Friday, July 3, 2009

Three days in Gori

I am sitting at a standard card table in a make shift tent draped over a small area next to a communications truck. The truck is a typical drab olive color with antennae protruding from the top of it and a small door in the rear. The man sitting to my right is copying down all of my credit card numbers as well as my passport information, logging it into a journal in front of him. There is a TV in the corner that is mostly showing white noise. I am consciously aware of the wall of sand bags behind my head with the stains on it. The man across from me continues to ask me insane questions. “Do you work for the CIA?” “Are you Jewish?” “Do you work for the Turkish government?” “Have you been in the military?” “Do you speak Russian?” I try and answer the questions as best as I can but it all seems too surreal for me. The Russian Major to my left is translating the questions and I realize that as he translates the interrogator across from me is staring intently at my face. The soldier to my right is writing down my words as the Major repeats them back in Russian. I am freaking the fuck out. I have been scared and the adrenaline has been pumping for about 6 hours now and frankly it is wearing me out.

I tell the three of them for the last time that I am a non-combatant and as such under the Geneva convention they cannot hold me as a prisoner. I tell the three of them that I would like my phone back so I can call my embassy. I tell them I no longer wish to answer any questions until I have done that. I do not know where it comes from but for a moment I am just tired of being scared. I am tired of worrying about the sand bags behind me and wondering what the stains are from. I am just plain tired. I imagine it is around eleven o'clock at night and I also wonder, not for the first time, if I am going to see tomorrow. The Major takes off his hat and lays it on the table. He pulls what looks like a small caliber pistol from out of his waste band and places it under his hat.

The Major says something to the soldier writing in the journal and he leaves the tent. The Major tells me in English, “No problem, we will get your phone for you”. Him and the interrogator then stand and circle around behind me. I look at the TV in the corner and in the reflection I see the Major pick up a Kalashnikov behind me and hear the distinct sound of a round being chambered. He sees me looking in the reflection and smiles. He pointed the barrel at the back of my head and I think to myself for the hundredth time “What the fuck am I doing here”?

It is a good question. One that I had asked myself over and over again during the five days it took me to get to Georgia. I was sitting in Prague during the opening ceremonies of the Olympics when a news bulletin interrupted announcing that Russian tanks and soldiers had crossed the Georgian border. I remember thinking how crazy it was that Russia was invading another country, even if it did happen to be a former Soviet state. I did not sleep that night wondering why the Russian government would threaten their own new found place in world leadership.

The next day I watched the television and was awed by the amount of force Russia threw at the comparatively minuscule Georgian Army. As odd as it sounded in my head I felt like it was a bit unfair. The Georgian military just did not have a chance. That day the entire story unfolded and I learned quite a bit about Georgia. I learned of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the territories in northern Georgia that were not governed by the Tbilisi government. I read of Genocide committed by rebel forces in the Caucus Mountain regions and I read dozens of posts by Georgians who claimed the Russian Government was providing backing for the rebels.

On the other hand I also read that the Georgian Army had provoked Russian intervention by moving troops into the region and unbalancing a precarious peace between all the parties involved. The leadership in Tbilisi led by President Mikheil Saakashvili was vying for NATO, or North Atlantic Treaty Organization, entry and had to clean up its borders before they would be allowed in. Russian government officials had spoken often that NATO would not be tolerated along its borders. Further alluding that all means or measures necessary would be taken to ensure that NATO would not encroach on territories that historically fell under Russian influence or were detrimental to Russian security.

It felt oddly familiar. A stand off the likes of which had not been seen since the Cuban Missile crisis. Except it seemed now that the rolls had been reversed and it was western NATO encroachment that had triggered military aggression. Instead of the United States taking offense at Russia putting medium range nuclear weapons on Cuba, Russia was taking offense of NATO digging in the Soviet backyard. Russia and Ukraine were having the same problems and were also having serious disagreement over the price of oil and gas traveling through the former Soviet SSR. During this time Poland was getting pressure as well from the Russian government over a missile defense agreement with the United States.

I felt like this was a historic moment in the history of the world. In a fatalistic sense I saw the cold war, Berlin, and Cuba all happening again and I wanted to be there to watch it all go down. I wanted to see what was going to happen. I wanted to find out what was really going on.

At this point in my European travels I had about nine hundred dollars to my name and was starting to think about heading home. I had been in Europe for almost two months backpacking, sleeping on beaches, kayaking down remote rivers, and generally living like a hobo. I was running out of capital and knew I could not keep it going too much longer. Still, I was drawn to Georgia. I was drawn to the moment. I had never seen a war before. I decided for better or worse I was going to go.

