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The war in Tskhinvali as I saw it

By Temuri Kiguradze (continued from yesterday's Messenger)
Thursday, June 17
The American and I were hurriedly searched once more - they found money in a special underwear pocket. The rebels took the dollars away, leaving the lari. I asked the one who seemed to be the leader what else they planned to do with us; he said he did not know. My request that our mobile phones be returned for at least some time so we could contact the OSCE mission in South Ossetia was rejected. He said that this made no sense because the last OSCE car had “ducked out” of Tskhinvali about three hours ago.

After 15 minutes he said that we would be taken to "what is left of the Tskhinvali hospital.” He kept his promise, as in exactly a quarter of an hour a red Niva drove up to the entrance of the garage. It was driven by the same fat Ossetian who had participated in our capture.

At breakneck speed the Niva pulled out on to what must once have been called the road. At its every bump the noise of its engine was drowned out by with my and the American’s cries of pain. This seemed to amuse the militia on the front seats. One especially deep hole we drove through made the American and I issue heart-rending cries simultaneously. The driver turned and said "sorry" in English. That was too much for us, and our hysterical laughter only stopped five minutes later, when they got us to the hospital.

Central Tskhinvali hospital, as it turned out, really had come under fire, and the upper floors had been almost completely destroyed by Georgian "Grad" rocket launchers, as the Ossetians had claimed. All surgery was taking place in the basement; the operating table was in the corridor. Our driver boasted to the doctor about the splint that he had applied to my arm in the garage. Taking the praise, the fat man asked me, "So tell me, would Georgians do the same for me if they caught me?" The question appeared to be rhetorical again, and wishing me a fast recovery he went out, promising to visit later.

I was dumb with astonishment at the fast and strange development of events and stared at the surgeon who was doing something to my arm. My mind cleared after several minutes when the nurse asked me for my surname. I gave it and saw some people surprised by the “dze” ending it has. Their eyes saw me off down to the basement, where I found my Editor, who was trying to understand what the nurse wanted from him.

- Drop your pants a little, she will give you an injection.

- OK, but everything is so dirty here, I don’t want to catch AIDS or hepatitis from the dirty needle.

- Do not worry; I think it is much easier to catch a bullet than AIDS here.

Little by little we started to evaluate our situation. We were in the Tskhinvali hospital, our status was unclear, and all of our belongings, including documents, phones and equipment, had been confiscated by the militia. We dis not know where the bodies of Sasha Klimchuk and Giga Chikhladze were. We didn’t clearly understand why we were there and why we were still alive. We looked around the room in which, as it turned out later, we would have to spend another three days. Our chamber was a section of the hospital’s large basement. There were up to 10 beds in it, mostly occupied by wounded Ossetian soldiers.

There was no light, so the poor design of the building was revealed by the kerosene lamps next to almost every bed. Men with firearms passed back and forth from time to time, giving an amazed look at two civilians in a corner speaking English. The doctor who conducted the surgery on the American came along. We talked, his name was Kostya, it was his first day working during the war, and he sat and smoked the first packet of cigarettes he had in his life.

- Who bombed the hospital, our guys?

- Well, yes - ours, I mean – yours, Georgians I mean...

- Are there many dead, wounded?

- Yes, there is no lack in them. But you know the worst thing is the chaos. There is such a mess here; a lot of Ossetians are even being shot by Ossetians themselves. At least we have enough drugs.

Kostya said that not only wounded people have come to the hospital but also some simple civilians. The thick concrete walls of the basement must have been one of the safest places in Tskhinvali during the night shellings. Kostya is worried by the fact that Russian troops are late entering Tskhinvali. "A little longer and we won’t hold on anymore," he said.

Little by little the "chamber" filled. Wounded Ossetian militia men were brought in every hour, some of whom were perfectly healthy but just tired, wanting to sleep in a more or less secure environment. One of the doctors promised us he would get in touch with the OSCE mission; another said that the he would let us know if the hospital was visited by any TV crew. In anticipation of the first, the second or the third this night of August 8 ended.

The morning of August 9 did not bring anything new except for more wounded and some strange rumours. By about 10 o'clock in the morning I could not wait patiently any longer. Despite the warnings of the doctors I went out into the corridor and immediately got into conversation with the locals who for some reason took me for a Russian journalist, though I had no particular wish to dissuade them of this.

- Look what they [Georgians] do, they smash little children with their tanks.

- Have you seen this yourself?

- No, but people say so...

After some 20 minutes of such conversations I returned to my bed, where I was met by a nurse who wanted to learn our state of health and inject another dose of the antibiotic. I tried to find out whether journalists had appeared at the hospital or if there was any chance of meeting them.

- Yes, of course, they often come to us, now they are just hiding from the battle, so just lie down and settle. Do not be scared, there will be someone to drag you out of here soon. But I’m not sure about the rest of us, nobody comes to help...

The young woman said that she was already spending her third day in the basement with her five-year-old daughter; she started to beg me to take her child with us.

- I cannot do it; I do not think that you would like your daughter to come with us.

- Why? You are reporters, you will safely return to where you came from…

- Do you really want your child to come with us back to where we come from?

- Where?

- Tbilisi…

This is an extract from a story, the rest of which will appear in the next issues of The Messenger.