KSUISI, Georgia — After Georgian soldiers stormed South Ossetia and killed Vitaly Guzitayev's friend, he hid in the woods. Once the Georgians left, he set fire to the elegant brick homes of ethnic Georgians who lived nearby.
"Georgians must not return here. Ossetia is for Ossetians," Guzitayev spat, sitting on a bench in Ksuisi two weeks later. "Let Georgians suffer. Now we are independent from them."
Arson gangs have targeted the homes of ethnic Georgians in breakaway South Ossetia as the conflict over control threatens to erase a centuries-old ethnic mix. Since the warfare between Georgia and Russia in early August, Associated Press reporters have witnessed burning homes and looting in villages in the region.
The conflict has pitted neighbor against neighbor in this region of mountain slopes and fruit orchards where two ethnic groups have lived side-by-side for centuries: Georgians whose culture is rooted on the Black Sea coast and Ossetians whose language and customs point to the east.
According to Georgia, at least 28,800 ethnic Georgians have fled South Ossetia in recent weeks, part of a larger exodus of some 160,000 people from the conflict zone. South Ossetian officials say the region's population of Georgians was only about 14,000 when the fighting started earlier this month.
Few Georgians left
Whatever the figure, no one disputes that there are few Georgians left in South Ossetia. And any who try to return will find many of their neighbors hostile, their language despised and their homes destroyed.
Olia Bugadze, 68, is one of a handful of ethnic Georgians left in Ksuisi. She said she hid in a corn field as Russian troops swept through, then watched as neighbors descended on her home, looted it and set it on fire. Now she camps in the ruins of her kitchen.
"I am afraid," said Bugadze, clad in a worn-out black shirt and skirt, as she showed a visitor the destruction. "Every day they threaten me and want to drive me out of Ossetia."
Georgian officials say some ethnic Georgian men were summarily shot by militia fighters in the aftermath of the fighting, a claim that the AP was not immediately able to independently confirm.
However, an AP reporter saw dozens of ethnic Georgians — all middle-aged or older men — who were rounded up after the fighting and held in the basements of South Ossetia's Interior Ministry.
They were forced to haul debris on streets bombed-out by Georgian rockets and artillery. The AP saw at least three such groups escorted by armed South Ossetian policemen.
Asmat Babutsidze lived in the hamlet Achabeti, a predominantly Georgian village in South Ossetia. After the fighting ended, she said, men with guns looted and torched her home and took her to a jail in Tskhinvali.
Locked in a basement
There, she said, she was locked in a basement cell with 43 other women, most of them — like her — ethnic Georgians.
Guards, she told the AP in an interview in Tbilisi, mocked and kicked the hostages. Women were forced to sweep the glass-littered streets, she said, while men were made to bury the dead.
South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity said some Georgian civilians were detained for their own protection, not as part of an effort at collective punishment. "The Interior Ministry protected them to save their lives," he said.
But Kokoity also said any ethnic Georgian civilians who sided with Georgian military forces will not be allowed to return. "We warned them in advance," he said.
David Sanakoyev, a South Ossetian government official, said a total of 182 Georgian civilians were detained for their own protection and that they were eventually bused to the Georgian side. The last group of 85 men was escorted to Georgia on Wednesday, he said.
Georgian officials charge there was a coordinated campaign against ethnic Georgian civilians in Ossetian- and Russian-controlled areas.
'It was concerted action'
"It was a concerted action of Russian official military forces together with paramilitaries," Eka Tkeshelashvili, a senior Georgian government official, said at a meeting in Europe in Vienna this week.
Over the past three weeks, AP reporters have witnessed burning homes in more than half a dozen Georgian villages. On Aug. 11, an AP reporter saw looting by armed men in Georgian villages north of the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali — as Russian troops stood by.
Another AP reporter saw burning and looting of Georgian homes in at least six separate areas from Aug. 22 through Thursday: the villages of Achabetiug, Kekhvi, Tamarasheni, Ksuisi and Eregvi, as well as near the capital Tskhinvali.
