It’s a warm and sunny day. I am in the back of my car being driven from Tbilisi in the direction of West Georgia. From the window I can see beautiful scenery—lovely hills near the road; proud Caucasian mountains, sunk in blue, far away; golden fields of wheat, some harvested, some left unharvested.
This is my country; these are my mountains. I know all the paths in these mountains. I used to walk every week in these mountains. Everything is familiar yet I feel that this is not the country I knew. I had been away only for a couple of months working on my Ph.D. in Oxford.
Last time I came to Georgia for a joyful occasion. It was my wedding celebration. Since both my lady and I love mountains we decided to have our wedding in the mountains. Seven hundred people came to the mountains of central Georgia to attend the wedding ceremony and a traditional Georgian party. Among the guests were people of many nationalities and ethnicities. There were Georgians, Russians, Ossetians, Armenians, British, Americans, French, Germans, Estonians … since then our joy has been turned into grief, sadness and humiliation.
This is the ninth day of the Russian occupation of my country. The Russian invasion devastated all of us. Today is the Feast of Transfiguration. This is a feast of regeneration and hope. This is something that is badly needed, here in this country and everywhere.
Five loaves, two fish … and no passport
I look from the car and see those roads and paths I used to take along with my best friends, or alone. Now they have been sealed off by Russian tanks and soldiers. Nobody can freely walk in the highlands and enjoy the beauty of creation. It is a time of war. I left home early without knowing whether I would be allowed to travel to the war zone.
On the way I filled my bag with five loaves, two fish (freshly fried trout), a bottle of red wine, some chocolates and water as food for the journey. I also had taken with me my pastoral staff in case I had to walk all the way to Gori. I thought I had everything I needed for the unpredictable journey: I had bread and wine to celebrate the Eucharist; I had food to eat and water to drink. What else should I need? But as we left the last Georgian check point in Igoeti I realized that I had foolishly forgotten something very important or something I considered to be very important: I had no passport, no ID with me!
“How stupid!” I shouted in the car.
“What’s the matter?” said my driver, Lado, as he turned to me.
“I have forgotten my passport,” I said angrily. The driver went pale.
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“What shall we do now?” he asked.
“We cannot go back. I think I know what to do.” I answered him as calmly as possible so that he would not start panicking. I produced from the back of the car my episcopal attire and got vested in great haste. By the time we were stopped at the first Russian check-point I was fully dressed in clerical vestments, with my hat on my head and a large, chained encolpion on my chest.
The Russian soldier pointed his machine gun at the car and signalled to stop. He was a very young, newly recruited, handsome lad. The driver slowed down to stop the car. I opened my window and calmly looked into the face of the soldier. He also stared at me for a second and then signalled the driver to continue. We passed this check-point but there was no guarantee that we would be able to continue further on.
Obviously I started to think what could happen if they found that I had no passport with me. A day earlier Russians did not let the British military attaché into the conflict zone, insisting that he had to have a Russian visa to travel in Georgia!! I realized that I had to be ready for anything, whether it was intimidation, arrest or something else.
We went through countless check points along the motorway to Gori. The Russians carefully checked the driver’s papers, the car, and the boot. They all looked tired and weary under the hot Georgian sun. Luckily they never asked for my papers. I could not take my garb off since the checkpoints were very close to each other. The only thing I could do was to take my hat off during the intervals between the check-points. The car has no air-conditioning, therefore I had to endure the heat and the sweating. I hate sweating.
The occupied territories and its villages now looked different. There were very few signs of life in the villages. Some buildings were damaged by bombs or tanks; there were burnt Georgian tanks and military lorries left along the road. There were burnt forests here and there around Gori, with their apocalyptic imagery.
Gori—Undamaged, but occupied
Finally we got to the city of Gori, which has not been hugely damaged. The capture of the city was a conspicuous symbol of humiliation. Most of the buildings were intact, although the windows were smashed and most of the flats seemed to be abandoned. Stalin’s museum and his monument had also survived the air strikes. In the depth of my heart I wished they had been destroyed by the strikes. The mediaeval castle was also left undamaged. A Georgian flag still was flying on one of its towers.
