In recent days, there has been a remarkable change in Western opinion about the August war between Georgia and Russia over my homeland of South Ossetia. The New York Times, the BBC and Human Rights Watch have reported extensive evidence of U.S.-armed and trained Georgian troops attacking innocent civilians using cluster bombs and other banned weapons. The U.S. State Department, which initially backed Georgia strongly, now concedes that Georgia erred in launching its attack, while British Foreign Secretary David Miliband has condemned the Georgian government for its “reckless” attack. Officials of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe have come forward to demolish Georgia’s absurd and self-serving claims that it was fighting a defensive war.
Yet the Los Angeles Times, which reported extensively on the August conflict but only briefly acknowledged the suffering of the South Ossetian people shortly after the war, has not published an article on these crucial developments. Nor is The Times alone in overlooking the Georgian government’s abuses. Last month, Western governments decided to reward those ruthless actions by giving Georgia $4.5 billion in aid -- money that will never end up reaching the people of South Ossetia whose homes and schools have been destroyed. American taxpayers, whose president-elect has vowed to restore his country’s standing as a champion of human rights and democracy, are set to send another $1 billion to a government accused by some of war crimes.
Georgia’s public relations campaign was effective in suppressing the voices of South Ossetians during the conflict. But now that the war is over, The Times and others must acknowledge some basic facts about this terrible conflict.
After weeks of rising tensions and spurts of cross-border violence, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili went on television Aug. 7 and reassured South Ossetians that he was implementing a “unilateral and immediate cease-fire.” We in South Ossetia went to bed relieved after Saakashvili told us that Georgians did “not have the will to respond to violence with more violence.”
Within a few hours of Saakashvili’s televised appearance, the Georgian army launched a vicious assault on South Ossetia’s capital, Tskhinvali. I hid with my husband and my 86-year-old mother-in-law in my house, which shook with the explosions. During the occasional lull, I reached some friends and relatives by telephone. The news was horrifying. One of my colleagues’ relatives was killed by Georgian tanks. Alan, my young dentist, was blown to pieces by a rocket attack just outside his house.
When I finally emerged from my home three days later, after Russian troops forced the Georgian army to retreat, my beloved city was in ruins.
Today in Tskhinvali, my friends and neighbors are rebuilding their lives. Homeowners are repairing plaster walls. Storekeepers are restocking their shelves. Teachers are setting up temporary classrooms.
But our trust cannot be rebuilt so easily. With one cynical move, Saakashvili threw a match on smoldering ethnic hatreds, distrust and misunderstanding. South Ossetians who lived their entire lives with Georgians, who were tied by marriage, friendship, geography, traditions and customs, are now convinced that they would have been annihilated if the Russians had not come to save their lives.
Peacemaking is my profession. For more than a decade, I have been arranging meetings between South Ossetians and Georgians -- schoolchildren, mothers, teachers and even soldiers -- to discuss the values we shared and the misunderstandings and hatred that have driven us apart. Child by child, person by person, village by village, we worked to defuse the historic and complex tensions in South Ossetia, a region of diverse ethnicities and national identities.
Yet even I am no longer confident that peaceful coexistence is possible.
We in the peace movement have never blamed Georgians for the actions of their government. I feel no hatred toward Georgians. They, like us, were victims of Saakashvili, a so-called democratic leader who has repressed the media and kept his own people in the dark about what really happened that awful night.
I still believe in the power of honest dialogue, and I continue to reach out to my Georgian friends. Last month, I met with some peace activists in Istanbul, where we discussed the challenges facing women in the conflict zone. I recently traveled to Baku to meet a group of Georgian women and hear how their lives have been upended by the five-day war.
If the world is committed to ending the conflict in South Ossetia and resolving the territorial issues in the Caucasus, the following must happen:
* The U.S. must support the European Union’s new commission to investigate the war and hold a hearing to determine whether international laws were violated.
* Congress must hold hearings to determine how Georgia used its American training and weapons to carry out attacks. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D- New York) has introduced a bill, S 3567, to investigate the causes of the war and make recommendations on U.S. policy toward Russia, Georgia and other countries in the region.
* We must listen to the stories of the South Ossetians who lived through the five-day conflict and its aftermath.
* Countries that send billions in aid to the war-torn region must ensure that a fair share actually reaches the people of South Ossetia, home to the most heavily impacted victims of the war.
* Any additional aid to the Georgian government must be dispensed on the condition that Saakashvili sign an agreement renouncing the use of violence against South Ossetians.
* Countries that provide aid to Georgia must demand that their assistance does not contribute to further militarization by the Georgian government.
Years of experience have taught me that real reconciliation cannot occur without two essential ingredients: trust and truth. Saakashvili, with his campaign of lies and his refusal to give up violence against my people, has ensured that neither of those elements exist. Until the world hears our story and acknowledges what really happened on Aug. 7, there is no way for “justice” to be served.
Lira Tskhovrebova is the founder of the Assn. of South Ossetian Women for Democracy and Human Rights and has worked for more than a decade to improve relations between people of Georgian and Ossetian descent in the Caucasus.