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Smell of Soil | Marina, Tskhinval [ENG]

Marina, 50 Years Old, Tskhinval
August, 2008

At the start of August, we allowed the employees to work from home. I worked as the head of the Sanitary Oversight Department as I continue to do so now.

Before the war, they had been firing nonstop, we were going from one funeral to another.

My girl stayed at my sister’s that year, in Moscow. I had my 12-year-old boy with me. Many were sending their kids out already. For some reason, it never occurred to me to do that, I didn’t think things were going to be as serious as they ended up being.  

On the 7th, I still went to work. Suddenly my coworker called me. My neighbor is going to North Ossetia by taxi, they have a place left in the car, send your kid with them, she said. I paused for a minute when my coworker interrupted me with a yell. Leave everything and take care of your kid, she said. I often think about the fact that if she hadn’t called me, what would've been like for us today. I packed his bags and sent him off.

In the evening, my two girlfriends came over. They were both alone at home so we met up at my house. I thought we’d cheer each other up. We were watching television when this scumbag (Saakashvili) said to us that he will cease shooting. We were so excited, of course we believed him! A huge weight was lifted off our chest, we even toasted with one glass of wine. I think we will be fine today, we can all sleep in our own beds, we were saved from sleeping in the basement, I said.

The roaring woke me up. The house was shaking. I jumped out of bed, I grabbed my father and took him downstairs. The whole night I dreamed of finding some little corner where I couldn’t hear the rumble anymore. In the evening, it settled down. My father and I thought we were the last people left alive. We went upstairs and heard our relatives' voices, a wall separated us. We went over to their basement. I spent that whole day running around getting medicine, taking care of a relative who started hemorrhaging from worry, then getting food which no one touched anyway.

The houses were always burning around us, like you see in the movies.  You just sit there helpless, just watching.

I didn’t know what was happening, or what we were supposed to do. We called in North Ossetia. Wait it out a bit, the Russian army is coming to the rescue, they told us. We didn’t even know that we shouldn’t use the phone. Right when we would turn it off, a shell would explode right there and hit our house.

On the 8th of August, my cousin went outside to get news. All the color was drained out of him when he returned. There are Georgians upstairs, he told me quietly.  He looked towards where the newspaper bin was and saw Georgian military vehicles. So if up until then I was a brave hero, now I started to get hysterical. My head was pounding with the thought that Georgians were in the center of the city. If they stood there, it must mean that none of our boys are left, I thought.

My sister called. She was also going insane. How are you, she asked? I was trying to talk to her calmly. Our other sister has her birthday on the 8th of August. Hand her the phone, I begged. I wanted to congratulate her. I wish you health and happiness, I said to her cheerfully while tears were streaming down my cheeks. I said goodbye to her in my heart. I was trying to etch their voices in my memory.

In the evening, when dusk hit, we heard voices in the street. I could make it out, they were speaking in Ossetian. We ran outside and we saw our volunteers at the crossroad. This was the first time I saw the white cloth tied to their arms. There were about nine to ten talking something over, and then they parted and disbursed in different directions. We learned that they were defending the city already. When they bombed the Georgian army vehicles, the troops had fled through the vineyard.

We would get different pieces of information, one was that peacekeepers were bombed and the whole city center was burning. The whole night until the morning of the ninth, we were discussing if we should go or stay. It became much harder on the 9th. They did tell us by phone that the Russian troops were on their way, but we couldn’t see anyone. From time to time, fighters would run up and say they ran off Georgians someplace and blew up Georgian tanks another place. How long could they hold out with only automatics?

On the 9th we risked it and left. I got to say, from that moment on God really protected me. I never let anyone drive my car, but that day, I had asked my cousin, Jambolat, to sit. Our neighbor sat next to the driver. His wife sat behind him and I sat next to her. We drove in a column of three cars, our neighbors and relatives. I wish we had stayed. When we entered the city, the scene looked like Stalingrad from the film. The houses were burning, everything was in ruins, poles and tree branches were thrown on the ground.

Jambolat tried to drive in a way to avoid busting the tires, but he couldn’t manage. I was the one who was actually driving since he didn’t know where anything was, moreover he couldn’t see well. I would turn the lights on and off so we wouldn’t draw attention. We left the city and passed Tbeti. At the Dzari turn, we saw two burnt tanks with their barrels facing the city. We realized they must've been Georgian tanks. We thought that if Georgians were run off, it’s safe to proceed further.

As we headed towards Dzari, we heard explosions, it blew us in the air, it started smoking. We hit the car in front of us. They keep shooting at us. I was going out of my mind. I never thought about dying until that moment. The whole time, I was thinking that like my mother I was going to die on this road. My mother had died on the 20th of May in 1992 along with 33 refugees. Exactly that same spot.