I soon found out it was not going to be as easy as it sounded. On day three of the invasion the airport in Tbilisi was closed. I found a cheap flight from Vienna to Ankara, Turkey. From there I could take a long train ride to the city of Kars where I could arrange transportation by bus across the Georgian border and to the city of Tbilisi. I hopped a bus from Prague to Vienna and the next day I flew to Ankara. The day after that I took a thirty hour train ride across Turkey. I shared a sleeper car with a Muslim family on the way to visit family in the eastern part of that country. A taxi from Kars got me to the Turkish border town of Ardahan. The next day, day six of hostilities, I took a bus into Georgia and then a van with eleven other passengers to Tbilisi. The main east/west road was apparently mined and some bridges had been destroyed so we took what could barely be described as a dirt path along the Armenian border. Instead of the estimated six hours by road it took us thirteen hours by dirt track. My fellow travelers and I arrived in Tbilisi on day seven of the Russian invasion at three in the morning.

I checked in with the embassy in Tbilisi and then checked in to the GTM hotel near the new Presidential palace that was being built. I slept for four hours and hit a lucky break in the morning. The GTM hotel had a Euro Vision satellite up-link on the roof and so it also held twenty or thirty journalists that could not afford the likes of the Marriott downtown.

That morning I met a journalist named Margo Dunne who was a sports reporter for the BBC. She also freelanced for Deutsch Welle Television and France 24, both twenty four hour international news companies. I overheard her talking about the rebel forces terrorizing the city of Gori to the north. She had been there the day before and had been shot at while walking the city with other journalists. They had made a quick departure. I asked her if she was willing to return to the city today and she looked at me like I was crazy but said she would go back if I wanted to go.

Margo Dunne was built of some amazing stuff. Neither of us had ballistic armor or helmets. We just had the clothes on our backs and I had a camera I had picked up in Barcelona a month before. I had no idea what to expect and I realized that I was putting myself in harms way. This however was not an idle curiosity. It was not a sick fascination with human suffering. I wanted to see something I had never seen before. An event that happened in the world from time to time that completely changed peoples lives. It was also something that few Americans had seen close up. War, or at least the aftermath of it. Margot Dunne had opted to being my guide already knowing what could await us to the north.

The day before President Sarkozy of France had brokered a cease fire between the two sides. I realized that I would be getting a first hand look at a city that was right in the middle of the conflict. The main Russian base was on the outskirts of the town of Gori. Russian troops still controlled the town and we were told that the Russians were requiring visas to enter. Rumors were flying but we made our way by taxi north until we reached a Georgian road block just outside of the town of Caspi.

We spoke with a few soldiers, that were part of a Georgian special forces unit, and found out that the Russians had stopped just a half mile up the road from them. They had not moved from this position, about 6 miles south of Gori, in two days. Sporadic fighting was still taking place but for the most part this was South Ossetian rebel forces that had preceeded the Russian forces into undisputed lands in Georgia. Margot and I decided to walk up the road on foot to the first Russian checkpoint. As we walked the half mile of the no mans land between the two forces I noticed how quiet it was. Margot broke the silence by telling me that Gori was the birthplace of Stalin and the home where he grew up was still viewable in the center of town as was a rather large statue of his likeness. It was a strange coincidence that such a brutal historical figure was born in the same town that was now the center of the current conflict.

I instantly recognized the first Russian checkpoint. A tank was parked to the right of the road. A dozen soldiers were sitting in the trees to the left and two were standing near boulders that had been pushed to the center of the road where a large caliber machine gun had been set up. On the hill behind the soldiers two more tanks could be seen as well as a couple more machine gun placements. We slowly approached the soldiers with our hands open in front of us and asked politely if we could continue on walking. A car had just been allowed to pass and we figured our chances were good that they were not worried about an English lady and an American on foot.

They let us pass and a little further up the road an Orthodox priest picked us up and took us past five more checkpoints, several bombed out tanks and vehicles, machine gun placements, hundreds of Russian troops and finally into Gori itself. He dropped us off in the Northern part of the town where we met several locals including a few members of the OSCE, or Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, team in Georgia and a couple aid groups.

We had lunch with the locals who offered to let us spend the night with them and then headed off to tour the town. We kept our heads down and tried to pretend that we knew what we were doing. Russian soldiers were on patrol everywhere but the locals seemed to be out and about so we took it as a good sign. It seemed like tensions were lessoning and that the people who stayed in Gori were trying to pick up the pieces of life after war.

