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.”
“Did you actually see any Russians,” I said, “or did you leave before they got there?”
“They came and asked us for wine, but first we had to drink it ourselves to show that it was not poisoned. Then they drank the wine themselves. And then they said to leave this place as soon as possible; otherwise they would kill us. The Russians were looking for anyone who had soldiers in their home. If anyone had a Georgian soldier at home they burned the houses immediately.”
Her husband had remained behind and arrived in Tbilisi shortly before I did. “He was trying to keep the house and the fields,” she explained. “Afterward, he wanted to leave, but he was circled by soldiers. It was impossible. He was in the orchards hiding from the Russians in case they lit the house. He was walking and met the Russian soldiers and he made up his mind that he couldn’t stay any more. The Russian soldiers called him and asked where he was going, if he was going to the American side.”
“The Russians said this to him?” I said.
“My husband said he was going to see his family,” she said. “And the Russians said again, ‘Are you going to the American side?’”
“So the Russians view you as the American side, even though there are no Americans here.”
“Yes,” she said. “Because our way is for democracy.”
Senator John McCain may have overstated things a bit when, shortly after the war started, he said, “We are all Georgians now.” But apparently even rank-and-file Russian soldiers view the Georgians and Americans as allies. Likewise, these simple Georgian country women seem to understand who their friends and enemies are. “I am very thankful to the West,” Maya said as her eyes welled up with tears. “They support us so much. We thought we were alone. I am so thankful for the support we have from the United States and from the West. The support is very important for us.” She tried hard to maintain her dignity and not cry in front of me, a foreign reporter in fresh clothes and carrying an expensive camera. “The West saved the capital. They were moving to Tbilisi. There was one night that was very dangerous. The Russian tanks were very close to the capital. I don’t know what happened, but they moved the tanks back.” And my translator, whose husband works for Georgia’s ministry of foreign affairs, made a similar guess that the West helped save the capital. “The night they came close to Tbilisi,” she said, “Bush and McCain made their strongest speeches yet. The Russians seemed to back down. Bush and McCain have been very good for us.”
Likewise, the women seemed to understand what Russian imperialism has always been about—and not just during the Soviet era. “Why do you think the Russians are doing this in your village?” I said.
“They want our territories,” Nana said. “Some of them are Ossetians, too, not only Russians, and not only soldiers. Some are there just to steal things, from Ossetia and Chechnya.”
Russia doesn’t want to annex Gori permanently, in all likelihood. But it does want, as it always has, a buffer zone between itself and its enemies. It was George F. Kennan, America’s ambassador to the Soviet Union, who said, “Russia can have at its borders only enemies or vassals.” Now, Georgia has been all but dismembered. The opening phase of this crisis may soon come to a close, but it is shaping up to be merely the first chapter in a potentially long and dangerous era. “We will never forget this,” Lia said. “Never. Ever.”