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Fatwah / December 22, 2008
By Mark Ames

Siegel posing atop a Georgian tank in Tskhinvali. (Photo: Ames)

Surprisingly, the Kremlin tour organizer caved. The next day, Sasha arranged for the Western correspondents’ first tour into occupied Gori, traveling in from the Russian/Ossetian side rather than up from the Georgian side–this would provide fresh news. And he gave us much greater access to the ethnic Georgian villages behind Russian lines that had been torched in reprisal attacks following Georgia’s brutal invasion, which leveled buildings and villages and drove tens of thousands of Ossetian refugees into Russia. Sasha figured that it was a worthwhile trade-off: it was so important to show what he thought was the much bigger page-one story–that the Georgians lied when they claimed that Russia had bombed Gori into rubble–that it was worth conceding a story about how Ossetian and Chechen irregulars had torched Georgian homes in order to debunk the Gori-destruction propaganda that had been used so successfully to demonize Russia.

Here is what Siegel’s trip to Gori contributed to the Times article, which made no mention of how Gori was indeed almost completely unscathed:

A Times reporter traveling between Tskhinvali, which is the South Ossetian capital, and Gori saw extensive sections of [Georgian] villages that had been burned.

On the long ride down to Gori via South Ossetia, Siegel loudly and busily counted up the burned houses in ethnic Georgian villages, excitedly telling everyone, “This is what my New York Times editor wants,” running up and down the Hyundai minibus aisle. When we’d pass through Ossetian villages, he was back in his seat, on the phone loudly reporting figures into his cellphone.

When we got to Gori, we saw that it wasn’t bombed to the ground, as we’d expected. Frankly, I was shocked: after what the Russians did to Grozny during the two Chechen wars, I couldn’t believe that they wouldn’t bomb an enemy city into rubble first and ask questions later. But the fact was, compared with the ruins of Tskhinvali, Gori looked like Geneva. Siegel wasn’t interested–or, rather, his Times editor wasn’t–so he went running around looking for evidence that the Russians had dropped a cluster bomb. He thought he found that evidence–we all saw the bombshell–but apparently it wasn’t rock-solid enough for the Times editors.

Suspected Russian cluster bomb in central Gori. (Photo: Ames)

The production of the final article that appeared on page one, with Siegel’s contribution from bean-counting the burning houses, was almost entirely Georgia-centric: while temp-stringer Siegel was hired to cover the Russian/Ossetian side of the conflict zone, staffers Sabrina Tavernise, C.J. Chivers and Michael Schwirtz were stationed on the Georgian side, along with photographer-reporters Joao Silva and Justyna Mielnikiewicz, who has lived in Tblisi since 2001.

Had Siegel–or, rather, his editor–taken an interest in the really important story that we saw that day–that the Georgian propagandists had wildly exaggerated the destruction in Gori, which should have cast doubt on their entire story all along–the Times would not have had to wait until November 7 to “call into question” Georgia’s claims. The paper could have called them into question right there–or at a hundred other opportunities that I saw in my time in the conflict zone.

Apparently, the editors weren’t interested. And this is where the Times‘s reporting–from the editorial decision to base all of its staffers on the Georgian side while leaving the crucial Russian/Ossetian side of the battle zone to a stringer eager to please his US-based employer–went so woefully, recklessly wrong. In Siegel’s defense, he didn’t make the editorial decision to ignore the real Gori story. It seemed clear to me that it wasn’t his decision, but rather that of his editors, to highlight the unbombed parts of Tskhinvali when he reported from there a few days earlier:

Russian statements had likened the Georgian assault to other recent cataclysmic wars in the Caucasus, like the razing of Grozny in Chechnya. But while Tskhinvali sustained significant damage, it was not as widespread or catastrophic as the state-run Russian news media had portrayed it.

Fighting appears to have been concentrated in two neighborhoods, while buildings in the rest of the city stood intact. Entire residential neighborhoods appeared unscathed. Even in the hardest-hit areas, most buildings were left standing.

I’m still shocked today reading this. Yes, most of the buildings were standing. It’s hard to level buildings in just a few days of shelling and tank fire, no matter how fierce and indiscriminate. What the Times‘s stringer didn’t include was that the “two neighborhoods” he alluded to were Tskhinvali’s main residential district, nicknamed Shanghai because of its population density (it’s where most of the city’s high-rise apartment blocks are located), and the old Jewish Quarter, which was nothing but piles of rubble. Leaving out those powerful, significant details–and again, this looks like the fault of the editors in New York who hired Siegel–is active propaganda.

