Michael Totten

The Scorching of Georgia

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The events described in this article took place in late August, 2008.
Last month Russia invaded, occupied, and de-facto annexed portions of Georgia. During that time it was difficult, if not impossible, for reporters to see for themselves what was actually happening. I wanted to see for myself what Russia had wrought, but everything behind the front lines was closed.
The breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia were off-limits to anyone without a Russian visa. It takes months to acquire a Russian visa, so traveling to those areas was out of the question.
“I tried to get into the occupied city of Gori”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/2008/09/from-baku-to-ru.php with Caucasus expert and author “Thomas Goltz”:http://www.thomasgoltz.com/, but even that city was closed to us though it is inside Georgia proper and beyond Russia’s acquired new territories. Occasionally Russian soldiers would let journalists pass, but Thomas and I weren’t among the lucky few.
So I went to Borjomi, an area that by all accounts was bombed by Russian jets, but was never occupied or controlled by its ground troops. Borjomi is a tourist town next to the “Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park”:http://www.borjomi-kharagauli-np.ge/ — the first of its kind in the Caucasus region — and Russian jets had reportedly dropped bombs in the forests and set the region on fire.
I hired a Georgian bear of a man named Alex to drive me in his four-wheel-drive over the mountains. Normally you can get to Borjomi from the capital Tbilisi on the main highway in just a few hours, but the highway passes through Gori, and Gori was occupied and blockaded. The only other route open was over the mountains and across a central Georgian plateau so high that trees cannot grow. That road was hardly in better condition than a smuggler’s path, and it’s only passable during the summer after the snow and ice have temporarily melted.
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Alex and I stocked up on road food — chocolate, cookies, soft drinks, and chips — before we set out. It was going to be a long drive, and there were no good places to eat on the way. He knew the roads well and did not need a map. He drives tourists around Georgia for his regular job, and he likes to travel abroad, too, when he can.
“Were you able to travel during the communist era?” I said.
“I went to East Germany in the 1980s,” he said.
“Was East Germany in better shape than Georgia then?” I said.
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“Inside the East German wall was still the Soviet Union,” he said. “It was the same rubbish.”
Georgia’s president Mikheil Saakashvili’s popularity has declined since the Rose Revolution in 2003, and I wondered how the war was affecting public opinion.
“Saakashvili screwed up,” Alex said. “In June and July these idiots massed everybody on the border and made a big exercise.” He reflexively referred to the Russian soldiers and leadership as “these idiots” and was referring here to the biggest military exercise inside Russia since the Chechnya war. It just happened to take place on the Georgian border immediately prior to the invasion. “In their minds they were planning war. Saakashvili could have done something, but didn’t.”
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A brief stretch of paved road on the way to Borjomi
The six hour drive to Borjomi taught me to appreciate pavement. Road conditions were fine only for the first thirty miles or so. As soon as we started heading into the mountains, smooth tar turned to gravel.
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Gravel road to Borjomi, before it got bad
“Is the road like this the whole way?” I said.
“Sometimes it’s worse,” Alex said.
It got worse almost instantly. Gravel gave way to rocks. Alex’s four-wheel-drive handled okay, but I was violently jostled around in my seat during much of the trip. Sleep was impossible. So was taking photographs without stopping. After a while I got nauseated.
“A week ago I took 18 Israeli tourists on this road,” Alex said.
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The road to Borjomi
Israelis are unflappable. Few tourists went to Georgia during the Russian invasion, but I wasn’t surprised to hear that Israelis kept coming. They know from experience that you can travel to a country at war if you stay out of the conflict areas. That’s how it was during Israel’s second Lebanon war. The northern part of the country was abandoned and on fire, but the rest of Israel was unscathed. It was the same way in Georgia.
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A house on the road to Borjomi
Vaguely Middle Eastern sounding music from Azerbaijan played on the radio. Static eventually overwhelmed the signal. We were in a remote part of Georgia where hardly anyone aside from nomadic sheep herders live. Alex did, however, manage to find a single station broadcasting news from Tbilisi. After a few moments he angrily turned it off. “The French ambassador was stopped for an hour and a half by Russian soldiers on his way to Gori,” he said. “This is killing my nerves.”
