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.