Ethnic cleansing in Georgia

Human Rights Watch released a report  today that reveals the widespread burning and looting of ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia.

Human Rights Watch researchers witnessed the looting by Ossetian militias. They also spoke with several members of these militias who admitted their objective was to ensure the Georgians had no homes to return to – in other words, to ethnically cleanse the region of Georgians. These attacks took place in areas under the control of the Russian army. Most of the destroyed homes have their exterior walls intact, indicating they were torched as opposed to hit by shells or bombs. Only homes along the main road through Tamarasheni had collapsed walls; Georgian villagers report that Russian tanks had systematically fired into these houses on August 10.

Human Rights Watch concludes that what they have seen “adds up to compelling evidence of war crimes and grave human rights abuses” and says the Russian government should prosecute those responsible.

 Human Rights Watch does great work, and its researchers are brave men and women. I crossed paths with them several times along the Chad – Darfur border in 2006, and they were willing to venture closer to death and destruction than most. One can only assume that this last bit about urging the Russians to prosecute those responsible shows they have a sense of humour, too, because Russian guilt starts at the top.

 Immediately after this conflict began, Vladimir Putin, who still runs the show in Russia, accused Georgia of genocide and said they were responsible for 2,000 deaths. Russian media were full of lurid atrocity stories, such as one about Georgian soldiers herding Ossetian civilians into a church and setting it on fire. The Nazis actually committed such a crime in the French village of Oradour-sur-Glane during the Second World War. Hollywood resurrected the story in the Mel Gibson stinker The Patriot. Nothing of the sort took place in South Ossetia.

Human Rights Watch  interviewed a doctor at the only hospital in Tskhinvali, who said 44 bodies had been brought to the hospital since the fighting began, military personnel and civilians. She said that most people killed in the city had been brought to the hospital prior to burial because they local morgue was not working. She added that most of the wounded were military personnel. Russia has since scaled back its casualty estimate to 133 – although Collin Sawatzky, in a letter in this week’s issue of Maclean’s, repeats the slur that the Georgians killed “some 1,000 civilians,” in addition to more than a dozen Russian “peacekeepers.”

In other words, Putin lied. Well, politicians lie all the time – and the less free a society is the more its politicians lie, because they don’t have to worry about journalists calling them out. But Putin’s lies about massacres and ethnic cleansing resulted in real life atrocities taking place when Osettians and, it would appear, Russian soldiers had their opportunity to take revenge for something that never happened. 

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.