A Georgian woman in her doorway in Karaleti, a village near Gori, a city under Russian occupation. Houses there were ransacked after Russian forces advanced from South Ossetia.
KARALETI, Georgia — The young Georgian woman stood behind the entrance of a darkened home. Only her dark brown eyes were visible, peering from a mail slot at strangers walking toward the door.
“Peaceful people!” she cried in relief, and swung the door inward, revealing two families standing in the shadows of their looted home. They had little food. Their house had been ransacked.
For more than a week, the villages on the roads running south from Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, some 20 miles to Gori, a central Georgian city now under Russian occupation, have been a corridor of grief, violence and crime.
The roads cross from the mountainous Ossetian enclave to territory that Georgia had controlled since the war between the two sides settled into a cease-fire in the 1990s.
Their asphalt lanes serve as paths through a patchwork of villages reflecting central Georgia’s ethnic mix: Many villages were Georgian, many were Ossetian, and many were mixed, a blurry human boundary along a long-standing military front.
But as the Russian armored columns drove south in early August, smashing the Georgian military from their path as they burst out of the enclave and seized Georgia’s main highway, parts of this patchwork were swiftly and violently rearranged.
First, civilians were subject to rocket and artillery barrages. Then, once the Georgian military retreated so swiftly that it abandoned its dead, the Georgian civilians in and near South Ossetia faced a wave of retaliation and opportunistic crime.
Since a cease-fire between Russia and Georgia began last week, the area has remained closed.
It is a military zone sealed off by Russian military checkpoints, a land broken by roaming bands of looters that operated behind the Russian Army and made eerily empty by depopulation caused by flight. The Kremlin has allowed only official tours for journalists, accompanied by government minders, of the region, which Georgia has claimed endured organized intimidation and ethnic cleansing.
The tens of thousands of refugees who staggered out to Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, took with them accounts of mass looting, of arson and, on what thus far seems a smaller scale, of killing on ethnic lines.
The Ossetians, in their capital, have claimed in turn to have been subject to Georgian efforts at ethnic cleansing, and accused President Mikheil Saakashvili of war crimes. But the war on the ground, after setbacks the first day, surged in their favor with Russian help, and Ossetian civilians flowed southward into Georgia proper, as Georgians fled.
On Monday, three journalists from The New York Times gained unaccompanied access to four of these villages — Akhaldaba, Variani, Shindisi and Karaleti — providing an unfiltered, though limited, view of the ill fortune and punishments endured by the civilian Georgian population caught in the war.
The villages are in the southern part of the area where Georgia claims ethnic cleansing occurred and do not include any of the villages from which the most severe and chilling allegations have come. They also constitute a small area of the entire territory.
But the scenes suggested that ethnic anger and a sustained, often unchecked period of looting reached nearly to the boundary of Gori, the city astride the highway that has been under a Russian-enforced martial law.
Only in Akhaldaba, just outside Gori, where food was running short Monday because the village was still cut off, did the residents say that they had not faced privations beyond the initial barrages of artillery or rocket fire.
In Variani, further up the road, the scene was bleaker. The Rev. Tadeoz Kebadze, the priest at a small Georgian Orthodox church, said that after the rocket attacks had come rounds of what he called “lawless marauders.” More than 1,200 of the village’s roughly 1,500 people had fled, he said.
In Shindisi, the families gathered for a bus carrying sacks of rice and flour said they were too afraid to speak. One old man had a badly beaten face. When asked what had happened, another man answered in his place: “Nothing happened to him.”
About 90 percent of the town’s residents had fled, a village elder said. The fear was palpable in those who remained. Many people trembled; their bloodshot eyes looked as if they had been crying for days. Out of earshot, a few men pulled a reporter aside.
“They stole everything,” one said, of the looters.
He placed the blame on Ossetian looters and not Russian Army soldiers. During the day, three families said that the looters had appeared afraid of the Russian troops and had not often operated around them, although journalists in the past 10 days have seen looters intermingled at times with Russian units.
Almost all the people interviewed asked that their names be withheld, out of fear of reprisal while they lived in the lawless zone. Three were so reflexively jumpy by the experiences of the past week that they dashed into the remains of a store at the sound of an approaching car.
The events the residents described underscored how hard it is to assess the scope and scale of the violence and crime, and eventually to assign precise blame. There is no clear estimate yet either of the number of dead and injured or of the number of refugees.
Some Georgian residents said they had been robbed in repeated cycles of home invasion: Three or four armed men would show up with a truck or car, rush through the house and cart off whatever they desired, and then go away. Later, another car would arrive with a different gang.
This went on for days, and apparently was committed by a legion of criminals. But assessing the origins of each individual offense was difficult. Victims spoke of looters from Ossetia, Russia, and, in one case, Chechnya.
Complicating matters, two men said that looting had been conducted by their neighbors. And while some families said Russian troops had helped restrain the looting, on the approaches to Karaleti three Times journalists saw a Russian ambulance crew trying to pack the ambulance with items being yanked from a house.
Many residents also said that the looting had subsided in the past two days. It was an open question whether this indicated that security had improved or simply that there was little left to steal.
Not a single parked car was visible here in Karaleti, except those ruined by collisions or gunfire. In Variani, one aging car sputtered through the square in front of the church, and residents said the only other car in the village escaped being stolen because it was out of gas. In two other villages, no cars were seen. Two families said they knew of no one in town who still had a television; all had been stolen.
Georgian refugees said the destruction grew worse northward along the road. But already in Karaleti, there were signs that armed men had set houses and buildings on fire, although such depredations were less widespread than what refugees have described in villages nearer to the Russian border.
Dzhumbert Parkashvili described a much darker event. His brother, he said, had been kidnapped by a group of men. He had been standing outside during a lull in the looting when a gang of armed men seized them all.
“We don’t know who took them,” he said. “Several of them spoke Russian, several of them spoke Ossetian.”
Mr. Parkashvili fell silent and then began to shudder and weep. “It was five days ago, and no one knows anything about where they took him.”