The first thing that strikes me as soon as we are out of Tbilisi is the strange absence of military force. I had read that the Georgian army, defeated in Ossetia, then routed in Gori, had withdrawn to the capital to defend it. I reach the outskirts of the city, moving forty kilometers on the highway that slices through the country from east to west. But I see almost no trace of the army which has supposedly regrouped in order to fiercely resist the Russian invasion. Here we see a police station.
A little farther on, a handful of soldiers, their uniforms still too new. But no combat units. No anti-aircraft weaponry. Not even the trenches and zigzagging fortifications which, in all the besieged cities of the world, are set up to at least slightly impede the enemy’s advance. A dispatch received while we are driving announces that Russian tanks are now approaching the capital. The information is relayed by various radio stations and then finally denied, creating unspeakable chaos and making the few cars which had ventured outside the city turn back immediately. But the authorities, the powers that be, seem strangely to have given up.
Is the Georgian army there, but hiding? Ready to intervene but also invisible? Are we perhaps in the middle of one of those wars in which the supreme ruse is to let yourself be seen as little as possible, the way they did in the forgotten wars of Africa? Or has President Saakashvili deliberately chosen non-combat as a way to force us, the Europeans and Americans, to accept our responsibilities (“You claim to be our friends? You have said a hundred times that with our democratic institutions, our wish to become part of Europe, our government composed of — unique in the annals of history — an Anglo-Georgian Prime Minister, American-Georgian cabinet ministers, an Israelo-Georgian Minister of Defense — is the first in its Western class? Well, now is the time to step up and prove it”). I don’t know.
The fact is that the first significant military presence we run into is a long Russian convoy, at least one hundred vehicles long, headed in the direction of Tbilisi, casually waiting to get gas. Then, forty kilometers outside the city, around Okami, we see a battalion, as usual Russian, attached to a unit of armored vehicles whose role is to stop journalists from going one direction and refugees from going the other.
One of them, a peasant, wounded in the forehead, still dazed and terrified, tells me the story of fleeing his village in Ossetia on foot, three days ago. The Russians arrived, and in their wake, Cossack and Ossetian gangs pillaged, raped and murdered. As they did in Chechnya, they rounded up the young men and drove them away in trucks, to unknown destinations. Fathers were killed in front of their sons. Sons were killed in front of their fathers. In the basement of a house which they blew up with propane cylinders they had collected, they came upon a family and stripped them of everything they had tried to hide and then forced the adults to kneel down and executed them with a single shot to the head. The Russian officer in charge at the check point listens to the story.
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