GORI, Georgia — The road to Gori was littered with defeat.
Refugees holding bags of clothes wandered toward Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, about 40 miles to the south.
Georgian soldiers, beaten into retreat by the Russian military, sat blank-faced in trucks, waiting for Russian permission to go into Gori.
Bitter words laced the conversations. "The Russians left us with no hope. All we want is our freedom," Maj. Grigol Chitaia said, as he protectively asked a reporter to leave his soldiers alone. They'd been through enough.
Perhaps more than any other piece of land in Georgia, the road from Gori to Tbilisi on Thursday symbolized the humiliating defeat that Georgia has suffered at the hands of the Kremlin, which was its overseer during the days of hard-line rule by the Soviet Union.
After the Russians pushed Georgian forces out of the breakaway province of South Ossetia, where the Georgians had tried to grab control from Russian-backed militias, they'd marched on Gori, in the middle of Georgia.
From Gori, the Russians easily could have taken Tbilisi, and on several evenings the capital was abuzz with frantic rumors that invading tanks were on the way.
That became a source for Russian taunting of the Georgian police and army units that were idling on the side of the road.
At one point, two Russian armored fighting vehicles and a truck took a joy ride of sorts out of Gori. Georgian troops saw them coming and, in alarm, leapt into their vehicles and followed to see whether they were headed to the capital. The Russian soldiers grinned and looked around, and after a few minutes did a U-turn.
"If Russia wants, it will enter Tbilisi," said Goga Lomsadze, a Georgian soldier, who looked down at the ground as he spoke.
To grunts such as Lomsadze, all the rhetoric of recent years about democracy and the legacy of the nation's peaceful 2003 "Rose Revolution," in which the defining symbol was a flower and not a gun, seemed to be slipping away.
Down the road, at the entrance to Gori, Russian soldiers were gathered around their vehicles.
A lieutenant, who wouldn't give his name, referred to the "so-called republic of Georgia." When he was asked whether his men might invade Tbilisi, he grinned and said, "Everything is possible."
Several columns of dark smoke rose from nearby villages, and there was the occasional thud of what sounded like mortar rounds landing.
With a wide smile, the Russian lieutenant said that the smoke was from "trees burning" and mused that it looked like mushrooms in the sky. Fleeing Georgians have accused the Russian military of allowing South Ossetian militias to rampage through villages.
A Russian sergeant who said his first name was Arkali complained that the military hadn't fed him in three days and he'd like to go home. He was glad that the war didn't last long.
"The Georgian forces had good equipment," he said. "But it wasn't enough. In the end, it was just like they had toys."
A stream of old men and women straggled along, wondering aloud when they'd ever be able to return to their homes.
Jemali Makhniashvili, a 65-year-old farmer, had a walking stick in one hand and a plastic bag in the other.
"I walked 60 kilometers (about 37 miles) on foot, through the forest and the fields," Makhniashvili said. "There is nothing left in my village, no houses, no cows. My friends were killed."
Along the way, Makhniashvili said, he ate peaches and apples he found in orchards and crouched down when he heard bombs hit nearby.
Jemuri Berianidze, a farmer from a village on the edge of South Ossetia, said he'd been walking for two days. He wasn't sure whether his relatives had made it out alive.
"The village across from mine was destroyed," he said. "The Russians want to make us slaves."
It was hard for the Georgian troops to hear.
"Russia still thinks we are their colony," said Dato, a soldier who gave only his first name. "They can't stand that Western countries and American democracy have a place in Georgia. They cannot stand democracy."
Dato stopped talking, and the soldier sitting next to him spoke up.
"We had wanted to build something, to become independent and stable," said Vakhtang, who also gave only his first name. "And now we've lost everything."
More from McClatchy: