TKVIAVI, Georgia (Reuters) - Koba Jashashvili’s corpse has been lying for three weeks in his cellar because, his neighbors say, his family are too scared of roaming militias to return and give him a proper burial.
Jashashvili’s cottage, with its red roses in the driveway, lies within a Moscow-designated “security zone” deep inside Georgia where the Kremlin has told the West its peacekeepers need to remain to keep order and prevent violence.
But residents and rights groups say irregulars from separatist South Ossetia and southern Russia, under the noses of the Russian peacekeeping troops, are looting, killing and burning in Georgian villages inside the zone.
Fear of the violence is keeping thousands of displaced Georgians from returning to villages like Tkviavi, forcing many to live with relatives or in refugee camps, kindergartens and old factories.
Eka Nozadze lives with 1,300 displaced Georgians in a tent city behind the football stadium in Gori, the first Georgian town outside the Russian “security zone.”
Nozadze’s husband and brother-in-law were killed minutes after they told the women and children to flee from the village of Karbi, just north of Tkviavi. The family returned to cover the corpses, but had no time to dig graves.
“I wake up every single morning with the hope that I will bury my family members,” said 37-year-old Nozadze her head wrapped in a black scarf in a sign of mourning.
Tbilisi and rights groups have alleged for weeks that ethnic Georgians inside South Ossetia have been attacked, a charge the separatists deny.
But reports of violence in villages like Karbi and Tkviavi stand out because they are in undisputed Georgian territory, not in the separatist region.
Russia sent its army into Georgia last month to stop what Moscow has called a Georgian genocide in Moscow-backed South Ossetia. The Kremlin pulled back the bulk of its forces in line with a ceasefire deal.
The troops it left inside the “security zones” around South Ossetia and a second breakaway region of Abkhazia have been condemned by Georgia and its Western allies, who say their presence is a partial occupation.
Russian officials say the ceasefire deal allows them to be there to prevent further Georgian attacks, and also to maintain order in the vacuum left by the retreat of the Georgian armed forces. They deny abetting violence by militias.
“Units of the peacekeeping contingent are carrying out the objectives of ensuring the security of the civilian population in the zones of responsibility,” Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy head of the Russian General Staff, told reporters.
He said their duties included “preventing the infiltration of the conflict zone by armed and other uncontrolled groups” and cooperating “with law enforcement agencies ... to fight against criminality in the conflict zone and adjacent areas.”
But Reuters reporters who visited a part of the “security zone” to the north of Gori this week found little evidence on the ground the Russian troops were doing that.
Russian troops now man a large checkpoint in the village of Karaleti. The road to the next Russian checkpoint, just before the South Ossetia boundary is almost deserted.
Some houses have been looted and torched, others stand untouched. Scraps of white cloth, a gesture of peace, hang from gates to ward off intruders.
A Reuters reporter saw only one Russian military vehicle travel the road in the space of several hours on Tuesday.
Some villagers stayed, most having sent their families to Gori or Tbilisi. They say the militias still visit at night, drink wine and set fires.
In total nine people were killed in Tkviavi in the days after Georgian forces pulled out, according to villager Valera Okropiridze.
He says he helped bury all of them, including the elderly Melitauri brothers, who now lie under a cherry tree in their back yard.
Their blood stains the porch. Shell casings litter the floor. Okropiridze’s eyes were bloodshot, his head sunken into his broad shoulders. His family had left for Tbilisi.
“If people continue to stay away, then we’ll have to leave too,” he said. “Otherwise, what’s the point?”
Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Janet Lawrence