"There was so much blood spilled"

A Russian invasion has left besieged Georgians angry at their government -- and at the Bush administration -- for failing to defend them.

Published August 12, 2008 10:11AM (EDT)

Vaso Chlukhadze, 25, is one of hundreds of war refugees gathered outside the mayor's office in Tbilisi, Georgia. Chlukhadze has been waiting two days for a place to sleep. He fled South Ossetia after being forced from his home by Russian air raids. War has quickly escalated in this region since late last week, with Georgia agitating for greater control of disputed territory in the Caucasus, and Russia going aggressively on the attack with war planes, tanks and troops. Like many here directly in the middle of it and suffering the consequences, Chlukhadze blames Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili for the violence that left his family homeless.

"The [Georgian] government wasn't right. If they don't have enough force they shouldn't behave like this," he said.

If Vladimir Putin's aim is regime change in Georgia, as American officials claim, it may already be working. Many of the weary-eyed refugees were too angry to speak to journalists. But they are bitterly angry with their government. "Kill Saakashvili," a few hissed.

Four days into the conflict, the consequences of war are spreading quickly. In Tbilisi, refugees stand pleading outside government buildings, begging for food and shelter. Residents wake at night to the sound of bombs. Wounded soldiers flood Tbilisi hospitals. Doubts about the government's integrity are rising.

Indeed, the violence and chaos are eroding support for a president who was already waning in popularity. There still appears to be an urge among a majority here to rally around the government and the country. It makes sense: They are at war and now are being occupied, with the Russian takeover of several Georgian cities. But with the rising deaths and number of refugees, negative sentiment towards Saakashvili appears to be greater than ever before.

At a hospital in Tbilisi hundreds of soldiers are recovering. Some complained of a lack of food and water, and poor planning in the field. At times, they weren't sure who the enemy was. Twenty-two-year-old Vaja Lanchava lies limp in his bed. His bloody limbs shrouded in gauze, he says, in broken whispers, that the Georgian fighters never had a chance against the Russians.

"There was so much blood spilled and for what outcome?" said Lasha Lanchava, the soldier's older brother. "He fought and was wounded for what result?"

There is also great anger here at the West. The sense is that Europe won't intervene, because of dependency on Russian gas and oil. And many feel betrayed by America, especially with the Bush administration having been a vocal supporter of independent Georgia. "As for now, I have no faith in the European Union or the United States," says Giorge Abesadze, 25, a resident of Tbilisi. "I only have faith in myself, Georgia and the Georgian people. Georgians have always been alone in the world."

A few say America is MIA because it's fighting the wrong war in Iraq. "Things shouldn't have turned out like this," says Gia Jibladze, 48, a poet. "Do you think we can depend on America's help? Of course we can't." Uncertainty and fear are palpable: "How long can Tbilisi stand?" Jibladze added.

What started as a battle to regain control of South Ossetia – a tiny breakaway region backed by Russia -- quickly escalated into what appears to be all-out war. The Russians' retaliation was far more ferocious than anyone expected. Russian forces have bombed a key port, blocked supplies from entering the country and taken control deep inside Georgian territory.

Temur Iakobashvili, minister of reintegration issues, said Russia has been planning the attack for a long time. "Russia dragged us into this war." But some Georgians affected by the fighting also blame poor leadership.

"We have an idiot president," said Marika, 40, a physician, who wouldn't disclose her surname. "He ruined our country and that's his idiotic politics." She said her co-workers have no idea if their relatives in South Ossetia are dead or alive.

Outside the mayor's office, 18-year-old Diana Khetaguri described the bombings in South Ossetia. "I felt like the bomb fell right on our house," she said. "It had this horrible light -- it lit up everything."

Khetaguri's house was destroyed on Friday. Her black leather sandals revealed pink toenails caked with dirt. She and her family fled to a nearby village that was also destroyed by Russian air raids. With no money and no possessions, she waits to register for shelter. Choking back tears, she lamented the state of her country. "Nearly everyone can see what kind of government we have," she said. "They shouldn't have let this happen."

Still, the Russian attacks on Georgian soil have also rallied nationalistic support around Georgia's wartime government. On Sunday afternoon cars cruised through the streets of Tbilisi streaming Georgian flags. Citizens in red and white face paint, the colors of Georgia's flag, carried signs reading "Stop Russian Aggression" at a demonstration in front of the Russian embassy.

"I'm supporting Saakashvili in his decision with all my soul, flesh and blood," said Lasha Geladze-Mamukadze. "Real Georgians feel exactly the same."

As the shirtless 26-year-old waved his Georgian flag alongside a group of demonstrators, they cheered and sang national songs.

But refugees, having lost everything, are complaining of government shelters with shattered glass on the floor, no toilets or running water. "Even if they win, what are they going to tell the mothers of dead soldiers?" asked Chlukhadze. "Their dead bodies are sprawled on top of each other."

The writer bios on this story have been corrected since this story was originally published.

By John Hudson

John Hudson is a freelance writer and a summer staff reporter at Radio GIPA, an NPR affiliate station in Tbilisi, Georgia.

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