For a little more than a week I’ve been out of town with the family. Myself, my lady, and the kid are not very far from Tbilisi, in Narekvavi village. It’s an hour of driving, less if there are no patrols in view and one gives oneself the liberty of exceeding the speed limit.
It’s summer, the seashore is calling. Tbilisi looks half-empty. It is a pleasure driving even in town, where one is usually stuck up in traffic jams half of the time. Yours truly has been to town to do some shopping, such as can’t be done locally. Next sortie is planned for Tuesday.
It is much cooler up there on the mountain slope in the summer cottage than down in Tbilisi. The garden is green, starlings and snails cover every flat and cool surface. Tortoises live in the vegetable patch (not looked after for a year and yet still proudly sporting a single, large cabbage), the night before a hedgehog has all but wondered into the house, and a hen from some of the neighboring houses pays daily visits to dig for wheat. There is a TV set, but the antenna is broken, so life is calm and quiet.
We take strolls to the village every evening. Like regular townsfolk we must seem, especially because the kid keeps gaping and exclaiming whenever we meet a pig or a cow.
The first news reach us in the local store where I venture to get myself some beer for the evening. ‘There is war in Samachablo (Georgian name for the region known as South Ossetia)’ they tell me. I wave off the hint of alarm in my thoughts with ‘oh, can’t be more than some borderline skirmish, not in August, not with the calm mood I’m in.’
Life goes on normally but for news gathered at the local store. It is serious fighting, they say.
August 8th – 9th
The village, whenever one goes down to it, seems crowded. Closer examination proves my impression is correct – the population has been doubled by fugitives from villages nearer the action.
Narekvavi itself is not very far off – it’s barely 30 miles to Gori hence. One woman asks me to repair her phone, I fail miserably. People carry with them news of fighting, of people killed and wounded, and houses destroyed. It’s positive anxiety I’m now experiencing, but I’m saving face for the sake of the kid and my lady. A petty quarrel over something trivial the day before seems now indeed petty and trivial.
My lady’s nephew is in the reserve. These are kids of 20 barely, the whole bunch of them, scarcely trained, and they have been moved into the region
I am bewildered. It can’t be happening – for all their faults the Russian Government can’t be mad enough to be doing this, can they?
I have repaired the antenna the best I could, the TV is on round the clock, relaying more things to get alarmed about. Internet access is down (I had used my mobile for internet).
August 10th – 11th
Days full of tossing about. Should we leave? Should we stay?
The main road is in view, not very far off. Our tanks have passed in the wrong direction, to the east – it means we are now ahead of the main line of defense, and rumor has it that bands of looters are not very far off either. Examination of the map shows the nearest village they have been reported to have raided is only 15 miles west.
The bombing scares us more than the marauders for the time being, it is decided we stay put. Sortie to the store revealed the shortage of foodstuff may be looming with routes of supply being cut off.
I spent all one had on me on long-lasting provision like pasta and canned fish and milk for the kid. No bread, one has to make do with dried biscuit. The main road is still open and the babysitter has shown a lot of bravery, to be still coming up daily.
We have two parcels with documents, kid’s food, and some clothing at the ready if it becomes clear one has better run for it. All kinds of hearsay coming in: bombing of civilian targets? Nay, that can’t be happening… can it?
Apparently, it can and is happening. I am carrying an axe with me, just in case. No good against firearms, and the very thought of probably having to use it is revolting, but the axe-brandishing show may give time to kid and wife to slip through the back door if necessary – there is one in the hedge opening onto the higher wooded slope.
Good news about the nephew – the reserve has been withdrawn, now that is clear the Russians have brought in the main force. I am having kind of warm feelings towards the Government, which I never liked much before – all they officially say on TV has a ring of truth about it, and now the decision to spare the kids when they could have easily ordered them to stand the ground (and get totally wiped out by 1,200 tanks rumor has that the Russians have brought in) is a good one.
I don’t want to ponder things for long – it is the weekend, the babysitter who comes by bus daily has the weekends off, and the kid takes a lot of looking after. Housework must be done and a pig has to be chased out of the garden. Routine helps one keep steady.
