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Story Publication logo August 12, 2008

Georgia: US Embassy Convoy

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The war between Russia and Georgia caught most of the world by surprise but it is a conflict that...

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If there was any lingering concern as to whether or not I should leave Georgia yesterday in a US Embassy convoy, it was erased by the huge, booming explosion that woke me from a sound sleep at 430am - followed shortly thereafter by a series of smaller blasts. I learned hours later that it had been the Russian bombing of a radar installation on a hill over Tbilisi. It sounded like it had been just next door.

My reason for leaving had to do with my personal safety, of course, but it was really driven by the need to make sure I could get out of Georgia and up to Russia to continue my reporting. I'd traveled here as a TV reporter making a news documentary, so I had quite a bit of gear in tow: not only the camera and microphones, but also a full light kit. The airport was closed for the foreseeable future. And I couldn't simply hop on a local bus to the border and then hike through the no man's land into Armenia if things got really bad. So it seemed the best idea was to take advantage of the convoy the US Embassy was organizing.

The US government had chartered buses to make the run to Yerevan, Armenia and a seat on one of them made the most sense. However, there was a strict baggage restriction. I had four bags full of gear, all which I was going to need in Russia. So my only option was to charter a taxi and register it in the convoy of vehicles that were heading along with the buses.

(Registering for the bus presented additional problems for Americans interested in leaving, apart from the baggage situation. In order to get a seat, the embassy had an absolute requirement that you had to travel in person to the embassy the day before departure and sign a promissory note that you would repay the $35 ticket they were charging for the ride when you returned home. This was despite the fact that the Embassy is a twenty-minute drive, in the direction of the fighting, from downtown Tbilisi.)

When I arrived at the staging point for departure in front of the massive, new embassy complex in the suburb of Didi Digoma, there were crowds of people milling about, with piles of baggage all around them. It was blazing hot and I could see the people who had already boarded the buses madly fanning themselves. An embassy employee drove by on a forklift stacked high with cases of bottled water to distribute. A group of about 20 Georgian police officers stood together in a clump and embassy guards were trying to maintain order as taxis pulled up the curb disgorging families.

Though I had my camera ready, I was prohibited from filming the scene. The press officer at the embassy told me they didn't want images out there that they knew would give the sense that this was an official emergency evacuation. It wasn't: it was a voluntary convoy for concerned citizens. An "evacuation" was different. I decided not to push my luck. I'd already been in a shouting match with Georgian embassy guards a week before when I was filming exteriors (that I'd been explicitly authorized to do) after completing an interview with the ambassador. I knew that if I started to film I'd have a hand in the lens in no time. So instead, I registered my car and headed for the staging area.

The cars in the convoy were mostly filled with Embassy staffers and their families. Some were in their own cars, driving themselves. Others had also chartered taxis. Pets were not allowed in the buses, so families who wanted to bring their dogs and cats also had to get a vehicle. I was able to count 11 vehicles, but others may have joined at the last minute.

We pulled out at around 1:15 in the afternoon. Our progress through Tbilisi and South to the border was painfully slow, moving barely more than 30 miles an hour at any time. Still, it was only about 35 miles, so we got there in a little over an hour. On the way we passed the Georgian air base at Marneuli, one of the Russian's bombing targets from a few days before. It seemed fairly deserted. At one point, a private car filled with three generations of a Georgian family edged into line in front of our vehicle and managed to stay there as we coasted past the border lineup. By the time US officials, already waiting at the checkpoint, figured it out, it was simply easier to process the man, three women and two babies and move them along.

Georgian exit formalities were fairly easy. The biggest challenge was that in this part of the world, cars need passports as well as their passengers. No one had thought to alert some of the Embassy staffers in their own cars and two vehicles didn't have the necessary documents. This lead to quite a bit of shouting and agitation, but eventually an exemption was granted. The big complication on the Armenian side was that everyone needed visas, which took a lot of time to process. Once a good number of the private vehicles were through, they were sent on, leaving the buses on their own. I have no idea how long they took to process, probably hours based on the scrum of people already standing outside the visa office.

In Yerevan, passengers and convoy members were left to fend for themselves. At the border, embassy officials had handed over a three-page, typed-up list of hotels. No onwards transportation was offered. In a real evacuation, I suppose it would have been different. My colleague Zygmunt, a Polish citizen who had joined his country's official evacuation, was given a hotel room, dinner and a flight to Warsaw the next day.

Overall, the entire operation took eight and a half hours (longer for the buses). The distance is a little more than 100 miles, as the crow flies – but the road in Armenia follows a canyon and climbs a few thousand feet over a pass, so distance alone doesn't give a true picture.

The drive down to the border certainly didn't seem like an evacuation from a war zone. Normal life was taking place all along the road. It was easy to fall into thinking that it was a bit of overkill to be in an official convoy. But upon arrival in Yerevan the news began to reach convoy members that the Russians had moved into the Georgian towns of Senaki and Zugdidi and there were rumors of their taking Gori. The feeling in the lobby of the Yerevan Best Western, as people checked in, was one of relief to have made it out.

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