For the last two days, everyone in Tbilisi everyone was trying to guess what was really happening in Gori. Russian forces had taken the city several times in the last week, first virtually and then in reality. Yesterday and the day before people fled from Gori to Tbilisi and every rumor about what was scarier than the last. Shota Utiashvili, head of the analytical department of the Georgian Interior Ministry, told me that the Russian military was mining buildings there and the city would be blown sky-high within hours. People fleeing from there said that Gori had been abandoned to Cossacks and Ossetians militias to plunder as they entered with the 58th Russian Army. Rustavi 2 television channel reported that the aggressors were ripping out and carrying away all toilets.
One of the camps for refugees from Gori was set up in an abandoned restaurant in the city of Mtskheta, outside Tbilisi. Its inhabitants had already given up hope of returning to the same homes they had left. They glumly passed their time around the restaurant or sat silently in assembled lean-tos.
“Why didn’t any one warn us there was going to be a war? The Ossetians knew it two or three weeks before us and got out of danger in time,” 46-year-old Vazha tells me. “Now your Cossacks will rob our homes, maraud and abuse people.”
Vazha says he graduated from a Russian school and he has three aunts in Russia outside Tula, whom he used to visit regularly.
“Now I’m afraid to go to Russia,” he continues. “It’s as if someone made the Russians hate Georgians on purpose, and made the Georgian hate Russians. Who can we ask about the war? Will Putin answer for it or Saakashvili? Who?”
At lunch time, the refugees shuffle through the restaurant and are given bread, water and tomatoes from the dusty bar.
There are Ossetians from Gori in the camp as well as Georgians. One of them, 65-year-old Robert, takes me to the side and whispers, “You know that, in the first war with Ossetia, Georgians from Gori slaughtered Ossetians like animals. But God sees everything and hurries nowhere. Now, see, His hands have stretched to Gori and they are bombing it and robbing their homes. Because there was no need to go to war against Russia. It’s like a fly fighting with a lion. The lion was sleeping and they woke him up.”
Sitting calmly in Chechnya
It does not feel as though the war is over on the road to Gori. Tanks, trucks and jeeps full of Georgian soldiers are lined up along the battered road. The long barrels of weapons face poke out of the forest lining the road and face toward Gori. There are Georgian police checkpoints on the road. They do not let anyone except journalists pass. A Georgian major spent five minutes studying my press accreditation at one of the posts and then said calmly, “Russian Federation. Well, you can pass. Always glad to see you.”
Several kilometers from Gori is a wrecked tank, burned from the inside. There is an overturned car in the same condition next to it. The car has a Georgian license plate. It is impossible to tell whose tank it is. Beyond them, the entrance to the city is blocked by Russian trucks and armored vehicles. To the side, there is a dirty Lada car with “Chechnya” written in the dirt covering it. Soldiers from the 42nd Division of the 58th Army explain that Gen. Vyacheslav Borisov gave the order to block the road. They could not confirm the rumors about what was happening in the city, but clouds of smoke could be seen hanging over the city. Several soldiers were standing in the shade at the side of the road. Judging from the NATO uniforms and boots lying around, Georgians soldiers had been located here until recently.
“Look. Everything they have is from NATO – uniforms, weapons, rations,” a young sergeant named Arkady said to me.
“Are you envious or annoyed?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t care. It’s just they look wimpy in all of that. And their famous M-16’s are like toys.”
Arkady’s fellow soldier Vitaly was proud of his NATO gloves and said that he was sent into war unexpectedly. “We are all on contract here, “contrabasses,” they call us. We were sitting calmly in Chechnya. My mom called, ‘How’re things, son?’ ‘Fine,’ I say and as soon as I hang up the phone, the command comes, ‘Everybody lock and load.’”
No one knows why the forces have stopped by Gori. The soldiers tell about holding off a charge by Ossetians, who forced their way through to take vengeance for Tskhinvali. They say they had to be disarmed by force. Then a powerful explosion is heard in the direction of Gori. The soldiers did not even react. (The Russian General Staff later explained that they were exploding that they were blowing up ammunition stores.) The soldiers are more interested in political news, and I let them listen to the recording of my interview with Saakshvili.
They listen carefully and silently. When Saakashvili says Georgia did not start the war, they look around at each other and shake their heads.
“The main thing is that the Americans don’t come. Otherwise, it’ll be something…”
By evening, after negotiations between Gen. Borisov and Secretary of the Georgian Security Council Kakha Lomaya, Georgian police are allowed into Gori.
Condi Should Be Married Off to a Georgian
Georgian authorities had spent all of the same day preparing for the visit of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The day before, the news of her visit transported the Saakashvili administration into a wave of positive emotion. Since the first day of the conflict, they have been waiting for the West’s reaction to Russia’s actions and worrying that it was insufficiently severe.
“They sold their sun for Russian oil and gas!” Nato Partskhaladze, an employee of the presidential press service told me, barely holding back tears as she shows me pictures of her three small children on her mobile phone. “Who do you think will take care of them now?”
Spirits picked up in Tbilisi when U.S. President George W. Bush announced that the United States would provide Georgia with military-humanitarian aid. Then Rice’s visit caused perfect delight.
“We have to marry Condi off to a Georgian and everything will be fine,” the younger members of the presidential administration joked.
They have a present for her when she arrives. The Georgian parliament voted unanimously to withdraw from the CIS, as Saakashvili announced several days earlier. Now they are hoping for the reciprocity of the U.S. and waiting for Condi to apply her efforts at least to ridding Georgia of Russia’s peacekeeping ministrations.