Georgia at War: What I Saw

Of all the great resistance fighters I have met in my life, of all the Massouds and Izetbegovics I have had occasion to defend, Georgia's Saakashvili is the one who is the most unfamiliar with war, its rites, its emblems, its culture - but he is dealing with it.
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The first thing that strikes me as soon as we are out of Tbilisi is the strange absence of military force. I had read that the Georgian army, defeated in Ossetia, then routed in Gori, had withdrawn to the capital to defend it. I reach the outskirts of the city, moving forty kilometers on the highway that slices through the country from east to west. But I see almost no trace of the army which has supposedly regrouped in order to fiercely resist the Russian invasion. Here we see a police station. A little farther on, a handful of soldiers, their uniforms still too new. But no combat units. No anti-aircraft weaponry. Not even the trenches and zigzagging fortifications which, in all the besieged cities of the world, are set up to at least slightly impede the enemy's advance. A dispatch received while we are driving announces that Russian tanks are now approaching the capital. The information is relayed by various radio stations and then finally denied, creating unspeakable chaos and making the few cars which had ventured outside the city turn back immediately. But the authorities, the powers that be, seem strangely to have given up.

Is the Georgian army there, but hiding? Ready to intervene but also invisible? Are we perhaps in the middle of one of those wars in which the supreme ruse is to let yourself be seen as little as possible, the way they did in the forgotten wars of Africa? Or has President Saakashvili deliberately chosen non-combat as a way to force us, the Europeans and Americans, to accept our responsibilities ("You claim to be our friends? You have said a hundred times that with our democratic institutions, our wish to become part of Europe, our government composed of -- unique in the annals of history -- an Anglo-Georgian Prime Minister, American-Georgian cabinet ministers, an Israelo-Georgian Minister of Defense - is the first in its Western class? Well, now is the time to step up and prove it."). I don't know. The fact is that the first significant military presence we run into is a long Russian convoy, at least one hundred vehicles long, headed in the direction of Tbilisi, casually waiting to get gas. Then, forty kilometers outside the city, around Okami, we see a battalion, as usual Russian, attached to a unit of armored vehicles whose role is to stop journalists from going one direction and refugees from going the other.

One of them, a peasant, wounded in the forehead, still dazed and terrified, tells me the story of fleeing his village in Ossetia on foot, three days ago. The Russians arrived, and in their wake, Cossack and Ossetian gangs pillaged, raped and murdered. As they did in Chechnya, they rounded up the young men and drove them away in trucks, to unknown destinations. Fathers were killed in front of their sons. Sons were killed in front of their fathers. In the basement of a house which they blew up with propane cylinders they had collected, they came upon a family and stripped them of everything they had tried to hide and then forced the adults to kneel down and executed them with a single shot to the head. The Russian officer in charge at the check point listens to the story.2008-08-20-BHL2.jpg

But he doesn't care. In any case he looks like he has been drinking too much and he just doesn't care. For him, the war is over. No scrap of paper, a ceasefire, a five or six-point agreement- will change his victory. And this pathetic refugee can say whatever he wants.

As we approach Gori, the situation is different, the tension is suddenly palpable. Georgian jeeps are sprawled in the ditches on the sides of the road. Farther along is a burnt-out tank. Even farther along is a more important check point which completely blocks the group of journalists we have joined. And it is here that we are clearly told that we are no longer welcome, "You are in Russian territory now," barks an officer puffed up with importance. "Only those with Russian accreditation may go farther." Fortunately a car with diplomatic flags comes up. It belongs to the Estonian Ambassador, and is carrying the Ambassador and Alexander Lomaia, the Secretary of Georgia's National Security Council, who is authorized to go behind the Russian lines to look for the wounded. He agrees to take me with him, as well as the European deputy Marie-Anne Isler-Béguin and Tara Bahrampour from the Washington Post. "I cannot guarantee anyone's safety, is that clear?" Lomaia asks. Yes. It is clear. And we all pile into the Audi and head toward Gori.

After crossing through six new check points, one of which consists of a tree trunk hoisted up and down by a winch commanded by a group of paramilitaries, we arrive in Gori. We are not in the center of the city. But from where Lomaia has dropped us, before taking off in the Audi to collect his wounded, from this intersection dominated by an enormous tank as big as a rolling bunker, we can see fires burning everywhere.2008-08-20-BHL1.jpg Rockets lighting up the sky at regular intervals, followed by short detonations. The emptiness. The slight odor of putrefaction and death. Most of all, the incessant rumbling of armored vehicles. Almost every other car is an unmarked car jammed with militia, recognizable because of their white armbands and their headbands. Gori does not belong to the Ossetia which the Russians claim they have come to "liberate." It is a Georgian town. And they have burned it down, pillaged it, reduced it to a ghost town. Emptied.

