As Russian troops pounded through Georgia last week, the Kremlin and its allies repeatedly pointed to one justification above all others: The Georgian military had destroyed the city of Tskhinvali.
Russian politicians and their partners in Tskhinvali, the capital of the breakaway region South Ossetia, said that when Georgian forces tried to seize control of the city and the surrounding area, the physical damage was comparable to Stalingrad and the killings similar to the Holocaust.
But a trip to the city Sunday, without official minders, revealed a very different picture. While it was clear there had been heavy fighting – missiles had knocked holes in walls, and bombs tore away rooftops – almost all of the buildings seen in an afternoon driving around Tskhinvali were still standing.
Russian-backed leaders in South Ossetia have said 2,100 people died in fighting in Tskhinvali and nearby villages. But a doctor at the city's main hospital, the only one open during the battles that began late Aug. 7, said the facility recorded just 40 deaths.
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The discrepancy raises serious questions about the veracity of the Kremlin's account. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and other senior officials in Moscow have said the Georgians were guilty of “genocide,” prompting Russia to push Georgia's military out of South Ossetia and march southeast toward the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, stopping only 25 miles away.
That explanation, that Russians were saving South Ossetians from annihilation, undergirded Moscow's rationale.
Georgia's leadership maintains the Kremlin launched the war because of resentment about the former Soviet republic's close ties with the West.
Kremlin officials have suggested South Ossetia and its fellow rebel region, Abkhazia, should gain independence from Tbilisi.
The difference between Russian officials' description of Tskhinvali and the facts on the ground are profound.
Col. Gen Anatoly Nogovitsyn, the deputy head of the Russian military's general staff, said last Tuesday that “Tskhinvali doesn't exist, it's like Stalingrad was after the war.”
In fact, the city still does exist. For every building charred by explosions – the Georgians are accused of using multiple rocket launcher systems – others on tree-lined streets looked untouched. One government center was hollowed out by blasts, but the one next to it teemed with workers.
Researchers for Human Rights Watch, an international advocacy group, had similar findings as McClatchy about casualty numbers in Tskhinvali. A doctor at the city's hospital told the group's researchers that 44 bodies were brought by and insisted they represented the majority of deaths there because the city's morgue was not functioning at the time.
“Obviously there's a discrepancy there, a big discrepancy,” Rachel Denber, deputy director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch, said about the apparently inflated casualty figures. “It's not clear to us at all where those numbers are coming from.”