Nobody wins: A visit to post-war Georgia
Editor’s note: In late September the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (www.iwpr.net) organized a visit of Armenian, Georgian and Azerbaijani reporters to the conflict zone in Georgia to familiarize themselves with life there a month after the shooting has stopped . . .
Gori and refugees
The three smoking buildings shown across the globe as a proof of the Russian intervention are under reconstruction with the traces of war swept away from them. But on the other side of the town is the refugee camp that speaks of the still unfinished confrontation.
On the apogee of the war, the Georgian official information claimed 130,000 refugees; their number now thrice lessened. One of the camps in Gori hosts 2,500 refugees with their greater part arriving from the buffer zone, to get back after the Russian troops’ probable withdrawal.
Mariam Tsitsagi, a resident of the Kisnis in Gori region was alone at home when the war broke out. Her family – her daughter, her husband and their daughter – left the village in late July in fear of a possible war, as did their co-villagers. Those who remained left the place on August 5 and 6, with only 10 of the total 100 families staying in the village. The threat of war hung over the place even before the August 7 invasion, and the people on both sides of the conflict were forced to leave the zone before the start. Mariam survived the horror of the bombardment on their village getting a missile wound. She retreated with the Georgian troops on August 8. Georgian refugees say Russian soldiers have not bothered them, they are afraid of Ossetian assault troops, who loot their homes and pose a threat to their lives.
There are about 20 Armenian families in Kisnis. Louisa Nersisyan says: “Georgians came to the village and told us to run, Russians were coming.” Shells fell just by their house breaking the window glasses. Ossetians burnt several houses in the village. But the assailants have not touched Armenians. Armenians nevertheless were scared to stay as not all the assailants asked if they were Armenians or Georgians. Nersisyan left the village with her son, the two daughters-in-law and grandchildren to Tbilisi but moved to the refugee camp in 20 days. Her son serves in the Georgian army. He was caught in a Russian siege, but managed to escape. Louisa’s husband Zhora is in the village and she travels there and back to the camp by bus every day.
Gyulnara Marabyan, 46, whose family is the only Armenian one in Tidznis left the village on August 11: “We escaped by car. My son and his child had left earlier. A Russian airplane hit burning the houses. But ours stayed undamaged; the school is ruined.”
The refugee residents of the 34 villages in the buffer zone will return when the Russian troops leave and the Georgian police takes on the rule there. The return won’t set life back into its natural course, because, the Georgian official reports say, 1,500 houses have been damaged with 250 of them totally ruined.
However, the refugees from Ossetia won’t see their native hearth again. Makvala Gochiashvili from the village of Vanati, Tskhinvali region is one who has no hopes of return: “There were shootings at the beginning and we could not even imagine there could be war. Then stronger blasts began, they shot from various places. Then troops came into the village. Ossetians took away all the good things we had on a truck, robbed us, and burned the houses. No one remained in the village. Even if the Russian troops leave, where can we return, when there are no houses?”
The large-scale construction of villages for the refugees from Ossetia on the road to Gori suggest the Georgian authorities build them for permanent residence and have no hopes the refugees will return to their houses. There are about 9,000 houses of the kind being built in the Gori region.
Each of the country’s presidents since Georgia’s independence has tried to either subjugate people or exterminate them neglecting their will, and has lost areas and has had refugees at every attempt. The Gamsakhurdia policy of “Georgia for Georgians” and “cleaning” Ossetia from Ossetians in 1991-1992 finally resulted in “cleaning” Ossetia from Georgians.
During the last campaign Georgia lost, most probably for good, both Ossetia and Abkhazia, and also the Akhalgori region that avoided the war. It used to be part of South Ossetia in the Soviet times, but was under Georgian legislation and authorities for 18 years. On August 19 Russians took the region, evacuated the population under the guise of providing their security, and reunited the region with Ossetia renaming it Leningori. Georgia also lost the Kodori gorge under its rule from the Abkhazian side.
The authorities of the country still try to keep the national spirit of the people who have united against the Russian intervention alive. Parliamentarian Pavle Kublashvili, chairman of the Legal Committee of the Georgian parliament says the war is not over yet and is confident Georgia has not lost it: “War is not only the front line, but also diplomacy and information. We might have lost the battle, but not the whole war. The war will continue as long as Russian soldiers are on the Georgian territory and will end when Russia is forced with the help of the international community to retreat from them.”
But the farther the ‘lost battle’ the more inefficient becomes the rhetoric of patriotism.
