In the first week of September, a cherry tree was blossoming in the ruins of Thalmann Street. Cherry trees never flower in autumn except after a war. This street in the old Jewish quarter of Tskhinvali, long deserted by the Jewish community, was almost totally destroyed during Georgia's brief but intense offensive on the South Ossetian capital. I'm staying with a friend in the one house which escaped destruction by shelling and artillery. There is no glass in the windows and the roof has a large crack in it. But these are small inconveniences, particularly as the weather is still warm.
My friend, an Ossetian fighter, pulls me up on the rooftop. "It's a real miracle, right?" A radiant smile sparkles from under his beard. Timur has not shaved since his brother and sister were killed. A man in mourning should stay away from the razor.
His brother - first cousin to be exact, but family ties are strong in this region - also fought in the war and got shot in the city centre on the 8th of August. Timur heard it through the grapevine and came to retrieve the body. The killers, Georgian soldiers, were dead by then. Timur dragged their corpses out of a smoldering building, covered them with a piece of plastic and left on the sidewalk. His brother's mates were incensed that he was taking care of the Georgian bodies. He had a hard time explaining that once your enemy is dead, you should treat him with dignity.
After burying his brother, Timur went round the city trying to get family members together for the wake. When he stopped by the basement where his sister was supposed to be hiding he couldn't find her there. The neighbours told Timur that a couple of other residents talked her into fleeing the city. The shelling was fierce and there were rumors it would get worse. Diana never planned on leaving but when friends offered her a place in their car she gratefully accepted. Next morning Timur learnt that the car was caught by an explosion right outside the city. Everyone burnt to dust. Timur put two handfuls of dust into a plastic bag. He could not be sure if it was Diana's dust he was burying. But he needed to bury something. Diana's father is 94 and blind. At the wake, a female relative hugged him, "Uncle, you're so lucky to have lost your eye-sight - at least, you cannot see what they've done to your daughter..."
Timur stretches out his hand so that he is almost touching the cherry blossom: "Can you believe it? This tree knows the war is over! Come down now. Let's drink to that!"
In a small yard shaded by grapevines we sit around the table. The greenery is so thick that it hides the ruins of the neighboring houses and other traces of the recent fighting. I pick a ripe fig. This is life! There is still very little food in the city. But between the figs and the grapes we will manage. We have also got quite a supply of corn and tomatoes from the burnt-out Georgian villages. In the ruined gardens the crops are going to waste, so though it may qualify as looting this no longer disturbs me. Timur pours home-made ruby-red wine and predicts that with the villages in the Georgian enclave all burned there will be no more wine next year. The Georgians used to make it. Now, with no drinkable water supply in the city, we even drink wine for breakfast, or instead of breakfast to be more accurate. ‘Humanitarian' bottled water is distributed in the centre during the day - one bottle per person. But we're usually on the road until late and never manage to get any.
Living in Tskhinvali is gradually becoming bearable again. Shops and street stalls are opening up. Most of the debris has been removed and there is a lot of construction work going on in the centre. Evacuees are returning. Kids are playing in the streets, shooting at each other from bright plastic guns, arguing over the privilege of impersonating heroic Ossetian fighters. Pretty girls are clicking their heels and throwing side-way glances at young men in fatigues.
There is a world of a difference between this place and the devastated city of mid-August. Back then, just a few weeks ago, Tskhinvali was practically deserted and the smell of human flesh decomposing in the stifling heat followed you everywhere. The need to wash it off was unbearable, and unbearable it remained, with no water around. A journalist from one of Russia's few independent print media managed to leave Tskhinvali on August 10 by getting on a plane loaded with the corpses of dozens of Russian soldiers, some burned. When he got back to Moscow he kept asking his colleagues if they could still smell it on him. However much he washed, however much he drank, it did not seem to help. Back in Tskhinvali, Ossetian bodies were buried quickly by relatives and friends. But the Georgian ones stayed on the streets for another ten days before the local authorities forced the civilians who were illegally detained in Tskhinvali to collect the putrid remains and put them in zinc coffins. Later, they were returned to Georgia in exchange for Ossetian prisoners.
Tskhinvali is coming back to life.
Some ethnic Georgians did choose to stay despite the conflict. Those in Tskhinvali are mostly elderly people who have been living here for years. Misha, 69 years old, used to teach science at South Ossetia's only university. A former boxer, he runs five miles a day and puts many youngsters to shame. During the war in the early nineties, his wife and kids left for Georgia proper and never came back. But Misha could not even imagine moving - Tskhinvali was his home. Until this August, Misha has been visiting his family in Tbilisi several times a year. Now, he has no idea if he will ever get to do this again.
Misha's apartment in the city centre is quite spacious, full of books, papers, and rubble. He jumps round like a rubber ball, bringing crackers, pointing at old photographs on the walls. When most Tskhinvali residents fled to North Ossetia, Misha stayed put. His sister Raisa had come to stay from Tbilisi, and the two sat listening to the not-so-far-away sub-machine gunfire and grenade explosions, watching TV, and discussing how utterly unwelcome another war would be. When on the evening of August 7 Misha's namesake Saakashvili, promised a cease-fire, the old man was exhilarated. He even opened an old and cherished bottle of wine to drink to lasting peace.
