Thursday of the 8th week in our 10 week intensive training program (PST - Pre-Service Training) we got a Safety Alert text message that there was fighting in South Ossetia (off-limits conflict zone/separatist region) and we will be picked up for transport to our training center in Khashuri in one hour. We had occasionally gotten texts about the conflicts in Abkhazia (the other conflict zone/separatist region) and S. Ossetia, but this was the first one that necessitated an all-trainee meeting.
This weekend was to be our ‘cultural trip’ when we would spread out and explore the country of Georgia, see the sights, etc. on our own, away from the training villages near Khashuri. Our plan was to skip our Saturday morning language class (pre-approved, since we are Kartuli (Georgian Language) superstars, ha!) and head to Kazbegi in the mountains of NE Georgia, a few minutes from the Russian border. Well, it became clear soon that those plans were no more. We were strongly encouraged on Thursday to reconsider our travel for the upcoming weekend. That night from our training village of Tashiskari, 20 minutes west of Khashuri, we heard what we thought was thunder, but hmmm… why are there no clouds in the sky? Other trainees were kept awake that night by the sound of the gunfire from the conflict and Georgian tanks rolling by on the way to the conflict area. However, even though these sounds could be heard, these trainees were at a safe distance from the actual fighting (these were trainees in other villages closer to the action - we were lucky enough to be the furthest away), but the sounds travel quite far.
The next day (Friday), we were forbidden to travel on our cultural trip. This was due to reports that Gori (a larger town 1 hour east of Khasuri, where we had celebrated the 4th of July at a nice restaurant, and where our host mother, Ani’s parents live) had been bombed by Russian planes. Peace Corps immediately evacuated the permanently-placed volunteers stationed in and around Gori. In lieu of our cultural trip, and serving as a practice safety and security exercise, Peace Corps arranged transportation and accommodation (posh) in the mountain town of Bakuriani, which we had come to know over two previous visits there for training/conferences. We and the other trainees were given 5 minutes each to grab enough clothing, etc. “for the weekend” as we were transported through the villages by marshutka (minivan). Ours was the first marshutka to reconvene in Khashuri so we chose to spend a few minutes buying emergency essentials such as extra cell phone minutes and watermelon (Georgian watermelon is the best we’ve ever had). We then all traveled together (dare I say Peace convoy?) up to Bakuriani from Khashuri. At some point that night or the next morning the other permanent volunteers countrywide (G7s and G6s - we are called G8s - the 8th group to come to Georgia) were consolidated in Kutaisi or Tbilisi, depending on where their sites were.
We spent the next two days on an emotional roller coaster in Bakuriani, having 3+ meetings per day getting updates from Peace Corps staff on the situation (since all the TVs at the hotel were in Georgian or Russian). Some reports sounded positive, while others were shockingly negative, however, we felt 100% safe at this faraway resort location in the southern mountains of the country and other Georgians were there as well, presumably for safety reasons. The hotel has to be commended for being able to house and feed a surprise extra 90 people in a time when food supplies were scarce and tensions in the whole country were quite high.
There was no internet at the hotel either, but one Peace Corps staff member had a cell phone link to the internet and an office printer in his room and was faithfully printing English news reports from the web and taping them up on the walls for us. The entire PC Georgia staff was impressive in this stressful time, especially considering they left family (some even have children) behind elsewhere in the country, placing their concerns on us, the Peace Corps volunteers. Our families (both in the U.S. and host families here) were concerned about us but the entire time, all of us were having feelings of guilt (for drawing them away) and sorrow for the Georgians, including our wonderful staff.
On Sunday, the possibility of relocation to Armenia became a probability then a reality. Reports came in that Russians had bombed and/or occupied targets/areas inside Georgia (i.e. entered the area controlled by Georgia, not just the separatist regions), including Gori, Zugdidi, Kutaisi, and Tbilisi. We were to pack that night and prepare for leaving by bus Monday morning at 11:00 AM local time.
That night there was a noticeably drastic change in mood among the volunteers, trainees, and staff.
We boarded the buses the next morning after a final breakfast at the hotel in Bakuriani and began our journey south to the Armenian border. The roads were not great in places but this was a much more comfortable trip than some of the bus trips I remember taking in South America last year - plenty of food/water/bathroom breaks. Plus, this route was chosen as the safest way to leave the country. Air evacuation was not an option due to the possibility of Russian warplanes in the air at any moment.
Border formalities took a while (about 3 hours), as can be expected when 2 buses carrying 80+ Americans shows up at the Georgian/Armenian border (in the middle of seemingly nowhere) and some of them don’t even have their passports! All told, it was handled as efficiently as possible given the situation, and we can thank all the officials for their patience and courtesy. We changed buses at the border, which was very quick because all of us were packing light (remember we were just packing for the weekend?), and eventually were on our way in Armenia at dusk with the ink still drying on our Visas and entry stamps. Also, our snack bags were re-stocked (no restaurants existed on our way to Armenia that could handle us so we were on snacks all day - but far from being hungry - we also had been given plenty of water) with fresh apples and Snickers bars - which was the most delicious Snickers we had ever eaten!
We arrived at the palatial hotel 4 hours later (plus a 1 hour ahead time change made it almost 1 A.M.), and despite the late hour, there was a Peace Corps Armenia welcoming committee, and everything was organized - rooms were pre-assigned and we each had a welcome packet with Armenia country info and some useful phrases transliterated for us into English characters (Armenian uses its own alphabet, as does Georgia, but it is different from Georgian, which we had been studying for the last 8 weeks). We were told to dump our bags in the lobby and head straight for dinner - the cafeteria was in full swing awaiting our late arrival and they had a multi-course meal ready for us to inhale, er, devour.
We are now enjoying a decent night’s sleep in a nice place here in Armenia, watching BBC (English) news broadcasts with long faces. We are all hopeful for a peaceful and expedient resolution to the conflict and we all wish to return to Georgia, since we have left behind many friends and family members. Our thoughts are with them.