In the back of an old folder I found this photo published by the Independent on 21 October 1993, taken when I accompanied a harried former President Shevardnadze from Tbilisi to the central Georgian city of Kutaisi. On arrival in Kutaisi, I (and Vanora Bennett, then a reporter) jumped onto a helicopter that was waiting to take off to reach refugees streaming out of Sukhumi. Shevardnadze’s spokesman pulled us off, insisting we stay with the president as he toured the town. Luckily. The same helicopter crashed on a mountain pass. I flew over the wreckage on the way to see the refugees in another helicopter a few days later, and the pilots told us that all who had been on board that first helicopter had died.
Two decades ago, the (former Soviet) Republic of Georgia was crazed with conflicts and confusion. Everything has now changed, of course, and when I stayed a week last summer I saw that construction is under way everywhere. Betsy’s Hotel no longer a warren of old thick-walled houses in a steep alley but a clean, all-mod-cons apartment block overlooking the city. Among the vineyards of the Kakheti valley, not far from where I had once visited rusty old Soviet grape-crushing machines and the men who had seized control of them in order to rip off foreign investors, I stayed at a German-owned winery with shiny stainless steel vats and immaculate outbuildings where vintners are recreating ancient ways of fermenting wine in great earthenware pots. And, of course, Tbilisi Airport is now new and unrecognisable compared to the days we used to go on trips like the one described below …
The Independent, 1 May 1993
Out of Georgia
COMING IN ON A WING AND A PAIR – OF MAUSERS
By Hugh Pope
TBILISI – Cleaning one’s nails with the pin of a live grenade is an apt way to describe the thrills of flying in some of the newly-independent southern republics of the former Soviet Union.
Indeed, that as exactly what the man across the aisle was doing as we sat waiting for take-off at Tbilisi airport in Georgia. And he was modestly armed compared with the piratical gang of soldiers around us. One commander had a pair of Mauser pistols the size of meat cleavers strapped to each of his tree-trunk thighs.
When a domestic ticket costs less than a cognac and a chocolate bar in the gloomy airport cafés of the Caucasus, a sense of danger is not surprising. But there was no charge at all for this flight to the front line of Georgia’s war with separatist rebels in Abkhazia.
The gate was marked by a clutch of civilians with bundles of luggage tied up in paper, trying to get past a check-in desk wedged against the door. Soldiers lounged in corners swapping stories, toasts of brandy and comparisons of their personal armouries. Do come along, they insisted, but explained there might be a delay because of the national shortage of fuel. “Don’t worry, we’ll find some,” they said. That, we learned later, sometimes involved surrounding another plane about to take off and siphoning off fuel.
Far too many people seemed to have been invited to join us. The pilot stormed on, off and back on again. Fist-fights broke out and the man with the Mausers waved one in the air and led a charge up the boarding steps. Teenage soldiers downed vodka as if it was water. An apparently dead body on a stretcher stewed in the heat, along with nauseating smell-waves of garlic sausage and sacks of onions.
It was only five hours later that we managed to take off for the 250-mile trip to the war-torn Black Sea port of Sukhumi, cut off from the capital by bandits on the roads and rebels on the railways.
As we taxied to a halt a dozen cars surrounded the plane. Within minutes, hundreds of soldiers were fighting to get up the stairs. Others tried to forced their way down. As the first shots rang out, we escaped down a metal scaffold thrown up against a little-used emergency exit.
Our 24 hours in Sukhumi, touring frontline positions, came to seem like rest and recreation, however, compared to the flight back to Tbilisi. We limped to the airport in a wreck of a car looted from the Abkhazians. An armoured vehicle had appeared on the tarmac, symbolizing an order that did not really exist. One plane was up on three huge jacks, being looked over by a dubious ground crew. Another had been blown apart, perhaps hit in a legendary bombing raid by an Abkhazian rebel in a hang-glider. It was being subjected to the kind of cannibalization for parts that in Dushanbe, capital of Tajikistan, has reduced half the aircraft on the apron to skeletons.
A flight had just arrived, miraculously, from Moscow. Its passengers were allowed off in peace. Dragging their baggage through puddles, they headed up the overgrown steps and through the broken window-frames of still-locked doors into the terminal and out through another window into the car park.
