Thursday, August the 7th had been a busier day than usual for the military observers of the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe in the city of Tskhinvali in South Ossetia. Peacekeepers had reported to the military observers about explosions and clashes in different parts of the area that was being monitored. In addition, the observers had an escort mission.
At the end of the long day the oldest in the group, Heikki Lehtonen was sitting with his Polish and Belarussian colleagues at the OSCE’s headquarters on Pushkin Street in Tskhinvali.
“We had a glass of wine and thought about going to sleep”, Lehtonen recalls, thinking back to the events of the evening.
Then, shortly before midnight, the men heard the first explosion in Tskhinvali. Lehtonen immediately called Tbilisi to report the situation.
The following explosions came closer and set off the car alarms of the OSCE vehicles.
“Then we ran for cover in the cellars”, Lehtonen says.
The men managed to take water and vodka with them.
The bombardment was heavy and continuous. The gaps between them were no longer than five minutes apart.
At five in the morning the three OSCE observers felt that the situation had calmed down sufficiently for them to leave the cellar and go back to the house to sleep.
“I fell asleep at 5:30 in the morning, and at 6:30 I woke up to another explosion”, Lehtonen says.
And the men went back into the cellar. At times they managed to run upstairs to get more water.
“Terhi called at some point and asked how things are going.”
Terhi Hakala is the head of the OSCE mission in Georgia.
“She was worried about our safety and wanted to know if we had food. I said that we would be all right.”
At some point in the day the men heard mortar rounds hitting the garden.
“The house on top of us was shaking. The windows of the cellar shattered. The fence surrounding the yard and the garden had been flattened. The roof in one of the rooms had collapsed. The house across the street was on fire. A car in front of our office had exploded, or had been shot to pieces”, Lehtonen says, describing the destruction.
Then the men heard gunfire from the infantry coming closer to the city. After that armoured vehicles could be heard near the office. In the sky, the sound of low-flying planes could be heard.
“At one point Terhi sent an SMS message”, Lehtinen says and takes out his mobile phone. He still has the message. “Heikki. You will leave at the first opportunity. Terhi.”
In the afternoon, the three who had taken shelter in the cellar, heard from Tbilisi that the parties had agreed to a cease fire starting at three. In spite of it, the explosions and sounds of battle continued.
“At about four o’clock it was decided that we should go. We could not stay. At that time it had been calm for a while”, Lehtonen recalls.
The colleague from Belarus drove the first vehicle that had better armour, with the Pole as the passenger. Lehtonen followed in the car with less armour.
The three agreed on the route to take through the city.
“I said that they should drive as fast as possible, and not to stop no matter how much someone waves. No matter what happens, we should drive as far as we can.”
As the cars started, Lehtonen had not idea whose forces controlled different parts of the city.
“There were people in the city with assault rifles and bazookas. I drove in a zig-zag pattern in case someone decided to point a bazooka at our car.”
Lehtonen still cannot say for certain, whose forces the bazooka-toting men belonged to.
It is possible that they were Ossetian forces fighting Georgian tanks.
The university was on fire. On one street cars had to slow almost to a walking pace, as there was sheet metal from collapsed roofs on the street.
The escape from Tskhinvali suceeded. There was more traffic on the road from Gori to Tbilisi.
“In Tbilisi I went with a friend to eat and have some beer”, Lehtonen says.
He was also able to get the weekend off.
According to Lehtonen, before the war OSCE observers had good contacts with all peacekeepers - the Russians, the Ossetians, and the Georgians.
“It worked very well. We knew each other”, Lehtonen says.
Lehtonen’s commission lasts until early January. He would like to return to Tskhinvali again if it were possible.
By Susanna Niinivaara