be burning. Tomara Lokshana, HRW researcher, said she saw numerous bodies along the road from Tskhinvali to the Georgian border, black and swollen after lying in the sun for a long time. "On Aug. 12 we saw presumably irregulars or Southern Ossetian militia looting houses in Java village, taking out carpets, TV sets and furniture," she said. "Old and sick people who are unable to run, about 20 of them, are now dying in the burning villages, it was too dangerous for us to go into the villages, as we heard shootings."
The ones who manage to leave the looted regions travel by foot, by mini bus or just hitchhike along on the highway to get to Tbilisi. Nino Dzhedlidze, 32, is pregnant with twins, she says. She was with her two children, a 15-year-old boy and a 13-year-old girl, in their two-floor house in Nicozi village, when she saw the Georgian army flee. Then she heard artillery and hurried her children to the basement. Two wounded soldiers and a middle-aged woman wounded in her foot joined Dzhedlidze in her basement, before they eventually escaped.
Bezhan Dzhedlidze, Nino's husband, was deeply frightened, he said, when he returned to find his house empty. Luckily, somebody told him his wife was heading to Tbilisi. Bezhan walked 15 miles from Nicozi to Gori, together with Georgian troops retreating from South Ossetia. "I know that nothing is left of my house and my barber shop," Dzhedlidze said. "We are victims of a personal conflict between [Georgian President Mikheil] Saakashvoli and [Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin. That was their personal conflict that thousands of us here have suffered from."
Nino Partsvania, director of the Tbilisi Research Institute of Mathematics, was in her office on Aug. 12, when she heard loud angry voices. At least 100 refugees broke into her institute looking for shelter. "They are tired and angry with their government," she said. "Time has stopped for me this week. All I think about is how to help people pouring into my institute and how to save the most valuable equipment we have here."
Back at the new Russian checkpoint, the Russian commander for the Gori region, Viacheslav Borisov, was telling journalists Friday night that his forces have arrived to "provide safety" and make sure looters do not come to the outskirts of Tbilisi. Borisov said that most of the destruction was caused by Georgians in Tskhinvali, from the shelling of the opening days of the war. "Gori looks like Paris comparing to Tskhinvali," he said.