The war in Tskhinvali as I saw it
By Temuri Kiguradze
Wednesday, June 16
This is the true story of a group of journalists from The Messenger and a Russian language newspaper, Echo, who left for Tskhinvali in the late afternoon of August 8. They went there after Georgia released official information that Georgian troops had taken control of the town. Two of them were shot dead, two wounded. One of the survivors, Temuri Kiguradze, then a Messenger reporter, recollects what happened.
"We shouldn’t have run”- this thought swept through my mind as I lay on the pavement looking at the fat Ossetian trying to check the pulse on Sasha Klimchuk’s neck. Sasha, who was a freelance photographer, lay just a few metres away from me. The same fat guy interrupted my thoughts with a kick in the back. – “Get up you bastard!" he told me.
I got up and saw other Ossetians, including one with a machine gun, trying to raise my wounded editor, whose foot was bleeding. Just a few metres in front of him I saw Giga Chikhladze, the fourth member of our team. He lay almost in the same position as Sasha. The guys are playing dead to fool the Ossetians - that was my crazy idea. Meanwhile I was dragged to the front of dilapidated buildings, along the way greeted by the rebels, who did not miss a chance to give me "physical and verbal abuse" as I would later relate in Tbilisi.
My American boss was carried in front of me, leaving behind a bloody strip of his foot. I was brought into a reeking damp basement and the questioning began.
- Who are you?
- Journalist, press, reporter...
- A Georgian? What the hell are you doing here? Did you come with the tanks? Where is your unit?
I do not remember how long the questioning took, 10 or maybe 20 minutes, but for me they dragged on endlessly while the hole in my shot up elbow increasingly demanded its due attention. Yes, I am Georgian, from a Tbilisi newspaper, and the American was in our team. No, there are no troops with us.
A short Ossetian had already interrogated me in Georgian.
- Why did you run away?
- We were frightened...
- And weren’t you frightened to come here?...
That was a rhetorical question, and he proudly declared that we are Georgian spies and they will shoot us in a few minutes.
The questioning continued in the garage, where I was dragged after some time. I realised that the garage was some sort of temporary headquarters for the militia. A new group of Ossetians in uniform came along and stared at the American and I with great wonder. The questioner instructed the drunken fat man who had kicked me an hour ago to bandage my hand, and this he did, copiously irrigating the wound with vodka. Then he put the bottle in my healthy hand and some chocolates shaped like bunnies and bears beside me. "Eat the chocolate, you will not feel so sweet soon," he almost tenderly told me.
After some time I was able to move into the corner of the garage, where there was a large jeep with the letters “OSCE" on its door. My editor was sitting on the couch in that corner. He was bandaged as well; however his blood formed quite a large red pile at his legs.
"What are they up to?" he asked, and I answered that I had no idea. The rebels meanwhile seemed to be having a big debate. From time to time they looked in our direction. The conversation was in the Ossetian language with a few Russian words flashing by. I heard one of them say "hostage" in Russian. After some time the questioner returned, and we surprisingly found that he spoke some English. He asked a couple of questions of the American, then turned to me again.
- The two dead men that were with you, for whom did they work?
- For a Russian magazine, I said.
This response clearly puzzled the Ossetian polyglot. This was quite understandable, as it is one thing to kill a Georgian spy and another to shoot a Russian reporter.
- How did you get here?
- By car from Tbilisi.
- How did you reach Tskhinvali?
I had to briefly recount our way from Tbilisi to Tskhinvali in Sasha's old Opel which was now near the place where we ran into the Ossetian soldiers and mistook them for the advance position of the Georgian troops.
- So you thought that the Georgians had taken Tskhinvali? That’s why you shouted "Gamardjoba" in Georgian?
- We did not know exactly, there is no trustworthy information about what’s happening here in Tbilisi…
- You will get nothing but a d…ck instead of Tskhinvali. You thought the Georgians were waiting here for you, right? Your Saakashvili will suck...
A moan from the wounded American interrupted this speech. It seemed that the vodka he had received instead of anaesthetic had had little effect. The Ossetians informed me that if “my American” was not taken to hospital in one hour he would probably die bleeding. “But there is no hospital in Tskhinvali, you blew it up last night,” they added.
Hearing their tone I understood that they had “changed their mind” and we would not be shot. I did not know what had affected them - the press cards they discovered during their search, the reference to the Russian magazine for which Giga and Sasha worked - or whether they had just taken pity on us. At the time I did not care. I looked at the tall rebel with a Kalashnikov who was arrogantly grinning, staring into my eyes. It was him who had shot us in the back when we tried to run away, it was that machine gun which had killed the boys. He sat down next to us, and as if reading my mind told us, "I shot at you and your friends, I killed them." I could almost hear his pride in this deed in his tone.
This is an extract from a story, the rest of which will appear in the next issues of The Messenger.