Leaving behind the Georgia I knew

People line up and wait to have their passports stamped on the Georgian side of the Georgia-Armenia border during the evacuation on Aug. 11. Terrell Starr

People line up and wait to have their passports stamped on the Georgian side of the Georgia-Armenia border during the evacuation on Aug. 11. Terrell Starr

By Terrell Starr

Before the conflict between Georgian and South Ossetian forces spiraled out of control, I doubt many people knew that a country called Georgia even existed. Now everyone knows about the former Soviet republic – for all of the wrong reasons.

Television viewers and newspaper readers worldwide now know about the territorial struggles between Georgia and its breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Before the conflict between Georgian and South Ossetian forces spiraled out of control, I doubt many people knew that a country called Georgia even existed. Now everyone knows about the former Soviet republic – for all of the wrong reasons.

Television viewers and newspaper readers worldwide now know about the territorial struggles between Georgia and its breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. They know about the scores of innocent civilians killed during the short, but brutal week- long war.

But this is not the Georgia I know.

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    Georgian Evacuation

    Click to view an audio slideshow.

    When I arrived in Georgia this past May, parliamentary elections were in full swing. Political campaign ads of various opposition candidates greeted me everywhere I walked. Georgian university students were hitting the streets campaigning hard for their preferred candidate.

    I don’t care what Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov says about Georgia’s relationship with the United States. What I saw three months ago was no “pet project.”

    It was true, unbridled democracy at work – democracy that many Georgian people really believed in and had worked so hard for. Sure, I saw men on the streets, jobless and with nothing to do. And I spoke with taxi drivers who said they were once economists and analysts during the Soviet era but were forced out of their jobs after the Soviet Union’s collapse.

    However, I also spoke with young people who were optimistic. Life in Georgia was improving for the better. Some of my friends believed that, with hard work, they could start their own businesses someday. Being middle class was within reach. But Georgians weren’t the only ones excited about their country’s prospects.

    Tourists were everywhere. Foreign business investment was up and so was the country’s gross domestic product. All of a sudden, the little country in the south Caucasus that most Americans confused with the Peach State was beginning to get a little respect.

    This was the Georgia I’ve been telling my friends about. This was the Georgia that I devoted two years of my life to as a Peace Corps Volunteer. This was the Georgia that I grew to know and love.

    But, in an instant, the world was introduced to another Georgia.

    Georgian forces and South Ossetian guerillas were engaged in an all-out war by early August. Russian troops joined the fighting soon after. Television screens worldwide were dominated with breaking news reports of the battles every hour. When this was taking place, I was in Batumi, a resort town in Western Georgia that sits directly on the Black Sea.

    Fighting of this magnitude had not occurred since the early 1990’s when the whole of Georgia was engaged in a civil war with South Ossetian and Abkhazian separatists.

    However, the latest fighting, at least early on, was concentrated in South Ossetia – the conflict zone. Certainly, for some in sunny Batumi, the fighting was taking place too far away for them to worry about it.

    Yet the conflict would eventually make its way to the Black Sea, interrupting what should have been carefree days vacationing at the beach.

    On the night of Aug. 8, I remember hanging out with some random guys I met on the boardwalk at the beach. Suddenly, the power went out and everything around me went pitch black. Cell phone screens guided beachgoers through the darkness as they left the boardwalk. Still, there was no panic. Power outages occur in Georgia from time to time. I assumed that this was not connected to the conflict.

    I assumed wrong.

    I later learned the real reason the lights had gone out. In the center of the boardwalk are dancing fountains that illuminate the night like a box of crayons. The government decided to turn them off so Russian fighter jets wouldn’t see them from above.

    Poti, a neighboring town an hour north, was bombed earlier that day and government officials assumed that Batumi could be the next target.

    Anyway. Night over. Time to go home.

    But before I did, I walked into a candle-lit store to buy some juice and a bag of chips. Inside, the clerk and several older women were huddled around a small lit candle and an orthodox image of Jesus Christ deeply engaged in prayer. Fearful of the worst and with tears in their eyes, they were praying for peace and strength.

    I didn’t want to interrupt their moment with a bag of chips and some juice, so I was just going to leave everything and walk out. But another woman came in and rung up my purchase.

    The women were still praying as I left the store.

    The next day, Aug. 9., I took the train back to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. When I made it home that night, I heard the loud roar of fighter jets overhead. At that moment, I remembered something my international reporting teacher Ronald Yates once said in class. “If you’re ever in a place where bombs are exploding around you, GET DOWN,” he said. “The shrapnel shoots up and will hit you if you’re standing or running.”

    But what do you do if you’re in a building and bombs are falling?

    By this time, the American Embassy in Tbilisi was assisting Americans and others who wanted to leave the country. I resisted going at first, but the continued roar of fighter jets convinced me that it was time to go.

    My Facebook status on the morning of Aug. 11: “Terrell made (it) through the night and is getting ready to leave for Yerevan.”

    But I didn’t want to leave. I left without saying goodbye to my friends. Most importantly, I left for Yerevan the day I was going to see my friend, Khatuna, from my Peace Corps days. She and her husband had made me godfather of their daughter earlier this year. I saw them when I first arrived in Georgia in May, but I wanted to see them one last time before I left for the States. But Khatuna insisted that I ignore my emotions to come see her and encouraged me to leave.

    Around 2 p.m., I joined the five-bus caravan at the American Embassy and headed off to Yerevan, Armenia. After a 10-hour bus ride that normally takes five, our trip was over. Everyone was happy to get off of the bus after our long, tiring journey. But we were all disappointed we left Georgia. Everyone was looking forward to returning when things settled down. Many did.

    And eventually, so will I.