To see what I mean, here’s how a more seasoned reporter, Peter Finn of the Washington Post, reported the same scene a couple of days later, when he finally was let into Tskhinvali:

The war between Georgia and Russia was centered on this town of at most 10,000 people, and it cut a swath of destruction, severely damaging many homes and apartment buildings.

The scale of the destruction is undeniable; some streets summon iconic images of Stalingrad during World War II or Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, which was leveled in two wars between Russian and Chechen separatists.

The Jewish Quarter, Tskhinvali. (Photo: Ames)

What’s more disturbing is how the Times stuck to its false narrative about an innocent Georgia attacked by a neo-imperialist Russia long after the war ended and evidence started to pour in of Georgia’s culpability. It took whistleblowers, human rights organizations and the Western European media to reveal what happened. In mid-September, Germany’s Der Spiegel published an investigative report drawing on interviews with OSCE monitors who witnessed the war, asking, in its subhead, “Did Saakashvili Lie?”

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Add your own

  • 1. Scott Gunsaullus  |  December 22nd, 2008 at 9:49 am

    Good story. Ames should publish another book.

  • 2. kotek besar  |  December 22nd, 2008 at 10:20 am

    Kudos to you New Media types for exposing Old Media lies.

  • 3. Jay  |  December 22nd, 2008 at 12:05 pm

    Good article!

    But there are somethings I’d like to add.

    First, the majority of the European media stuck to the American version of the conflict in the initial waves of the coverage.

    Even more serious newspapers as the mentioned SPIEGEL took the side of the georgians, for a long time.

    In fact there wasnt a single mejor newspaper who tried to write an objective article about it.

    They basically just copied the American point of view.

    The whole coverage of the events, struck me immediately as a deliberate act of propaganda to twist the truth in favor of a government backed by some large and powerful cooperations.

  • 4. Rune  |  December 22nd, 2008 at 4:28 pm

    Danish media was just as biased as the American. One of the supposedly more serious (Weekend Avisen) newspapers even went so far as to report the ridiculous story of a communist Estonian group seeking independence ( as proof that Ivan was up to no good there as well. So far I have only seen one newspaper (Information: seriously try to address their obvious swallowing Georgia’s propaganda hook, line and sinker.

    Should someone be interested, then I have been collection some of the more reasonable articles in English here:
    2008 South Ossetia War

    There is one story about Saakasjvili apparently trying to stage his own assassination attempt in late November, which I haven’t been able to find an English language article for.

  • 5. geo8rge  |  December 22nd, 2008 at 8:50 pm

    Didn’t you guys say you had a picture of a tank turret stuck in the side of a building? Are you every going to post it?

  • 6. Erik B.  |  December 22nd, 2008 at 11:58 pm

    Solid work, Ames. If you sell out, you’ll be rich.

    The interesting thing is, that in the first 48 hours of the conflict, the mass media actually reported truthfully that Georgia was the instigator, but they soon did a 180 and toed the Washington line.

    And now we see a slew of mea culpa articles explaining how the editors and journos got it all wrong, only they weren’t despicable cheap whores as might be suspected, only incompetent morons. These reports of miraculous epiphanies and humble pleas of insanity began to appear simultaneously world wide a month or so ago.

    But we see you, fuckers! You are all on the record for telling the truth from the outset, so don’t tell us you just found out now.

  • 7. Jay  |  December 23rd, 2008 at 12:53 am

    This was definitely not a case of incompetence.

    This was a real act of propaganda.

  • 8. wArumbAnanekRumm  |  December 23rd, 2008 at 4:05 am

    I like to refer back to German news from time to time to get a different incite, but funnily enough the red-head cunt (aka Angela Merkel) claimed a pleasent silence about anything to do with Georgia… you see the EU is vyeery dyependyent on roo-sha – they are so coward that they wont even take sides against the truth.

  • 9. daikide  |  January 12th, 2009 at 6:21 pm

    Look Mr Ames, if you are going to write about the war. You better understand what you are writing about and not just analyse what you have learned through the Russian media about Georgia/Saakashvili… Because it’s war and on the war people are dieing. This is serious.

    I think you are basing your points on a very wrong things: …Americans/British are Wrong… Russians Protect … and oh yeah… It’s all that Saakashvili’s fault…

    Let’s begin:

    i)Russia has quitted the European arems treaty thus allowing to move it’s military at it’s own will in large numbers.(South Caucasus falls into that treaty)

    ii) Putin has linked Kosovo independence and Polish millse defence with the fact that he also has some things “cooking up” (He stated “U nas toje est svoi zagotovki”) In January as I remember.

    iii) NATO – MAP thingy in Bucharest – April 2008. NATO stated that the MAP issue will be revisited in December 2008… so this gave Kremlin few month window to ACT!

    “From the moment Georgia launched its invasion against the breakaway region of South Ossetia this past August”

    – Indeed THAT is the REGION INSIDE GEORGIA. In fact the name “South Ossetia” is also inaccurate… The regions original name is “Samachablo” in 1921 Russian red army invaded Georgia in 1922 the name of Georgian region “Samachablo” was changed into “South Ossetia” on the other side of the Caucasian mountains the “Republic Alaniya” was RENAMED to “NORTH OSSETIA”. THE REGION WAS CREATED ARTIFICIALLY! IN FACT UP TO 4x TIMES MORE OSSETIANS LIVE IN OTHER PARTS OF GEORGIA OTHER THAN SOUTH OSSETIA! (Why Georgians don’t kill any Ossetians there? Simple – No Russian military, no criminal’s like Kokoity, no grater interests; regular people have nothing to fight, they are just neighbours.)

    “sparking a wider war with neighboring Russia”

    – NO, IT WAS NOT SPARKING anything… Russia wanted this region as Abkhazia, it DOES NOT care about Ossetians. They want a military base in that region and they want another military base in Abkhazia as well as a sea resort!


    KAVKAZ 2008 – Military exercises that Russia held ended just few days before the war;

    Russia has sent IN VIOLATION OF ALL AGREEMENTS A 200 Strong team of RAILWAY MILITARY ENGINEERS TO ABKHAZIA A MONTH BEFORE THE WAR. They have repaired the route for the heavy armor transportation.

    The last straw which SPARKED THE CONFLICT WAS:

    1) Russians started evacuating civilian population from the region.
    2) The Region became even more flooded by mercenary’s from North Caucasus/ Chechen’s/ Ingushetian paramilitary and Cossacks as well as a larger number of Russian FSB and GRU forces.

    3) Georgian villages were permanently under attack, during the last days of July and the beginning of June the Georgian side had daily casualties among civilians and peacekeepers.

    “the Times engaged in the sort of media malpractice that it promised its readers wouldn’t happen again after its disastrous coverage of the lead-up to the Iraq War. “
    – If you want to be a serious journalist try to keep your personal emotions about war in Iraq at bey ok? This was a very different war. A war for land and there was a genocide during this war.

    Well you will start to argue who is the victim, it’s tell you simply:

    ETHNIC CLEANSING: (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

    Who is a war criminal:

    Before 1993 – over 85% of the population in Abkhazia were ethnic Georgians!

    Before 1994 – over 92% of population in South Ossetia were ethnic Georgians!

    After brutal ethnic cleansing by Russian military, Chechens (including Shamil Basaev), north Caucasian criminals and Cossacks the population
    Has be reduced to 4% and 35% respectively.

    After last August 2008 Russian invasion the ethnic Georgian population has been reduced to 0% in both Georgian regions.



    Also you were writing that there was no serious reporting from the “Ossetian side”… FIRST of all There IS NO such side. THERE ARE ONLY TWO SIDES in this war! RUSSIA – GEORGIA.
    Secondly – RUSSIA DID NOT ALLOW ANY FOREIGN JOURNALISTS INTO THE CONFLICT ZONE WITHOUT THE ACCREDITATION FROM THE RUSSIAN MOF. How did you expect the journalists to get that accreditation when they were IN GEORGIA and you need to be in Moscow to get that shit… ?

    Here’s pretty much everything you need to know:


    “Newly available accounts by independent military observers of the beginning of the war between Georgia and Russia this summer call into question the longstanding Georgian assertion that it was acting defensively against separatist and Russian aggression.”

    – Firstly that was a statement by a FORMER OSCE monitor who did NOT had any right to make such statements – This are not my words but words of his supervisor WHO WAS in Tskinvali during a war.

