“I remember how some of the Eastern bloc countries looked just after the fall of the wall,” independent journalist Michael Yon wrote me in an e-mail shortly after I arrived in Georgia and told him what I had seen. “East Germany was like zombie land but quickly emerged because of West Germany; Poland was, too, but quickly emerged; Czechoslovakia (or now Czech Republic and Slovakia) was nothing like what you see today and was nothing but gray and shortages; Romania was like Hell. Hungary was okay, but it had started to emerge ahead of the rest. Any of these countries that you have seen in the last fifteen years were nothing like that eighteen years ago.”
Tbilisi itself, though, is better.
Tbilisi could be any European Mediterranean capital — though with an Eastern twist.
Aesthetically exquisite in some places, and at least average in most of the others, Tbilisi is a pleasant city to visit despite the fact that it’s loud and smells of exhaust. The post-Communist recovery in Georgia’s largest city is far more advanced than in the border area I saw when I first arrived. It’s Asian, but it looks and feels European. It’s in at least adequate physical shape, even if it isn’t exactly what I would call prosperous. Seeing it was a relief.
But Tbilisi felt tense, as though the air was electrified. The Russian invasion unleashed a refugee crisis all over the country and especially in its capital. Every school in Tbilisi was jammed with civilians who fled aerial bombardment and shootings by the Russian military — or massacres, looting, and arson by irregular Cossack-like paramilitary units swarming across the border.
In 2008 Russia seized and effectively annexed two breakaway Georgian provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, ostensibly to protect civilians from Georgian government fire. It 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. Ninety percent of its citizens fled, and the tiny remainder lived amid a violent mayhem overseen by Russian occupation forces that, despite Moscow’s claims to the contrary, were not yet withdrawing.
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 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 lived 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.