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The road to Borjomi
Russia had effectively cut the country in half. It was possible for civilians in four wheel drive vehicles like Alex’s to cross Georgia’s mid-section over the mountains, but rerouting all the highway traffic from Tbilisi up there would not have been possible. Large semi trucks weren’t able to haul goods over that road, especially not when they were fully weighted down.
At one point we came upon a white van stalled on the side of the road.
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A stalled white van on the road to Borjomi
Alex pulled up next to the van and asked the driver if there was a problem. The driver said his engine didn’t have enough power to get him to the top of the rise, but that he had a tow chain. So Alex attached the van to his truck and pulled the van a few hundred meters up the steepest part of the incline.
The road was even worse up ahead. One stretch was so steep I worried his truck would succumb to gravity and actually flip over backwards. I felt like I was in an SUV commercial.
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A lake on the road to Borjomi
The top of the pass above Borjomi was basically tundra. It was too high for anything but grass to grow. Cold wind whipped around the truck and lashed my ears when I stepped out to take a picture of the valley below where trees could still grow.
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High mountain pass above Borjomi
“I was up here in June,” Alex said, “and it was snowing.”
Russians soldiers have since lifted their siege of the highway connecting the eastern and western halves of the country. If they ever decide to close the road during winter, Georgia will truly be cut into pieces.
The Borjomi area looks a lot like my native Pacific Northwest in the United States. And it was still burning. Columns of smoke rose from various scorched hillsides.
“Can we stop?” I said to Alex. “I need some pictures.”
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Fires on hillside outside Borjomi
The air smelled strongly of smoke from burning wood, and the fires were in a strange state. I’ve seen many forest fires in my home state of Oregon. We get them every year. This is not what they look like. Forest fires, whether they were started by lightning, human negligence, or arson, tend to be large single infernos. Individual fires burned all over the place near Borjomi.
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Burned hillside outside Borjomi
Perhaps these were the remnants of a single larger fire that had been mostly doused, but the fires were oddly spaced as though several really had been started at once in different locations. I couldn’t even see the bulk of the fire damage which was well away from the main highway and deeper into the forest.
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Scorched hillside near Borjomi
I didn’t notice anything unusual when we reached the town of Borjomi, but Alex did.
“This place is usually full this time of year,” he said. “But now everything is empty.”
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The view of Borjomi from my Soviet-era hotel room
That wasn’t surprising. Aside from Alex’s Israeli clients from the previous week, and a handful of Americans I would soon meet, few tourists thought it wise to visit Georgia during Russia’s invasion and occupation. Even Georgians who wanted a break from the stress of conflict had a hard time getting there. Taxi drivers were charging 500 dollars for a one-way trip from the capital because the road did so much damage to their vehicles. Alex charged me far less than that, but even his four wheel drive took a hit when a deep gouge in the road knocked out his front shocks.
Borjomi is small, and it was full of fire trucks.
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Firetrucks in Borjomi
Smaller fires near the town were still burning, and larger fires deep in the forest and out of sight were still blazing, but the worst was over. The air still smelled of smoke, but at least it was breathable.
I had made arrangements to meet Mako Zulmatashvili before Alex and I left Tbilisi. She agreed to show me around town, introduce me to some local officials, translate for me, and put me up for the night in her mother’s guest house. She waited for us at a park across the street from the train station.
“I have some bad news,” she said. “We no longer have a room for you.”
Her brother Giga’s American in-laws showed up unexpectedly from the United States a day early, and they needed the room that would have been mine. Giga had recently married a young American woman who spent a few years in Georgia with the Peace Corps, and her parents were visiting from Connecticut for the first time. They picked a heck of a time to see Georgia, but they were committed and refused to be deterred by even a Russian invasion.
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A Georgian rocket launcher vehicle drives past me and Alex in Borjomi
Alex and I stayed the night in a Soviet hotel so the American family members could have the room.
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Soviet-era hotel, Borjomi
The rent at the Soviet hotel was cheap — a mere twenty dollars per night — but it was worth even less. That was obvious long before I even got to my room. There was no front desk in the dark cavernous lobby, so the woman who ran the place greeted guests on the front steps. She fished room keys out of her pocket and led Alex, Mako, and me to an elevator that promptly went dark as soon as the doors closed behind us.