When the shelling started at about 11.30 p.m. Misha and Raisa did not go down into the basement with the other residents. They could not believe this was for real. Still in denial, they stayed up all night listening to the rumble of warfare, learning to recognise the sound of Grad multiple rocket launchers. It's going to be over in another hour... At around 7 o'clock, while Misha was making tea, a shell hit the building, sending shards of glass all over the place. Misha and Raisa dived down. When they got back up, there was not one pane of glass left in the windows of the flat. Misha dragged Raisa to the basement. Kissing her good-bye, he went back up: "I just could not stay in that basement. Way too humiliating to hide. Particularly from your own people, right? So, I spent the whole war on this sofa. The building was shaking like a leaf from Grad explosions and the tank fire. A huge chunk of the roof is now gone. And you've sure seen those gaping holes in the walls... But fortunately, everything was over in a couple of days..."
"And how are things now, Misha?" The old man shrugs, "Sometimes it does get unpleasant. There's this woman who lives next door. She left for North Ossetia with her whole family just before the fighting. A few days ago I ran across her in the street. I was so happy to see her safe and sound! So I literally ran up to her to welcome her back... And she suddenly says, "Misha, you are probably not a traitor but you're still one of them!" It really hurt. And then when people were queuing for humanitarian water there was this guy who started telling the others that I was a filthy Georgian and should not have a right to claim the water. He tried to make the others kick me out of the queue all together. I almost hit him in the face... But with my boxing background, I was afraid I'd really kill him, so I restrained myself. If any such thing happens again I just won't be able to take it... I hope things will get better, though. People are very angry now, so soon after the fighting. They're still trying to digest what Saakashvili has done. Shelling the city with Grad like that is nothing but sadism. I just hope my neighbors and others understand, Georgian or no Georgian, that I'm as appalled as they are. This is my city, my home that Saakashvili tried to destroy."
On the way to the Akhalgori district, that mountainous region near the border with Georgia where most of the Georgians used to live, our car starts skidding in the mud, turns over a few times, and finally stops dead. The front and side windows have gone and the roof has acquired a peculiar triangular shape. Getting out of here independently is not an option, but the Russian military are stationed a couple of miles below. They may be willing to help...
Six Russian soldiers are sitting dejectedly round an orange chain-saw. The captain told them to cut down 50 pine trees and make poles for the barbed wire fence round the new military compound. However, they'd never seen a chain-saw before and broke it at once. Now, they're afraid to report this to the captain. So they're getting drunk. There is plenty of home-made wine in this region, and the Ossetian villagers are eager to indulge the Russian military.
Realising that the soldiers won't budge unless their chain-saw problem is fixed, we get to work. It only takes 10 minutes to fix, stress being the best capacity enhancer. My companions get on an army truck to guide three soldiers to the remains of our car. The other soldiers cut down five trees and figure out they deserve a rest and another drink. They have some more wine, and cannot get the chain-saw re-started. One of them, apparently drunk to oblivion, picks up the instrument and throws it against the nearest pine trunk. It falls to pieces. His mate asks him why he did it and how he's going to explain it to the captain. The culprit aims his AK-47 at the impudent speaker, who does the same. Hiding behind a tree, I deliver a string of obscenities, describing what the captain is likely to do to their dead bodies when he finds them. Eventually, the shooting stops. The two men drop their weapons and have some more wine. Miraculously, our half-destroyed car shows up. Later, I realise that the military had nothing to do with the rescue - they were way too drunk to make it up-hill. Some locals showed up and helped put it back on the track. "I should not have left you with those soldiers," Timur mutters. "They're bad news. Another couple of weeks of drinking and they'll be killing and raping here. I'm afraid we're gonna pay for making them feel welcome."
The road back to Tskhinvali goes through a few Georgian villages where the last of the houses are burning. Watching a few looters in fatigues walking away from the house they have just set alight, Timur tries to provide a justification, "As for this particular village, Eredvi, I'm just not sorry for them - their people have been killing our men for years. I would've burnt this place myself... No, I guess I wouldn't..." He looks away.
In the Ossetian village of Khetagurovo, located close to Tskhinvali and largely destroyed by Georgian shelling and artillery, a dark-haired thin woman saves me from a pack of stray dogs by attacking them with a stick. Madina and I sit down on a bench next to her house. She sighs, "When the Georgians entered the village, I was so frightened... I thought they'd be doing cruel things to women... But they were... polite, really. They kept saying that they had an order not to touch women, children, and old people, and we had nothing to fear from them. Many people left the village before the fighting. Things were getting so tense that people were afraid to stay. Also, evacuation was organised from Tskhinvali, starting a few weeks before the war, and Khatagurovo is really close to the city. It was easy for our people to leave. Those who stayed behind either simply failed to leave on time - we never expected the war to happen so suddenly, so violently - or, like me, had sick and very elderly relatives. And on the 8th the Georgians were already everywhere! It's all so confusing now. We spent the whole time in the basement. So, we've got no clue how many people died, how many were taken away, how many were evacuated. There are also those rumors that the Georgians did hurt women and children. But I don't know. When the Georgians showed up on our street I told them my mother was laid out with a stroke. I showed them our house across the street. Well, they did not hurt me. And they did not touch anything in the house. As to how many people have been killed, no one really knows. We're just trying to figure out what happened to whom. It's really sad..."
I'm leaving South Ossetia. The taxi driver suddenly stops half way to the Russian border by a tiny road-side café. An Ossetian hostess in her forties gives me a thick Turkish coffee in a tiny porcelain cup and starts talking about the war, and how much she hates Georgians. But when I get up to leave she starts crying, "You said you had some colleagues working in Georgia... My daughter's married to a Georgian. She's in the Gori district and I've heard our fighters killed quite a few people there... The telephones aren't working and I just don't know what to do. Can you ask your colleagues to check if she's OK?"