On the anniversary of Georgia’s offensive against South Ossetia on August 7, RIA Novosti correspondent David Burghardt, who was in Tskhinval shortly after the 5-day war between Georgia and Russia ended, looks back on what happened in the first few hours of the conflict in a conversation with South Ossetia’s Chief Surgeon Nikolai Dzagayev.
Dr. Dzagayev spoke with RIA Novosti from his bombed out hospital of the heroism displayed by hospital staff during the conflict and before Russian soldiers were able to reach the republic’s capital and drive out Georgian troops, who shelled, fired mortars and ran through the streets firing automatic weapons day and night.
Dr. Dzagayev said medical personnel were put on alert just hours before the shelling began and everyone came in to the hospital to prepare operating rooms in case of casualties. According to him, they did not expect the scale of destruction, death and injuries that were to happen over the next few hours.
“On August 8 at around 7:00 p.m., the scariest and most horrific evil started. The attack on the city with every possible weapon, including banned [by the UN] Grad missiles, began. The first strikes were directed at the [Russian] peacekeepers’ barracks and the [South Ossetian] Republican Army. The hospital was destroyed by an intentional direct hit during the shelling.”
The Georgian army made a direct hit on the hospital in the first few minutes of the aggression, after first destroying the peacekeepers’ barracks, a retirement home, and a municipal building. Dr. Dzagayev said that before the conflict started, the building was marked with a huge white flag made out of sheets with a red cross to let the enemy know that they were unarmed and a hospital. The Georgians paid no attention to the flag.
Dr. Dzagayev ordered his staff to take everything required down to the hospital basement, which had low ceilings and a dirt floor. The medics set up operating tables around the piping, cables and ventilation vents and waited for the first casualties.
“Large numbers of 6-12 casualties began arriving every 2-5 minutes, first aid was given to those with minor injuries in the corridor on the hospital’s ground floor, those with more serious wounds were brought down to the basement. The casualties were arriving with multiple-gunshot and shrapnel injuries as a result of fire directed at civilians and not just military targets. Civilians were arriving with shrapnel wounds and chest, head and abdominal injuries, they had serious internal wounds many had suffered heavy blood loss and were in shock. In the first 24 hours, 140 casualties were treated.”
Health Minister Nugzar Gabarayev also worked side by side with the medical staff in the basement, making sure the medics had everything they needed.
“Risking his life, [Gabarayev] drove around the city which was coming under heavy fire to get medicine and supplies, as well as necessities like bread. On one of his trips, his vehicle was hit by a mortar. It was a miracle the minister was unhurt, and he did deliver the bread,” Dzagayev said.
Dr. Dzagayev said that most of the casualties arrived at the hospital much later because ambulances and medical staff could not get to them due to the constant shelling. He talked about one young man who ended up in the hospital three times on the first day of the shelling. The man insisted that he be stitched up and sent back out to fight each time, even after a bullet was removed from his shoulder.
Dr. Dzagayev and his team worked non-stop, caring for the casualties, which included Ossetians, Russians, Georgians, and other foreigners, including an American journalist, who had traveled along with the Georgian army to cover the event.
All of the time, the doctors, surgeons and nurses did not leave the hospital. They worked by candlelight in the dark and damp basement of the building, aware of the noise and rumbling of missiles and mortars striking the ground and surrounding buildings, and the non-stop automatic weapon fire. Airplanes and helicopters were also heard, but no one could tell if they were Georgian or Russian.
“They kept on caring for the casualties regardless of their nationality, not knowing anything about the fate of their own families somewhere out there in the city. Supplies of blood had become exhausted and doctors and nurses took turns giving and taking blood right next to the operating table. Some had given too much and became weak, but continued their work. We didn’t even have time to check blood types we just gave blood transfusions to whoever needed it. I’m surprised we didn’t have any deaths or serious consequences from that.”
Last August's war saw Russian forces chase invading Georgian troops deep into Georgia amid accusations on both sides of human rights abuses. Russia eventually withdrew from Georgian territory and recognized the independence of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another former Georgian republic, on August 24. Some 4,000 troops are now stationed in the two republics.
“Stories of the deeds of the medical staff will be passed from generation to generation. The medical staff’s deeds were done for the sake of a bright future, for the sake of what our fathers and grandfathers tried to do: our generation is the generation that gave South Ossetia its independence that was fought for in blood and pain by the Ossetian people.”
In an interview earlier this week with South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity, RIA Novosti asked about the official number of casualties during the 5-day war:
“In July 2009, the head of the Investigative Committee at the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office disclosed the documented number of South Ossetian civilians who were killed as a result of the Georgian attack as 162 people dead. However, immediately after the war the republic’s authorities claimed ten times that number, about 1,500 dead. Why was there such a difference in the figures? How many people actually died?”
President Eduard Kokoity:
“What happened in August 2008 was a great tragedy for our small nation. I sometimes feel that the question is offensive. It would have been a tragedy for us if just two people and not two thousand had died. The investigation is continuing and fresh details of the Georgian crime are emerging. You gave the official toll for today. The figures differ not because somebody wanted to inflate them or picture it as a global disaster.
The tragedy was global for our people. Our people faced total destruction, extermination. I cannot bring myself to measure this in figures.
Initially the data that was coming in was based on the fact that there were refugees who crossed the border, people were starting to search for their relatives and make calls. They started submitting applications. The applications came from a number of directions and were used to track people down. Later, after the end of the aggression, after Russia had practically saved our nation, it turned out that those presumed dead were in fact alive.
The figure you gave is the current toll, but it may grow.
You are talking only about civilians, but there were also soldiers who died. Many citizens of South Ossetia died and were buried on Russian territory. Many relatives of the victims, considering our national mentality, did not even make a compensation claim.”