I was standing in a farmer's field, smoke rising from a huge fire started by a Russian incendiary bomb that had drilled into the ground 15 minutes earlier, when the first report came that Russian President Dmitri Medvedev had announced a pullback of Russian forces and an end to the bombing. It was news to the villagers, who had just watched their wheat crop engulfed in flames a few minutes earlier and who had spent the night before sheltering in the forest from Russian attacks. But a visitor from a nearby town insisted it was true.
"Why are they still bombing us then?" asked one farmer with a boxer's broken nose, David Beriashvili, 43. There was a spirited discussion about whether the Russian President could be trusted. Most farmers doubted it. But the visitor prevailed. "I saw it on TV," he said.
Russia may have called an end to its military operations in Georgia, but it has already had its way with its uppity little neighbor. The country is traumatized. The people of the capital, Tbilisi, are unlikely to forget the last 24 hours anytime soon. Late last night, even President Mikhail Saakashvili's office expected an attack on the city by morning. Rumors swirled that tanks were on the edge of town and that the capital would be shelled. Saakashvili appeared on the verge of tears in a national address, and later, in the middle of the night, he had one of his senior ministers address the Georgian people to urge them not to panic.
It was something that most residents of the capital, a hillside city full of crumbling 19th-century buildings and faded charm, had been struggling with for days. On Monday, long lines snaked out the doors of supermarkets as residents stocked up on food, and cars formed queues at gas pumps as motorists filled plastic jerricans. "Everyone is in a panic but trying not to show this. We are afraid if one person shows it, everyone will. We are trying to calm down," says Maia Gvaramia, 33, who stocked up on food yesterday for her two young children. "We don't know what will happen. Everyone must prepare."
At banks, depositors crowded counters to withdraw cash. Bigger depositors demanded meetings with senior managers to gain reassurances about their savings. On Sunday, the central bank had stopped credit lines for customers and told them not to use Internet services to avoid hackers, some of whom had gained access to government sites over the weekend. Managers were coached to explain to customers that their money was safe. It had little effect. A senior Georgian banking official told me that the equivalent of $100 million, or 3% of the country's total deposit base, was withdrawn from the National Bank of Georgia on Monday alone. Most normal days see a net increase in deposits. The State Bank of Georgia late Monday night declared a bank "holiday" for Tuesday.
"We felt that we couldn't afford that people lose confidence in the banks," says acting Central Bank president David Amaglobeli, 32, an unflappable Oregon State University graduate, whom I meet in the central bank office, a grand old building with high ceilings and frescoes and gilt-edged windows dating from the Russian Empire. Amaglobeli's family became refugees during the Abkhazia conflict in 1992. He says the current crisis is stirring bad memories. "I remember the smell of gunfire, the smell of war in the air. It was very painful to see the loss of territory, people falling into poverty." A teenager at the time, Amaglobeli now is an adult with a BlackBerry that rings persistently with panicky questions from family members. "I tell them to be calm but stay vigilant, and if the time comes, leave," he says.
His early assessment is that the past few days have set Georgia's economy back four or five years. It's not just damage to infrastructure, he says, but the negative impact on investor confidence. He blames Russia. "We know what it is like to be part of the Soviet Union, and [we are] a people who love freedom," he says. "They are setting an example here in Georgia to the whole region: 'If you mess with us, this is what we can do to you.' " Still, says Amaglobeli, Georgia has made its own mistakes. "Through words and deeds, [we] have tremendously damaged relations with our neighbors. We have made mistakes. We have to act more prudently."
Indeed, the human suffering is impossible to ignore. Hundreds have been killed and many more wounded. Refugees from South Ossetia continue to arrive in the area outside the capital, looking for somewhere to live. The past few hours may have been the worst. Late Tuesday morning, four attack helicopters swept in over the brow of the hill and fired incendiary bombs into the wheat field. Villagers ran for cover. It was the second attack in less than 12 hours. In the early hours of this morning, a group of Russian jets bombed a cement factory and railway line in a neighboring village. In nearby Gori, the hospital was attacked; a Dutch journalist was killed.
Across the road from the burning farmer's field, three Georgian brothers in their 80s sit on a bench, resting their feet. They have walked 60 km (37 miles) since early Monday and do not know where to go. They are from a small, ethnically mixed village in the Liakhvi gorge in South Ossetia. Their families left their homes earlier but the men stayed behind, thinking that at their age they would not be bothered. But on Monday morning, Levan Khaduri, 84, a tiny gray-haired man with a deep tan, was putting up a new fence around the home that he was born in when a neighbor, who is Ossetian, said, "Don't bother. That is not your home anymore. Just go."
"These were our own neighbors. We knew them!" says Khaduri, still amazed. "We don't know what to do. If I go back, I don't have a house. I don't have cows. Nothing." As we talk, another open truck piled high with the belongings of refugees, carpets, clothes and a TV trundled by on the road to Tbilisi. Even if the war is over for others, these refugees' struggle may only be beginning. They won't be returning to territory now controlled by Russian troops.
In Tbilisi, Georgians, who experienced near civil war between factions in the early 1990s, "want to remain united," says the banker Amaglobeli. "They all put the blame on Russia. A lot of people are not supporting the government, but they are united in one idea: that we have to fight for our freedom and independence."
But in the countryside, the feelings are less nationalistic. Even before Medvedev's declaration, villagers told me that they think Saakashvili should go. "Russia wants him out so if they see he is gone, they will stop bombing our villagers," says the farmer Beriashvili. Smoke from a bomb billowed from his harvest nearby. Asked whether this would not simply give Russia what it wanted, he replied, "What would you have us do? How can we live like this? We are afraid. We will stay in the forests until this war is over." If it is over, then at least they may be able to return to their beds. But maybe not just yet.