Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2008

Tracking the Russians in South Ossetia

From Russia there is only one way to get in and out of South Ossetia. The Transcaucasian Highway, or Transkam, runs from Vladikavkaz, the capital of the semi-autonomous republic of North Ossetia to the 3.5 km-long Roki Tunnel, which opens into South Ossetia. All the men and material that Russia is now using to fight Georgia came along this road.

I went up the Transkam on Wednesday to determine if the Russian army was pulling any men or machines out of the fight that Russian President Dmitri Medvedev said was over. Driving up the winding road through a half dozen tunnels blasted into the cliff face, with the Terek River rushing down the gorge in a gray stream, I passed a troop convoy of 19 trucks heading south, holding around 20 soldiers apiece. Later I passed a second, smaller convoy of a half-dozen trucks carrying more soldiers headed in the same direction. A third convoy of around a dozen fuel trucks accompanied by armed soldiers riding atop armored personnel carriers (APCs) ground its way up to the 9,840-ft.-high Roki Tunnel, raising clouds of dust that completely obscured the road and surrounding mountains. In the valley below, next to the braided river, two swaths of flatland had been turned into rear operating depots.

When I asked my driver to stop, he opened the hood to feign engine trouble in order to camouflage my efforts to take photos of the oncoming convoys crossing a bridge in the fading light. Coming to a halt about 15 km. from the heavily monitored border crossing into South Ossetia. near the village of Nar and a memorial honoring the 19th century Ossetian poet Konstantin Khetagati, a megaphone below echoed across the valley, announcing that it was illegal to stop along this section of the highway. After being detained twice in the last three days by Russia's federal security service, my driver and I were both anxious to head down the valley back to Vladikavkaz. As a helicopter gunship flew low overhead — its rocket pod racks empty — I headed back to North Ossetia having seen evidence that Russia was re-supplying and re-enforcing its soldiers now fighting in South Ossetia and Georgia.

I had gone through the Roki Tunnel the day before with Russian troops, when the Kremlin had finally agreed to allow Western journalists accompany them to see Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia. The road into the city was covered in smoke. Every fifth house seemed to be on fire. Every fourth house was gutted, burned out by fires during the last week of fighting. With no roofs, the windows of the houses looked like empty, sky-blue eyes. People had left lunch sitting on the table in their arbor-covered courtyard — like they had left in a hurry. There was a dead and bloated cow lying fatly on its side in the middle of the road, baking in the sun. The Russian armored personnel carrier we rode in almost hit it.

The Russian army was not visible on the road but was definitely in control of the villages. In one, about 20 km. beyond the border, the village soccer field had been turned into a vehicle park. Old, white and blue buses used to pick up refugees were parked there around a massive bust of Vladimir Lenin. Soldiers in dark green fatigues and big, bright green round helmets lay in the sun eating lunch.

The low-slung, treaded APCs rolled up through the heavy dust. The Russian APC is like a tank without a turret. Twelve journalists and photographers climbed into a space made for eight. Even though we were doing this for our safety, the special forces soldiers sitting up top opened the hatches — it helped to keep us from sweating to death in the dark, but didn't help with potential snipers.

After grinding along at high speed for 45 minutes with incredible noise, a soldier tapped me on the shoulder and told me to look. I put my head out slowly and the road was a disaster — houses on fire, windows broken, every gate ajar in a country where tidiness is valued. Smashed Russian-made cars lay on their sides in ditches, windows shot out — sometimes one big bullet hole, sometimes dozens. A large traffic jam had formed and was nearly obscured by the smoke of burning houses and the combined diesel exhaust of troop trucks, transport trucks for Hurricane rockets, tanks, self-propelled guns, radar-guided anti-aircraft guns and APCs heading south into the city.

The smoke of the burning city and Russian army was mixed with the exhaust of dozens and dozens of shot-up cars and three-wheel motorcycles carrying irregulars who had joined the fighting on Moscow's side. These were men between the ages of 15 and 45 and they could be picked out because they mostly wore the camouflage trousers and blouse of Russian army along with white running shoes or plastic sandals. In the heat, some had forgone the blouse altogether and wore the blue and white striped undershirt of the Russian army. Others were in what they were wearing when they started fight: track suits, jeans, t-shirts. Many walked along the side of the road, swinging their AK-47s over their shoulder by the barrel. A handful could be seen riding down the road on three-wheeled motorcycles or even tractors, carrying refrigerators, air conditioning units and roto-tillers in the back. The spoils of war.

The army was only nominally in control of the mayhem. Officers were continually getting out of their trucks into the street to scream at looters and irregulars to make way for army convoys. At one point we were told the traffic jam was due to a three km. convoy of bread and water. It turned out a troop transport had parked too near a tank and had created a bottleneck. Many of the drivers had camouflage bulletproof vests slung over their windows — a further testament to the incomplete victory the Russians had won here. Georgian snipers still made the night dangerous.

Finally reaching a neighborhood east of the South Ossetian foreign ministry building, the APCs stopped and we got out and saw the remains of a fierce battle for an intersection. Two tanks lay mangled and burned black in the middle of the T-intersection. The white concrete columns of a recital hall were bent and cracked in half and a turret from a third tank had been blasted into the front of a Soviet-era office building. The fire that had destroyed the tanks was so hot that the main machine gun on one had melted. The steel wheels of the tank had melted into shining pools of fresh steel — shining in the sun. A shell crater in the street was filled with debris — a saw blade, trash, a South Ossetian license plate — and as I photographed it, I noticed an unexploded tank shell almost under my feet.

Old women and men — some injured, all in shock — wandered the streets. Some carried cloth shopping bags even though not a single store was open, let alone one that had not been riddled with small arms fire. A human foot, severed at the ankle, lay about 50 feet from the two tanks.

Next we went to the Old Jewish Quarter of Tskhinkali. Whereas three and five story houses had been standing in the previous neighborhood, here all of the old one and two-story houses had collapsed — burnt out or knocked down by rockets. Walking up the dirt road through the charred homes was Madina Dzhoyeva, 45, wearing a red blouse and long skirt, accompanied by her husband and their dog. They were examining the damage to their neighborhood.

"We went down into a bunker. Everything was already burning. Grad rockets began coming down in great numbers. It killed lots of people. There was blood everywhere," she said. Walking down the lane, she pointed out a shallow crater covered by wooden planks fallen from a wall. "You wouldn't believe that this is a spot where a person was almost killed," she said. A neighbor and her daughter, a woman of about 24, had fallen there during the attack. "Now I don't know where or how they are," she said.

"The fire was so bad people weren't even left with a handkerchief," she said. Reaching her house, she looked up at the burnt-out shell. Flaking off a chip of paint on the mailbox, she began to cry. "We just finished this house. Where will we live now?" she said.

In another area of the neighborhood, a man walked through the rubble in plastic flip-flops and an unzipped track jacket. A Kalashnikov hung over his shoulder. As Russian special forces guards looked on, he said his name was Mamukha Zenashvili. "I am Georgian," he said. In intense fighting between Georgian forces and combined Russian and South Ossetian forces, this man had stayed. When asked if he had fought against the Georgians he simply said, "I defended my family. My wife was pregnant." She had safely had the baby, he said, in Vladikavkaz on Monday. "It's a girl, but I don't know her name," he said. "I haven't seen her yet."