Broken down on the road to battle
The Georgian soldier sprawled facedown in the ditch, so still that he looked dead at first glance. Skinny arms folded over his head, mouth in the dirt, combat boots braced against the earth. He was cowering at the side of the road in South Ossetia, frozen in place.
Russian jets, wheeling overhead, had just bombed the road, a hot explosion that sent chunks of dirt and broken pavement showering down. The soldier picked up his head. He looked young and underfed, fevered eyes gleaming in a pinched face.
“Please, no run,” he said miserably in bad English. He nodded toward the ground at his side and raised his eyes heavenward. “It’s Russian MIG.”
The soldier was among the Georgian troops sent north up this pitted, twisting main road to bring the rebel province of South Ossetia to heel. But on Monday they were retreating back down it, overwhelmed by relentless Russian air assaults. Moscow’s tanks and troops and fleets of warplanes had pushed them out of Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, and threatened to keep coming up behind them, plunging deeper into Georgia.
Now this road clogged with soldiers was a study in Georgia’s predicament, a snapshot of defeat and defiance for a proud country entangled in a fight it has slim chance of winning.
Stretching from the city of Gori, Stalin’s birthplace and home to Georgia’s main military base, to the war zone of Tskhinvali, the road runs through fields of corn and Queen Anne’s lace, overgrown vineyards and apple orchards.
On Monday, it also cut through scenes of vulnerability. There were men being carted wearily south and men being carted nervously north; tanks and artillery guns and armored personnel carriers scattered over sleepy farmland, camouflaged by branches ripped from fruit trees.
Civilians stood along the road, old men and old women, the ones left behind when mothers fled with their children and the younger men joined the fight. Old-timers with bundles of belongings picked their way south on foot, astride farming equipment or packed into overstuffed cars. Stray dogs sprinted down the road, away from the rumble of bombs in the fields.
With fighter jets whining above and explosions rattling windows, a handful of soldiers bent low, fumbling with a flat tire on their transport truck. “It’s coming again!” they hollered, pointing skyward at a jet. “Hide the car!” they shouted at a passerby, as if concealing an aging sedan might keep the Russian pilots from noticing the hulking transport stuck in plain view.
Everyone seemed to be trying to make themselves invisible to the pilots flying overhead, except the aging herders who lazily drove their packs of cows and sheep from one plain to the next as if there were no war at all. A cluster of soldiers and reservists loitered on a front lawn, secure in the shelter of trees, lamenting their losses.
“Now people are just hiding in bunkers in Tskhinvali,” said Zura Galashvili, a stout soldier wearing dirt-streaked fatigues and a beard of a few days’ growth. “All the Georgians have left. We lost it to Russia.”
Galashvili sighed. “We have no aviation, and that’s what’s depressing,” he said. “That’s why we lost to the Russians.”
The soldiers muttered among themselves as if trying to decide about something, then all began talking in a burst.
“There are still people hiding in Tskhinvali. Military men. They’re calling us to get them out. Can you tell the U.N., the international organizations, somebody who can help them?”
Their comrades were hiding out in a bunker, they explained. The bunker was next to a certain hotel. Please, they said. They are still alive. Please tell somebody.
And then they went back to hiding under the trees.
To the south in Gori, where buildings were shuttered and silent, a woman stood on a baked street corner staring into the summer air. She is 65 but looked much older, her shoulders and back slumped in defeat, wild hair springing from barrettes. Her name is Amalia Gomeshvili; she works as an accountant at one of the city’s military bases. Before she could say a word, her face crumpled and thin tears leaked down her cheeks.
“My home was burned. I got nothing out of it,” she said in a monotone. “I was inside when it got bombed.”
Why was she standing on the road? Just looking. She had nothing else to do. She has nobody, no husband or children. “You tell me,” she said, “what can I do?”
Deeper into the city stood a 24-year-old soldier named Georgy who had been in fighting in Tskhinvali for several days but now has been ordered to establish a base in a Gori school. He believes the Russians are on the way.
“They want to get to Tbilisi,” Georgy said confidentially, referring to the Georgian capital. “We have information.”
He soaked a rag in water from a plastic bottle and scrubbed at his face.
“And we can’t stop them,” he added. “The Georgian army can’t defend against the Russians unless somebody helps us.”
The shadows were growing long, and soldiers were deploying everywhere in Gori, up and down the main road through town. None of them were fresh troops; all had been sweating through the losing fight for South Ossetia. Even now, as they prepared to defend Georgia proper, they were still looking up at the sky and groaning as they recalled Russian air power.
“There were torn people, dismantled parts of bodies,” said a 30-year-old sergeant who gave only his first name, Koba. “The airstrikes were the worst.”
He stared up at the sky, through the trees.
“This is an absolutely senseless war,” he finally said. He curled a lip in disgust, and moved away.
Down at the hospital, people craned their necks to read the lists of dead and wounded. Nearly a hundred dead; hundreds upon hundreds of wounded. Somebody had drawn an arrow with a ballpoint pen from one of the “dead” names and then inscribed the message: “I am alive.”
“I’m looking for my son here,” yelled an elderly woman in a drooping housedress. “He was on the outskirts of Gori and then they sent him to Tskhinvali.”
The people patted her and said nice things, but she was hard of hearing and couldn’t understand the blandishments of the crowd.
The town electrician, the one in charge of keeping Gori’s streetlights burning, stole over and glanced through the names.
“My cousin is fighting, and we don’t know anything about him,” he said, face muscles twitching. “I keep coming to check for his name.”
A small white army station wagon screamed to the hospital gate.
“Open it!” the driver snarled. Inside, the wounded men were slumped and jouncing lifelessly, one in the passenger seat, a second in the back. More soldiers returning shattered from the front.
The street fell silent when the tanks rolled back through town. They were groaning down out of the hills heaped with dirty Georgian soldiers, eyes half-closed, slumped on the roofs like rag dolls.
The soldiers and townspeople all watched them pass. They raised hands in salute, or clenched fists and held them high. The men in the tanks raised their fists in reply.
Nobody yelled. People were tired and, anyway, there was nothing to say.