Stupid, stupid, stupid decision to stay. The road is finally blocked, and looters reported 7 miles off.
Axe is definitely no good. Food is in abundance, water too, but now, apart from the net access, electricity keeps going off and on. Good thinking to have bought so many candles. But still, stupid, stupid, stupid decision to stay. Or maybe not?
The main road is in view, but still the cottage is off it. If one keeps the house blacked out, may it pass for uninhabited? Would an uninhabited house draw less attention, or maybe a better decision would be to light it all up and show that here’s numerous people in?
Where did I put that axe? What was that noise? I am outside with an axe, wearing pajamas (it must have been a pathetic thing to look upon), but it’s only a hedgehog rustling the dry leaves.
We have decided to bolt for it, but will my 16-year-old hatchback make it through the by-ways?
Luckily for me I’ve had new shock absorbers put in just a day or two before the violence began, the whole of the front suspension has been looked into and brought into working condition too.
Several hours of cautious crawling the roads that resemble drier river beds rather than paths a car can get through, and we are back to Tbilisi. Mood: relief. Relief to the point I could not stop laughing for ten minutes at a very dumb joke heard in the store where I went to get some matches. Relief to not have to think about the axe, what can be done with it, and where did I put it down anyway.
When this immediate sense of relief is washed away, the town distresses me. On every corner, people exchanging bits of gossip with grave faces: “X has been looted, Y has been bombed, so and so has been killed”. In the hurried departure yesterday we’ve left a lot of important things behind. Cash is also running short – hell of a lot has been spent on creating a food supply for a month of siege in the cottage, some has to be saved for possible flight, and of course most of the foodstuff has been left behind anyway, for there are limits to what can be successfully fitted into the trunk of an Opel Astra hatchback.
I still don’t have much time to ponder things. There is a passport to be made for the kid – the plan is to send the lady and the kid away to the kid’s aunt in Kiev, Ukraine. The more you pay, the quicker you get it, so payment is 10 times its usual price to have it made by tomorrow.
Of course the passport is not ready. The town is full of fugitives now, all Civil Registry agencies are full of people being registered, and no question of getting nearer than 100 yards away the door. Passport department is closed anyway. Shouting: “When”? Shouting back: “Come tomorrow”.
The road is rumored to be open, better make a dash back to the village now that I’m alone and more mobile, the food will come in handy, definitely, what with all the money wasted on a passport that is not there, and all that is to be saved for tickets to Ukraine.
Contrary to rumor, the town exit is blocked by police.
“Mskheta” (town nearest to the village I’m actually going to)
“Ok, it’s possible, the road is blocked past Natakhtari, but come later – we are expecting the column of military to pass by.”
The row of civilian cars waiting for the road to open looks like it’s 3 miles in length. At the post they won’t let me pass– ‘we expect yet another column’. Going back I see ‘another’ – same story. I’m stubborn, or silly, the columns are numerous – the story gets repeated 4 times unless I admit my defeat and go home. Hope looters aren’t feasting on my canned fish at the cottage. Let them choke if they do.
On the positive side – internet access is much better in town, though DSL is down, mobile is regained.
Another visit to local Civil Registry Agency. The crowd even bigger than the previous day, but there’s a hopeful sign – note: ‘for passports, apply to such and such office elsewhere’.
Passport is ready, even if I spent an eternity in queue. Drawback – they’ve lost the kid’s birth certificate. If it can’t be found, there would be a lot of trouble restoring it, but this isn’t relevant now – the passport is what matters. I took the passport picture myself (decided to spare him a visit to the crowded official studio, and the chaps in there then did wonders in Photoshop removing greenery from the background). He has a real serious look.
The road is again said to be open. Deciding to try my luck I head to the town exit once again. Same patrol as before and same questioning of ‘where to’, but now they let me out. An hour of steady driving and here it is, Narekvavi.
It does look deserted; though far off a solitary man can be seen driving a solitary cow with a stick. The house is untouched, some hours of packing and checking if the doors are properly shut, and I head back to Tbilisi. The main thought – now I can shave. No razors to be found in Tbilisi, apart from other things, shortage is attributed to Russians blocking the main route some 30 miles off West. That’d be at about 7 miles West ‘as the crow flies’ from the village.
