Edgy Georgians now thinking about resisting invasion

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 21, 2008 

GORI, Georgia — After more than a week of Russian troops occupying his town, Kishvardi Taturashvili said the time for resistance was drawing near.

The Russian armored fighting vehicles that are blocking routes in and out of Gori are slowing the flow of humanitarian aid and stifling trade, he said.

Travel is controlled by Russian soldiers; a McClatchy reporter was turned back at checkpoints, and had to slip in via a footbridge.

"If they stay, we won't get enough supplies and the war will start again," said Taturashvili, who works for the local power company. "People will take their guns and go to the forests."

While there are no signs of insurgency, it's clear that tempers are rising and nerves are fraying in Gori, an important waypoint on the country's main east-west corridor. The city sits near a route to South Ossetia, the breakaway region that Georgia tried to take earlier this month before being thrashed by Russian tanks and jets. The way to South Ossetia — where the Red Cross was allowed access only on Wednesday — is guarded by Russian armored vehicles and machine gun bunkers fashioned from concrete blocks.

On Thursday, Gori's streets were mostly empty of cars; at the sound of an approaching engine, people turned their heads quickly to see whether it was a Russian truck. Dozens of people at a downtown square shouted and pushed their way to the window of an aid-distribution station.

"We're all running out of food," said Nana Nazadze, who was watching two old women scream at each other. "I ran out yesterday; my neighbor gave me some sausage."

Lamara Tinikashvili motioned in the direction of a Russian checkpoint down the road: "They're allowing aid in, but it's not being given to us."

After speaking, Nazadze implored a reporter, "Please be careful about where you use my name or the Russians will get me."

When food came a couple of hours later, men and women scurried off with shopping bags stuffed with potatoes.

Kremlin officials said Thursday that their troops were set to pull back to South Ossetia within a day.

But many residents in Gori, the birthplace of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, don't believe that it will happen.

"They are just moving their tanks from Gori to the villages, back and forth," said Gmiro Turashvili, who sent his wife and children out of town when the Russian bombing runs began last week.

Last Thursday, Russian Maj. Gen. Vyacheslav Borisov said his men would hand much of the control of Gori over to Georgian police in two days. "The police have now returned to the city, and all civilians will be able to return, too, after control is established," Borisov said at the time.

Those two days came and went, and still the Russian army sat. Georgian police units on Thursday were about 15 miles down the road, hemmed in by Russian checkpoints.

Some in Gori said the Russian presence helped keep away thieves and South Ossetians looking for revenge. "If the Russians had not come into our city, it would have been worse because of the looters," said a priest at the local Orthodox Church, who gave his name only as Father Georgi.

Still, the priest said, it was hard to accept. "You are on your own land, but someone else is controlling it," he said. "This is very uncomfortable."

Sitting under a spot of shade, two men argued about what to do.

"We are Georgian; we will never be slaves," said Teimuraz Onezashvili, a laborer. "There will be a war."

Vladimir Muradashvili, who's also a laborer, shook his head, saying that he was sympathetic to the idea but that no one in town had anything to compete with tanks.

Russian units have spent the past several days destroying weapons left behind at a nearby military base. They've also burned underbrush along the main road leading into town, removing any potential ambush points.

"We should not start a war, we will only fail," Muradashvili said.

"No," Onezashvili shot back, "we should fight."

Others were more resigned.

"The Russians said they would leave, but look at them, they're still here," said Mikhail Robakidze, who was watching a Russian troop transport truck rumble by the town square. "The Russians want to own Georgia. Will that happen? I guess we'll find out."

Robakidze sat on the curb next to the Bank of Georgia, whose windows had been shattered by a Russian bomb. Without banks to withdraw money from, Robakidze said, the few grocery shops that have opened mean little.

Standing in one of those groceries, Levan Kharazishvili said the Russians had taught Georgia a hard lesson. After years of seeing Georgia draw closer to the West, Russia decided it was time to put the country — and its pro-American president, Mikhail Saakashvili — in its place, he said.

"The Russians bombed us for each time Saakashvili said something bad about them," he said. "I don't know where it's leading. Maybe we will survive, maybe not."

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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