"It's logical," explains General Vyachislav Borisov, as we stand in the stench and the night waiting for Lomaia to return. "We are here because the Georgians are incompetent, because their administration collapsed and the town was being looted. Look at this," showing me on his cell phone photographs of weapons of Israeli origin, which he emphasizes heavily, "Do you think we could leave all this lying around without supervision? And let me tell you," he struts around, striking a match to light a cigarette, startling the little blond tank gunner who had fallen asleep in his turret, "We summoned the Israeli Foreign Minister to Moscow. And he was told that if he continues to supply arms to the Georgians we would continue to supply Hezbollah and Hamas." We would continue? What an admission! Two hours go by. Two hours of bragging and threats. Sometimes a passing car would slow, but it would change its mind after noticing the tank and speed off. Finally Lomaia came back, bringing with him an old woman and the pregnant woman he had pulled from hell, and asked us to take them back to Tbilisi.


President Saakashvili, accompanied by his counselor Daniel Kunnin, listens to my story. We are in the Presidential residence of Avlabari. It is two AM but the noria of his counselors is working as it would during business hours. He is young. Very young. With a youthfulness which can be seen in the impatience of his movements, the intensity of his gaze, his abrupt laughter, even the way he guzzles cans of Red Bull as if it were Coca-Cola. All of these people in fact are very young. All these ministers and counselors were students sponsored by various Soros-type foundations, whose studies at Yale, Princeton and Chicago were interrupted by the Rose Revolution. He is a francophile and speaks French. Keen on philosophy. A democrat. A European. A liberal in both the American and European senses of the word. Of all the great resistance fighters I have met in my life, of all the Massouds and Izetbegovics I have had occasion to defend, he is the one who is the most unfamiliar with war, its rites, its emblems, its culture - but he is dealing with it.

"Let me make one thing clear," he interrupts me, with a sudden gravity. "We cannot let them say that we started this war ... It was early August. My ministers were on vacation, as I was too, in Italy, at a weight-loss spa, getting ready to go to Beijing. Then in the Italian press I read, "War preparations are under way in Georgia." You understand me. Here I was just hanging out in Italy and I read in the paper that my own country is preparing for a war! Realizing that something was wrong, I rushed back to Tbilisi. And what did my intelligence services tell me?" He makes the face of someone who has posed a difficult riddle and is waiting for you to find the answer, "That the Russians at the exact moment they are showering the press corps with this garbage are also emptying Shrinvali of its inhabitants, they're massing troops and troop transports, positioning fuel trucks on Georgian soil, and finally, sending columns of tanks through the Roky tunnel which separates the two Ossetias. Now, suppose you are the leader of the country and you hear this, what do you do?" He gets up to answer two cell phones which are ringing at the same time on his desk, comes back, stretching out his long legs ... "After the hundred and fiftieth tank lines itself up facing your cities, you are forced to admit that the war has begun, and despite the disproportion in the forces opposing us, you no longer have a choice."

"With the agreement of your allies?" I asked. "With the members of NATO who have more or less slammed the door in your face?" "The real problem," he says, sidestepping, "is the stakes involved in this war. Putin and Medvedev were looking for a pretext to invade. Why?" He begins counting on his fingers, "Number one, we are a democracy and incarnate an alternative to Putinism as an exit from communism. Two, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan [oil] pipeline goes through our country, such that if we fall, if Moscow replaces me with an employee of Gazprom, you, the Europeans, would be 100% dependent on the Russians for your energy supply. "And number three," as he takes a peach from the fruit basket which is brought to him by his assistant--"She's Ossentian, mind you!"--and then resumes, "Number three, look at the map. Russia is an ally of Iran. Our Armenian neighbors are also not far from Iran. Now imagine a pro-Russian government installed in Tbilisi. You would have a geostrategic continuum stretching from Moscow to Tehran which I seriously doubt would be doing business with the free world. I hope NATO understands this."


Friday morning. I, along with Raphaël Gluksmann, Gilles Hertzog and Marie-Anne Isler-Béguin, the European deputy, decided to return to Gori which, according to the ceasefire agreement written by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the Russians would have begun evacuating, and where we are supposed to meet with the Orthodox Patriarch of Tbilisi who is himself on his way to an Ossetian village where hundreds of Georgian corpses have reportedly been left for the dogs and pigs. But the Patriarch is nowhere to be found. And the Russians have not evacuated Gori. And this time we are blocked twenty kilometers short of Gori when a car is held up in front of us by a squadron of irregulars, who, under the placid gaze of a Russian officer, haul the journalists out of the car and take their cameras, money, personal objects, and finally even their car. So it was a false report, part of that habitual ballet of false reports at which the artisans of Russian propaganda seem to be past masters. So off we go toward Kaspi, halfway between Gori and Tbilisi, where the interpreter for the deputy has family, and where the situation is in theory calmer - but two other surprises await us there.

