Georgian Tanks vs. Ossetian Teenagers The Story of Tskhinvali's Resistance

When Georgian forces moved into the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali on Aug. 7, they underestimated the Ossetians' determination to resist them. Young men opened fire with Kalashnikovs and teenagers hurled petrol bombs at tanks. Now the local Russian-sponsored regime is triumphant.

Anyone who wants to know what Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili's word is worth can see it in the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali these days. Pensioner Wachtang Babeyev still speaks a little of the Georgian he learned in Soviet times, when Ossetians and Georgians lived together peacefully, although not without tension, as the citizens of one country. On the afternoon of Aug. 7 the retired carpenter was sitting in his apartment in Karl-Marx Street watching a televised speech by Saakashvilli. The president's words made him feel hopeful.

Saakashvili, speaking in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, said he had "given the very painful order not to return fire" if South Ossetians fired upon Georgian security forces. He ended his speech with the appeal: "Let us stop the spiral of fear. Give peace and dialogue a chance." A few hours later Babeyev was about to cook his dinner when shells started falling around his apartment block. He fled into the cellar of an adjoining building with nine neighbors. It was a sleepless, frightening night. Hours of artillery bombardment reduced apartment blocks into ruins, wrecked cars and turned gardens into shell holes.

The following morning Georgian warplanes flew bombing runs to complete the destruction. Then tanks arrived to "restore the constitutional order," as Saakashvili put it -- an order that never existed in South Ossetia. When the Soviet Union was dissolved, three de facto states emerged on the territory of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia: South Ossetia and Abkhazia and the new Georgia, which succeeded in becoming a member of the United Nations with the old borders drawn by Stalin.

Desire for Self-Determination

South Ossetians can't understand people who call them "separatists." They say they never broke away from Georgia because they never joined the new country when it was formed after the Soviet Union collapsed. It's impossible to find anyone in this part of the world who can seriously imagine the territory being a part of Georgia in future. What much of the world is labelling as "separatism" is in fact the yearning for autonomy by a small people that was divided against its wishes.

In Soviet times, the north of Ossetia -- now part of the Russian Federation -- and South Ossetia were divided only by an invisible administrative line. But since 1992 a state border has separated brothers, sisters, parents and children. Violent attempts by Georgian nationalists to suppress the South Ossetians prompted the mountain people to close itself off within an unrecognized republic, like in a bunker.

A cease-fire with the Georgians agreed in 1992 brought Russian peacekeeping forces into the country, at the request of both the Georgians and the Ossetians. The cease-fire lasted 12 years until Saakashvili came to power in 2004. As soon as he was elected with a suspicious 96 percent of the vote and with Washington's blessings, he started holding heated speeches about "criminal separatists." A first military attack by Georgian troops failed in August 2004 due to stiff resistance from South Ossetia and because the US, unlike now, put a stop to Saakashvili's adventure.

The invaders who rode into the destroyed town of Tskinvhali on the morning of Aug. 8 in US jeeps wore US-made uniforms and helmets. Many of them were trained by US officers or served in Iraq as brothers-in-arms of the Americans.

They quickly realised that they weren't facing just a "few dozen separatists" as Saakashvili had claimed. The attitude of South Ossetia's youth can be summed up by what student Julia Beteyeva of the University of Tskhinvali told SPIEGEL back in June 2004: "One can only take our republic away from us by killing us."

Teenage Defenders

On Aug. 8, groups of young Ossetians, some of them just 16 years of age, attacked Georgian tanks with petrol bombs. Young men took Kalashnikov rifles from hidden arsenals and fought the Georgians on their own or in groups. At midday, Alan Ulumbegov, 34, born in the eastern German town of Meiningen as the son of a Soviet officer, saw Georgian troops coming up the road. He got his rifle out of a wardrobe. His mother pleaded with him not to go. "I want to protect our people," he replied and went off to fight. Slogans like "Youth of Ossetia for Freedom" and "Shame on Georgia and its supporters like the traitor Sanakoyev," had been freshly painted on the walls of the destroyed city.

Dmitry Sanakoyev, a former prime minister of South Ossetia, was installed by Saaskashvili as head of a puppet administration for the region. He ran the inadvertently accurate title "Provisional Administration of South Ossetia," which consisted of a handful of Georgian villages on South Ossetian territory. They have since been destroyed by the Russian army and plundered by South Ossetians and much of the Georgian minority has fled. Gambling debts made Sanakoyev, a dubious "businessman," easy prey for the strategists in Tbilisi. As recently as July US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had shaken hands with Sanakoyev as if Washington still had grand plans for him.

Since the Battle of Tskhinvali power in South Ossetia now lies in the hands of President Eduard Kokoity. He has a mischevous smile he may have gained during the wild 1990s, when the freestyle wrestler made a fortune in questionable business deals. His not especially transparent budget probably consists more of Russian state transfers than the meagre local tax revenues. And he is the commander in chief of a band of militia that has just beaten America's brothers-in-arms.

Kokoity's fighters are attending a rally in Tskhinvali's central Theater Square. Some of them are clad in black, one of them is playfully holding a hand grenade as if it's a tennis ball. Many have beards and broad shoulders. One of them is wearing flip flops and gently embracing his girlfriend. They are the generation of South Ossetians who don't even speak Georgian, let alone feel like Georgians.

'Genocide Against the Small Ossetian People'

Kokoity, not a great orator, describes the provincial city of 30,000 as the "Stalingrad of the Caucasus." His words echo around the bomb-damaged buildings of Tskhinvali's center as he rails against the "bloody regime of Georgia" that committed "genocide against the small Ossetian people." But in an attempt to defuse feelings of hatred he adds: "We're not fighting the Georgian people." Kokoity wants to join the international diplomatic stage. He calls on Russia to recognize South Ossetia. Like most South Ossetians, Kokoity is a Russian citizen. When he speaks of independence he means de facto unification with North Ossetia and the whole of Russia. Before the war he had placards put up through the region claiming: "Ossetia is indivisible."

These days Georgi Bagayev, 70, isn't too concerned by questions of government status. When he opens the door that until the evening of Aug. 7 connected his kitchen with his living room, he stares at a pile of rubble.

A shell destroyed the external wall and the living room is strewn with debris and clothing and contains a photo of his five-month-old granddaughter Alana. The girl survived the attack on her home city. She was evacuated to the safety of North Ossetia shortly before the outbreak of war.

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