Cattle are a common sight on the roads in Abkhazia. Tanks are not. A dozen tanks carrying Russian soldiers sat beside the road, setting up a checkpoint for vehicles going to and from the tiny Caucasus nation of Georgia. The soldiers glanced at the two men driving past in a jeep. Their combat fatigues marked them as militants who fought against Georgia, but the soldiers let them pass without question – or a good look at their passenger. In the back, international relations senior John Hudson reached for his camera to capture the opening moments of the Russia-Georgia conflict.
The rebel leaders in the driver’s seat immediately warned, “No photos.”
[jhudson11]”Those were the first English words I heard them say,” Hudson said. He had gone alone to Abkhazia, a region that broke away from Georgia after a civil war in the 1990s, to report on what had happened to the war’s victims as part of his field experience for James Madison College. The older reporters at the Tbilisi radio station where Hudson had been interning since late May told him to take at least one other more experienced person along on his trip into the region. The Georgian reporter who had planned to go with him balked at the danger. “I ended up paying off some rebel leaders in Abkhazia to drive me into the capital there,” he said. Hudson hardly expected that he would end up covering the stories of refugees from an entirely different conflict.
The contention between Russia and Georgia began Aug. 8, when Georgia launched a military offensive to reclaim South Ossetia, a province that, like Abkhazia, broke away in 1992 and sought to join Russia. Georgia was formerly a member of the Soviet Union, and South Ossetia and Abkhazia are regions that broke away from Georgia and have governed themselves as separate nations. Both provinces are still officially part of Georgia, though the Russian parliament and the Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry recently recognized them as independent. [johnhudsonphoto1]
According to Zarema Kumakhova, an assistant professor of Russian, the breakaway regions’ status has always been contentious. “Even under the Soviet Union, Abkhazia had ethnic conflicts with Georgia,” she said. “Even at the time [of Georgian independence], when [the borders were just drawn], it was fraught with problems.”
Norman Graham, director of the Center for European and Russian/Eurasian Studies and associate dean of James Madison College, said many Russians likely did not see their response to Georgia as a problem because many people in the breakaway regions embraced Russian advances. “It wasn’t as if they were taking over an area that didn’t want to be taken over,” he said.
Both sides claimed the other provoked the fighting. Russia had begun building up troop levels along its border with South Ossetia since spring, prompting a warning from NATO, but Georgia’s Interior Ministry claimed only to be retaliating against mortar attacks by South Ossetian militants when it began its shelling on Aug. 7. While the United States trained some Georgian forces, the Russians quickly overwhelmed them.
Entering Abkhazia felt like arriving in another country, Hudson said. The people spoke Russian and used Russian currency and license plates. “[Abkhazia] definitely was not modern. A lot of the [residents] were pretty poor, but there were some rich Russian tourists who came for the subtropical climate on the Black Sea,” Hudson said. “There’s nothing normal about the place. This one building looked like it was bombed out, but they were just taking the bricks for other buildings.”
[johnhudsonphoto2]Georgia, while not as developed as the United States, recovered much better from the civil war than Abkhazia and has most of the amenities of modern cities. “Even in the smaller cities in Georgia they have banks, you can use ATMs,” Hudson said. Another important difference is that civilian authorities are in control. “[In Georgia] the police kind of have a presence, instead of separatist militants driving around,” he said.
Despite the lack of normality in Abkhazia and heated rhetoric from politicians, Hudson never expected to see an armed conflict. “Everybody had this feeling like, wow, this has been a 14-year frozen conflict. Nobody was expecting it, but no one had the imagination that we were in a safe part of the world,” he said.
Hudson left Abkhazia an hour before the border with Georgia was sealed. Though there was no official sealing, “No one was even thinking about crossing unless they wanted to die,” Hudson said. “Once the war started, there were troops everywhere, so you weren’t going to be able to come from or go into the breakaway zones unless you were a soldier.”
“At first, getting out of Abkhazia, it was pretty scary,” he said. He called his mother to let her know he was safe before going to report on refugees crossing into Georgian territory. Hudson, who had articles about the new refugees published in Salon and other American publications, and plans to continue in journalism, said the danger did not bother him because he “fed off” the other reporters’ energy. “This was the moment. Editors who wouldn’t give you the time of day three days ago were begging for a story,” he said.
[johnhudsonphoto3]Hudson was not ready to assign blame to either side. “The Abkhazians see themselves as victims. Their history books will record this as, yet again, aggression by Georgia. The Georgian perspective is [that] yet again, Russia can’t accept Georgia as a free nation,” he said. “Personally, I think Russia has been playing a somewhat insidious, meddling role, but it was a bone-headed decision by [Georgian president Mikheil] Saakashvili to try to take over South Ossetia.”
Hudson said that the humanitarian aspect of the conflict was sometimes forgotten as reporters covered its larger geopolitical implications. “These 12, 13, 14-year-old girls would run into a house and see a bright light and the house would blow up around them,” he said. He interviewed Georgian refugees, because Russian refugees had fled for the northern border. Most of those he talked to expected more help from the United States. They would ask, “Where is your country?” Hudson said.
[jhudson2]Although the United States could not offer more military aid, it will probably continue to support Georgia, Graham said. While Georgia is not “intrinsically valuable” to either the United States or Russia, it controls oil and natural gas pipelines from Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, Graham said. He also said the United States has generally supported former members of the Soviet Union. “Georgia has been struggling ever since [the breakup of the Soviet Union] to become an independent democracy and a viable economy,” he said.
Kumakhova said Russia also has a long-term interest in good relations with Georgia. She said her father was educated in Georgia, and that many taxi drivers in Moscow are Georgian. “You have to be realistic. Georgia was part of Russia for centuries. Then it became independent. You don’t cut ties right away,” she said. “You are nice to your neighbors. In response, you want your neighbors to be nice to you.”
Relations among Georgia, Russia and other countries in the region fall short of the good neighbor ideal, Hudson said. “For students of international relations, it’s kind of an interesting area. It’s kind of an ideal east versus west conflict,” he said. “Saakashvili was educated by Columbia University. If you look at [Georgian] combat fatigues, they’re U.S. fatigues. It’s a Christian country in the middle of the Muslim world.”
Hudson’s exit from Georgia, while not as precarious as his jeep ride into Abkhazia, was still unconventional. He got a ride on a convoy of charter buses hired by the American embassy to evacuate American citizens, Georgians with green cards and one Canadian to Armenia on Aug. 15, the day Russia and Georgia signed a ceasefire after a week of warfare. From there he flew to London, and back home to Chicago. He said that he still thinks about the people he knew in Georgia.
Under the terms of the ceasefire, the tanks Hudson saw on the side of the road have returned to their prewar positions, leaving behind rebuilding for Georgians and Russians alike in the breakaway regions. “It was kind of a feeling of general malaise, thinking of my friends who had lost their homes, whose towns were occupied by Russians until very recently,” he said. “Despite everything that happened, it was the best summer of my life. Few things are more enriching and depressing at the same time.”