FROM GEORGIA / After fleeing Gori, refugees find themselves angry at the world
The Russians were behaving like cats that had caught their prey, but were now determined to play with it.
TBILISI - At 6 P.M. Wednesday, a dozen or so impassioned refugees from the Georgian city of Gori were protesting outside the Georgian parliament. Their protest came very close to turning violent.
A day after the alleged victory celebration, when the same square was filled with thousands of people silently supporting their nation, emotions have now turned to rage - aimed partly at Russia, partly at their own government, and partly at their own compatriots, who did not offer them shelter for the night. These people, the victims of world politics, would spend the night in their tattered vehicles.
They fled their torched city by the skin of their teeth, with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Now they were standing in the capital, in front of the symbol of their nation's sovereignty, angry with the world.
"I want to go home, but I can't because it's not safe," a refugee named Marina Okorbince told me bitterly.
"Who are you angry at?" I asked.
"Everybody," she replied. "At the situation."
An hour earlier, on the road to Gori, I met the French Jewish philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy. The famous thinker looked as striking as always. He told me had come to listen and try to understand what had happened here, in a country that had just started to blossom and was now at war. As the West was trying to understand what was happening, Russian tanks were threatening to advance on Tbilisi.
How Levy got there is a mystery. The international airport is almost entirely closed. It seems that only foreign journalists and French philosophers are allowed to move freely on the road, which was held by a column of Russian tanks only a few hours earlier.
The Russians were behaving like cats that had caught their prey, but were now determined to play with it and humiliate it, before devouring it alive. Russian tanks crossed the main road between Gori and Tbilisi unhindered, entered the abandoned city of Gori, and then left only to claim they were never there. Their confusing actions concealed their intentions: Is the war continuing? Do they want to capture the capital and replace the government? Or is the worst behind us, as Georgian Minister for Reintegration Temur Yakobashvili told us in fluent Hebrew?
Wednesday morning, as we approached Gori, clouds of black smoke were billowing from villages on the city's outskirts. A group of armed, masked Ossetian militiamen, alongside Cossacks and Chechens, had raided and pillaged the villages. How much the Russians encouraged them is unknown.
"This is a pogrom carried out by Cossacks," Yakobashvili said, trying to conjure sentiments familiar to Jews and Israelis. Either way, the roads were full of refugees fleeing their villages in their rundown Communist-era Ladas. Contrary to claims, there were no massacres in those villages, but the terrified residents were fleeing their homes.
The situation here is still incredibly volatile. No one knows what tomorrow may bring. Yakobashvili estimates that since the confrontation began, some 30,000 Russian soldiers and 1,000 tanks have poured into his country. But next to Gori, only one tank column was seen, as well as a few dozen tanks scattered in the area. The soldiers sat on their turrets, and seemed less frightened than what one might expect. A burnt-out Georgian tank sat nearby.
Then we came across a group of refugees huddling next to a sign pointing toward the Stalin Museum in Gori, the Communist dictator's birthplace. A woman with a few baskets of moldy biscuits cried as journalists photographed her. Another elderly woman fell on the street and screamed.
"They are robbing us of everything, they are not leaving us anything," she said. The refugees described the gangs of plunderers that raided their villages, and the hundreds who had fled from the Georgian and Russian armies.
Meanwhile, the Georgian government's only defensive action was to place a police barrier on the road to Gori. Tuesday afternoon, traffic to the capital ground to a halt, and Tbilisi was cut off from the country's west.
Shall we wake up tomorrow, open the windows of our hotel room and see Russian tanks in Tbilisi's Liberty Square? Probably not. Rumors that the capital has been conquered are a bit too early.