Against their will, Georgian men in their 40s and 50s hauled debris Saturday from the streets of separatist South Ossetia's bombed-out capital.
In a sign that Georgians are being abused in the Russian-controlled province, a Russian officer and armed Ossetians escorted forced laborers through the city, the nucleus of fighting that has pit two former Soviet neighbors against each other and worried the world.
Tamaz Barbikadze tip-toed out of South Ossetia's Interior Ministry Sunday flanked by three armed guards. A frail man of 69 years, he was given five minutes to describe to two reporters how he and more than 100 other civilians had been rounded up 10 days ago and thrown into prison. As he spoke, one of his Ossetian captors casually shifted his Kalashnikov from knee to knee.
Mr. Barbikadze's crime: He is Georgian. In South Ossetia, Georgians are regarded with visceral hatred after Georgian tanks rolled into this tiny pro-Russian separatist republic fewer than two weeks ago.
Mr. Barbikadze said that he and about 150 other ethnic Georgians had been locked up in the squat Interior Ministry building since Aug. 8, the day the tanks entered the city. Appearing terrified, he said he didn't understand why he had become a "hostage."
As Russian troops pounded through Georgia last week, the Kremlin and its allies repeatedly pointed to one justification above all others: The Georgian military had destroyed the city of Tskhinvali.
Russian politicians and their partners in Tskhinvali, the capital of the breakaway region South Ossetia, said that when Georgian forces tried to seize control of the city and the surrounding area, the physical damage was comparable to Stalingrad and the killings similar to the Holocaust.
But a trip to the city on Sunday, without official escorts, revealed a very different picture. While it was clear there had been heavy fighting — missiles knocked holes in walls, and bombs tore away rooftops — almost all of the buildings seen in an afternoon driving around Tskhinvali were still standing.
Russian-backed leaders in South Ossetia have said that 2,100 people died in fighting in Tskhinvali and nearby villages. But a doctor at the city's main hospital, the only one open during the battles that began late on Aug. 7, said the facility recorded just 40 deaths.
Here in Tskhinvali [South Ossetia], there was no doubt that Georgia started the war with Russia and much bitterness about the rain of artillery and rockets that the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili used in its efforts to capture the city. The Georgian government said much of the destruction of Tskhinvali was caused by a Russian counteroffensive, but that argument carries no weight with residents here, some of them clearly traumatised.
People insist that a terrible barrage struck the city late on August 7th and continued into the morning - accounts supported by western monitors who were also forced into their cellars. Indeed, buildings used by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe were damaged, one severely. . . .
The scale of the destruction is undeniable; some streets summon iconic images of Stalingrad during the second World War or Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, which was levelled in two wars between Russian and Chechen separatists.
But the number of dead remains in dispute. Mikhail Minsayev, until yesterday the minister of interior in the separatist South Ossetian government, told reporters on Saturday that as many as 2,100 people had been killed.
When challenged on that figure by reporters, who cited statements by medical workers and human rights groups that there was no evidence of such a high death toll, he said people quickly buried the dead in their yards or took the bodies to North Ossetia in Russia for burial.
In conversations here, everyone interviewed said they had lost either no family members or one person. But those were interviews with people whose cellars had held. Many clearly had not.