August 13, 2008
New York Times
TBILISI–Nika Kharadze and Giorgi Monasalidze went to war last week even though they were not warriors. Their parents have been searching for them ever since, through the tangle of disorder and fear that Georgia has become.
"I don't know, it's just chaos in my head. Maybe he's in the forest, or in the basement," Khatuna Kharadze said about her son, Nika. "Maybe he's afraid that he won't ever get out."
Kharadze and her husband went from hospital to hospital in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. She visited the local and International Red Cross. They even traced the last known location of their son's cellphone. Still they had no clues.
"He said he was going to go," Kharadze said. "I didn't take it seriously. He was always being a joker."
As swaths of the country fell before Russian troops, it was not just the army that rose in its defence but regular citizens, as part of a Georgian tradition, based both in myth and fact, that stretches back to medieval times.
Monasalidze, 22, who had been working in construction, and Kharadze, 19, a geography student, took a train from their home in Tbilisi to Gori on Friday. They hoped to join the fight erupting in South Ossetia despite the fact that neither had served in the military or even done reserve training.
The two young men were far from alone in trying to help protect the country.
"We're just here to control the situation," said Giorgi Kristesiash, a government employee in Gori, standing under a statue of Joseph Stalin in the city's main square, wearing civilian clothes but with a Kalashnikov rifle strapped to his back. He was part of a group of a dozen civilians, some in camouflage and some wearing bullet-proof vests, who said they were there to defend the city from Russian attack.
"There's a huge panic; we're here to say there's nothing," Kristesiash said early Monday, before Georgian forces retreated from Gori.
A pack of young men in their early 20s heading toward the hospital where soldiers had congregated, said they had travelled there, just like Monasalidze and Kharadze, to join the fight.
"The main legend of Georgia is that Georgians are warriors because they are subject to constant invasion," said Anna Lagidze, an educational psychologist in Tbilisi. A legend going back a thousand years, she explained, is that the men went into battle with grapevines tied around their waists so that if they died, new grapes would spring up where they fell.
Irregulars and volunteers fighting in Abkhazia in the early 1990s only added to the modern myth. "Many of them now think it is the last chance to defend their homeland," Lagidze said. "It comes from the knowledge that the army is not enough and every man is valuable."
Monasalidze and Kharadze arrived in Gori Friday, where they tried to join the military units moving into South Ossetia. The army would not take them. When he called his mother from his cellphone around midnight, Kharadze told her they were planning to push ahead anyway to the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali.
It was the last their friends or family heard from the young men.
Since then, Khatuna Kharadze has found herself among thousands of Georgians searching for family members, dead or alive, as people fled from deadly bombardments in cars, on flatbeds pulled by tractors and even on foot. According to a rough count by the ministry in charge of refugees, there were 15,000 internally displaced people as of late Monday afternoon, 7,000 of whom had escaped to Tbilisi.
Kharadze and her husband, Kakha, travelled in the opposite direction, toward the fighting in Gori on Sunday, with three colour photographs of their son.
"You have to go to each hospital, because it changes all the time," said Dr. Giorgi Sulava, a physician in charge of admissions at the Javakhishvili State University clinic in Tbilisi.
So far, the young men's names have not shown up.
Monasalidze's mother, Nana Tsitskishvili, said that her son had lied, telling her he was going to a girlfriend's house when he left, but that she was not completely surprised.
"Everyone in Georgia stood up on their feet, were ready to go," Tsitskishvili said.
She broke down talking about her son but added: "You still have the feeling that he's alive. He's just not able to contact you."
Less than a kilometre away, Georgian troops, some so fresh from Iraq they were still in desert camouflage, massed along the highway, preparing to defend the capital.