First, there is the destruction. Here too. But this time it is destruction which has apparently targeted neither houses nor people. What have they destroyed instead? The bridge. The train station. The train tracks, which are already being repaired by a team of logisticians who are being supervised by the head mechanic from his room because of a severe hip wound. And the electronic command system of the Heidelberg cement factory, built with German capital, which was hit by a laser-guided missile. "There were 650 workers here," the factory director, Levan Baramatze, tells me. "Only 120 were able to come in today. Our production machine is broken." In Poti, the Russians sank the Georgian war ships. They even hit the BTC pipeline at three different points. Here in Kaspi, they deliberately took out the vital centers upon which the region and the country both depend. In other words, targeted terrorism. The will to bring this country to its knees.

Then there is the second surprise, the tanks. I repeat, we are standing at the outskirts of the capital. Condoleezza Rice is at this exact moment giving her press conference. Yet out of the blue comes one of those combat helicopters whose appearance always signals the worst, flying at low altitude just above the treetops. And suddenly the few people still in Kaspi find themselves in the street, first in their own doorways, then jammed ten at a time into old Lada cars, screaming at everyone and especially at our drivers that the Russians are coming and we must get out. At first we don't believe it. We figure it's like the false rumor we heard the day before yesterday. But no, the tanks are there. Five of them. And a field engineering unit digging trenches. The message is clear. With or without Condoleezza Rice, the Russians have moved in. They move around Georgian lands as if it were conquered terrain. This isn't exactly like Prague in 1968, it's the 21st century version of the coup, slow, bit by bit, with blows of humiliation, intimidation, panic.


This time the meeting is at four AM. Saakashvili has spent the end of the day with Rice, the day before with Sarkozy. He is grateful to both for their efforts, for the trouble they took and the friendship they demonstrated, which no one can doubt - didn't he call "Nicolas" "tu"? And the Republican Presidential Candidate John McCain, "close to Ms. Rice," - hasn't he been calling three times a day since the beginning of this crisis? But this time, I find he has a melancholy air unlike that first night. Maybe it's fatigue, so many sleepless nights, the continuing setbacks, the grumbling which he can feel rising in the country and which we, alas, must to confirm: "What if Misha is incapable of protecting us? And if our ebullient young President only attracts more of the same? What if in order to survive we will have to accept the wishes of Putin and his puppet?" All of that must figure in the melancholy of the President. Plus something else on top of it, something cloudier and that applies to, how to say, his friends' strange attitude.

For example, the ceasefire agreement which his friend Sarkozy brought and which had been written by four hands in Moscow with Medvedev. He recalls the French President, here in this same office, impatient for him to sign it, raising his voice, almost yelling, "You have no other choice, Misha. Be realistic, you don't have a choice. When the Russians come to overthrow you, not one of your friends will lift a finger to save you." And finally what a strange reaction when he, Misha Saakashvili, got them to call Medvedev but Medvedev sent word that he was asleep - it was only nine o'clock, but apparently he was already asleep, and would be unreachable until the following morning at 9 AM - here the French President got antsy again; his French friend yet again didn't want to wait--in a rush to go home? too sure that signing was what mattered, regardless of what was being signed? This is not how you negotiate, thinks Misha. This is also not how you act with your friends.

I have seen the document. I have seen the written annotations by the two Presidents, the Georgian and the French. I saw the second document, again signed by Sarkozy and given to Condoleeza Rice in Brégançon, for her to give to Saakashvili. And finally I saw the memorandum of remarks, written during the evening by the Georgians, a vital piece in their eyes. They managed to cross out - and this is by no means negligible - all allusions to the future "status" of Ossetia. They also got to be specified - again, not a small detail - that the "reasonable perimeter" in which the Russian troops would be authorized to patrol to protect the security of the Russian-speaking population of Georgia be a perimeter of a "few kilometers." The territorial integrity of Georgia, however, is mentioned nowhere in either document. As for the argument of legitimate aid for the Russian-speaking people - we tremble to think what could happen if we consider the Russian-speakers in the Ukraine, the Baltic countries or in Poland, who may one day decide that they too have been threatened by a "genocidal" will.

The last word will belong to the American Richard Holbrooke, a ranking diplomat close to Barack Obama whom I meet in the bar of our hotel at the tail end of the night: "There is floating in this affair a bad smell of appeasement." He is right. Either we are capable of raising our voice and saying STOP to Putin in Georgia. Or the man who went, in his own words, "down into the toilets" to kill the civilians in Chechnya will feel he has the right to do the same thing to any one of his neighbors.

Is this how we will build Europe, peace and the world of tomorrow?

Translated from the French by Sara Sugihara

(Photos courtesy of Régis Fourrer)

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