We toured bombed out apartment buildings, destroyed houses, and met and talked with more locals. That night we slept at a house with our new Georgian friends. I did not realize then that my accommodations the next night would not be so comfortable. That evening though was spectacular. It always surprises me how great humanity can be at the worst of times.

The next day we were up early and explored more of the town. We watched as food was being handed out at the local Orthodox church to people who were displaced. At around three in the afternoon I decided to have a closer look at the Russian encampment while Margo waited with a local Georgian man.

I climbed up a small hill and walked down a dirt road. I saw the base ahead, rows of tanks, tents, trucks, soldiers, and I could not stop walking towards it. I kept thinking in my head that the worst thing that could happen was they could kill me. Seven journalists from all over the world had already died in the conflict what was one more. I just wanted to get a good look at them all, ask a few questions, and abate my flawed sense of curiosity. It sounds trite but I could not think of a better excuse to be walking towards them.

Finally a soldier saw me and all hell broke loose. They came towards me with AK-47's leveled. I kept my hands raised in front of me in a “I do not know what the hell I am doing here either” sort of a way. They put me on the ground and searched me while I said the word press over and over again. I kept saying journalistika hoping that was the right word. They drug me over to a tent where an officer was while they continued shouting at me in Russian. I really started thinking to myself that I was a complete jack ass.

Over the next few hours I was moved from tent to tent. No one really saying too much to me but at least two guards had guns leveled on me the entire time. I do not think they knew what to make of me. I was taken to a building that was being used as a command structure. I was marched into the room and I saw a group of men huddled over a map of Georgia. They kept saying Tbilisi but it felt preplanned and staged. I was yelled at by what I think was a General while a man behind me was beaten by a couple of soldiers. It was so fucking crazy I cannot adequately explain it. I still try and reason it out in my mind but for the most part it felt like they were having a bit of fun at my expense. That was when they took me to the interrogation tent. That was when the assault rifle was held to my head. That is when I thought I was going to die. Then I remembered one important fact that the Russians behind me had forgotten about. The sand bags with the weird stains were behind me and behind the Major and the Interrogator. If they shot me from that direction my brains would fly over the Majors hat, the table, and the TV in the corner. As irrational as that thought sounded in my head it made me smile back at the reflection smiling at me in the TV. I could see that the Major wanted me to pick up the gun under his hat. He could see I was not going to give him any reason to mess up the front of my face.

They returned my phone to me and I called a friend I had made on the trip across Georgia a couple of days before. It was the only phone number I had in the country. I had promised to have dinner with her and her husband later on in the week. I asked her to call the Embassy for me and the Major explained to her that I was being held for my safety. She asked when they were going to let me go and he told her he was not sure. That night unbeknown to me all my tax dollars went to work and the embassy in Tbilisi contacted the State Department in Washington. They in turn called Moscow and asked them to release me. While those wheels were in motion things were happening in the base. At around one in the morning while I sat on the ground with my ever present guards two starburst flares shot up in the sky behind me. Tanks began to fire across the town. Machine guns and mortar fire exploded into the night. Tracer rounds were everywhere outbound across the city. I realized that I was sitting in the middle of a big target. I hoped who ever the Russians were shooting at did not decide to shoot back. It ended around five in the morning as the sky started to lighten in the east.

I was released around noon at a gas station in town. I walked to the house where I had stayed and found a devastated Margo. She thought I was dead. I was relieved that she was wrong. I left Gori that day and never returned. I stayed in Georgia for another week and a half and then slowly made my way back home to southern California. I had watched an American war ship pull into the town of Poti on the black sea coast. A town controlled by Russian troops. The ship brought much needed supplies, blankets, and food. I cringed hoping things would not escalate and luckily cooler heads prevailed. Not since JFK was alive had Russian and American troops been so close to each other on different sides of a conflict.

Now almost a year to the day later Georgia is still recovering. Political unrest is still rampant and protesters are camping out in the streets near the capitol and parliament buildings. Russia has recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent nations. For the most part the war seemed like posturing between the west and east. A game with no one winning and only people who were already poor losing even more. A valuable lesson that I had to learn and see first hand. A lesson I know I will not soon forget.


  1. It was great to read this post :)
    I felt some strange feeling just now.
    I like your style of writing :)

  2. Hey Trawis,

    How are you bro?
    I think I heard this story somewhere else already :)

    Dima - from Tbilisi