With most Georgians gone, there seems to be an effort to erase even the memory of their presence here. On Thursday, a South Ossetian policeman knocked down a sign with the name of the Georgian village of Tamasheni, written in both Georgian and Latin scripts, as bulldozers razed the last remaining houses. At least three more Georgian villages have been bulldozed in South Ossetia, witnesses said.
Human Rights Watch said Ossetian militias have been involved in systematic persecution of ethnic Georgian civilians.
"They aim at pushing Georgians out of their villages, to make sure they have no place to return to," researcher Tatyana Lokshina said.
Rights worker: Satellite images confirm attacks
Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch, said satellite images confirm militia attacks on ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia and "emphasize the need for Russian authorities to hold these militias accountable."
A Human Rights Watch team visited five Georgian villages in South Ossetia from Aug. 12-17, she said, taking photographs and interviewing victims. The team witnessed looting and burning in two of the villages, Tamareshni and Kekhvi.
Until the last years of the Soviet Union, Georgians and Ossetians had lived peacefully. But as reforms weakened Moscow's grip, Ossetians and Georgians formed nationalist movements, each staking a claim to their shared homeland.
After Ossetia declared its independence, Georgian forces invaded, launching a full-scale war that ended in 1992 in a Kremlin-brokered deal that divided the region. South Ossetia fell within Georgia's borders, but operated with wide autonomy. North Ossetia came under Moscow's control.
The uneasy peace that followed was marked by sporadic clashes, which intensified when Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili came to power four years ago, vowing to assert Tbilisi's authority over Georgia's separatist regions. This only stoked animosity among South Ossetians, who believe Georgia has no right to rule them.
On Aug. 7, Georgian forces launched a devastating rocket and artillery assault on South Ossetia's capital of Tskhinvali. Russia mounted a massive military response, sending hundreds of armored vehicles south across Georgia's border and driving the Georgians deep into their own territory.
The Russians have accused the Georgians of attempting genocide, saying the barrage targeted Tshkinvali's hospital and residential neighborhoods. They say its tanks rolled over people alive, and fired into basements where Ossetian families cowered.
South Ossetian officials and the Russian military say they have done their best to discourage looting and arson and to protect Georgian residents of the breakaway republic, despite the popular anger at what they say was Georgia's effort to destroy them as a people.
'We are not barbarians'
"We are not barbarians," Kokoity said this week.
South Ossetian officials say 1,692 civilians were killed and some 1,500 wounded in Georgia's military assault — which devastated some Tskhinvali neighborhoods. At first Russia said about 2,000 Ossetian civilians had been killed. But on Aug. 20, it reduced that figure to 133 confirmed dead.
"The truth is no one knows," Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, told reporters in Moscow Thursday.
In Soviet times, Ksuisi residents say, Ossetians and Georgians lived harmoniously in the prosperous village surrounded by corn fields, grapevines and orchids with peaches and apples.
Now the some 400 homes in the hamlet's Georgian quarter appear to have been burned and looted. Of about 700 Ossetian houses, a small number — including a school — bore the marks of damage from Georgian artillery fire.
Many Ossetians say their ethnic Georgian neighbors bear collective guilt for Tbilisi's assault.
The mother of Guzitayev's friend, Lenya Doguzov, clutched the earth and wailed in an orchard that had been her son's grave site before his body was moved to a cemetery.
"Georgians should lie next to my son," Yekaterina Doguzova, 70, said bitterly as she grieved alongside her daughter-in-law Zemfira Doguzova, 34.
Pavel Panikaev, 73, angrily recalled how Georgians beat him with rifle butts. "We have a right for revenge," he said. "We will not leave Georgian houses, orchards, nothing. We will erase them from the face of earth."
Lena Kudakhova, 67, of Ksuisi was married to a Georgian man killed in the recent fighting. Now her half-Georgian daughter is in hiding nearby, fearing retaliation, and her half-Georgian son has fled to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.
She wonders what will happen to her. "Nobody needs me in an independent Ossetia," she said.
Associated Press writers Mansur Mirovalev and Maria Danilova in Moscow, and Jim Heintz and Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili in Tbilisi, Georgia, contributed to this report.
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