The first Russian tanks rumbled past in the morning, witnesses said, startling the townspeople and then drifting away as casually as they had arrived.
By afternoon, the tanks were back in a haze of smoke and dust. Russian soldiers lounged on top, sprawled in their fatigues, shutting down the roads out of the city. Russia and Georgia had signed a cease-fire agreement the night before, but it already seemed like an illusion.
Wednesday was an ordeal of lawlessness, random violence and fear for exhausted Georgians. Bandits and militiamen roamed the streets of Gori and nearby villages, stopping cars at gunpoint and stripping passersby of their possessions.
Russian tanks creaked off toward the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, violating the truce, before turning back. The smell of fire and rumors of atrocities drifted into town from Russian-controlled farmlands to the north.
“When they see people coming, they just start shooting,” said Temo Petushvili. Grizzled and gray, he squeezed a cigarette between filthy fingers and wandered in a daze through town in search of a way out. “Do you think you can bring me to the edge of town or someplace? I want to get out of here.”
It was unclear what Russia’s objective was, and whether the incursions would continue. Wednesday may have been one last swipe of humiliation for a defeated Georgia, a final reminder of Russia’s military superiority, or part of the new status quo as defined by Moscow.
The streets of Gori stretched quiet and empty, haunted by stray dogs, littered with bomb-smashed glass, blasted in the sun. Gunshots popped in the hot air. Thieves fired shots at the Orthodox bishop’s residence, where volunteers were baking bread to feed stranded civilians, and stole his car.
There was little chance of homecoming for refugees driven out by the bombing. On the contrary, fresh waves of panicked families poured toward the relative haven of Tbilisi in crammed cars, or stood on the rural roadsides, flapping arms to flag a ride.
Bandits and looters raged through ethnic Georgian villages in and around South Ossetia, eyewitnesses said. The machine-gun-toting men didn’t wear uniforms; they were variously described as Russians, Cossacks, Chechens or ethnic Ossetians. They rounded up men, raped women and set fire to homes, villagers said.
“Whatever crosses their path, they are attacking and destroying it,” said Manana Bolrashvili, a skinny, wild-eyed woman who had fled the village of Heltoubani with her children Wednesday morning. “They’re raping women, beating men, burning houses.”
Thick columns of smoke were visible from miles away, rising from the vicinity of the villages. But there was no way to confirm the villagers’ stories.
“They weren’t official soldiers. They were militiamen, guerrillas,” said Vaja Ambugadze, a 48-year-old teacher who saw gunmen cruising through Gori in trucks, firing into the air. “They were Russians.”
Officials in Moscow said that Russian troops had gone into Georgia to neutralize weapons stashes abandoned by Georgian soldiers, and that all looters would be punished.
No Georgian soldiers or police came to the villagers’ rescue; the government and law had melted away. The last time anybody saw the Georgian soldiers, they were begging residents for food on their way out of town this week.
“They were shaking. They said, ‘We’re hungry,’ and we fed them,” said Maria Tsetsekashvili, a 67-year-old resident. “They were scared to death. They didn’t even have water. We gave them tomatoes, cucumbers, bread and fruit.”
The young men ate, and then slipped away.
“Nobody stayed here,” Tse- tsekashvili said. “There is no government, no ambulances, no electricity, nothing. Let the Russians come in, and that will be the end.”
At the edge of a grassy orchard on the outskirts of Gori, a pocket of Georgian soldiers finally came into view -- a colonel and his handful of soldiers, gnawing on the hard, green peaches and nectarines they had plucked from the trees. Their cheeks bulged with fruit; their hands were full of bright nectarines for later.
They were watching the Russian tanks disappear from view, they said. They pointed to the sunburned hillside at the horizon, where smoke and dust curled upward. That’s where the tanks were, they said. Two columns, headed for Tbilisi.
“We are not able to resist them if somebody doesn’t help us,” said the colonel, who didn’t give his name because he is not allowed to talk with reporters. Asked whether he had any orders about how to respond to a Russian attack, he shrugged.
“I don’t have any orders,” he said. “If I see them, I’ll shoot them.”
Georgia’s defenses seem to have broken down completely. When Russian tanks pointed toward the capital, a flock of police pickup trucks massed on one bend; a lone tank loomed on another roadside; a line of foot soldiers marched resolutely in the vague direction of the Russian threat.
Back in Gori, neighbors gathered under grape arbors, smashed fruit at their feet, and traded harrowing rumors. Georgian troops had warned residents that their uniforms had been stolen, they said, so all soldiers should be regarded with distrust. Militiamen, they said, had gone into the village of a former Georgian defense minister and rounded up all the men in his family.
Most of the people left in Gori are old; many are infirm. They shuffle along the sidewalks, clump on stoops, stare into the roads.
A handful of Orthodox priests marched through the deserted streets in their fluttering robes and thick beards, crunching over shattered glass. They carried a bucket of holy water, sprinkling it over the bombed streets.
“We are just praying for these people who are staying here,” said one of the priests.
The old chess hall with the smashed windows stood bathed by dim light, a field of empty tables and abandoned boards. A pair of ill-kempt men sat there, hunched over a game. They apologized; they were drunk on raki, an anise-flavored liquor. They tapped their cigarettes into empty tuna cans.
“I expect we can be killed at any time,” said Sura Janazashvili. He wobbled to his feet, and crossed himself drunkenly. “We’re in God’s hands now.”