The hotel manager sighed, fumbled for a button on the panel in the dark, and pressed something — I don’t know what — that made the lights come back on.
“This is Georgia,” Mako said and laughed.
I wouldn’t think it was funny if I got stuck in that elevator by myself in absolute darkness, but fortunately that didn’t happen.
The hallway leading up to my room was dark. It was lit only from a single window at the end of the hall with the curtains drawn closed. If I hadn’t used the flash on my camera, I’m not sure I would ever know what the hall looked like. The carpet, ceiling, and walls were filthy. A horrendous stench of mildew, mold, and decay had built up over decades.
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Inside a Soviet-era hotel, Borjomi
“I’m sorry there’s no room at the house for you,” Mako said. “I hope this is okay.”
“It’s fine,” I said.
“It is just for one night,” Alex said and shrugged.
The hotel would not have been fine if we were staying for more than one night, but it was worth sleeping there once for educational purposes. The place was something to see. I will never really know what Georgia was like when it was part of the Soviet Union, but this hotel was a living museum piece.
The usual building materials you expect to see in a Western hotel, or in one of Georgia’s more recently built or refurbished hotels, were not available when it was built during the communist period. The architects and designers had to make do with what little they had. The skeleton was made with poured concrete. Thin sheets of wood were slapped on the walls inside the rooms to soften things up. Cheap red fabric was stapled to these thin sheets of wood and used as a sort of wallpaper. The room made me think of a high-end tree fort.
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Soviet-era hotel room, Borjomi
The mattresses on the bed were at most one inch thick. There was no tub in the bathroom, and the “shower” was a faucet sticking out of the wall two feet off the ground. I had to sit on the floor next to the sink to wash my hair the next morning. At least the water was hot.
Mako felt bad that I ended up relegated to the communist dump, but I honestly didn’t mind. My normal hotel in Tbilisi just felt luxurious when I got back.
She invited me to her house to meet her family. Marina, her mother, wore an “I (Heart) New York” t-shirt and served cookies and tea. “This town survives on tourism and not much else,” she said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
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Borjomi, Georgia
I spent a few hours sipping tea and chatting with Mako’s family and her brother’s American in-laws.
Another American named Charles joined us. He had booked the other spare room in the guest house and was visiting Georgia as an actual tourist on holiday. He lives in Damascus, Syria, where he’s studying Arabic, and he came to Borjomi by ground through Turkey and Iraq.
“You’re the craziest person in the room,” I said.
He shrugged and didn’t think it was a big deal to backpack around what most people think are two of the world’s most frightening countries.
“On the night the tanks came toward Borjomi,” Mako said, “I couldn’t sleep at all. I thought it was the last days of Georgia’s existence as an independent country. Then smoke and ashes and pieces of burning wood covered the town. We could hardly breathe.”
“There isn’t much food left in the grocery stores here,” her mother Marina said. “We can’t bring food in from the Poti port or from Tbilisi.”
Meanwhile, despite everything, many Georgians insisted they were showing hospitality to their invaders.
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Mako Zulmatashvili
“We’re cooking meals for them,” Mako said, “and letting them use our showers. They have nothing. We have always liked Russians here in Georgia. Do people in Russia even know we’re letting them use our showers?”
“If Russians invade America they aren’t using my shower,” I said. Everyone laughed. Of course hardly any American would let an enemy soldier use his or her shower. But of course that hardly meant Georgian civilians were happy with the Russian invasion.
“They’re playing Braveheart over and over again on TV,” Giga’s American wife said and wryly smiled in satisfaction.
The next morning Mako took me to meet Valerian Lomidze, editor-in-chief of Borjomi’s weekly newspaper. He was able to give me a few photographs taken by his reporters before I arrived.
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A Turkish plane helps Georgians put out their fires (Copyright Borjomi weekly newspaper)
“The fire started in five places at the same time,” he said. “Obviously it was not started by natural causes. The fires started all along in a straight line, as though they were under a flight path.”
“Why do you suppose the Russians would do this?” I said. “To destroy the tourism industry in this part of Georgia?”