What, only six months ago, had been a rather pleasant neo-classical building among cypresses and palm trees now looked like a scene from a film about post-nuclear chaos.
Gunmen had wantonly fired bullets into the smooth plaster dome over the main hall. A gang of men had made a bonfire in the middle, sitting on planks, swilling vodka and insulting strangers. Snatches of song rolled down from a drunken party in progress upstairs.
Outside, dogs thrown out on to the streets by owners no longer able to afford pets had formed a pack to sniff for food among the debris, misty rain and advancing sub-tropical vegetation. Under the wings of the Moscow plane, local people had started bleeding fuel into kerosene cans to heat their homes, looking for all the world as though they were milking a giant cow.
The Tupolev from Tbilisi landed in a shower of spray and it our turn to lay siege to the plane. After the coffins and the walking wounded were on board, screams, shots and women’s tears made no difference as were crushed together with our luggage. A big soldier blocked my way with his rifle, hitting me one moment and gently pushing my dislodged glasses back up my nose the next.
Another gangway went up nearby. We threw ourselves off our boarding steps and headed over there. Bliss: two seats were left. Nothing else seemed to matter as the plane filled as full as a Cairo bus and a man with four machine-guns invited himself on to the table over my lap. Pockets full of bullets spilled over the seats and boisterous thugs in bandannas tied like pirates pretended to toss grenades at each other like English schoolboys with buns.
After hours of pleading, the pilot popped out to survey the bizarre scene. A crewman said there were 230 people on board the 170-seat plane. “Normal,” said the captain, and went to start the engines.
Did the Georgian doctor-turned-militiaman beside me miss the safe old certainties of the Soviet Union? Not a bit of it. War is war, he said, and the plane still flies.
A version of this experience also appeared in the Los Angeles Times (here). It’s pretty similar, obviously. A scary moment that neither story mentions was that in order to take off, the crewman forced all those standing in the aisles and in the front seats to go to the back of the plane to try to get the nose up in the air (the same applied to the landing). The LAT version expands on the scene when the pilot popped out of his cockpit:
The bemused pilot in his Soviet-era uniform got out to watch this exercise in anarchy. Leading the charge were the soldiers, an intimidating, war-scarred bunch, armed to the teeth, some with long beards like Orthodox monks, others with piratical bandannas around their heads. Despite their rough appearance, many turned out to be former students of economics, doctors or even former archeologists. Hard-bitten individualists to a man, there was no question of giving or obeying any orders.
“Discipline! Discipline!” shouted a 74-year-old veteran, once a squad of soldiers had managed to roll a set of steps through the crowd up to the fuselage of the plane. “If we have no discipline, we will lose the war!”
Nobody listened as the old man weakly waved his revolver in the air, although there was relative quiet as several thin steel coffins bearing war dead appeared. A drunken policeman fired a slow salute as they were passed hand over head into the plane.
I have already posted another Indie ‘Out of’ story about what it was like to travel by train in those years here, here at Champagne and Cabbage on board the Baku Express. For my summer 2012 photo album on today’s Georgia, busily under construction, see here.
When an Azerbaijani co-worker arrived in our Istanbul office, she was pretty surprised by the ragged Internet service offered by Turkey’s high-handed TTNET monopoly, comparing it unfavourably to zippy data speeds in the glossy new Baku. Roles have indeed reversed, reminding me of the days things weren’t so great in the Caucasus. On my first trip to Azerbaijan in 1990, the only way I was told I could communicate with anywhere outside the Soviet Union was by telegram. Theoretically. The one “in Baku am ok stop” message I attempted to send never arrived back home in next-door Turkey.
The story below about one aspect of the traumatic transition to the early chaos of Caucasian independence was experienced just a month after the Soviet collapse. It’s a medley of experiences with my photographer brother Patrick as we criss-crossed the region that really freezing mid-winter. Neither of us spoke any Russian, my Turkish only half-worked with Azeris and we had little idea what we were doing. One day Patrick went out looking something more exciting to do than watch me pointlessly try to make phone calls. He came back with a pair of tickets to somewhere we’d heard events were afoot – Grozny, in Chechnya. We had no idea that were about to go to independent Russia, but back then, nobody raised an eyebrow…
CHAMPAGNE AND CABBAGE ABOARD THE BAKU EXPRESS
By Hugh Pope
Baku – Icy draughts whistle in through the cracked carriage-work. There are long unexplained stops in the night. Thieves are so rife that conductors tell their passengers to stow even shoes securely under their bunks.
