A Convoy Heads for Gori to Investigate Rumors of Plunder

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 14, 2008

OUTSIDE GORI, Georgia, Aug. 13 -- Near a sign reading "J. Stalin's Home Country," Russian military vehicles lumbered along the highway, rifles pointing out from drivers' windows. Most of the soldiers inside looked stony-eyed at the civilian cars going past. But a few nodded and gave casual waves, as if their presence there were no big deal.

It was a big deal for Alexander Lomaia, secretary of Georgia's National Security Council. Along with Estonian Ambassador Toomas Lukk, French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy and a group of Georgian and foreign journalists, he had come hoping to see for himself the place where hostile troops were said to be ravaging what was left of the city of Gori.

"There were numerous reports that the Russian regular army let the irregulars into the city this morning, and immediately after that, we started getting desperate calls from the people, saying, 'Help us, they are looting, they are humiliating us, they are crushing our houses.' "

The "irregulars," according to Lomaia, were Cossacks, Chechens and -- perhaps most terrifying for Georgians in this conflict -- Ossetians. Ossetians and Georgians fought a vicious ethnic war in the early 1990s. The current conflict was ignited last week in South Ossetia.

Lomaia's purpose, he said, was to meet with the leader of the Russians in Gori "to get them out of the city and to let the police in." He meant Georgian police.

A day earlier, Georgians had celebrated in the streets over an announced cease-fire, but Wednesday was again a day of fear. Rumors spread through Tbilisi that a column of Russian tanks was approaching the capital. Employers sent their employees home, and some residents rushed to renew their passports.

But a ride up the main highway out of Tbilisi revealed much of it to be empty, save for a few Georgian military checkpoints and the occasional civilian car. The ancient church town of Mtskheta looked tranquil. Cows walked home against the backdrop of the Caucasus Mountains.

Then ahead -- a Russian checkpoint, soldiers at the ready with rifles, an armored vehicle parked to the side. The convoy cautiously approached, then stopped. It was Lomaia's first view of the enemy. He got out of his van and confidently addressed a soldier. They conversed, in Russian. Tensions seemed low. The soldiers did not raise their guns.

Only one car, carrying Lomaia and half a dozen other people, was allowed to pass. At the next checkpoint, a Russian soldier yelled into Lomaia's window, "Everything is calm in Gori! The only thing that is frightening the people is your President Saakashvili, son of Bush."

Before the crisis, Gori was famous mainly as the birthplace of Joseph Stalin. In recent days, it was the target of Russian bombing. Now the area just outside its city center looked like a Russian military base, with tanks and troop trucks moving through.

After few more checkpoints, the car stopped again. A Russian tank stood in the road. Large trees nearby had been reduced to stumps and the area around them was scorched. Beyond them, the fields were on fire.

Lukk, the Estonian ambassador who had started his assignment in Georgia only nine days earlier, said quietly, "Can you imagine, it's the 21st century?"

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