“Worse than Stalingrad” – Tskhinval resident

AFP Photo / Viktor Drachev
Western journalists are professional, but when covering events in South Ossetia, they feel distrust. It’s connected with Russia’s Soviet past, which often becomes fear, says Elena Zelinskaya, a member of the public inves

She believes that the South Ossetian tragedy is challenging stereotypes.  In this interview, the organization to which she belongs asks her to explain her impressions after a visit to Tskhinval.

What is the current situation in Tskhinval?

Elena Zelinskaya: Certainly the situation is very hard. I won’t be original in this issue and won’t try to find some special words, but one can just imagine us, the people who have been living a peaceful Moscow life for a long time, in the conditions of a total disaster. It is very grim.

When I returned from South Ossetia and was going from the Domodedovo airport to Moscow, I understood for the first time what the expression ‘the peaceful fields’ means, what a warm and heartfelt feeling it is to see peaceful fields, peaceful houses, peaceful streets and cheerful, serene and well-dressed people in these streets. This is happiness and I have never felt it so acutely before.

Of course, when you find yourself in South Ossetia, especially when you just cross the border between South and North Ossetia and move to a practically destroyed city from the wonderful Russian city of Vladikavkaz, the contrast is depressing. And the anxiety rises when you look at the residents of Tskhinval. These people are absolutely perplexed. To say they are upset is to say nothing. They feel lost, disoriented and depressed. Just imagine that these people had been living in uncertainty, depression and with a floundering economy for 18 years. After the 1992 war there was no economic growth there. Now they need real help, and in the first place they need support.

Perhaps, the most important thing is not to let them feel abandoned. It is important to make them understand they are not alone while facing this disaster, which at the moment is bottomless to my mind. It is evident that they won’t be living quietly, wealthily and happily in the near future. Now, when they have just passed through it, it’s clear they aren’t able to cope with it on their own. Though they are already organising themselves, making plans, forming a government – they are very energetic. But it is necessary to understand they need support.

Are there any positive development?

E.Z.: Yes, the city looks cleaner, it’s clear that construction is underway. We know that the schools opened on September 1. Children have got an opportunity to study. I always doubt when people say that children enjoy going to school – children always have questionable feelings about that. But this is a case when they are glad to take textbooks because it is an element of normal life for them. I’ve seen children with fear in their eyes, who were running and playing near the kindergarten number 22. Can you imagine a kid who sees his burnt, destroyed kindergarten covered with shell-holes which had become a target? Instead of the funny pictures painted on the walls he sees just a burnt carcass. And you just fancy how the kid apprehends it.

It is terrible that it all happened in a peaceful city. There was a German journalist in our group and he asked a local woman if it reminded her of the situation in Stalingrad during the WW2. She answered in her opinion it is worse than Stalingrad, much worse. In Stalingrad there was a war between two armies, the German one and the Soviet one. And fortunately the Soviet army at that moment appeared to be stronger. And here in Tskhinval it has been just the execution of sleeping civilians. It is only South Ossetia where we see such terrible things and not for the first time.

In what condition is the South Ossetian media at the moment?

E.Z.: As in any city, the media in Tskhinval were collected in two buildings – in the publishing house and the TV-radio centre. We visited the centre and talked to its director. It appeared that a Georgian tank was raking the centre with fire point-blank. This tank has already been cut into pieces by our soldiers in the next street. It is a vivid picture – the tank of democratic Georgia firing point-blank at a media centre inside which were people. Everybody knows that the TV centre works non-stop, and there are people inside 24/7. Now it is a burnt frame but the TV workers behaved very purposefully. One clipping room has already started work. Radio and TV are already broadcasting – rather poorly, as there are problems with electricity and the internet, but there is a signal. Evidently, a media man can hardly be stopped even by tanks.

The print works were also destroyed. But on the very we arrived the people who worked there managed to produce a fresh issue of the ‘South Ossetia’ newspaper, in its full size. They’ve found an old offset printing machine somwhere and using it began to issue their newspaper once a week, not paying any attention to the terrible conditions they were in.

The international press centre was opened. It was a sad and shocking picture. In one room there were several PCs and foreign journalists working and in another there were coffins. It’s one of my strongest impressions during my work in Tskhinval. But nevertheless, the press center was working, headed by Irina Gagloeva, who was trying to gather together all the South Oesstian journalists. There are more tan 100 of them in the republic and none were killed during the conflict.

Are there a lot of foreign journalists working in Tskhinval?

E.Z.:I managed to talk to a lot of foreign journalists working in Tskhinval – American, Italian, Swiss, German, Estonian and others. They all say that they have full access to all the information they need. The members of the republic’s government are open for press as well as the local civilians. Briefings for journalists are organised regularly. I can’t tell the exact number of western media representatives, but during my stay there was a press conference by president Eduard Kokoity at which 80 journalists were present.

At first the foreign journalists made very short visits to the republic. They just spent two or three hours in Tskhinval and than went back. But now they stay longer, for a couple of days, trying to gain insight into the events, which, I hope, will affect the way they cover the situation in South Ossetia.            

What is the attitude among foreign journalists to the coverage of the South Ossetian war in their home countries?

E.Z.: Western journalists are usually very professional people. The see every thing and understand everything. Especially, those who are used to working in conflict zones, those who have Moscow accreditation. And sometimes the difference between the text they send to their newspapers and magazines and the one that comes out is great, because their materials are edited.

The second thing is a high level of mistrust towards Russia in the West. In many instances, it’s our problem. And it’s our task to make them overcome this mistrust. The best way to do it is to tell the truth about what is happening in Russia and show that our country is not an ‘evil empire’.

What are the current challenges facing you and the Media Union?

E.Z.: The Media Union’s department in South Ossetia is now being created. We plan to attract more local journalists to our projects. We are thinking of how to help South Ossetian journalists. They will be involved in our international educational programmes, like the one we had for journalists from Russia, Belarus and the Baltic states.