Anxiety Hovers Over Tbilisi

Russian forces showed signs of withdrawal in some areas of Georgia, but announced plans to strengthen their presence in others, two weeks after conflict began on Aug. 8.
By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 12, 2008

TBILISI, Georgia, Aug. 11 -- Suzanne Delgado had come to Tbilisi on Thursday, intending to spend the weekend sightseeing and going to nightclubs. But soon after she arrived, the music at the clubs stopped and the sights included truckloads of shellshocked refugees rolling into the city.

"It's been a bit surreal," said Delgado, a Texan who lives in Ankara, Turkey. The Russia-Georgia war has "been around us, but we haven't really been aware."

With the conflict escalating again Monday and most international flights canceled, she headed to the U.S. Embassy, which had announced that it would evacuate any American who wanted to get out.

Holding bottles of water and bags of bread, about 130 people stood in muggy heat, waiting to board tour buses that would ferry them to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. The drive normally takes about four hours, but in the past few days those traveling out of Georgia have waited for several hours at clogged border crossings.

Some of the evacuees had recently arrived in Georgia; others had made homes here with their families. Many said they did not feel immediately threatened by the fighting, which has focused on Georgia's efforts to seize control of South Ossetia, a breakaway region. But they expressed fears that travel out of Georgia would become increasingly difficult if the conflict worsens.

Those fears seemed to be confirmed early Monday when Russian bombers hit the city's central aviation radar tower, an explosion many of the Americans heard and felt in their beds. By the end of the day, most airlines that had not already canceled flights had done so.

Still, Terrell Starr, 28, a former Peace Corps volunteer here who had returned this summer to study Georgian, said the decision to get on the bus was difficult. "I didn't want to leave, a lot of it was a last-minute decision," he said, adding that frantic phone calls from his family in Detroit had helped tip the scale.

Lionel Frietze, a New Mexico native who works for the Georgian Ministry of the Interior, said he would be away only long enough to take his wife and child back to the United States, on the advice of his boss here. Most Georgians working for the government have evacuated their families to the countryside, he said.

The Americans boarding the buses were joined by a few Canadians and other non-U.S. citizens. Yurii Gacloev, 45, an Ossetian married to a Georgian, angrily criticized the Georgian government for its role in the violence and said he was moving with his wife and baby, who are U.S. citizens, to Seattle.

"I'm never coming back to Georgia, never," he said.

But Martha Tappen, 48, of Minneapolis said she would come back as soon as she could. An archaeologist who has been coming here for 12 years, she lashed out at her own country for what she said was its abandonment of an ally. "Georgia has been such a staunch supporter of America that America owes it to Georgia to help in this situation. It's our responsibility to help the Georgians and make sure Russia does not occupy them," she said.

As the buses pulled away, Georgian friends who had come to see the Americans off stood in the shade of a tree, watching. With them was Patricia Blair, an American who is president of an aid organization here. Waving a small Georgian flag as the buses carrying her American employees departed, she said that she was staying.

Noting that her organization was working with people newly displaced from South Ossetia, she said, "Nothing would make me leave."

A few miles away, in the hills overlooking the embassy, smoke curled from the radar station whose destruction had pushed some of the evacuees to go.

"This is our radar locater -- or was," said a man there who would not give his name, gesturing toward a blackened hulk and a crippled metal tower. He said two guards sleeping nearby had run outside when they heard the Russian jets, narrowly escaping harm. As he spoke, firefighters arrived to spray water on the still-burning rubble.

Later in the afternoon, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza arrived in Tbilisi and spoke harshly of Russia's "brutal attack" on Georgia. Bryza promised to work with allies to show "support for this country, its people and its democracy."

But last night Georgians said they need more than words. In corner stores and alleyways, they exchanged panicked information, including rumors that Russian troops were on their way to the capital.

Outside a convenience store in central Tbilisi, a group of young men discussed the Russian bombing in Gori and Georgia's image in the world.

George Gvaramia, 29, who had just flown from Ukraine, said Russian news reports there were giving false information about events in Georgia. "Their news made them feel that these terrible Georgians are killing, they're cutting heads," he said.

Gvaramia said that earlier in the evening he had driven up the road to Mtskheta, a city where Russian troops were rumored to be. He did not see any, he said, but he had seen Georgian troops on the outskirts of Tbilisi.

Inside the store, empty cigarette racks and a few lone sausages on a normally full glass shelf served as testimony to fears of what will happen now that Russian forces appear to have cut the main route to the Black Sea ports.

"People think they will die," Natia Miminoshvili, 31, said from behind the counter. Gesturing to the remaining food on the shelves, she added, "Everything I can buy, I am buying."

Gvaramia bought a large sausage and left.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company