Several civilians stood at a bus stop in the quiet center of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, which suddenly last Friday found itself at war with Russia. At the sight of a plane that appeared high up in the sky, people panicked and ran to seek shelter in a bus or in a nearby store; one man threw himself down on the ground and covered his head with his arms. The plane continued its way and soon disappeared. It was just a passenger jet.
Tbilisi, as other areas in the country, has been bombed by Russian aircraft over the past four days. Although the targets were mostly military installations, many civilians have been killed and injured, many houses destroyed and hundreds of families have fled their homes, fearful of new attacks.
In Tskhinvali, a town one hour’s drive from Tbilisi, people can no longer use public transportation–or even walk in the streets. Their city was destroyed Friday after Georgian forces carried out a massive artillery attack. “Women and children were hiding in basements for a few days,” a colleague told me in a phone conversation. Reuters has reported that up to 2,000 civilians in Tskhinvali are dead.
The Georgian-Ossetian conflict is rooted in the breakup of the Soviet Union. After Georgia gained independence in 1991, it immediately endured a breakup itself. In the early 1990s two regions–Abkhazia and South Ossetia–declared their independence. Civil war followed, and the Georgian government claimed Russia was helping fuel the conflict in the breakaway republics. In any case, the wars ended with no ultimate win: Georgian forces were unable to reclaim the rebel regions, and no country in the world would recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. For the next fifteen years, Russian peacekeeping forces have controlled a cease-fire agreement in both conflict zones. And while negotiations between the two sides continued, they were all but dead.
Last week, that frozen conflict became a hot zone, which then exploded into actual war. Soon after the Georgian artillery attack, Russian tanks entered Tskhinvali and Russian aircraft bombed Georgian military installations. The Russian Army was called in to help peacekeepers stabilize the situation. And the bombing of different parts of Georgia continues.
Ossetians now blame Georgians for ethnic genocide; Georgians say Russia has broken an international law and call for international help against the Russia’s aggression. As for ordinary people on all sides of this conflict, anger and fear are the dominant emotions.
Leaving behind the lines of volunteers and many thousands taking part in protest rallies in Tbilisi, I slowly drove west, stopping often to make way for the columns of military cars and trailers packed with Georgian soldiers. It was an extremely hot day, traffic was terrible, yet nobody seemed to be annoyed by the disruptions. Oncoming drivers showed their support by honking and raising clenched fists in open windows of the cars.
But in the port city of Poti, righteous anger gave way to fear. People stood in silence on the funeral of a 28-year-old man who had died at dawn on Saturday, hit by a bomb from a Russian aircraft.
“Whatever done wrong by Georgians in South Ossetia, [the Republic] still is not recognized by Russia, and this open aggression against the entire neighboring independent state seems to be so inexplicable,” said one man.
The Black Sea resort of Batumi, popular in Georgia and the South Caucasus, is usually crowded with tourists in August. These days it looks unusually empty. People are afraid to travel and part with their relatives. A woman named Nona, about 30, came here to spend her vacation with her husband and two children just a day before the war began. She is nearly out of her mind with worry about her parents, who live in the city of Kutaisi. On Sunday the airport near the city was destroyed by bombing. Noni was not able to call home, despite many attempts–phone communication is difficult these days. And Nona has another reason to worry: early this morning the suburb of Batumi was reported bombed as well.
“It was enough just to hear this howl of shell rushing along. You feel like nothing in the world is more important than this sound,” said Djemal, another vacationer in Batumi. He has forbidden his 8-year-old daughter to approach the sea. “I will cover her with my body during bombing if she stays close to me. I won’t be able to save her when she is swimming.”
Although the situation in the South Ossetia conflict zone was obviously worsening during last months, all that is happening now is so unexpected that it seems to be unreal. On Saturday, Georgian forces abandoned Tskhinvali and the Russian army took it under control. On Sunday, Russian troops entered the Georgian city of Zugdidi, bordering another conflict zone, Abkhazia. Today, Russian aircraft bombed Kakheti region in the east and the Russian fleet approached the western city of Poti, sinking a Georgian boat. Right now, late evening on Monday in Georgia, President Mikheil Saakashvili is on TV saying that Russian forces have reached Gori, about forty-five miles from Tbilisi, and there is a danger of their moving toward the capital.
Many people here now believe that by steadily occupying the country, while Georgia’s friends in the West take no action, Russia intends not only to punish Georgia but to dislodge the president and change the government. This would once for all end Georgia’s idea of partnership with the West, its plan to become a member of NATO and bring the alliance to the Russian border. It may well be that Georgia has overestimated the idea of the West’s total support. There is a sense that the Georgia/Ossetia/Russia conflict will not dominate CNN headlines for much longer. It seems to people here that the West has a lot of issues with Russia that it considers more important than the fighting that now rages between Moscow and Tbilisi.