Michael Totten

Report from Tbilisi

(Note: I’m writing a long piece for this Web site called The Truth About Russia in Georgia. I should have it finished by this weekend. In the meantime, here is a short piece I filed for City Journal.)
Russia’s invasion of Georgia has unleashed a refugee crisis all over the country and especially in its capital. Every school here in Tbilisi is jammed with civilians who fled aerial bombardment and shootings by the Russian military—or massacres, looting, and arson by irregular Cossack paramilitary units swarming across the border. Russia has seized and effectively annexed two breakaway Georgian provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It has also invaded the region of Gori, which unlike them had been under Georgia’s control. Gori is in the center of the country, just an hour’s drive from Tbilisi; 90 percent of its citizens have fled, and the tiny remainder live amid a violent mayhem overseen by Russian occupation forces that, despite Moscow’s claims to the contrary, are not yet withdrawing.
On Monday, I visited one of the schools transformed into refugee housing in the center of Tbilisi and spoke to four women—Lia, Nana, Diana, and Maya—who had fled with their children from a cluster of small villages just outside the city of Gori. “We left the cattle,” Lia said. “We left the house. We left everything and came on foot because to stay there was impossible.” Diana’s account: “They are burning the houses. From most of the houses they are taking everything. They are stealing everything, even such things as toothbrushes and toilets. They are taking the toilets. Imagine. They are taking broken refrigerators.” And Nana: “We are so heartbroken. I don’t know what to say or even think. Our whole lives we were working to save something, and one day we lost everything. Now I have to start everything from the very beginning.”
Seven families were living cheek by jowl inside a single classroom, sleeping on makeshift beds made of desks pushed together. Small children played with donated toys; at times, their infant siblings cried. Everyone looked haggard and beaten down, but food was available and the smell wasn’t bad. They could wash, and the air conditioning worked.
“There was a bomb in the garden and all the apples on the trees fell down,” Lia remembered. “The wall fell down. All the windows were destroyed. And now there is nothing left because of the fire.”
“Read the rest in City Journal”:http://www.city-journal.org/2008/eon0820mt.html.