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Page last updated at 04:56 GMT, Monday, 18 August 2008 05:56 UK

Georgia reeling from war with Russia

The BBC's Andrew North, who has spent more than a week travelling around war-torn Georgia, reports from a shell-shocked country.

Woman in Gori

We heard a squeal of tyres and jumped aside as a black car sped past us, slamming to a halt near the doors of a clinic.

The windows and bodywork were peppered with bullet holes. A man leapt out shouting for help, and ran to the other side of the car.

Medical workers struggled to lift out a large, barrel-chested man, with blood pouring from his back.

For a second, they had him upright. Then he collapsed. Somehow they got his bulk onto a gurney and into the clinic.

Blood oozing from his own wounds, the first man burst back outside to talk to us, while staff were doing what they could for his friend.

"A minibus came and rammed us," he said. "Gunmen opened fire from inside."

He did not know who they were, as they did not have uniforms.

There had already been several reports of South Ossetians attacking civilians in this area, around the town of Gori. This looked like a repeat.

Wounded children

It was five days into the fighting in South Ossetia and Georgia. Russian troops were supposed to control the area now.

But we had driven in without seeing a single soldier. No one seemed to be in charge.

Inside the clinic, the man's friend was still alive, but he would not survive if he stayed long. It is just one small, tumbledown building, with barely any equipment or even light inside.

Georgian man in a a refugee shelter in Tbilisi
Tens of thousands of Georgians have sought refuge in Tbilisi

But this was now the only functioning medical facility in Gori, after the Georgian military had evacuated their big, modern hospital in the town centre that morning.

Instead, the clinic was serving as a kind of transport hub, patching people up as best they could and calling ambulances up from Tbilisi.

The staff were overwhelmed. The elderly doctor in charge said they had already had more than 30 casualties in that day, two of them children.

"We just have to cope," she said. "We can't worry about ourselves." Incredibly, in the middle of all this, one of the staff insisted on making us coffee.

Then two more children were brought in, with a screech of police car tyres. Their mother too, who arrived a few minutes later, was much more seriously injured.

She had taken five bullets as she had thrown herself over her children to protect them. Amazingly, she survived - we tracked down the mother later in the week.

Heavy losses

There were still other casualties out there.

One medical team had been trying to reach a village outside Gori where several women and children had been hit by gunfire. But they said Russian troops had stopped them before they could get there.

They've been dying before we could treat them
Georgian doctor

Everywhere we looked in the military hospital, things appeared to be at breaking point.

Clusters of green and blue-clothed doctors and nurses sat outside, sitting on wheelchairs and trolleys, on walls and on the grass, hardly talking, smoking, staring straight ahead - exhausted and traumatised by the constant flow of injured.

But new wounded were being brought in every few minutes. And going the other way, cars bearing crosses on their roofs, taking away the dead.

A group of orthodox priests waited at one door, ready for the next call to administer the last rites.

Then we were taken to see the morgue. The telltale smell hit us as we entered.

Feet poked out of green military body bags. They were on the floor and in the cabinets - 16 bodies I counted. This was just from the first part of the day, staff said.

"They've been dying before we could treat them," one doctor told us later.

A senior doctor said the hospital had been handling an average of 350 casualties each day.

"Why are so many people being sacrificed for someone's impulsive behaviour?" he said - a comment apparently aimed at his own leader.

Discontent

Since then, we have been told by medical sources that more than 100 Georgian soldiers had been killed each day at the peak of the fighting - a very heavy toll for such a small army.

A Georgian man stands near where a Russian bomb destroyed a Georgian block of flats.
Gori has seen intense violence under Russian occupation

With no air cover, Georgian troops were almost totally exposed to Russian warplanes. No-one has any clear idea of civilian casualties, but they may be even higher.

As the week progressed and the news got worse, we heard more and more Georgians denouncing their government for getting into this unequal war.

They condemned Russia even more, but many Georgians feel their leaders should have seen what was coming.

When we fed one of our reports from a local TV station, workers there were stunned. We are not seeing this in the Georgian media, one said. We are not getting the true story.

The continued Russian advance to within 30km (18.5 miles) of Tbilisi has helped shore up President Mikhail Saakashvili.

This is no longer a time for open criticism. People have been rallying around the government.

I watched two children putting up their homemade "Stop Russia" signs on a Tbilisi backstreet over the weekend.

But one political analyst predicted: "In a few weeks, maybe a month or so, when things quieten down, there will be protests."

Surreal

In the meantime, with Russian forces still occupying large parts of Georgia despite the ceasefire, the country remains in limbo with some areas in a state of near-anarchy.

Tens of thousands of refugees have arrived in Tbilisi, many living in abandoned buildings with little assistance.

Much of Georgia's American-trained army is in disarray. Many troops have taken off their uniforms and returned home.

We came across several units who admitted they had no orders and did not know what to do. But there are still Georgian troops posted along the roads and highways, close to Russian lines.

There is a surreal side to the situation too. For all the recent carnage, things can seem strangely relaxed.

In Tbilisi, it is hard to know there is a conflict going on. Some "Stop Russia" banners can be seen. But there is no extra security on the streets. Shops are full of supplies and the power is still on.

On Saturday I watched an elderly man clad in brightly coloured lycra cycling purposefully on a racing bike along the main road to Gori out of Tbilisi.

Just 30km away, that road is blocked by Russian troops.

And on the banks of the Mtkvari river which meanders through the capital, the same groups of fishermen are there every day, with the worst crisis in Europe since the Balkan wars still going on.

Map of region




FROM OTHER NEWS SITES
Globe and Mail Georgia accuses Russia of ethnic cleansing' - 2 hrs ago
Chicago TribuneU.S.-Russia ties take a sharp turn - 7 hrs ago
Moscow Times Medvedev Backs Independence Bids - 14 hrs ago
Chicago Sun-Times Russian troops scour Georgia - 14 hrs ago
CNN Shaky Cease-fire between Russia and Georgia; British Television Reporter Roughed Him Up During a Pro-Tibet Rally; Trend in Foreclosures Continues Increasing; Comedian Margaret Cho Returns to TV - 18 hrs ago
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