I’m glad to be out of there quickly.
The work over – I’ve got tickets for the kid and my lady. ‘No earlier than next Friday, 22nd, Sir, unfortunately nothing can be booked earlier’, but Friday is good enough, I figure. One can relax a little and stop running to and fro on errands of this and that.
But one keeps mentally repeating the list: ‘Ok, I’ve got food, I’ve got candles, I’ve got kerosene, I’ve got a full tank of petrol, I’ve got passports, I’ve got tickets, I’ve got everything’. I sit and watch the news, and visit usual online haunts.
Someone on one of the forums I frequent is incautious enough to ask me for ‘reasons of all that’. Seemingly, I now have leisure to feel anger apart from being scared and anxious, for what I come out with ‘on the spot’, without rehearsal, is as follows:
Reasons: Pipeline (in case that’s intercepted the alternative is Russian pipeline), NATO (‘our former in our very soft South underbelly can’t be part of NATO’), and personal dislike of our President Saakashvili by Russian Prime Minister Putin.
Then there is Kosovo – “if they should get independence, why shouldn’t the Ossetians?” – the thinking goes.
Then there is Iraq – “if US can hang whomever they dislike, why can’t we?”
There is the protection of Russian Citizens, Russia gave out passports to South Ossetians, to have a pretext, I am guessing. Why then, I ask, are Russian citizens proper, not of the kind as described above, all with very Russian surnames in their very Russian passports, have been robbed by the very Russian Army on road the other day? Can you even call this an army?
What kills me is how people who said that it is wrong for Kosovo to gain independence use the very same Kosovo as justification for invasion now.
And we have Russia issying lengthy speeches of being a ‘protector of Orthodox Christianity all over the globe,’ but forcing the very Orthodox Christian monks out of their Monastery ‘because Moscow Patriarchy will take over this now.’
The official Russian version is ‘let’s free the proud Georgian People of this bloody tyrant Saakashvili, they will be all that thankful for that.’
I guess it was not the case of disliking us per se at first – it was just that Mr. Putin took dislike to Mr. Saakasvhili (who is not very likeable, I don’t like him myself). That would not have been the case if our President have been the kind to lick Mr. Putin’s heels, but he is not.
Openly expressed intention to go with the West has been considered a personal insult by Mr. Putin I guess. “It’s been our province for 200 years [a story of betrayal – our King sought support, not invasion, when signing a treaty with Russia in 1783[ we can’t let them go to NATO now”.
Then there is propaganda (TV is under state control in Russia, you know). After 8 years it became that Georgia with its 30K army and 4 million people was leading in the polls of ‘whom you consider the main enemies of Russia’ along with USA and Estonia (another archenemy of Russia, see, the whole 1 million people of Estonia’s population against the poor and defenseless 140 million Russians, of course it is the most fearsome enemy!).
The very conflicts in the disputed lands have been stirred by Russians in the late 80s last century. We have been driven out of both by the forces of the Russian Army in 1991 and 1993 respectively. Since then they use the ‘question of disputed territories’ as levers to force us to do their bidding. Saakashvili’s defiance caused all of this, I guess.
Besides, hen not all is well in your own home, you better make war against someone you are sure to beat, that relieves tension and turns you into a hero. Putin did the same in Chechnya in 1999.
The bastards in the Russian Government have an inferiority complex, always talking about how ‘Russia is getting up from the knees’, talking about their ‘Empire’ and how they are misunderstood by all the peoples of the globe.
Our army is very finite when compared to theirs, and you can’t beat people who fight by sheer numbers and never cared how much it cost them, when your own Army is only 30K and they keep pouring in: 1200 tanks are rumored to have entered Georgia.
Our main failure was failure to block the tunnel to Russia – the main route into our land. But then, if we started that, we would not have failed. How can you block a tunnel with a force of a battalion when a division is already on the other side, and another on the way through it and yet another on the other side?
George Lashkhi is a commentator on Georgia’s Channel 1 and a Tolkien enthusiast. He lives in Tbilisi.