    Secondly the Georgian government has released the video footage that was showing how that British was interacting with the Russian special services in the “Tskinvali KGB HQ” (do some research, I can’t feed you everything…)

    “You saw what the Georgians did.” He slouched forward over the table. “You’re going to write what you’re going to write no matter what I show you. So what’s the point? Maybe I should give up.”

    – Oh Peace! Russia has stated 2100 dead within few hours and was screaming word GENOCIDE… but what did the investigation prove later? Russians have THEMSELVES stated that the death toll was about 160 people. NOW imagine the death toll if there were no AK47’s in every on those Ossetians or Russian/Chechen/north Caucasians hands?

    Secondly I think that that number is too few times bigger than the actual number. It is near 40-50 as I know by my own Ossetian channels.

    “Siegel charged that Sasha didn’t give us greater access to ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia”


    “his Times editor wanted a story on crimes committed against ethnic Georgians, which seemed to be what all Western editors wanted.”

    – You know why? Because if they even tried to go to Tskinvali the “brave” Russian “peacekeepers” were shooting at them. A Danish journalist was killed. 2 Georgian Journalists and 2 Turkish got nearly killed. One Georgian women Journalist got lightly shot in the hand while being LIVE on TV… IT WAS MUCH SAFER for them to just cover the Georgian side then to go to Russian military and try to cover that. Understood?

    “Georgian grievances were in big demand from the Western media’s home offices.”
    – Pathetic sarcasm.

    “My first day in North Ossetia, I joined Tom Parfitt of the Guardian and Andrew Osborn of the Wall Street Journal, driving around ethnic Georgian villages on the Russian side of the border, chasing false rumors that we’d heard from another Western correspondent that the Georgian inhabitants there had been attacked and cleansed.”

    “ All we managed to do by going into those villages was to frighten the poor villagers. Later that day, Osborn and I went to makeshift Ossetian refugee centers to check out their claims of tens of thousands of refugees; their claims checked out.)”


    I think I’m waisting my time on you…

    The fact that you have been with Russians, does not necessarily mean that what you saw was the right side.

    “The Jewish Quarter, Tskhinvali. (Photo: Ames)”

    – How many Jews live in the Jewish Quarter in Tskinvali??? After 1960s their number is 0! (ZERO!) Russians remembered that name just recently and focused their propaganda on that too. I can see you are clearly joining them here without even trying to analyse anything.
    – In fact Georgian defence minister(Kezerashvili) as the minister of reintegration(Yakobashvili) are Georgian Jews.
    And WHO are the “ministers” in Tskinvali? Minister of defence – Russian general of Russian armed forces; Minister of “KGB”(Yes, they call it KGB, even today) – Russian former FSB major… ALL of those guys are ethnic Russians that have NEVER lived in that region, that CAME from Russia and have absolutely NOTHING to do with Georgia or Ossetians.

    Russia got what it wanted – Military bases in the center of Georgia in Tskinvali; Military bases in Abkhazia and a new sea resort in Suxumi.
    Georgia got even more of refugees within it’s country, the territory’s are now officially annexed and occupied, NATO integration has slowed down.
    The only thing that Russian did not manage to do was a “regime change” as Vitalii Churkin has put it in the UN…

    I respect your magazine and I understand what are it’s aims, but this is a wrong side you are standing on. No country is allowed to march across the internationally recognised parts of neighbouring country and annex the neighbours territory. I understand Russians have shown you things, but they are good. They are MUCH better than you and many western journalists can imagine and you, you are just arrogant and know next to a very little about Georgia, Ossetians or maybe even Russia.

    You do speak Russian right?

    – there – A vobshem vot ono vsio:

    Vot pro voinu v Abxazii (v 1993)Govorit Russkii soldat:

    A vot Gruzinskii dok. vilm o tom chto predshetvovalo voine

  • 10. tzameti  |  April 15th, 2010 at 7:33 am

    i was going to write something critical but then i realized i’d be just another case of a pathetic russophobe who can’t handle the truth, like daikide.

  • 11. Crack Smoka  |  September 14th, 2010 at 11:30 pm

    Great article, suped up my faith in humanity. Even riled up Mikheil Saakashvili himself (daikide).

  • 12. Fool  |  August 27th, 2016 at 8:21 pm

    Arrived here from the great Radio War Nerd episode on the war; want to take Saakashvili’s comment (#9) behind the middle school bleachers and get it pregnant.

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