ODZISI, Georgia (Reuters) – Riding in a rickety truck laden with furniture, Zina Zakarashvili gave European Union ceasefire monitors an early glimpse on Wednesday of the human face of the conflict between Russia and Georgia.
The 72-year-old Georgian woman said she was leaving her home in South Ossetia. Her house in the town of Akhalgori had been broken into, and she no longer felt safe in the seemingly lawless region.
British and Swedish EU monitors, on their first day on the job, took down her account by the roadside, a few kilometers (miles) south of a Russian checkpoint on the de facto border with the rebel region.
“They are destroying our homes,” the woman said.
Aid workers and foreign observers who have gained access to the Akhalgori region of southeastern South Ossetia in recent weeks say the town is calm, but visibly emptying of its Georgian residents, six weeks since the Russia-Georgia war ended.
The Georgian authorities and aid agencies say around 5,000 people have left the area. Akhalgori had a population of some 8,000 before the war, mainly Georgians.
The region lies just inside the de facto borders of South Ossetia, but is mainly populated by ethnic Georgians and continued to be administered and policed by the Georgian authorities even after South Ossetia effectively threw off Georgian rule in the early 1990s.
But it was seized by South Ossetian armed forces in August, after Russia sent tanks and troops into the rebel region to repel a Georgian assault to retake it from pro-Moscow separatists.
Around 100,000 people fled the war, from both sides.
A 200-plus EU mission to monitor the ceasefire began on Wednesday, with unarmed observers patrolling in a buffer zone set down by Russian forces near South Ossetia.
But they cannot get into Akhalgori, and Russia insists the monitors will not operate inside South Ossetia even after their troops pull back from the buffer zones as promised by October 10.
Refugee accounts of the situation inside Akhalgori are feeding demands from the Georgian government that it be allowed to take it back.
One Western analyst with close links to the Georgian authorities said Tbilisi had already been persuaded once by its Western allies to refrain from sending the army and police back into the area.
Analysts warn that if hostilities are to break out again, Akhalgori could well provide the spark.
“All we want is for them (the Russian forces) to quietly leave a region that was never ever under separatist control,” a senior Georgian government official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Georgian media reports speak of South Ossetian soldiers demanding ethnic Georgians in the area take Russian passports, or get out. The reports have been impossible to verify.
“We are trying to show that we are here,” Per-Erik Korsstrom, leader of the EU monitoring contingent in the eastern zone, said on Wednesday two hours into his mission.
“We are trying to ease their burden, and also report on everything we can find out, what is the situation … is there some kind of tendency to humanitarian violations?”