GORI, Georgia (Reuters) – The fruit and vegetable market in Gori buzzed with life on Saturday after Georgian forces retook control of the strategically located town following nearly two weeks of Russian occupation.
Georgian police patrolled the streets in force. Residents who stayed behind, when the majority had fled advancing Russian troops, strolled through the town centre past the towering statue of its most famous son, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
But most shops remained closed apart from a few grocery stores and bookmakers. Elderly women swept up glass shattered during Russian bombing raids against mainly military installations and artillery positions in and around the town.
“It’s my first day at the market,” said 79-year-old blackberry seller Zaira.
“I was so scared because bombs were falling on our homes. But now it seems people will start returning and everything will be alright,” she said.
On Friday Russian troops removed checkpoints blocking entry to the town, which lies just south of the breakaway province of South Ossetia at the heart of the Russia-Georgia conflict.
They pulled out 10 days after rolling in on tanks and armored personnel carriers (APCs), having crushed a Georgian bid to retake the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, 25 km (15 miles) to the north, from pro-Moscow separatists.
But the threat has not moved very far up the road.
On Saturday, a Reuters correspondent saw Russian APCs stationed six km (four miles) north of Gori in the village of Karaleti, soldiers clutching Kalashnikovs at a checkpoint on the road leading to Tskhinvali.
Several hundred meters from the Russian checkpoint, Georgian soldiers manned their own post.
Karaleti lies well inside territory Tbilisi says Russian forces have no right to control. But Moscow insists it will patrol a loosely defined “buffer zone” adjacent to South Ossetia, with checkpoints well inside Georgia proper.
Several streets in Gori were closed off by police as mines experts tried to clear unexploded ordnance.
Thousands fled the town when Georgian forces pulled out. For days Gori was like a ghost town. There were hardly any cars on the roads and elderly residents queued for hours in stifling heat for humanitarian aid handed out at the train station.
“My kids are in Tbilisi, staying with relatives” said 62-year-old Givi on Saturday, selling tomatoes at the market. “But it seems that peace is coming back to our town and I think they will also come back soon.”