Russia's invasion of Georgia has unleashed a refugee crisis all over the country and especially in its capital. Every school here in Tbilisi is jammed with civilians who fled aerial bombardment and shootings by the Russian military--or massacres, looting, and arson by irregular Cossack paramilitary units swarming across the border. Russia has seized and effectively annexed two breakaway Georgian provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It has 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; 90 percent of its citizens have fled, and the tiny remainder live amid a violent mayhem overseen by Russian occupatio! n forces that, despite Moscow's claims to the contrary, are not yet withdrawing.
On Monday, 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 the city of 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 were living 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.
"There was a bomb in the garden and all the apples on the trees fell down," Lia remembered. "The wall fell down. All the windows were destroyed. And now there is nothing left because of the fire."
"Did you actually see any Russians," I said, "or did you leave before they got there?"
"They came and asked us for wine, but first we had to drink it ourselves to show that it was not poisoned. Then they drank the wine themselves. And then they said to leave this place as soon as possible; otherwise they would kill us. The Russians were looking for anyone who had soldiers in their home. If anyone had a Georgian soldier at home they burned the houses immediately."
Her husband had remained behind and arrived in Tbilisi shortly before I did. "He was trying to keep the house and the fields," she explained. "Afterward, he wanted to leave, but he was circled by soldiers. It was impossible. He was in the orchards hiding from the Russians in case they lit the house. He was walking and met the Russian soldiers and he made up his mind that he couldn't stay any more. The Russian soldiers called him and asked where he was going, if he was going to the American side."
"The Russians said this to him?" I said.
"My husband said he was going to see his family," she said. "And the Russians said again, 'Are you going to the American side?'"
"So the Russians view you as the American side, even though there are no Americans here."
"Yes," she said. "Because our way is for democracy."
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