Vandalised EU flag tells story of Georgia conflict
As EU leaders in Brussels meet to debate Russia relations and diplomats in Geneva discuss Georgian security, one Polish aid worker aims to remind politicians of the stark realities of the conflict via a vandalised flag.
Henryk Wlaszczyk - who did not want EUobserver to name the organisation he works for in case it is denied access to future war zones - arrived in Georgia at the height of the conflict on 11 August. He was based in Gori and travelled in the South Ossetia border region.
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"The Russians attacked the university in Gori, which was shelled with high-calibre ordnance," he said. "When we entered we saw fires, books scattered everywhere. Then we noticed how the Russian soldiers had attacked the university flag and the EU flag, which was full of holes from bullets and bayonets. This symbol of the EU countries and of Georgian aspirations was an object of direct physical hatred."
The medical worker picked up the flag and aims to pass it on to European Parliament President Hans-Gert Poettering in the coming days, to show the war was not just a scrap over bits of Georgian land, but a clash between two bordering ideologies and "empires" - the EU and Russia.
"The parliament should keep this as a sort of museum piece," Mr Wlaszczyk said. "It shows, among certain parts of Russian society, the Russian attitude toward the EU. EU countries should realise that this is being seen as a conflict between two empires."
Based on first-hand witness accounts from Georgian refugees and the wounds of patients examined at his hospital, the aid worker accused Russian forces of planting booby traps in Georgian homes as they retreated, some of which were concealed in children's toys.
But his most vivid memory is the aftermath of a Russian air strike on a kindergarten in Gori, which caused the roof to collapse.
"It's the ordinary people who paid the price. I saw mothers standing on the rubble, grieving and searching for bodies. The fathers had formed a circle around the building to keep away stray dogs that could smell the dead bodies. That's the lasting image of the war for me: the grieving mothers and the dogs all around."
Mr Wlaszczyk put blame on both sides, saying Georgian authorities imposed stiff customs duties on container-loads of medical supplies brought in by foreign charities and were more interested in the political value of refugees than help on the ground.
"Both have seriously underestimated the number of civilian deaths," he said. "The Russians because they are ashamed of the human cost of their aggression. The Georgians because the war had bigger costs than foreseen by the authorities."
Big talks, small expectations
The EU summit in Brussels on Wednesday (15 October) is unlikely to see agreement on restarting EU-Russia negotiations on a new partnership treaty, as the UK, Sweden, Poland and the Baltic states argue Russian troops have not pulled back far enough to comply with a 12 August Georgia peace plan.
The Geneva talks, which also start on Wednesday, will focus on re-establishing security and allowing refugees to go home, leaving the question of Georgia's partition for later. The discussions will take place at a low diplomatic level and will include delegates from South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
"You shouldn't expect great wonders [from Geneva]," Salome Zourabichvili, a former Georgian foreign minister and now a prominent member of the opposition against Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, said at a think-tank meeting in Brussels on Tuesday.
Ms Zourabichvili, who currently lives in France, said the war stemmed from a "lack of democracy" in Russia and Georgia, where Mr Saakashvili spent more energy on building his army than building the country's democratic institutions.
The Georgian president, also in Brussels on the eve of the EU summit, did not hold out hope for Geneva either. "We don't think they [the Ossetian and Abkhaz delegates] are politicians," he said at a press conference with European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso. "They are criminals and ethnic cleansers."