Poet Shota Iatashvili says the authorities behave as if they have won, but in fact the country is in depression – never been as bad since the all-permissiveness times of the 90s. There are no more literary gatherings, friends don’t call each other, there is no mood to socialize: “I talked to a friend of mine. He said he will finish his new novel in a week, but does not understand why he writes it. He knows someone will publish it in a good quality, but who needs it? He is 32. When he became a youngster he left his home to see the world and saw war, ruins and madness. He has been told year after year – wait a bit, everything will be good. There was an illusion 2-3 years ago we would get out of the situation, but it’s lost now. We won’t for another 10-20 years. No one wants to live in this country any more.”
Shota, a father of 4, who works at “Caucasus House” Publishers, says earning money has become impossible after the war as periodicals don’t pay honoraria as enterprises are unable to order advertisements and salaries are late. He says the manners of the group of intellectuals supported by Saakashvili, who make shows, jokes, and agitate for patriotism all the time saying Georgians are a strong nation that can do everything and no one can defeat them, are ridiculous amid the atmosphere of despair.
Davit Zurabishvili of the Republican Party believes the country is on the verge of disaster –economy drops, the country is seen as unstable, investments in the country have stopped, banks give no loans, on the one side and on the other, the unification of the country is complicated with the recognition (by Russia) of Abkhazia and Ossetia.
The question on who started the war remains hanging in the air. The authorities insist it was the Russians: the major proposition of the information spread is that the Russian armed machinery was in the Roki tunnel already on August 7. “But what did we do? We only gave a proper response to the aggression. We will give proper response no matter Russians or anyone else enters our country, at any cost,” says Kublashvili. According to the official data the price of war was paid in lives of 180 soldiers and about 150 civilians; according to non-official estimates the number of casualties among the military is above 1000 and a defense system ruined to the ground.
The anti-Russian sentiments and the patriotic spirit on the one side and the one-sided information on the other in Georgia, make forming a clear comprehension on who initiated the war or how it started. The Russian satellite channels were muted during the war, all the Russian websites, including the popular Odnoklassniki.ru, were blocked. The Russian news sites are still locked.
Liza Tonakanyan of the Media News agency says ethnic minorities in Georgia are confident Georgia made the first attack to occupy Ossetia, but they don’t speak up.
The Republican Party says Georgia succumbed to the Russian provocation and went into a large-scale military operation, a harsh mistake mounting to a crime: “No reasonable person can say Georgian army, no matter how heroically it fights, can defeat the Russian army. It is simply impossible,” says Zurabishvili. “Defense Deputy Minister Kuteli says we did not expect a reaction of a kind from Russia. So I ask a question – why didn’t you?”
He blames Saakashvili for unscrupulous policy that sells large Georgian enterprises to Russia (the Telasi electric distribution station in Tbilisi, the Marneuli Gold Refinery, Metallurgic Plant and others) giving way to Russia’s economic invasion on the one side, and belligerent rhetoric with personal attacks on Russia’s leaders (Saakashvili has once called Putin ‘Liliputin’), breaking all the ways for cooperation or even communication. He says there is need for new election, because Saakashvili is no more able to set ties with Russia, Ossetia and Abkhazia necessary for the stability of the country.
Political analyst Paata Zakareishvili shares the assumptions of the Georgian official propaganda that the conflict is not with Ossetia or Abkhazia but Russia, blaming the authorities for that. He says the uncompromising policy of the Georgian authorities toward the Ossetians and the Abkhazians pushed the people to rely on the Russian force: “It was possible to achieve having less Russian influence over the Abkhazians and the Ossetians than it is. We have not had any relations in the corridors with the peoples of our country.”
Zakareishvili replaces the regularly voiced question on who started the war with one more important to him – on why it happened, believing Saaashvili’s policy on occupying Ossetia and Abkhazia by military force was the reason: “All this began in 2005, when Saakashvili declared he would not negotiate with the criminal authorities of Ossetia. In 2006 foreign minister of Abkhazia Shamba arrived in Tbilisi and openly hinted he would like to meet Saakashvili. Saakashvili did not, and visited the Sanaki military base then and stated wearing a military uniform, Abkhazia is very close from there (hinting on the willingness to occupy it by a military force). We appeared incapable to assess the earlier developments, the policy of the Gamsakhurdia times was not assessed by the Georgian society, and it was not declared that we deny it. The Ossetians perceived it as a position of the new authorities similar to that of Gamsakhurdia and they relied on the Russians. To have the conflicts solved one needs to understand the psychology and the interests of the second party. We proceeded from what we want, but did not want to know what the Ossetians and the Abkhazians want.”