08/13/2008 11:56 AM

Fear in Georgia

The Ghost Town of Gori

By in Gori, Georgia

The war is over but people are still afraid. The Georgian town of Gori which came under attack from the Russian air force has become a ghost town. But slowly refugees are making their way back home.

The market square in Gori feels like a ghost town. The silver statue of Stalin that stands in the center of the square glows in the mid-day sun. The Soviet leader was born here, and he is still a symbol of the old empire. There is even a museum honoring the brutal dictator -- right in the heart of Georgia, a country that has been at war with its overpowering Russian neighbors for days.

Yet ironically, the huge Stalin statue was left undamaged by this war.

Shards of glass are strewn all over the pavement, as are pieces of the buildings torn apart by the force of the explosions of Russian bombs and artillery fire. The square is dotted with small craters from the impact of the grenades. Cars have been riddled with bullets. Tanks have left their imprints in the tarmac. There are even a few left behind on the road into Gori.

There are thousands of holes in the walls of the buildings. Residents claim the Russian fighter jets swept into the city at a low altitude -- and from the looks of things, that really did happen. But did Russian tanks really roll into the town, as the Georgians claimed? No one who lives here will admit to having seen this. If they are to be believed, the Georgian army had already pulled out two days ago -- or even fled.

Welcome to the news chaos in the Caucasus conflict. It seems that no one really knows what happened. Both sides are blaming each other, and adding fuel to the fire with a constant barrage of terrible reports of attacks, fatalities, the alleged invasion of Georgia by the Russians and new attacks from both sides. The war in the Caucasus is without a doubt also a public relations war.

Most of the residents of Gori have left town over the last few days. The few remaining residents have hidden in the basements of the massive apartment blocks or simply hoped that their home would not be hit. It is impossible to work out what really happened in Gori and the surrounding area -- perhaps it will never be known. It is certain is that there were Russian attacks, but it is quite possible that the Russian advance into central Georgia never happened.

No one in Gori's market square is concerned with these questions. Not yet, anyway. Shopkeepers clear away the rubbish here and there, while in the pharmacy a woman arranges the medicine on the shelves. Every now and then a car with squeaky tires makes its way around the square. Residents jump out of their cars quickly to photograph the scene, almost like tourists. But these dubious sights were only created a few hours earlier.

Map of Georgia

Map of Georgia

The drivers are quick to take off again -- no one wants to stay in this place for too long. The town, only a few kilometers from the war zone in South Ossetia, is really a ghost town. Jeeps carrying reporters speed from place to place. They too jump quickly out of their vehicles, wearing heavy bullet-proof vests, fearing that perhaps Russia's announcement that it had ended its attack was just another calculated deception. Then all is quiet once more.

It's Tuesday afternoon, and one hour ago Russia announced it would end its attack on Georgia entirely -- the virtual end of the war. Just one hour earlier, a Dutch journalist had been killed here by a bomb -- perhaps the last and one of the most tragic victims of this conflict.

'They Just Shot at Us'

Nobody knows for sure yet how many people perished. The only people who turned up at the local hospital were the lightly injured, but it would have been nearly impossible to treat the seriously wounded, anyway. People with cuts and lacerations were being treated without sterile medical equipment, and some were lying down in puddles of blood. "We can't do anything here," said one doctor, "anyone who wasn't able to make the one-hour drive to Tbilisi was lost."

In the protective cover of the hospital's inner courtyard, a few people are sitting down together. Like others, they too only heard the bombs, and they can't say exactly what happened. After a short while, they begin talking more candidly. Like others, they also say that their own combat troops pulled out a few days earlier. "There was no battle here," one veterinarian from Gori says. "They just shot at us."

The war is over! The veterinarian, who only gives his first name, Igor, heard it on the radio. But he doesn't believe the peace will hold. "They could start again at any time," he says, dryly. He points to the chain of mountains that surround Gori. He says the mountains are filled with Russian positions and that they could fire on the city again at any time. To calm his nerves, Igor takes a gulp of his own homemade wine.

These are merely snapshots of an afternoon in Gori, but they do show that support for the provocative actions of the Georgian military is in no way unanimous here. Igor, for his part, doesn't think much of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili. He says he's foolish -- a "dukar" or blithering idiot. "How could he start a war that we could only lose?" he curses. "We could never hold out against the Russians."

But the veterinarian's misgivings about Saakashvili run deeper. As he empties one glass of wine after another, his images grow more striking. "If an animal is sick, I have to help," he says. "But do you see any police here trying to stop the plundering? Do you see a mayor bothering to do anything here?" No, he says, the government has retreated into its bunker and the team around Saakashvili are cowards.

During the conversation, Georgian radio starts to broadcast live from Tbilisi. The president appears publicly, speaking before a sea of thousands of flags in the capital city. As absurd as it may sound, Georgia is celebrating its virtual military defeat, which the government was forced to concede days ago, as a victory. "Long live Georgia," banners at the demonstration read, and "Down with Russia."

But the specious staging doesn't appear to be enough for President Saakashvili. "As we stand here, Gori is still getting bombed," he calls out to the crowd, stating that Russia's claim that has implemented a cease-fire a lie. In fact, an eerie quiet has prevailed in Gori on the first afternoon after the war.

As we leave the city, residents slowly start to trickle back into Gori. Some return by bus to their homes, which they left out of fear of the war. Many stop to inspect the city's market square, but most don't want to stay here too long. They know that the conflict could escalate again at any moment -- even the slightest spark could render the promises made by both sides null and void.


Related SPIEGEL ONLINE links:

All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with permission