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Human Rights Activists Paint Complex Picture in South Ossetia

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An independent human rights monitoring mission in South Ossetia paints a complex picture of propaganda, suffering, and ongoing threats to civilians in the breakaway region of Georgia.  VOA correspondent Peter Fedynsky reports from Moscow.

On September 8, the independent Russian human rights organization "Memorial," and the Moscow Branch of Human Rights Watch concluded a six-day visit to Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, and number of Ossetian, Georgian, and mixed villages in the breakaway region of Georgia.  

Speaking at a news conference in the Russian capital, representatives of the two organizations said the situation in the area is not as simple as presented by propagandists on either side of the conflict.  

The activists note a discrepancy between some official Russian and South Ossetian claims of 2,000 war dead and a figure of 137 fatalities provided by Investigative Committee in the Russian Prosecutor's office.  They say attempts to confirm a number was impossible, as one government committee referred them to another committee, which referred them back to the first.  There was also no evidence of thousands dead based on visits to local hospitals and graveyards.

Memorial representative Alexander Cherkasov also rejects as propaganda a story alleging Georgians herded residents of one village into a church and burned them inside.

Cherkasov says the human rights monitors went to that village and it turns out that nobody knew about the alleged atrocity.  He says villagers suggested perhaps it occurred elsewhere.

The human rights activists say they could not find any evidence in South Ossetian villages of torture, massacres, or other crimes against women, children and the elderly by Georgian forces.  However, Cherkasov says residents of Georgian enclaves were advised to leave by local pro-Georgian authorities before the outbreak of hostilities.  This, according to the activist, indicates the attack by Georgia was not spontaneous.

Cherkasov says there was a planned evacuation of people from the war zone.  That, he comments, is something to be welcomed, because civilians should not be subjected to bullets.  However, the activist raises the question of responsibility for people based on their status.  It is one thing if they are refugees, but if Georgia made them evacuees, that country, he says, should also be responsible for them.

The deputy director of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch, Tatiana Lokshina, says there were few if any casualties in South Ossetia among people who found shelter in basements.  Most who died, however, were men who left safe areas in search of water and food.  She says others perished after acting on a rumor that a humanitarian corridor would be opened to allow Tskhinvali residents to safely leave town.  Instead, they drove into intense fighting and died.

Lokshina gives credit to Russian troops for preventing arson and looting in some of South Ossetia's Georgian enclaves, as well as for saving the lives of more than 100 Georgian civilians in mid-August.  However, she says Russian forces have since removed their checkpoints around Georgian villages.

At the same time, Lokshina says South Ossetian authorities are not defending the security or property of civilians left in those villages.  She says the villages she visited with Alexander Cherkasov have been burned to the ground.

The activists say Georgian homes in South Ossetia continue to be set on fire.  They say some elderly Georgians, mixed Georgian and Ossetian families, and even pure Ossetians remain at risk in Georgian villages.  Tatiana Lokshina describes the situation in those villages as acute, and calls on Russian forces to protect the civilians and whatever property remains there.  

Memorial and Human Rights Watch representatives note their latest report is strictly about South Ossetia.  They say separate information will be provided about the situation in Georgia.

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