DZHAVA, SOUTH OSSETIA,U.S.S.R. — 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.