Georgia Sees Reminders Of the War Everywhere
- By Matthew Collin
- Sep. 29 2008 00:00
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On a remote country road, a short drive into the hills above the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, is a scrubby patch of land where bodies wait to be claimed. Dug into the rocky, yellowish soil are about 40 small black markers, each bearing a different number but the same two words: "Utsnobi Jariskatsi" -- "Unknown Soldier."
Next to the graves, a single, small Georgian flag hangs limply, while wilting flowers from the mass burial ceremony lay discarded on the ground. Just opposite, an abandoned blue Lada lies on its side by a half-derelict building. There is no sound in the Mukhatgverdi Cemetery apart from the agonized wailing of an elderly woman; a mother grieving for her son who went to fight for his country and never came home again.
This desolate roadside may not be the last resting place for the unknown soldiers of last month's war. The numbers on the temporary headstones refer to DNA samples that will, hopefully, allow the fallen to be matched with their families and buried in a more dignified manner later.
But it is still unclear exactly how many Georgians died during the five-day war with Russia. Government sources currently put the number at around 300 -- 115 of them soldiers. It's also unclear how many people remain missing. One official has suggested that more than 1,000 are yet to be found. The government has set up a commission to coordinate the search for the dead and missing, but the uncertainty about casualty figures has made some people uneasy.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of internal refugees have yet to return to their homes in the conflict zone. Indeed, many of them will never be able to go back because their houses in South Ossetia have been razed to the ground. The huge tent camp in the town of Gori, close to South Ossetia, remains full to capacity. Heavy rains in recent days gave another warning that winter is bearing down fast, and the authorities are under pressure to rehouse people before the weather turns for the worse.
On the highway from Tbilisi to Gori, where the Russian army maintained its checkpoints just a few weeks ago, construction workers are laboring intensively to build new mini-villages from scratch. Red roofs can now be seen where there was only bare earth and grass less than a week ago. These little hamlets will provide much-needed shelter for those who have lost everything. But, like the war graves, they will also be an enduring reminder of how much was lost and why.
Matthew Collin is a journalist in Tbilisi.