Georgians hail probe into 2008 war with Russia as 'spark of hope'

AFP , Friday 5 Feb 2016

File Photo: A Georgian woman crying at the entrance of her destroyed building in a battered neighborhood in Gori August 23, 2008 (Photo: AFP)

On August 9 2008, Tsitsino Vazagashvili's daughter and grandson were outside her block of flats when a Russian bomb exploded.

Her daughter, shielding her son with her body, was killed. The boy survived but, now 21, walks with a permanent limp.

More than seven years later, 76-year-old Vazagashvili and other Georgians hope an international probe into the brief Russia-Georgia war of 2008 will finally bring those responsible to justice.

On January, 27, the International Criminal Court (ICC) opened an investigation into crimes committed in the conflict, which was sparked by the Moscow-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia.

The ICC said it will probe allegations of murder and forcible transfer of population as well as war crimes such as attacks against civilians.

International watchdogs such as Human Rights Watch have hailed the decision as long overdue.

During the war, the Russian military bombed and occupied Vazagashvili's home city of Gori, about 25 kilometres (16 miles) south of South Ossetia's capital, Tskhinvali.

"Now there is a spark of hope that those who killed innocent civilians will be punished," said Vazagashvili.

"The Russian military killed my daughter and left my grandson disabled. The years have passed and I am still waiting for them to be prosecuted."

For Vazagashvili, who still wears black to mourn her daughter, a history lecturer, the horrors of the war remain vivid.

"Russians dropped three bombs outside our block of flats. Fifteen people were killed. Their body parts were scattered all around the courtyard," she recalled.

Her neighbour, 60-year-old Zoya Muradova, lost her leg in the bombing and is bed-bound.

"I was in the courtyard when the Russians dropped bombs. A pregnant woman was killed in front of my eyes. Our building was in flames," she said.

"My life ended that day. I will spend the rest of my days bedridden," Muradova said, bursting into tears.

"But today, I feel new faith that those responsible will be convicted."

In Tserovani, a windswept settlement built in eastern Georgia for people displaced from South Ossetia, many said they felt optimistic that the ICC would bring war criminals to justice.

"Let's hope all those who orchestrated the ethnic cleansing get jailed by the international tribunal," said Mariam Javakhishvili, 19, a grocery store assistant.

But others, such as 66-year-old Robinzon Tskhomelidze, said they were sceptical.

"What happened in South Ossetia was ethnic cleansing orchestrated by the powers-that-be. I doubt they will ever be prosecuted," he said.

"Can you imagine a president of a nuclear superpower in the dock?" he asked, apparently referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was prime minister during the war.

But Ana Natsvlishvili, head of the Young Lawyers Association, a Tbilisi-based rights group that documented evidence of war crimes, insisted there is "more than enough evidence of war crimes."

"No one is immune from prosecution, whether they are a head of state or government," she said.

The ICC has a mandate to identify individuals responsible for war crimes.

The court's jurisdiction according to its statute applies "equally to all persons without distinction based on official capacity."

Georgia welcomed the inquiry as an opportunity to prove that Moscow and separatist forces in South Ossetia "committed ethnic cleansing of Georgians" and were responsible for killings of Georgian civilians and prisoners of war.

Russia's foreign ministry says it is "disappointed" by the decision to open an investigation.

The country's powerful Investigative Committee said it had handed the ICC evidence of alleged crimes committed by Georgian forces in South Ossetia.

The war erupted after Georgia, on August 7, 2008, launched a large-scale military operation against South Ossetian separatist forces who were shelling ethnic-Georgian villages in the tiny enclave.

Moscow intervened militarily, sweeping into Georgia, occupying swathes of its territory and bombing targets across the former Soviet republic.

The ICC prosecutors estimate that up to 18,500 ethnic Georgians were forcibly displaced and the ethnic Georgian population in the conflict zone fell by at least three-quarters.

After winning the brief war, Russia officially recognised South Ossetia and another secessionist Georgian region Abkhazia as independent states, tightening its grip on the two territories where it maintains military bases.

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