Page last updated at 14:40 GMT, Thursday, 28 August 2008 15:40 UK

Journey through a ghost village

An aid worker with UK-based medical aid agency, Merlin, describes a journey on the edges of South Ossetia, accompanying a pregnant woman to an antenatal appointment.

Driving past scorched fields, destroyed cars and past the checkpoints manned by Russian armoured vehicles was probably not how the four month's pregnant Georgian woman with us had anticipated making her next check-up. Normally she would have just taken the bus.

An old woman near the village of Tkvavi (image courtesy of Merlin)
Only those who could not leave - like the elderly - are left in the village now

We met her in the village of Tkvavi, right in the heart of the buffer zone created by Russia around South Ossetia.

These are the badlands of the conflict where law and order is tenuous and life is hard right now.

Only about 100 people - mostly elderly - remain from a population of almost 2,500.

Among those who fled the fighting are all the doctors and nurses from the village. There is no-one to tend to expectant mothers.

Our little two-car convoy carrying the mother-to-be bore large Merlin markings and flew its white flag from the roofs.

Bullet-proof vests

In our car, the second, we unfolded our bullet-proof vests, sitting on one half and leaning the other half against the inside of the doors to protect against attacks from the roadside.

An abandoned car near the entrance to a village (image: Merlin)
Villages bear the scars of the recent conflict

We had heard small arms fire in the distance whilst in the village.

During the night we had camped further north, in the direction of South Ossetia's main city - Tskhinvali to the Georgians, Tskhinval to the Ossetians.

The sound of sporadic gunfire could be heard faintly in the distance, onward where the town lay.

How much of it was about the fact that Russia's parliament had recognised South Ossetian independence that day, and how much was more serious, it was difficult to tell.

The remaining villagers are too scared to venture to the local cemetery... and so have buried bodies in their gardens

In Tkvavi village, a hungry looking puppy dog sniffed expectantly at the spot in the back garden of one house, where a 67-year-old man had been buried after being shot in the face.

The remaining villagers are too scared to venture to the local cemetery on the outskirts, and so have buried bodies in their gardens - the problem is that they have not buried them deep enough.

A woman asked for our help because, she says, the two corpses in her garden have been dug up by local dogs.

Short supply

The villagers tell us that they are down to one meal a day, and that three waves of looters have stripped the village.

Some say there are mines and unexploded ordinance in and around their houses.

There is also the danger from the sheer number of large military vehicles hurtling down the roads.

BBC map
South Ossetia
Population: About 70,000 (before recent conflict)
Capital: Tskhinvali
President: Eduard Kokoity
Population: About 250,000 (2003)
Capital: Sukhumi
President: Sergei Bagapsh

As we watched, a speeding 15-tonne armoured personnel carrier slammed into the back of the vehicle in front at a checkpoint, tossing the soldiers crowded on top on to the roadside. All were dazed, some were injured, one badly.

Further back from the buffer zone, where the majority of displaced Georgians have fled - many with none of their possessions - our organisation has been distributing blankets, water containers and kitchen items.

People are living in kindergartens and schools as it is holiday time and are packed into the apartments of friends and relatives.

For those who have stayed behind in the village of Tkvavi, almost everything is in short supply.

But as we leave villagers press huge peaches and juicy nectarines into our hands.

That is one thing that they have in abundance - they are rotting on the ground of the abandoned and burnt out houses.

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