An open-back military truck pulls up. At first the Figaro and the Sunday Times think the people onboard are refugees. A short brown man in a T-shirt jumps off. “Who are you, what you want?” He’s shouting. “You’re journalists? Get on the truck and I’ll show you the destroyed villages and take you to Ossetia.” I don’t have a moment to wonder what the fuck is going on. Five minutes later I’m in the open-back of a truck filled with professional journalists hitting 60 km/h on the dust track to the mountains.
The New York Times guy has the eyes of a drug-addict. We are chatting about Putin when he notices the boss is shouting to speed-up. “This you first war…?” I nod politely. I travelled around Iraqi Kurdistan, but it wasn’t like this. “You smell that?” A deep rot fills my nostrils as we enter a village. Somebody whistles in the truck. All the journalist have smelt it. Cameramen rush to the side of the truck trying to get shots. The Russian Colonel standing in the back with us starts shouting something incomprehensible. We swerve round another corner and grind to a halt.
The boss shouts at us to jump out of the truck and we clamber out. “This is a damaged Georgian village. We want to explain that the damage was caused gas-leaks, accidents, criminals, and some cases of arson.” The Guardian reporter looks at him. “Sacha are you telling me that thinking I’ll believe it.” He snaps something in Russian to the Colonel. “Sacha I speak Russian. You can’t throw me off the truck and leave me here.” He screws up his face. “You have twenty minutes. Watch out for bombs. You know what your doing.”
I follow six cameramen as they rush into a burnt out building. Devastation is in the details. It’s the shards of glass, the burnt documents, the smashed plates, the torched items of daily life. We hear wailing from the top floor. The camera men rush up the stairs – “Watch out for cluster bombs” one shouts. I follow in his footsteps. An elderly women in simple peasant clothes is shrieking. It’s clear there wasn’t a gas-leak here. As the camera-men snap she screams louder in terror and begins to panic. The Italian shouts, “she’s useless, too much screaming.” They rush off – there is a destraught grandmother outside. I stand there watching these men swarming like bees round honey. I step back slowly and run down the stairs.
Outside I follow another journo into a shelled house. Imagine you put a building through a blender – all your possessions shredded and crushed up under a pile of rubble. I stand there picking up pieces of a plate in what used to be a kitchen. The Figaro finds something. “Oh, look a bullet casing.” He chucks it away nonchalantly.
Sacha the boss is screaming. “Your time is up. Your time is up.” In front of the trucks an old women is being pursued by eight flash-photographers and trying to get away. On the truck the guys show off pictures of her terrorised face. “Make a great front page…this one.” The truck bobs along the valley, spraying a trail of dust behind us onto the mini-van behind. A reporter for Le Monde is smoking a cigarette and puts on his Raybans. “Beautiful day…look that’s a rocket launch.” A trail of smoke lights a distant corner of the valley. He flicks the Marlboro out onto an abandoned field. The tools are still left where the people dropped them as they ran away.
Rising peaks of the Caucasus mountains are up in front. I start to feel like a tourist. I feel the grin of the Le Monde guy pulling across my face. There are some sand-bags ahead and another group of tanks. The excitement in the truck is palpable. The photographers jump, jostle and swear at each other as they try and snap more pictures.
The truck pulls into a village-town. Tskhinvali – the ‘capital.’ It’s wretched. Sacha is shouting. “Out, out.” My feet land on a street that simply isn’t there anymore. Buildings have been punched open, walls have collapsed. The Le Monde guy gestures to me; “Let’s not listen to Sasha’s bullshit. Follow me.” We wander down a side-street. The roofs of the hovels of the Ossetian’s have been ripped off. A man with a massive gash across his skull wanders up to us. He doesn’t even speak Russian. He points to his head and then to a wreck. We follow him. I have seen countless pictures of charred teddy-bears. He picks one off the ruin of his house and thrusts it into my hands. The he points at the fruit he was saving for the summer in jars. Rotten. “Enough of him” decides Le Monde.
We enter into a shack. A short Ossetian women shows us her home. Her Russian breaks down after the words – “they did it…” Her husband sleeps on a filthy bed in the corner, she doesn’t wake him up. A little child wanders in. His arm is bandaged. I am feeling a little bored. Another one. I catch myself, shake my head a little.
“Your time is up. Get out. We need to leave.” Sacha is pacing around frantically shouting at a General through his Nokia. “Just do it…We’ll be there in twenty minutes.” He clears his throat and spits into the shards of glass beneath his feet.
We swerve out of Tskhinvali onto the road further up the mountains. A few burnt out tanks are permanently parked under some plain trees. It stinks. I swallow but it stays in my mouth. The Colonel shouts – “This Khetagurovo.”
I am still bad at climbing off the truck. Maybe I’m too short but when I land on the floor I slip on some bullet casing and whack my head into the dust-track. There are barely any houses but they are all pock-marked and some windows are blackened. There’s been a fire. Sacha is explaining how ‘Russia’ sees what happens. The New York Times journalist bends over. “Ak-74s…interesting. Let’s go check out the post-office.” We push open the door of the shattered bureau. The safe was blown open and the floor is covered in piles and piles of Soviet era postcards. Happy Revolution Day. Pictures of Red Flags. Old Soviet pension books are ripped up and strewn in every corner. There is a sheet of glass that people who work in offices in any country place pictures under. I push off bits of burnt wood to look at the photos. The faces are staring at me. A faded colour picture of a goggle-eyed baby girl. A black and white passport photo of a young man. A school photo from the ‘50s. I don’t know why, but I pushed off the side covering and shoved them into my computer bag. I haven’t looked at them since.
On my way out an old man is lying in the dirt sucking a plastic Kvass bottle.
“Are you OK?”
He raises what appears to be his only arm and shouts. “To the great Russian people. You saved us. Saved us.” He spills the brown fluid over-himself. The Le Figaro guy looks him up and down.
I follow the New York Times journo now. A brown-skinned man has latched onto him. He’s speaking slowly.
“What are their names? Where are they buried.”
I suppose this is what Poland must have looked like in the late summer of ’45.
“Can you show us? Great. Is it far?”
We trudge across a field and come to an earth pile. I didn’t see anything. It just stunk.