I always liked this city. Not because of its fame as Stalin’s hometown but because of my family ties with it. One of my ancestors was in charge of the city in the Middle Ages. My family name was mentioned for the first time in the mediaeval records of this city. My father was one of the founding ministers of the Baptist churches in this city and in its surrounding villages. As a minister’s son I used to visit this city during the Communist time. I have lots of friends and tons of reminiscences of my time in this city. My father used to build up Christian congregations here that were ethnically both Georgian and Ossetians. We never thought that one day Georgians and Ossetians would be separated and stirred up against each other.
First of all I visited two of our churches in the city. Both buildings still were undamaged. Even though it was the Feast of the Transfiguration there was nobody there. Most of our people had fled the city, and those who did not were scared to leave their homes.
We stopped the car near the City Hall. There were lots of people there—journalists, aid workers, fully armed Russian troops. The village people had come here to seek some help and comfort. Some were asking for food, some for medicine, some for help in looking for their lost or dead relatives.
I wanted to go further on to visit some of our people in the villages. Reportedly the situation in the villages around Tskhinvali and Gori were much more difficult than in Gori. I did not want to risk my driver’s life by taking him to those villages. On the other hand I could not walk to those villages in the terrible heat wearing my clerical vestments. There was a great chance that our car could be taken away either with us as hostages or without.
I tried to hire a local taxi in Gori but it did not work. Finally I ask Lado what he thought. He immediately agreed to come with me, and off we went again.
Visiting the bishop of Ptsa
Thirty kilometres from Gori we entered a village called Ptsa, one of the last Georgian villages in the neighbourhood of the South Ossetian provincial capital Tskhinvali. Here I wanted to see a retired Baptist bishop of this area, Zaal Chimchiuri and his wife Nasi, a member of St Nino’s Order of Charity. I called the bishop as we approached the village and told him that I was coming. At the sound of our car those who had still stayed in the village went into hiding. Nowadays the only cars that go to the village belong to the paramilitary groups that come here to raid, to loot the houses and to take hostages.
The bishop lives here in a lovely two-story building with a small chapel on the ground floor where the local Baptist congregation meets. The house is surrounded by a large garden with apple orchards, vines, and all sorts of fruit trees. The entrance to the house goes through a vineyard full of the pleasant aroma of grapevines. I had been to this place many times. The gate of the entrance always used to be open. I had never seen it closed.
This time it was firmly closed and Lado and I had to try our best to open it.
The elderly bishop was sitting half-naked on the veranda of his house. His wife, Nasi, was helping him to wash. When they saw me both burst into tears.
“I knew you would come to see me, I knew,” cried the bishop like a little boy and then turned to his wife: “I told you Nasi, I told you. Didn’t I?” All of us were weeping as we embraced each other.
“Sorry, brother, I had to wash before I saw you,” said Zaal. “Both my wife and I have not slept in our beds since the invasion. We have been hiding in our back garden.
They can come here any time. They come, raiding houses, taking anything they like and then burn the houses … the other day they burnt my brothers’ houses. One of my brothers has been taken hostage like many of our men. They demand 10,000 Lari as ransom.”
“They have taken 90 cattle from our village,” continues the bishop’s wife, “But believe it or not both our cows came back home two days later. Somehow they managed to escape and find they way home.”
“They must have been holy cows.” I tried to joke but neither the bishop nor his wife had any sense of humor left. Both wanted to tell me what had happened and what they had experienced. They are such a lovely couple, in their late seventies. You can rarely meet a couple who are so much in love with each other. I realized that I did not need to tell them anything—they wanted to get out what they had felt during the war. Our listening presence was something they wanted to enjoy.
After having listened to their dreadful stories I suggested that we would celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration and get the food for our spiritual journey—the Eucharist. I produced from my bag the bread and the two fish. Nasi laid the table and the bishop brought a chalice from the chapel. When everything was ready we celebrated a very simple yet very meaningful Eucharist in tears and silence.
The Eucharist was immediately followed by a meal that Nasi had prepared for us. We had bread, cheese, red wine, freshly picked tomatoes and purple basil.
“This is for peace!” said bishop Zaal and raised the glass of home-made red wine.
“This is something we all need.” I joined him in proposing the toast. We only drank three glasses: for peace, for the departed people from both sides of the conflict, and for the future.
