DZHAVA, South Ossetia, U.S.S.R. -- The biggest earthquake in these parts in two millenniums took 56 seconds to level this little mountain village.
But such is the conspiracy of politics and nature against these Caucasus highlanders that when the quake came April 29, a lot of people mistook it for an escalation of the Georgian-Ossetian civil war.
Most of Dzhava's 3,000 residents had gathered at noon in the village's main street for a rally to protest the Georgian Parliament's gerrymandering of ethnic Ossetian districts.
Zaira G. Dzhioyeva, 54, the schoolmarmish third secretary of the district Communist Party, stepped onto the stairs in front of the white-columned party building, took the microphone and began to speak.
"I opened the rally, and all of a sudden everything started to shake. Buildings fell. Dust rose into the air,"Ms. Dzhioyeva said. "Everyone fell down -- not even strong young men could stay on their feet.
"People were sure the Georgians had started bombing," she recalled, sitting in her trailer-office beside the wrecked party building. "They thought they were attacking from the air."
One who thought the Georgians had come was Zita Alborova, 30, a drugstore clerk. She was still mourning her sister's husband, a victim of politics, not nature.
few weeks earlier, Georgian militants had seized Mrs. Alborova's brother-in-law from his home in a neighboring village. They poured boiling water on him, then shot him and mutilated his corpse, she said.
After the assailants left, his Georgian neighbor buried him. "That's how good his relations with the Georgians had been," she said.
That tragedy was on her mind late on the morning of April 29, asshe put her 1 1/2 -year-old son, Misha, down for a nap. After sleeping for a while, he awoke and began howling inconsolably. She descended the stairs from the second floor, lifted him from his crib -- and felt the earth give way.
"We ran outside as the walls fell in," said Mrs. Alborova, fighting sobs. "I think he felt it coming. I think he saved our lives."
Carrying Misha, she ran to the village council building, where her husband, Vladimir, worked. It was rubble. Bodies were being carried away.
Hysterical, she ran toward the hospital -- more smoking devastation. Then, suddenly Vladimir appeared out of the dust, covered with blood from cuts on his head.
Mrs. Alborova's family, like nearly everyone in these mountains today, is living in a donated tent and scraping by on donated food.
"I'm not angry at God," Mrs. Alborova said, sounding surprised at her own feelings. "I believe only in God. I believe in no one and nothing else."
She speaks with a dazed candor common among the villagers.
Mrs. Dzhioyeva, in a neat gray suit, holds a chart of the devastation: 10,782 people in Dzhava District, 9,359 of whom lost their houses; 300 people injured; 60 people dead.
But emotions often get the better even of the third secretary.
"We've received very little aid, because it all goes to Georgia, and they don't pass it on," she said.
Then she added, with passionate illogic: "If the Georgians offer us aid, we won't accept it. All this time,they've been killing us."
... Apple farmers, cowherds and zinc miners coaxing a living from these rugged mountains, the Ossetians and Georgians have been living side by side and intermarrying at least since 1189, when the Georgian Queen Tamara took the Ossetian Prince David Soslan as her husband. Before the recent troubles, there were about 100,000 people in the territory of South Ossetia, two-thirds Ossetian and one-third Georgian.
But today, as once before in the 1920s, South Ossetia has become a pawn in a larger political game.
Georgia has dumped the Communists, elected an avowedly nationalist government under President Zviad Gamsakhurdia and declared its independence from the Soviet Union. South Ossetia, previously an "autonomous region" within Georgia, tried break away by unilaterally declaring itself a new Soviet republic.
The Parliament in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, a couple of hours to the south, responded by annulling South Ossetia's autonomous status. In January, Georgia dispatched thousands of police and civilians to the regional capital, Tskhinvali, with the clear intent of subduing or driving out the Ossetians.
Moscow eventually answered by sending thousands of Ministry of Internal Affairs troops to act as a buffer -- clearly a pro-Ossetian buffer. But, since the beginning of the year, the territory has been the scene of constant fighting, with dozens killed and hundreds injured.
Tens of thousands of refugees have fled -- the Ossetians over the mountains to Vladikavkaz, the capital of the Autonomous Republic of North Ossetia, part of the Russian Federation; the Georgians south to areas in the hands of Georgia.
The outsider may take his choice of interpretations, each bolstered with thousands of pages of historical proofs and emotional appeals.
The Ossetians say they are simply defending their historic territory from armed hoodlums sent by the "fascist" regime of President Gamsakhurdia to deport them, and they naturally accept help from Soviet troops.
The Georgians say the Ossetians are "Kremlin agents," stirring up trouble behind the shield of Soviet troops on historically Georgian territory in an obvious scheme to block Georgian secession. The same divide-and-conquer strategy, the Georgians say, is being used by the Kremlin in the Baltic republics, Moldova and elsewhere.
Both sides see history repeating itself. At the beginning of the 1920s, the Bolsheviks controlled Ossetia, and the Mensheviks were in power in Georgia.
Then, as now, the Georgians saw the Ossetians as the Trojan horse for Soviet power in their republic. Then, as now, the Ossetians accused the Georgians of slaughtering their people and trying to drive them north out of the mountains.
... Vladimir Tedeyev, 35, was squatting between his trailer and his tent when a reporter walked up. Pigs were rooting nearby among the apple trees. What was left of Mr. Tedeyev's two-story house across the street looked as if a strong breeze would blow it over.
He refused to answer questions. "A guest! A guest!" he cried, and flew into action, rallying some of the 15 people who sleep in the minuscule trailer at night.
A table appeared from someplace. Gradually it was covered with opened tins of fish in tomato sauce,pureed eggplant, peaches, lavash (pita bread), vodka.
Only after the first toasts would Mr. Tedeyev agree to talk. He showed the bullet hole in the driver's-side door of his red Lada, a souvenir from a sniper along the Tskhinvali-Dzhava road in February.
In January, he had taken his hunting rifle and a pitchfork and gone to the road outside Dzhava with 200 others to confront and turn back 5,000 heavily armed Georgians.
He told how last Christmas Eve, his truck, carrying 4 tons of flour for blockaded Dzhava, was halted on the way in a Georgian neighborhood by Georgian police. "They said, 'Unload it.' They gave it out to people -- whoever happened to be passing by -- before our eyes."
When the earthquake came, Mr. Tedeyev jumped out of the window of the food distribution office where he works as the building fell. His 8-year-old daughter, running in terror from their house, hit some barbed wire and seriously injured her eye.
"We're not running away," he said. "We'll rebuild right here. We'll rebuild so that nothing can knock the house down."
He showed the house built in 1989 by his brother, Valery, according to an engineer's advice on quakeproofing -- including a 10-foot-deep concrete foundation. The house was not even cracked by the tremor, though it is surrounded by rubble.
"I'll fight to the end -- with disasters, and with Gamsakhurdia [the Georgian president]," Mr. Tedeyev said, in the true Caucasian spirit. "I'm a hunter with a right to have a gun. I have an ax, too. If it comes to it, I'll defend my family and friends."