“Russia had a clear plan to do this,” he said. “They did different things in different places to destroy our various industries. We have nothing else to survive on in this part of Georgia except tourism. Russians said they came here for peace. But what peace? They bombed the port, the forests, the cities, and blocked the highway. These regions had nothing to do with the conflict areas.” The only contested portions of Georgia were Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Russia has de-facto annexed in the meantime. Gori, Borjomi, and Poti were, like Lomidze said, well outside the conflict areas. “Russia is part of the conflict, not bringing peace.”
He worked at the same newspaper since 1974. What was it like during the Soviet era?
“We had more support from the government,” he said. “We could publish three times a week, but now only once a week. But we had no freedom to write. We had to work for the government and the party. Now we can write whatever we want.”
The Borjomi municipality’s Governor Vakhtang Maisuradze said he could speak with me for a few minutes, and two women from his government — Eka Londaridze, head of the local environmental protection agency, and Keti Mandjavidze who worked with refugees in Borjomi displaced by the Russia invasion — sat down with me briefly while I waited near his office. Mako translated again.
“We have been getting help from Turkey,” Londaridze said, “but they’re out right now and we’re expecting help to arrive from Ukraine.”
“What were the Turks doing to help you?”
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Eka Londaridze
“They had two planes that they sent to Georgia to help us,” she said. “They brought water to put the fire out.”
The Turkish pilots filled their tanks with lake water in nearby Turkish Kurdistan, dropped the water on the fires, and returned to Turkey to load up on more.
“Are the fires actually inside the park?” I said.
“It’s not the park exactly,” she said, “it’s the wildlife safe area, not where the trails for hiking are. It’s where our ancient trees are.”
The ecological destruction near Borjomi was significantly less than what Saddam Hussein unleashed in the Persian Gulf region when his soldiers ignited Kuwait’s oil wells in 1991. Burning trees are much easier to extinguish than blazing geysers of fuel. But it seemed to me just as militarily pointless.
“Do you know for sure that these fires were started by Russian jets?” I said.
“We cannot say for 100 percent,” she said, “but I have seen pictures of the planes flying over, and an hour or so later there was smoke. On the one hand it’s obvious that the Russians did this, but I don’t want to say 100 percent until we have finished our research.”
“I saw the planes, too,” Mandjavidze said.
“Did the planes also fly over Borjomi?” I said.
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Keti Mandjavidze
“Yes,” she said. “They flew over this area, and also over the cemetery.”
“Were they flying low or high?” I said.
“Low,” she said.
“It was pretty scary,” Mako said.
“Did you hear any explosions?” I said.
“It was hard to hear anything,” Mandjavidze said, “because the sound of the planes was so loud. Plus it’s around 30 or 40 kilometers from here to where the fires started, so we couldn’t have possibly heard it.”
“Did anyone in town panic?”
Mako had already told me that local people panicked, but it’s always a good idea to ask more than one person.
“Yes,” she said. “There was panic. People thought the Russians were coming into our area. Lots of smoke came into Borjomi. People were helping each other and standing together.”
“It was ridiculous,” Mako said. “For two days it was hard to even breathe in Borjomi.”
Russia’s occupation and de-facto annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are almost certainly permanent, but it seemed unlikely even at the time that the Russian military would maintain its blockade of Gori and the highways for much longer. Still, I wanted to know: how effective was the blockade? Russian soldiers can implement one again at any time, for any reason at all, and no one can do much to stop them.
An 800-pound gorilla can sit wherever it wants. Russian troops are now permanently based so close to Georgia’s transportation arteries that the country could be bisected, again, just a few hours or even minutes after an order is given. That threat will hang over the country for a long time. And a winter blockade would be devastating because the high mountain road Alex and I took would be buried beneath feet of unplowable snow.
“How are the supplies in town?” I said. “Do you have enough food and fuel?”
“We have food and fuel, but there is almost no children’s food or diapers,” Mandjavidze said. “So we’re in a hard situation with our children.”
“There is enough food in the stores?” I said.
“There is enough,” she said. “People are coming from the other side and from Armenia bringing food to the town.”
“If the Russians stay where they are for a few more weeks,” I said, “keep the roads closed, and the port blockaded, will there still be enough food?”
That would be a big problem,” Londaridze said. “After a month people would be starving. We have some ways to get food here, but not enough. The main way is from Tbilisi and it’s blocked. We would need to find some other way. From Tbilisi it’s impossible to get to the Borjomi area.”