Both bishop Zaal and his wife refused to come with us to my place in Tbilisi.
“We cannot leave,” said Zaal firmly. “This is our home. This is our village. We will not flee anywhere.”
I left the village with prayer that there will be happier times and that I will see this couple again. I pray I will.
Living under occupation
On my way back to Tbilisi, I visited some other villages and rescued from one of the villages a member of the Gori Baptist church. It will take pages to describe what I had seen in those villages. For the first time I realized that the occupiers take not only our territories but our minds as well. We all have been occupied by fear, humiliation and hatred. This is exactly what the enemy is looking for. I was too late getting to Tbilisi. I did not make it to the cathedral where the Feast of the Transfiguration was celebrated. But when I got to the Cathedral there were a mother with two young children still waiting for me.
“We fled from the Gori area when the city was bombed. Will you pray for my sons? They have seen houses and cars on fire and they are still terrified,” the mother told me with her voice choking.
It was late when I finally made it to my house. I thought my brain would explode. I could not sleep. I could not think, I could not read or pray. I switched the TV set on and looked for a channel with international news. There was a talk about the war in Georgia where an expert was asked by a journalist whether it was Georgia’s fault to have started the war. I could not listen to it. After all my experiences of the day even the question seemed so irrelevant. Is it so simple to say who is wrong? Is it so simple to blame one side for countless atrocities, robbery, humiliation, rape and killing? I sat in front of the switched-off TV screen and wept in powerlessness and helplessness. How is it our fault, what has been the fault of all the people who lost their loved ones in the war from either side? I think I can come up with answer to what has been Georgia’s fault. In fact I can think of more than one fault.
It is Georgia’s “fault” that we live in the region where we live?
The country of Georgia is located at the crossroads of civilization. In the course of history the country has been invaded by many foreign forces. Larger nations and empires were very keen to control this country due to its geo-political location. Russia was among those nations that easily realized the country’s strategic potential. In 1783 the Georgian King Erele II signed a treaty with Russia in the Northern Caucasian city of Giorgievsk.
It has been known as the Giorgievsk Treaty. In accordance with the treaty Russia was to protect Georgia in times of invasion. The treaty between the two countries upset Georgia’s south-eastern neighbor, Iran. In 1795 Abas I, the Shah of Iran, invaded Georgia to punish it for changing its allegiance from Iran to Russia. The capital city of Tbilisi was destroyed and looted. Russia violated one of the main points of the treaty. Georgia was left defenseless.
On the other hand, a few years later when the last Georgian king, George XII died in 1801, the Russian Emperor used this opportunity to abolish the Kingdom of East Georgia and turn Georgia into one of Russia’s provinces. The Georgian royal family was exiled to Russia so that they would never think of crowning their own king. Very soon the other Georgian kingdom of Imeretia and other principalities also were made subjects of the Russian Empire.
Georgia endured 116 years of Russian domination until the Great Revolution in Russia. Soon after the revolution the first Georgian republic was founded. In 1918, it was recognized by several nations including Soviet Russia.
Georgian independence was really short lived. In 1921, Russia’s 11th Army invaded Georgia and consequently made it a part of the Soviet Union.
They could not afford to leave Georgia beyond their sphere of influence. Ethnically Georgian Communist Joseph Stalin and Sergo Orjonikidze were highly instrumental in the annexation of the country.
After 75 years of the Soviet regime, Georgia regained its independence. In 1991, Georgia became an independent nation again. Obviously Moscow could not easily accept Georgia’s withdrawal from its sphere of influence. Instead of starting new relations with Georgia, the Russian politicians decided to punish Georgia for its independence. In those days, they did not want to get directly involved in confrontation with Georgia so they decided to stir up the ethnopolitical enclaves ofGeorgia to question its integrity.
In the early 1990s, Russia imposed on Georgia two civil wars in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. After the war the Russians came to these two regions as neutral “peacekeepers." In those days, they would not admit in any way that they were the main force confronting Georgia.
The geopolitical significance of Georgia recently has been strengthened by the pipeline that was constructed to provide Caspian Sea oil to the Western nations. This is the only pipeline in the region that has not been controlled by Russia, which has been using its huge energy resources to exercise its political influence on Europe and the rest of the world. The Russians obviously do not like having their monopoly on energy challenged.
Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003 made it clear that Georgia started to recover from the Soviet legacy and become a really independent nation in its own right.
For the last three years, the Russians were getting ready to renew the war they started in the early 1990s. In the course of those years they provoked Georgian troops and the Georgian authorities. Even before this war they had two months of military training on the Georgian border. The war started on August 6 when truckloads of Russian soldiers started penetrating Georgia through the Roki Tunnel which connects Georgia with the Russian Federation.
It is our fault that we live in the area which the Russians would like to control.
It is Georgia’s “fault” that we are traditionally Christian-Orthodox country
Since Peter the Great, religion always has been used as a state ideology. There always has been full harmony between the state and the Russian Orthodox Church. The Russian state coat of arms which has been restored after the collapse of theSoviet Union is made of a two-headed eagle, one representing the state and the other representing the church.
All Russian and Soviet leaders have masterfully used the church to propagate their political views and aspirations. Those church leaders and clergy who criticized the church for its subservient attitude towards the state were either martyred or severely persecuted. The State has never failed to silence the church in critical times and deprive it of its prophetic responsibility. Shamefully enough the Russian Orthodox bishops were blessing troops going to Chechnya to eliminate this tiny freedom-loving Muslim nation in the North Caucasus. One of the most peace-seeking saints of the Russian Orthodox Church, St. Seraphim of Sarov, has been made the patron saint of nuclear weapons.
When the Russians abolished Georgia’s independence in 1801 they realized that in order to make the country of Georgiafully subject to the Russian authorities they had to abolish the independence of the Georgian Orthodox church as well. This is exactly what they did in 1810. The leader of the Georgian Orthodox was exiled to Russia, never to be allowed to come back. The Georgian Church, which was much older than the Russian one, was made a part of the Russian Orthodox Church.
After the Great Revolution, the Georgian Orthodox Church declared its independence and elected its first Catholicos, Kyrion I in 1917. The Russian Orthodox Church would not recognize the church’s independence till 1956.
During late-Soviet and post-Soviet times the Georgian Orthodox Church became heavily influenced by the Russian Orthodox Church. The Russian influence was expressed in cementing ultra-conservative positions in the church: in 1997 the Head of the Georgian Orthodox Church was forced to withdraw from the World Council of Churches as well as the Conference of European Churches. Ecumenical relations and ecumenical involvement for any churches in Georgiabecame costly. In 1999-2003 the country experienced onslaughts of religious violence carried out by ultra-fundamentalist Orthodox clergy and their followers.
The presently pro-Russian Orthodox forces are involved in anti-Western, anti-European, anti-American, and anti-NATO propaganda. The statement made by the Russian Orthodox leaders during the recent war described the situation as if it was not a Russian-Georgian but rather a Georgian-Ossetian war. Ironically in this war both Georgians and Ossetians are only victims of their northern neighbour.
The Russian Orthodox Church, very much like the Russian authorities, does not want to see the Georgian Orthodox Church leaving its sphere of influence.
This is our fault: we are bearers of the traditionally Orthodox faith which Russians want to keep controlling.
It is Georgia’s “fault” that we love freedom
It has been assumed that Georgia is culturally and linguistically close to Russian culture. Sometimes people in the West cannot tell the country of Georgia from the State of Georgia in the USA even after 17 years of independence.
Georgians, Ossetians, Abkhazians, Chechens, Dagestanis and others represent one Caucasian culture which is very divorced both linguistically and religiously from Russia. Yet there is still a sense of being Caucasian versus Russian.
Among other Caucasian nations and ethnicities Georgia was always, always considered as the centre of a pan-Caucasian fellowship which has now been broken up by the intervention of other forces. The Russians have been masterfully using the principle of “divide and rule.”
Georgia has its own language, alphabet, traditions, folklore, music, and a distinctive hospitality. Traditionally Georgian Orthodoxy was always known as a tolerant and open-minded church. All these have helped the Georgian culture to survive numerous invasions and attacks that were meant to subject Georgia to foreign forces.
Georgia has been determined to build a democracy. It is determined to become an integral part of the fellowship of all nations. This is why Georgia is keen to build relations with the European Union, the United States, the eastern world and with all nations.
