Georgians still hoping that U.S. military will arrive

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 15, 2008 

TBILISI, Georgia — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Friday persuaded Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili to sign a cease-fire agreement calling for Russian tanks to withdraw from much of the country.

President Bush, meanwhile, scolded Russian leaders for continuing to occupy Georgian territory and promised that citizens of this country won't be forgotten.

But in refugee centers across Tbilisi, men and women who'd fled their burning villages wanted to know when the support would move beyond words. They wanted to know when the Americans, or perhaps the Europeans, were coming to save them.

"America is the only light left for Georgia," said Shota Tsotniashvili, who left his home north of the capital and was sharing a small room in a Tbilisi kindergarten building with his mother, wife and three children. "Bush knows what to do."

Tsotniashvili had been living in a town near South Ossetia, the Russian-backed breakaway province that Georgian troops tried to retake last week. After Russia — seemingly unchallenged — responded by sending thousands of troops along with fighter jets, Tsotniashvili fled.

"When I left, the bombs were falling. My wife almost went crazy," Tsotniashvili said. "A lot of people were hiding in basements. Some of them died when the buildings above them were bombed. They just collapsed."

Human Rights Watch, an international advocacy group, said it had found evidence that the onslaught in Georgia included cluster bombs in civilian areas, a charge that the Russian government denied.

On Friday, even as Rice met with Saakashvili, Russian tanks and soldiers remained in Gori, less than an hour away.

The peace deal that Saakashvili agreed to, and Russia has agreed to sign, is vague in parts, with Russia retaining the right to defend its interests, a measure that Moscow apparently has taken to mean that it can dismantle much of Georgia's military infrastructure. Kremlin officials also have repeatedly called into question whether South Ossetia and its fellow breakaway province, Abkhazia, would remain parts of Georgia.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said the cease-fire principles provided a "necessary and sufficient base for achieving a settlement.''

Bush issued yet another statement in Washington. "The people of Georgia have cast their lot with the free world, and we will not cast them aside," he said. The Pentagon confirmed that more than 80 tons of humanitarian aid had arrived to Georgia and that more was on the way.

But in what's certainly one of the most pro-American nations in the world — a major thoroughfare here is named for Bush, who in 2005 called Georgia a "beacon of liberty" — people were having a hard time understanding the lack of U.S. intervention.

The Russian invasion last week, to their minds, was punishment — a word used often by Georgian refugees — for the country wanting to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. Bush has been a strong advocate of those aspirations.

"We just kept hoping that someone would come help us," said Jemal Beruashvili, a farmer who fled his village in the face of Russian bombardment. "We don't have anything left."

Waiting for Rice and Saakashvili to appear and announce the peace deal Friday, a European Union official said he'd heard that "horrible things" took place in villages in and around South Ossetia.

"We need to verify what's happened there," said Peter Semneby, the EU's special representative for the South Caucasus.

Refugees in Tbilisi said they knew exactly what happened: The Russian military bombed their villages, then allowed South Ossetian militias to come in to loot and kill.

"My village was being bombed," said Manana Chulukhadze, who's living with her husband, sister-in-law and 6-year-old son in a Tbilisi university building. "The troops came in and were attacking civilians. They were entering houses and shooting. . . . We didn't have time to even bury our dead."

Still, Georgian politicians are unwilling to denounce the Americans.

If nothing else, official American protests have kept Russian troops from seizing Tbilisi and the rest of the country, they note.

David Darchiashvili, who heads a parliamentary committee on European integration, said he understood the frustration of his fellow Georgians who were living in camps.

"Of course, for the people who are in desperation, it's not understandable what's going on; they need help right now," Darchiashvili said.

"We just have to make it through these critical hours and days," he said.

Gia Tortladze, who's on a government commission that's investigating alleged Russian war crimes, agreed that U.S. political involvement tamped down Russian aggression.

"The Americans never promised to send troops to Georgia. They are supporting us politically," said Tortladze, who's also a parliament member.

But, he added, "I hope the Americans will do more. . . . It's very hard to see how our civilians are dying."

A man outside a Tbilisi shelter walked up to a reporter and said, "I was watching Bush's speech; he said there were negotiations taking place."

The man, who wouldn't give his name, was crying. He went to a car and pulled out one of his boots. He pointed to the dirt caked on its sole, and said that it was the only piece of his village that he had left.

More from McClatchy

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Civilians were only targets left as Russia kept bombing

Unchallenged air power was Russia's trump card

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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