Dmitry Lovetsky, Associated Press
A resident shakes out a blanket in Tskhinvali, a city in Georgia's breakaway province of South Ossetia and a site of fierce fighting.

GORI, Georgia — Flies buzz around broken food jars, singed book pages flutter in the breeze and water pours from a twisted kitchen faucet at the remnants of Zurab Gvarientashvili's apartment, smashed by a bomb as Russian forces advanced.

One day after Russians withdrew from this strategic central Georgian city, residents began venturing back Saturday, returning to face the herculean task of rebuilding their lives.

It's a homecoming laced with despair, disbelief and anger.

"Barbarians, that's what they are. They kill innocent people here ... how many kilometers outside the battlefield? They bombed all over Georgia," the 31-year-old factory engineer said. He stepped on a partially burnt child's squeaky toy, and picked up a tattered photograph of his relatives.

"And what for? So that innocent people suffer?" he asked.

Gori is located 18 miles south of the capital of the separatist region South Ossetia, where Georgian forces launched an assault on Aug. 7, sparking the war and an international crisis.

Russian forces quickly drove the Georgians back and drove deep into Georgia, taking control of cities and bases along the main highway in the former Soviet republic.

On Saturday, chaotic crowds of people and cars jammed makeshift checkpoints set up outside Gori by Georgian police trying to control the mass return. Those who made it through found a city battered by bombs, suffering from food shortages and gripped by anguish.

Passers-by drove by in openmouthed disbelief as they looked at the mangled wreck of metal and charred concrete that used to be the apartment block where Gvarientashvili's relatives lived.

He said three bombs fell on the complex on the night of Aug. 11-12; they were targeting the Georgian army's artillery training facility in the hills above the block. At least two people died in his entranceway, when the bomb hit the garages down below his fourth-floor apartment.

More than six people died in neighboring block, where laundry still flaps in the breeze two weeks after its owner fled or died.

Georgian police trucks raced through city streets and past the massive statue of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin — a hometown boy. Not far away, residents on one neighborhood jammed into a small, metal garage to register for the rice, sugar, salt and other food aid they say has been slow in arriving.

"It's hard to be in your own city and see someone else's soldiers roaming your streets. I didn't sleep for 15 days," said Zurab Tetriashvili, a 45-year-old university professor. "We're trying to make things normal again, but normalcy will only come when people's souls are eased."

Next to Gori's School No. 7, Surman Kekashvili, 37, showed visitors the rubble that once was his relatives' first-floor apartment. A bomb landed on the building on Aug. 10, shattering windows through the block and burying his relatives, who hid in the basement.

Several days ago, he tried to give them a decent burial, digging a shallow grave and covering it with a log, a rock and a piece of scrap metal.

"I took only a foot and some of a torso. I couldn't get the other bodies out," he said.

A total of four bombs fell in the neighborhood, spraying shards of glass across playground equipment. Next to one crater, Merdiko Peredze's goats grazed on burnt grass as he showed off the shrapnel that landed next to the decrepit two-room home he and his wife and son lived in.

Peredze said he was refugee twice over — once after fleeing his home amid fighting in the early 1990s in Abkhazia, a breakaway region like South Ossetia, and now once again, with his house in tatters.

"I'm an old man but I will return to Abkhazia," he vowed. "Russian, Georgians, Ossetians — we should all be living in peace together, like we did under Stalin."