After nearly two weeks of war, most of Georgia remains in chaos. A bridge thirty miles west of the capital city of Tbilisi was blown up on Saturday afternoon, severing the country’s east-west rail link. Russian tanks and hundreds of soldiers remain in four cities, and no one controls the deserted area between them. Ossetian irregular militias, as well as Russian soldiers, are reportedly looting abandoned houses, stores and banks. The hunt is on for journalists or accidental travelers.
The only way journalists can get information now is to drive to cities and villages and talk to people. My second reporting trip on this war ended very badly Friday, with an encounter with Ossetian irregular militias.
As my husband and I were driving toward Gori, the Georgian city closest to the combat zone, several men in camouflage suddenly emerged from a side road and started shooting. Bearded, with red eyes, holding Kalashnikovs in their hands, they stopped the car and surrounded it. They spoke in Ossetian. One of them, a young man with a wild look, was closest to me and clearly full with hatred. “Georgian? Are you Georgian?” he was shouting in broken Georgian. I told him that I have been working for foreign media.
The following conversation was short. “I don’t care about journalists, get out of the car.” A tiny pistol in his hand was pointed directly at my face. A heavy Kalashnikov hung from his neck, in the casual way people wear their cell phones. He got into the car. “Give me at least my camera,” I pleaded. “I am shooting the tragedy on both sides.” He aimed his pistol at me through open window again. I was looking closely in the barrel. I never noticed that the bore was so narrow.
We were in a deserted spot. Most of the residents in and around South Ossetia had abandoned their houses last week, after violence began over this breakaway territory. Tens of thousands have become refugees.
South Ossetia threw off Georgian control in a bloody war in the early 1990s, and since then Russian peacekeeping forces have been controlling frozen peace as ineffectual negotiations continued in the region. On August 8, Tbilisi unexpectedly launched a massive artillery attack on Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia. Russian forces immediately struck back, attacking Georgia with troops, tanks, planes and warships. Georgian cities, bombed by Russian aircrafts, are now devastated. Thousands of both Ossetians and Georgians civilians are believed to have been killed, though no official numbers yet exist.
“You are a journalist, you know more–are they [the West] sending their forces to help us?” asked a policeman I had managed to track down an hour after the encounter with the Ossetia militia.
On Friday, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Georgia to show Washington’s support. “Russian forces need to leave Georgia at once,” she told reporters in Tbilisi.