The last contact I had with the Georgian member of our reporting team, a man named Sergo, had been a text message I received a week ago with the name and number of a reliable taxi driver who would be able to take me out of Georgia and across the border into Armenia. Sergo had been with us in Tbilisi during the first days of fighting, but as the war was intensifying all around us, he'd managed to find a way to get to Batumi, Georgia's coastal resort town, where his wife, mother and mother-in-law were all at a relative's house. Last I knew, as I left the country on Monday, he was in a relatively safe place that was, in any case, less than 10 miles from the Turkish border.
I'd written Sergo and his wife from Yerevan, Armenia, trying to make sure they were OK, but I never got a reply. Phone communications were very iffy in Georgia as I left and I imagined e-mail wasn't fairing much better. But I now know why it was impossible to reach him: at the same time that I was making my way in a US Embassy convoy to Armenia, Sergo and his wife were leaving the safety of Batumi and heading out to report on the war underway in their country.
This was a natural for Margarita, Sergo's wife, a longtime journalist who had been a Knight Fellow in 2006 and, until a few weeks ago, had served as the Caucasus Director for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting. It would be hard to imagine Margarita sitting this one out. Sergo was much newer to the game. In fact, some of the first on-the-job training he'd received was working with us the previous week, reporting on internally displaced people along the Abkhaz border and traveling with us to the Kodori valley. We'd originally been looking to hire Margarita to help us but she was too busy at the time of our visit. Not to worry, she told us, I have the perfect person for you!
Yesterday, we received very frightening news about Sergo and Margarita. They were driving their Suzuki Jeep across the country, going from village to village across the width of Georgia to hear from people about what they had gone through in the war and its aftermath. Sergo was shooting video with a camera he'd lent me when mine was damaged (and which still had the videotape from their wedding in it when I turned it on). On their route, they approached Gori, the city increasingly known for its abandonment as Russians and their allies advanced and for now being highly dangerous and lawless.
According to Margarita's own account of the incident, which can be found on the website of The Nation, a group of heavily armed Ossetian militiamen surprised them on the road and stopped their Jeep with a hail of gunfire. Their vehicle was surrounded, and they were robbed, at gunpoint, of all their possessions, including the Jeep itself and Sergo's video camera. From Margarita's chilling narrative, it appears that they were in fact rather lucky that they were only robbed and left by the side of the road. Sergo still had his mobile phone, which the fighters had not found when searching for valuables, so he called the Deputy Minister of the Interior (a man we'd all been with just days earlier, in the last few hours before war broke out) and told him where they were and what had happened. In a sign of just how little control the Georgian government has over parts of its own territory, Sergo was told the area was too unsafe to send a police car to, and that they would have to walk to the nearest city! Fortunately, a passing car was able to pick them up and help them out.
At a time when tensions are running high, and when armed irregulars roam the land freely, looking to settle scores and lay claim to the spoils of war, Margarita and Sergo could have easily been added to the list of killed or disappeared. I was glad to hear that after some harrowing travel they were able to make it back to their relative's house in Batumi. They can't get to their home in Tbilisi since the main highway across the country is blocked and a key railway bridge was blown up by the Russians yesterday, but at least they are safe. But their story, demonstrating the expanding vacuum left by the Russian disruption of Georgian infrastructure in areas outside the conflict zone, is a cautionary tale for the region.