“Are the Russians admitting to bombing the area,” I said, “or are they denying it?”
“There was no official information about it from the Russian side,” Mandjavidze said, “but if you watch the Russian TV channels, they say Georgia is a fascist country, it’s run by a Nazi party.” She laughed. “They say everything that happened here we did to ourselves.”
“When you watch the Russian channels,” Londaridze said, “you see pictures of Gori and they say it’s [South Ossetia’s capital] Tskhinvali. You see pictures of Tskhinvali and they say it’s Gori. Russian people are getting very mistaken information right now.”
“Why do you think the Russians bombed this area?” I said.
“It’s clear that Russia wants to occupy Georgia,” Mandjavidze said. “Putin recently said it was a huge mistake that the Soviet Union fell down. His main goal is to rebuild everything that was ruined. But this isn’t news. This is old news.”
“This is an ecological war,” Londaridze, the environmental protection head, said. “Borjomi is surrounded by mountains. Everything leads to Borjomi. The air here can’t get out. They didn’t need to bomb the whole area. Of course they wanted to damage Georgia. And of course we were damaged. We had to breathe all this smoke for days. It was pretty bad. As you know, the Borjomi National Park is the first in Georgia, the first in the Caucasus area. And this is the area where they started the fires. It’s obvious that it was planned.”
“Turkey helps us a lot,” Mandjavidze said. “We’re very thankful to Turkey and all the other countries that have helped us and supported us. Every country around us wants to help us, but they are afraid of the situation.”
That did not sound quite right. Armenia borders Georgia to the south and is Russia’s ally in the region.
“What about Armenia?” I said. “Is Armenia being helpful?”
“No,” she said. “Armenia hasn’t been helpful at all. But we understand. Armenia is a small country and will support every country that is larger than he is. Right now we are stronger than Armenia, but Russia is stronger than we are. Armenia, of course, “says that Russia is right”:http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2008/09/05/europe/EU-Russia-Georgia-Security-Alliance.php.”
Mako and I were summoned to Governor Maisuradze’s office for a few minutes.
“Tell me in your words what happened here,” I said.
“Not until the real answer is out can I specify whether it was Russians,” he said. “But nevertheless, for sure, somebody started this fire. It wasn’t caused by the weather. Many people saw planes flying over and some heard bombing. On the first day the fires started in a straight line at regular intervals in places that people cannot get to by cars.”
He drew five evenly spaced dots connected by a straight line on his notepad. Then he made a plane-in-flight motion with his hand over that line.
“It had to be from a plane,” he continued. “And this is also where witnesses said they saw a plane flying over. But until the experts go into the forest and find out biochemically what happened, I can’t say anything more.”
“Can you guess — and I realize you would be guessing — why the Russians might theoretically want to bomb this area?” I said.
“What did they want to do in Gori or in Poti or anywhere else in Georgia?” he said. “They wanted to cause panic. They wanted to damage the economy. It’s pretty obvious that this was their plan. Of course. People can’t get food in here. This is what they wanted. The main goal for this area is to become ecologically developed for tourism. The most effective way for them to damage us was to burn our forests. The only other thing they could have done was bomb our mineral water plant, but they didn’t, thank God.”
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An advertisement for Borjomi’s unique natually-flavored mineral water
Borjomi is famous in the former Soviet Union for its naturally flavored mineral water. It tastes slightly sour, but only slightly. It tastes mostly like club soda, but with a slight twist that is impossible to identify. Supposedly it’s a love-it-or-hate-it beverage, but I tried a bottle and didn’t have a strong reaction one way or another.
“Russians love our mineral water,” Mako said. “They wouldn’t want to bomb the plant because then we couldn’t make more.”
Londaridze and Mandjavidze didn’t think the blockade was hurting Borjomi too badly so far, but it was still only a few weeks old, and it was during the summer. What if the blockade lasted for months? What if it lasted for years?
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Borjomi municipality Governor Vakhtang Maisuradze
“We survived twenty one centuries,” the governor said. “We will survive twenty one more even though we don’t have anything now. We can’t get food and supplies, but we will survive another twenty one centuries.” He slapped the desk with the palm of his hand. “That is my answer.”
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