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Last Updated: Friday, 20 August, 2004, 13:02 GMT 14:02 UK
S Ossetians remain defiant under fire
By Sarah Rainsford
BBC correspondent in Tskhinvali, South Ossetia

Soflan Siukayev has already lived through one war in South Ossetia. Now his family has been caught up in a second.

In his house in the centre of Tskhinvali, Soflan points out a blackened hole above the sofa the size of a man's hand.

Volunteers on exercise in South Ossetia
South Ossetians have shown they are ready to defend their region
His five-year-old son Ilya was sprayed with shrapnel from a bullet that tore through the window frame then exploded in the wall.

Soflan now covers his windows with metal sheets and pillows. He says he prays to God to protect him.

"This room was always safe during the first war, the mortar bombs would never reach us," he says.

"Now I've sent my son away. He's traumatised. We could all have been killed."

Memories

Like many here, Soflan is furious with Georgia. He calls Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvilli the aggressor.

"Georgians ask us to be friends, but they bring tanks and howitzers. They shoot at us with heavy artillery. How could we possibly ever live under their rule?" Soflan asks.

"We are forced to defend our independence, if we don't have that Georgia will destroy us."

We won our freedom with our own blood and now they want us to join them again? It won't happen
Amiran
Mr Saakashvili has vowed to reunite his country, to bring its breakaway regions back under central control. Ajaria succumbed with a bloodless coup back in May.

But South Ossetia is ethnically different and, unlike Ajaria, the people here still have terrible memories of the first separatist war. Convinced they are under attack from Georgia again, local men are taking up arms and digging in for a fight.

In a lull in the shooting, local fighter Amiran drives us to see his trenches close to the hills around the capital.

Rattling about in the boot of his Lada are a rocket propelled grenade, a Kalashnikov, and ammunition.

"It is enough fire power to take out four Georgian tanks if they ever dare enter the city," Amiran says, his intense eyes blazing.

"Every second car here has the same things in the boot. We are talking about a nation that is defending its rights."

Freedom

In a district of Tskhinvali that is still heavily scarred by the first war, Amiran points out his positions.

Some of his fellow volunteer fighters are just 16 years old. Amiran insists his people do not want war, but he says Georgia was sorely mistaken to think South Ossetia would ever give in without a fight.

SOUTH OSSETIA
Population: About 70,000
Capital: Tskhinvali
Major languages: Ossetian, Georgian, Russian
Major religion: Orthodox Christianity
Currency: Russian rouble, Georgian lari

"We lived in independence for 14 years. We won our freedom with our own blood and now they want us to join them again? It won't happen.

"Instead the fight here will ignite the whole of the Caucasus and that will not only mean the end of President Saakashvilli, there'll be nothing left of Georgia either."

Just a few hundred yards from the trenches, local woman Nanulia shows us the basement of her house where she sits out the night time clashes. Beneath two heavy wooden planks is a small dank cellar with one lightbulb and a stool.

"This is where we sit. It can be terrible at night. Even in the cellar at night you can hear the huge explosions," she says.

"The Georgian village of Tamareshemi is very close by. It is not safe to stay upstairs."

Georgia insists it never fired first here. South Ossetian officials say exactly the same.

Hearts and minds

Whatever the truth, the number of casualties has been climbing regardless and, with that, simmering tensions that had begun to die down after the first war have been ominously restirred.

"We used to be friendly with the Georgians," Nanulia says. "but now it is like they have turned into beasts. We can't stay friends any more."

Georgia wanted to win hearts and minds here, to reunite this territory without a fight. It seems Mr Saakashvili sorely underestimated the passions of the South Ossetians.

So Georgia has pulled out its troops in an attempt to bring both sides back from the brink.

Mr Saakashvili calls it the last chance for peace. It is an uneasy truce but the stakes here are high. If this chance is missed the whole of the Caucasus risks being dragged into a long and bitter war.


SEE ALSO:
Heavy shelling batters S Ossetia
17 Aug 04  |  Europe
Fighting rages in South Ossetia
16 Aug 04  |  Europe
Georgia wants Russian troops out
13 Aug 04  |  Europe
Georgia reports deaths in clash
12 Aug 04  |  Europe
Regions and territories: South Ossetia
13 Jun 04  |  Country profiles
Timeline: Georgia
14 Jul 04  |  Country profiles


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