Ethnic Split At Core Of Georgian Conflict Remains

The confrontation between Russia and Georgia has created demands by major Western nations that Russia respect Georgian sovereignty. But the nasty ethnic issue at the heart of the local conflict has been obscured by the big-power wrangling.

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Now to South Ossetia, one of the breakaway regions which is a focus of the conflict between Russia and Georgia. Russia's massive military buildup there seems to indicate that they have no intention of giving up control of South Ossetia, and anti-Georgian propaganda is helping to fuel hatred for Georgia among South Ossetians. They say they will never be part of Georgia again, as NPR's Gregory Feifer reports.

GREGORY FEIFER: At a campsite in Southern Russia, children play ball on a sunny afternoon. They are South Ossetian refugees who fled their region across the border when Georgia attempted to retake the province earlier this month.

Near the playground, about 30 women sit on two long benches under some trees and next to the large building in which they sleep. Iri Kiseyiva(ph) says words can't describe how difficult it was to escape here from South Ossetia.

Ms. IRI KISEYIVA (Refugee): (Through translator) It was the road of death. Our husbands said we had to escape because the Georgians were trying to kill us. We had to cross fields, woods and rivers. It now seems unreal, like a bad dream.

FEIFER: Kiseyiva says during the fighting, ethnic Georgians living in South Ossetia led the way for the Georgian troops, pointing out which Ossetian houses to destroy.

Ms. KISEYIVA: (Through translator) Georgians aren't people. They're worse than the Nazis. We did nothing to them, but they surrounded us from all sides and started shooting at us.

FEIFER: That's a near-unanimous view among South Ossetians. In South Ossetia, on the other side of the Caucasus Mountains, Russian humanitarian aid is beginning to arrive in the capital, Tskhinvali, and refugees are starting to return.

The Georgian attack on the city, which included rocket and artillery fire and subsequent Russian counterattack, has leveled many of the buildings here. There are reports that the Russian forces used heavy shelling, but residents blame all the destruction on the Georgians.

Ms. LISA KUCHIYIVA(ph): (Speaking foreign language)

FEIFER: Lisa Kuchiyiva hid from the fighting in a basement and says she'd rather her head be cut off than see the return of any of the Georgians who fled the region during the fighting. We want to be part of Russia, she says.

Georgia says Moscow is trying to annex South Ossetia. Under Georgia's cease-fire deal with Russia, the region's status is to be a topic of future negotiation, but the South Ossetian government says the region will never be part of Georgia, and Moscow appears to be reinforcing such feelings.

In Russia, a major anti-Georgian propaganda campaign is under way on state-controlled television.

(Soundbite of television program)

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language)

FEIFER: On one news program recently, all stories were devoted to Russia's conflict with Georgia.

(Soundbite of television program)

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language)

FEIFER: The reports focus on atrocities allegedly carried out by Georgian soldiers and Russia's humanitarian aid to South Ossetia.

Russia says its attack on Georgia was part of a peacekeeping operation, but Tonya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch says Moscow's claims that Georgia conducted genocide against South Ossetia are meant to justify the military campaign.

Ms. TONYA LOKSHINA (Human Rights Watch): It's all about explaining to the Russian society in particular what made them enter the conflict as a third party.

FEIFER: Back in South Ossetia, hatred for Georgians is helping fuel violence calculated to ensure ethnic Georgians who left during the conflict don't return. Arsenia Ochisvili(ph) was one of those forced to flee South Ossetia for Georgia.

Ms. ARSENIA OCHISVILI (Refugee): (Speaking foreign language)

FEIFER: She says she doesn't know why her South Ossetian neighbors burned down her house. It's all decided by the politicians, she says, and as a result we're being killed. Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Vladikavkaz in Southern Russia.

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