TSKHINVALI, Georgia – Russian troops and their armed allies forced Georgian men to clean the streets of South Ossetia's bombed-out capital Saturday, avenging Georgia's attack on the breakaway province a week ago.
Three teams of ethnic Georgian men in their 40s and 50s were seen hauling debris from the streets of Tskhinvali. When approached, one of them confirmed he was being forced to work.
"Labor even turns monkeys into humans," said a Russian officer, who along with armed Ossetians escorted one group of about two dozen Georgians through the streets of the capital.
The Russian officer threatened to arrest an Associated Press photographer if he took pictures, and would not give his name.
It appeared to be the first sign of abuse of Georgians in the Russian-controlled province.
"They are cleaning up after themselves," said Mikhail Mindzayev, South Ossetia's interior minister.
Tskhinvali was at the nucleus of fighting that has pitted two former Soviet neighbors against each other and further strained Russia's ties to the West.
Georgian troops pounded the city with rockets and bombs in a bid to retake control of separatist South Ossetia on Aug. 7, provoking a fierce response from the region's Russian backers.
Russia sent in hundreds of tanks and ensuing street fighting gutted yet more of Tskhinvali. Some 80 percent of the city's 30,000 residents fled, Mindzayev said.
Russia is now in charge of the province, Russian and Georgian leaders have signed a cease-fire deal, and Ossetian refugees are returning home. But local leaders and residents aren't ready to forgive their Georgian attackers anytime soon.
Ossetians accuse Georgians of targeting civilians, a claim Georgia denies.
Lyudmila Bitoyeva, a resident of Tskhinvali in her 40s, said her family hosted five Georgian workers who were forced to clean streets and pick up wreckage after the fighting subsided.
After Russian and separatist forces drove Georgian troops out of the nearly deserted city, there was widespread looting of stores and homes. The houses of ethnic Georgians on the outskirts of Tskhinvali were burned.
Mindzayev described the situation in the city Saturday as "complicated and nervous." He said there were many unexploded shells laying on the ground and he accused Georgian agents of shooting at people in the city, a claim that could not be independently confirmed.
Georgian forced laborers were not the only ones cleaning up the city; many returning refugees were sweeping up glass and debris from the fighting.
The city is in shambles and still has no electricity. To find clean water, residents drive or hitch rides to creeks several miles away, and they are struggling to find food.
Many complained about the late arrival of humanitarian aid. Some refugees have returned to find their homes destroyed, only to leave again.
Still, there were some signs the city was getting back to normal. For the first time in days, there were more cars on the street than tanks Saturday.