Tbilisi in a Time of War
February 05, 2009
by Ryan McKinstry B.A. ‘07
In August I found myself, with fellow L&C graduate Avery Schmidt (B.A. ‘07), in the most surreal of circumstances when the small democratic nation of Georgia became embroiled in a conventional war against one of the most powerful armies on earth.
Being in Georgia was no accident: determined to test our academic trainings in the real world, we had been working for a security-oriented think tank in Tbilisi since the beginning of the summer. In fact, we had developed a habit of disregarding State Department travel warnings over the past year as we embarked on a series of internships in Sri Lanka, Israel, and Georgia, three countries experiencing ongoing internal ethnic conflicts.
Nor are we novices in regard to the physical and psychological scourges of conflict, having watched Sri Lanka annul a cease-fire agreement while politically and militarily entrenching itself in the same cyclical violence that had characterized a 30-year civil war. In many ways, I was well prepared when the frozen conflicts in the two breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia began to thaw. Throughout the summer, we had heard daily accusations of military buildups along the ceasefire lines, and the Georgian news media had begun showing images of Russian artillery and aircraft maneuvers in the region. It was therefore not surprising that war broke out on Thursday evening, August 7. Yet, nothing could have prepared me for the Russian response that I witnessed from Tbilisi.
I woke on Friday morning to a nation at war. During the night, the Georgian army had launched an offensive to retake South Ossetia, and Tbilisi was at a standstill as news of the conflict swept through the city. On my way to work, I passed groups of men forming circles around radios in parks and on the streets to hear the latest news from the front. The news was not good. The Georgian military had fought up to the Roki tunnel, and with ample explosives they planned to seal shut the passage between Russia and the Caucasus; however, this did not come to pass due to a political decision to preserve a humanitarian corridor. My office watched in disbelief as 300 Russian tanks rolled into South Ossetia at midday on Friday.
Soon the real marks of war appeared in Tbilisi. On Friday afternoon we heard the first ominous sounds of Russian warplanes over Tbilisi as they bombed military targets. The frequency of these operations dramatically increased. By Sunday, the sound of warplanes rupturing the still, torrid air of the typical Tbilisi summer was almost continuous, making sleep nearly impossible as the sound of explosions reached even the suburbs where I lived.
Especially poignant was the sight of fleeing residents of Gori–a city and administrative district 47 miles west of Tbilisi–who began to congregate outside the steps of Parliament on Saturday afternoon. These refugees carried only small plastic bags filled with clothing and food, and they continued to pour into the capital throughout the evening as claims of genocide began to mount. Eventually numbering around 20,000, the refugees hung about the city center in true Georgian fashion, laughing and drinking homemade liquor (cha-cha).
Young men were conspicuously absent from Tbilisi. President Mikheil Saakashvili had summoned all reservists–anyone under age 45 with any military training. On Friday afternoon, the central bus station in Tbilisi was awash with ordinary Georgians in street clothes registering and boarding buses with only small daypacks, to be taken to Gori and deployed to the front lines. As a mark of respect and mourning for these soldiers, Tbilisi became a sea of black-clad individuals.
At first, we had joined the multitudes of flag-waving Georgians that filled the streets of Tbilisi each night, giving the city the festive air of a carnival. It may seem unimaginable, but the excitement of war is compelling. I was drawn to street rallies with friends and fellow interns, all of us needing the camaraderie to lessen our private fears and anxiety, and each wanting to counteract the muted response from the West. However, as the bombs fell on Tbilisi, some of this jingoism began to dissipate. By Sunday, the nation had been awakened from its delusions of grandeur by the Russian army’s unrelenting advance into Georgian territory, and rallies in the streets gave way to the haunting traditional war songs of widowed beggars.
We had decided to stay in Tbilisi despite the U.S. evacuation, and on Monday night we went with a group of friends to the Khinkali House, a bunker of an old Soviet restaurant buried four stories underground. Just as we sat down, we received news that the Russian army was advancing on Mtskheta, a town 11 miles outside of Tbilisi. Like the other patrons, we dashed from our meals as waitresses frantically collected our money.
The scene outside was madness. Many buses had stopped running, and people fought to get into cabs. Driving along the back streets to the U.S. embassy compound, we saw masses of people emptying the shelves of bread shops and grocery stores, preparing to weather a Russian invasion. Others chose to flee the city and merged with hundreds of army personnel running in the streets outside Parliament. The entire Georgian army was being repositioned in defense of Tbilisi, and our small cab swerved between antitank grenade launchers and tanks on their way to the front lines. We passed by several columns of tanks parked alongside the road, with dozens of soldiers sitting on each tank, looking resolutely into the darkness of the Russian enemy ahead.
It turned out the embassy would not evacuate that night, and I was left standing on the side of the road with all my possessions at 1 a.m. Strangely enough, even at that point, I was not concerned for my own safety. Down the road, I could see the Tbilisi police force gathering to guard the city limits. In regular uniform, they were an absurd sight; it was almost comical to imagine them standing against the Russian army. Meanwhile, civilian buses packed with troops in full combat gear rolled slowly past the heavy artillery positioned along the highway overpasses. I was awestruck by the scene and marveled at Georgian bravery as my throat fell into the pit of my stomach: I finally understood the full scope of what Russia could do–and was preparing to do–to this country.
In the morning, Tbilisi was silent. Almost no public buses were running. Most of the shops were closed. The news was that the Russians had stopped their advance and had signed a cease-fire. Yet I could still hear bombs in Vake, about two miles away, and the final bomb that fell on Tbilisi hit so close that it shook the floorboards of my house. It was noon on Tuesday: the Russians had bombed a tank manufacturing plant, and upon Vladimir Putin’s word, it was all over.
A haggard and worn President Saakashvili called together the nation on the steps of Parliament, and at 3 p.m. we stood with tens of thousands enjoying free ice cream and listening to inflammatory speeches about Georgia’s defiant stand against Russia, united with its former Soviet friends and allies. The crowd willingly accepted this perspective in a cathartic show of tears and emotions. I was not so easily swayed, knowing full well that Georgia had forever lost its territorial claims in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Avery and I left Georgia on August 22, taking the overland route through the mountains to avoid Russian checkpoints outside the capital. Along the mountain ledge, we ran into the defeated Georgian army living under the camouflage of leaf huts and cooking over open fires like guerrilla separatists in their own country. All their tanks and artillery had been placed above the valley to defend Tbilisi in case of an invasion and were covered with leaves to avoid detection by Russian jets.
We then descended into the valley at Gori, now under Russian control, where we saw the Russian peacekeeping forces sitting in the hot sun on tanks with their shirts off as they smoked cigarettes and openly drank bottles of vodka that they no doubt had pilfered from the nearest Georgian grocery store. They looked bored, young, and irritable. It also looked like someone was making plans for them to stay: the Russian army had already established full supply lines and refueling capabilities and were living somewhat amicably alongside a Georgian military base and police station.
While we have left the country, the Russians have not. Now that the pageantry of war is over and is no longer garnering international attention, Georgia is left with the lingering realities of what has transpired. They have learned that Russia is serious about peace.
Ryan McKinstry is at home in Minnesota, “waiting for the Kremlin to reimburse him a job and his travel expenses.” As a backup, he is seeking employment in Washington, D.C.