Our tire was burning; a shell had hit it. Stop the car! I screamed at Jambolat with all my might. He is at the wheel pressing the gas pedal all the way. The second explosion ran us off the road into the field. For a minute, I thought Jambolai had died. I leaned and yanked the hand brake. Everyone jumped out of the car, besides me. I turned to stone. My cousin and his wife jumped towards the field. My neighbor was on the other side and called out to me: Jump out! This scream brought me to my senses. I jumped right then and hugged the ground. They were still shooting at us. They were shooting so low that my back was hot. I was using all my strength to stay plastered to the ground. Here! Here! Roll over here, they called out to me amidst the roars. I tumbled towards them, and I finally ended up in the ravine by the road, my neighbor was already there. I didn’t know what luck had fallen on the rest. Had they hidden? Were they safe? To this day, I still hear the military vehicles and Georgian language. I remembered one name distinctly. Gia, Gia, they called out to him often.

My car was on fire. Machine guns, they were still firing shells.

One shrapnel hit my neighbor in the buttocks. Then a shell landed so close to us that on one side the dirt fell on me and busted my eardrum. Then my car blew up. I didn’t dare breathe heavily, we were too afraid to move. What’s your name? My neighbor asked me soon after. Marina, what’s your name, I said. Soslan, he said. 

We spent the entire night like that. If I heard a car approach, I knew immediately they would fire at it. It’s the scariest moment when you know what’s going to happen beforehand. One time the sound of the car was interrupted with a roar. The car fell into a ditch. The driver lost consciousness probably and fell on top of the steering wheel. They were shooting at it, too but then they stopped. The car was honking nonstop. It continued for a long time. Then it stopped suddenly. I thought maybe the driver regained consciousness. Then I heard the car door squeak, a woman’s moan and a heartbreaking cry of a man. Don’t shoot, there are wounded here! He couldn’t even finish speaking when it exploded and rumbled. Every voice stopped at once.

The car honked incessantly, it seemed to go on forever. Suddenly the sound of the horn was interrupted, I realized that the driver had come to his senses. Then I heard the grinding of a door opening, the moans of a woman, and the heartbreaking cry of a man: “Don't shoot! There are wounded here! " But he did not have time to finish, he was interrupted by volleys, explosions. Then they were no longer heard.

I realized that sooner or later, the same thing was going to happen to me. Dawn was approaching and in the morning, they would search the fields and find us. I was also afraid the cars would drop on top of us since at times, they would blow up cars right at the turn, some close to us, and they would fall in the ditch. We couldn’t even move, even to lift my head. I would roll my eyes, and that’s how I looked up.

This is how the night passed. I already knew I was going to die, and I wanted to remember the smell of the soil. I would brush my cheek to the ground and inhale deeply. For some reason, this smell reminded me of the cake IDEAL. Then I would think, if I died like this, what would I look like in the coffin, there would be grass stuck to my face all over. Then I picked my hands up and put them behind my head.  

Soslan’s wound would remind us of its existence from time to time. He was losing blood and shaking. He was shaking so much, I was afraid they would see us. I tried to hold him with my body and I laid on top of him to hold him down to the ground. He would go in and out of consciousness.

At that moment, the panic had left me, and I was coming to terms with death. I was giving up slowly. Then daylight filled me with rage all of a sudden. I was angry with God. I could’ve done so many good deeds! I have two kids; they need to be raised. Where is the justice in all of this? My mother was also murdered on this road by Georgians, now am I to face the same fate? One death wasn’t enough for my family to bear?! I reproached.

It was dawn. They would see us soon.  Probably I was also going in and out of consciousness because I don’t remember when the sound of the Georgian tanks and their shouting stopped. When I looked over, it was silent. We heard the sound of approaching. I braced myself thinking they were about to be attacked. But they passed without any incident. I raised my head and saw three Nivas making their way. Then they faded from view. There was no shooting. In a little while, another car came. Then another. Then I saw burned cars around us. Another three cars passed without stopping. I thought to myself I’m not going to let the fourth one pass me so I stood in the middle of the road. I waited for a long time. Then I saw a clunker coming. You couldn’t even tell what kind of car it was, it looked like the car was made up of whatever parts they could find. Every tire was flat. It was filled to the brim with people. One woman recognized me from there. I beg you do not leave me, I am with a wounded person, I said. They took us. They put Soslan on the side of the door, from the outside. Me on the other side. The women were holding Soslan from the window. When we moved up the way, there were three exploded cars – the ones that didn’t stop. A Grad rocket had hit the poor things.

When we climbed the pass, I saw Jambolati and his wife, he and his wife had walked all this way. I was so happy that everyone who was sitting in my car survived.

We reached Java like this. The wounded were taken to the hospital upon arrival. I continued to Vladikavkaz. I spent four days there working the whole time on plans for sanitary measures. I went back to Tskhinval on the 15th of August. Worse situations waited for me than during the days of war. There were hundreds and hundreds of people in the street left to their fate.

For forty days, I kept counting: This would’ve been the first Saturday. Then the second Saturday for me. Then this would have been my forty days. It was an obsession. During the war, many people were buried right in the vineyards. As head of the Sanitary Oversight, I had to attend exhumations, when they were reburied in the cemeteries. They told me not to look. I, on the other hand, seemed to stubbornly stare. I wanted to see what I would have looked like if I died that night.

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From the series “Rebuilding Memories for future- South Ossetia 1991/2008” 
Text, Photo: Zarina Sanakoeva



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