Georgia never wanted to be enemies with Russia. A man would be foolish to seek animosity with his strongest neighbor. Georgia is about the same size as Scotland (perhaps a little bit smaller) with a population of 4.5 million compared to Russia’s 145 million and is geographically 281 times bigger than Georgia. Yet Russians feel threatened by their tiny neighbour, which is determined to maintain freedom and build democracy at any cost.
This is our fault: we love our freedom and want to talk with others on an equal footing.
It is Georgia’s “fault” that it wants to be a modern nation
Georgia is determined to become a modern nation where human rights will be respected and liberal democratic values affirmed. This aspiration, from a Russian perspective, is considered to be infectious and therefore dangerous.
Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003 was followed by Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. The Russian authorities were immensely upset by Ukraine but could not do much about it since Ukraine is a much larger and much stronger nation. During the present war Russians have threatened Ukraine for its support of Georgia.
Georgia realizes that, without considerable support, both Georgia and Ukraine will be under continuous threat fromRussia, which considers both countries as enemies.
Both Georgia and Ukraine have been keen to become members of NATO. Around 70 percent of Georgians supported Georgia’s membership of NATO in the referendum in January 2008. For both countries this is a matter of survival. Had these countries been accepted into membership of NATO in May 2008, the Russians would not have dared to renew the war in Georgia.
In modern Georgia, there should be room for all the citizens of the country regardless of their ethnicity, religion and political orientation. Georgia has been open to offer full cultural autonomy to the break-away regions of Abkhazia andSouth Ossetia. There is still a chance for dialogue and negotiation. But unfortunately it is not Abkhazians and Ossetians who are making decisions for their own future, but Russian generals and politicians. In August Russia has advanced intoGeorgia and almost reached the capital city, using once again the South Ossetians as pawns to engage the Georgian army in conflict. Had there not been Russian interests in the region, Georgians, Abkhazians and Osetians would have sorted out all their issues long ago.
This is our fault: we would like to build a modern state. But this makes some of our neighbors extremely unhappy.
Sometimes the media are not aware of the truth. Sometimes they do not seem to be particularly keen to be aware of it. So what is the truth about the war? What has triggered the war? Who had aggravated South Ossetia?
In Georgia and in Eastern Europe, everybody knows the answer to these questions. This is why countries like Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia immediately understood the situation. In the West, some still may naively ask the question: whose fault is it?
As I was leaving the village of Ptsa yesterday, some village men realized that we had not come with evil intentions. They walked out from their hiding places, gathering around the village spring. I could not pass them without stopping and chatting. I jumped out of my car and walked over to them. They all seemed to be frightened and disheartened.
“Is there hope for us, Father?” one of the middle aged men asked me.
“I hope there is some hope,” I answered reluctantly.
I do believe that there is hope for us in this country. We as Georgians and as Ossetians have made lots of mistakes during the conflicts in Ossetia and Abkhazia. The fact that we were provoked to behave the way we all did does not justify any atrocities committed by all sides. There is hope for regeneration of our hearts and minds. As long as we are alive there remains hope. The painful experiences we have been through have taught us a lot of lessons if we are ready to learn them.
I always find comfort in the words of Bishop George Bell inscribed on the floor of one of the chapels in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford: “No nation, no individual is guiltless. Without repentance there is no regeneration.” I do believe that there is hope for all of us—Russians, Georgians, and Ossetians—if we are ready to change our minds, to repent if you wish, in order to promote justice and peace for everybody in the region.
But changing minds, repentance is needed, not only in our region but everywhere. Following the events of 9/11, pre-emptive wars, double standards in international politics and hypocrisy have not left much moral high ground in the world. Churches and religious groups very often, either explicitly or implicitly, have been backing up adversarial politics in the world. Blind eyes were turned to issues in Chechnya, the Balkans, and Iraq. In the contemporary world all of us seem to be interconnected and when a mistake is made it affects the entire world.
In the darkest days of the war in Georgia, we realized that there is a need for regeneration of our world, where everybody will be included rather than excluded. All measures have to be taken so that Russians also feel included in the fellowship of nations, and are not excluded as a dissident member of the family. But before this happens the Russians should realize that they cannot enjoy their impunity any longer.
Malkhaz Songulashvili is president of the Evangelical Baptist Churches of Georgia.