TSKHINVALI, Georgia_ 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.
The discrepancy between the numbers at Tskhinvali's main hospital and the rhetoric of Russian and South Ossetian leaders raises serious questions about the veracity of the Kremlin's version of events. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and other senior officials in Moscow have said the Georgians were guilty of "genocide," prompting their forces to push Georgia's military out of South Ossetia — in a barrage of bombing runs and tanks blasts — and march southeast toward the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, stopping only 25 miles away.
That explanation, that Russians were saving South Ossetians from total annihilation, undergirded Moscow's rationale for the invasion.
Georgia's leadership maintains the war was launched by the Kremlin because of longstanding resentment about the former Soviet republic's close ties with the West.
Since Russian troops occupied much of Georgia last week, Kremlin officials have suggested strongly that both South Ossetia and its fellow rebel region, Abkhazia, should gain independence from Tbilisi.
A senior member of Russia's parliament, Konstantin Zatulin, was in Tskhinvali on Sunday. "We need to recognize reality," he said, meaning that South Ossetia should secede from Georgia.
Zatulin also said that the Russian government intended to spend some $100 million on building a "Moscow district" in the city; he did not explain what that would entail.
Russian troops have kept tight control on access to Tskhinvali, often bringing reporters in on coordinated trips. A McClatchy journalist was stopped at a checkpoint on the way out of Tskhinvali and directed back to a Russian outpost, where officers demanded to know where the journalist had been and whom he'd interviewed. In addition to Russian soldiers, South Ossetian militia fighters roamed the streets. One of them, drunk, walked up and showed off a shiny watch. "I got it from the body of a Georgian soldier," he said with a smile.
The difference between Russian officials' description of Tskhinvali and the facts on the ground are profound.
Col. Gen Anatoly Nogovitsyn, the deputy head of the Russian military's general staff, said last Tuesday that "Tskhinvali doesn't exist, it's like Stalingrad was after the war."
But in fact, the city still does exist. While there was extensive damage to some structures, most buildings had front doors on their hinges and standing walls. For every building charred by explosions — the Georgians are accused of using multiple rocket launcher systems — there were others on tree-lined streets that looked untouched.
One government center was hollowed out by blasts, but the one next to it teemed with workers.
While the city was still teetering from the violence, families sat on benches in front of their homes and ate fruit. Many talked about the Georgian incursion on Aug. 7, and the Russian units that then streamed across Georgia's border to beat them back.
"There were Georgian tanks on each street," said Givi Tsekhov, who was walking in front of his apartment building. "But then the Russians came."
Down the road from Tskhinvali, in Georgian areas now occupied by Russian troops, entire towns were almost completely empty and a few bodies were splayed on the side of the road, bloated and cooked by the sun.
Not only was the destruction in Tskhinvali a far cry from Stalingrad after World War II, it was well short of what happened in the southern Beirut suburbs during Israel's war with Hezbollah in the summer of 2006, or the Iraqi city of Fallujah during U.S. fighting against insurgents in November 2004.
In short, the city was scarred but still standing.
The doctor at the Tskhinvali hospital, Tina Zakharova, said she wanted to clarify that she wasn't disagreeing with the South Ossetian officials' numbers, adding that many bodies had been buried in gardens and cemeteries in outlying villages. She could not, however, explain how more than 2,000 dead — the difference between her hospital's count and the Kremlin-backed officials' tally — were buried in a relatively small area without any evidence such as stacks of coffins or mass funerals.
Researchers for Human Rights Watch, an international advocacy group, had similar findings as McClatchy about casualty numbers in Tskhinvali. A doctor at the city's hospital told the group's researchers that 44 bodies were brought by and was "adamant" that they represented the majority of deaths there because the city's morgue was not functioning at the time.
"Obviously there's a discrepancy there, a big discrepancy," Rachel Denber, deputy director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch, said about the apparently inflated casualty figures. "It's not clear to us at all where those numbers are coming from."
McClatchy Newspapers 2008