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September 11, 2008

Special Press-release by Memorial Human Rights Center

A Month after the War

Violations of Human Rights and Norms of Humanitarian law in the Conflict Zone in South Ossetia

On September 3-8, 2008 representatives of Memorial Human Rights Center and of Human Rights Watch carried out a field mission to the area of armed conflict in South Ossetia. Apart from the capital of South Ossetia, Tskhinvali, we visited the villages to the west of the town -Novy Tbet, Khetagurovo, Ubiat, Archneti, Avnevi, Mugut, to the east - Eredvi, Sarabuk, Vanati, Ortey, Dmenis in the Bikarsky Gorge of Leningorsky district, to the north-villages Tamarasheni, Achabeti, Kurta, Kekhvi; as well as Dzhava and the village of Sinagur in Lesegonsky Gorge in the west of Dzhavsky district.

We interviewed residents of towns and villages, policemen and militia, Ossetian and Russian military servicemen.

We met with the Ombudsman, Deputy Prosecutor of the Republic, head of republican Committee for information and press, other representatives of state agencies of South Ossetia.

On the basis of this fieldwork Memorial is making the following conclusions:


1.        At night of August 7/8 armed forces of Georgia carried out an attack on South Ossetia. Indiscriminate use of force was applied. Tskhinvali and villages where civilians remained were subjected to fire with weapons of indiscriminate effect, primarily from multiple rocket launchers “Grad”.


2.        This caused fatalities among the civilian population of South Ossetia. At the moment it is not possible to identify the exact number of the killed. Until now some official agencies speak of thousands of killed, however, it is still impossible to find the source, which would validate such a calm. Moreover, the Investigative committee of  Russia reports 137 killed. Only publication of verified list of victims can clarify this issue. An internet publication by “Public committee for investigation”, which lists 311 killed can be regarded as a step forward in this direction. Unfortunately, we were not able to find representatives of this committee in Tskhinvali or reach them by telephone number indicated at the website in order to inquire about the methodology of compiling this list. As of today, no credible verified lists exist. However, we are confident that among the deceased there were tens of civilians, including women, children and elderly. Such fatalities are great for small Ossetia.



3.        From interviews with residents of Ossetian villages and residents of the most badly damaged regions of Tskhinvali we learnt that most of the killed were the representatives of armed resistance. The majority of the civilian population had left town during the week before the attack, the remaining people were hiding in cellars. We have registered several cases of firing at these houses at the level of cellars. However, most of the civilian fatalities happened when people were getting outside of cellars - to save a burning house, to get water or in order to use the “humanitarian corridor” allegedly opened at night of August 8-9.

4.        In Tskhinvali we registered one attempt at hostage taking by a crew of a damaged Georgian military vehicle. Retreating from the villages, Georgian military servicemen also took captives and hostages. We have registered several cases of cruel treatment of hostages. We have not carried out targeted interviews specifically on this issue in the villages, which used to be under control of Georgian troops, however, while talking to people we have not revealed cases of torture, beatings and other forms of cruel treatment of women, children, elderly by the Georgian infantry. Georgian military servicemen told many civilians that they had a strict order not to inflict any damage to these groups of the population. Residents of villages where according to the Russian media “people were burnt in churches”, have not confirmed such information. Moreover, during the conflict several badly injured Ossetian civilians were taken to the hospital of Georgia where they received medical care. Reverse cases were registered as well, when the Ossetians helped the elderly Georgians who remained in the villages.

5.        Residential and administrative buildings in Tskhinvali have been seriously damaged during the shelling and bombing by Georgian armed forces. Certain damages could have been inflicted by the artillery, but the residents  reported only damages during the attacks on the night of 7/8 August, when the Russian army had not yet approached Tskhinvali. Earlier the Russian Minister of Emergency Situations, Sergey Shojgu, estimated that the number of houses in Tskhinvali which could not be repaired amounts to 10%; housing which required reconstruction-to 20%. These estimates are questionable. Evaluations made on the basis of photographs made by Sputnik can underestimate damage, since when tank shells hit a multi-storey building, its roof can remain intact, and such damage is not being registered from the space.

6.        On August 13, two hours after the Russian army established control over Georgian enclaves, it has undertaken effective measures aimed at protection of the remaining civilian population and their property: looting and arson was stopped. Moreover, Ministry of Emergency Situations forces discovered and evacuated to Georgia at least a hundred residents of these villages – these were Georgians who had not left their houses. This successful attempt at controlling the situation shows there can be an effective solution to such problems. However, approximately five days later the checkpoints were dismantled and demolition of villages continued.

7.        Presently the Georgian villages (the ones we have visited-Kekhvi, Kurta, Achabeti, Tamarasheni, Eredvi, Vanati, Avnevi) have been virtually fully burnt down. Presently, a month after the end of warfare the last houses are being burnt- everyday we witnessed new fires set in these villages.  There are villages with mixed population, where the Georgian residents remained and they are currently secure (village Artsnevi, Georgian khutors of Bikarsky Gorge, villages in the South-West of Dzhavsky district).

8.        Georgian population had virtually completely left the enclave villages on the eve of the Georgian attack on South Ossetia, persuaded to do so by the local pro-Georgian administration, which promised them a rapid return. Only those remained in the villages who for various reasons were unable to leave, mainly Georgian elderly and three ethnically mixed families (they are now under protection of International Committee of Red Cross, they either receive humanitarian aid or have already been evacuated. On September 8th only, the ICRC evacuated 29 people). However, its not only the Georgian and mixed families who are endangered, but also Ossetian residents of these villages are subject to looting. Some of the marauders enjoy the impunity to loot and burn not only neglected Georgian houses but other houses as well.  There is no effective security at the entrances and exits to villages- only once we saw a Russian-Ossetian checkpoint, where servicemen checked documents, but it had not remained there for longer than for a day. Even captured looters are not punished adequately, they escape, charged with a small fine. 

Leadership of South Ossetia does not ensure protection of property of residents of Georgian enclaves and the security of people remaining there. Russian security servicemen have also given up on these functions. The situation in such villages is totally unacceptable. It is necessary in the nearest future to carry out a door-to-door monitoring aimed at discovering residents of villages who are alive and of dead bodies. This can be carried out by the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations Forces based in Tskhinvali together with the South Ossetian Ministry of Internal Affairs.


9.        Units of the Russian 58th Army currently stationed in South Ossetia are getting gradually demoralized, having found themselves in a wine producing region. Hospitality and gratitude of the Ossetian population make them not only inefficient, but already dangerous for themselves and for people around. It is necessary to urgently prevent this potential problem.

HRC “Memorial”