But at crumbling railway stations all over the Caucasus, long-distance trains of the old Soviet railways still creak into action with little regard for who is independent, who is at war and who has signed on to the Commonwealth of Independent States.
The Soviet system may be decaying, but parts survive – and with a lingering pride of purpose. It may have taken up to two hours to struggle for tickets. But of five trains I travelled on in recent weeks, four left precisely on time.
The conductors still shovel the coal into ancient boilers that keep each carriage warm. They hand out sheets, slightly damp and grey, but clean. And at each station passengers with money stock up on supplies, shared with compartments companions with remarkable joie de vivre. “You’re from England? Fantastic. This calls for champagne,” said a collective farm mechanic from Nagorny Karabakh, returning minutes later with “Azerbaijan Champagne”, fruit juice, sausages and bread.
Fate chooses one’s fellow-passengers and there is no segregation of the sexes, as we two men found one evening when shunted into the same four-berth second-class compartment as Martha and Khalima, two shop assistants from the would-be independent Chechen Republic. Good Muslim women, they wouldn’t touch our Western food offerings for fear of pork. But with broad smiles they brought out a bottle of vodka to go with the pickled cabbage bought from one of the more unlikely minorities in the Caucasus, the ethnic Koreans of Grozny.
First class “SV” carriages still tag on the end of the 20-cariage, three-day service from Baku to Moscow. But the relative luxury could not match the atmosphere of third-class travel in 54-berth mobile dormitories.
There were Uzbeks, Dagestanis, Slavs, Jews, grandmothers, chicken merchants and drunken soldiers, but all obediently unrolled their bedding on cue from the woman conductor. Ethnic tensions amounted to light-hearted teasing of two Armenian women who got on to a carriage in Georiga but wouldn’t come in because it was full of Azeris. “I love this job. You really see the world,” laughed our conductor, a half-Kurdish Azeri, enforcing the no-smoking rule by shooing out a grandfather who lit a cigarette.
The world may only pass the grimy train windows at a lurching canter, but at least the railways regularly deliver people over long distances for a price that makes the Western visitor feel like a millionaire – 30p for the 15-hour journey from Baku to Tbilisi.
There are few travel alternatives. By some miracle, Aeroflot still works relatively well in the Caucasus, with tickets available for dollars. But there are very few flights and safety standards put one on a wing and a prayer.
Card sharps tried and failed to relieve us of our money on the train, but road travel is far more dangerous in these times when highway bandits are at large.
Vehicles are also becoming unreliable. The vie-president of Azerbaijan’s Intourist agency said he believed half of Baku’s taxis were off the road due to missing parts. Private hire was little better.
Taking a small Lada from Tbilisi to western Georgia involved a long detour to buy petrol from a mafia-run collection of tankers. On a mountain road the car shuddered to a halt as impurities clogged up its carburettor. Our friends cursed fluently in Georgian but dismantled it with a well-practiced air, sucking each pinhole clean in a driving blizzard. The miracle of survival continued as we surmounted icy slopes with long run-ups and thanked our lucky bald front tyre for our safe arrival.
Nobody would hire out a vehicle for the journey back. All over the Caucasus, crime rates have doubled. In the absence of most central police authority, car owners remove their windscreen wipers and chain up the steering wheel, lock the pedals and park them in guarded lots if they can.
So it was an Israeli businessman also stranded by the weather who offered us a ride back over the mountains through snow-storms in the one vehicle he had found for hire – an open-top truck already filled with snow. Amazingly, Georgian snowploughs had cleared the road and we made it.
Half-frozen at the top of the pass, resting and dreading the next three hours of night travel, a bus parked in the same lay-by suddenly offered the chance of a ride all the way back to Baku with a bus-load of Azeri tourists and suitcase traders. Rarely have I felt so grateful. Friendly hands took off our wet coats. Warm furs were draped over our shoulders. Mugs of cognac were passed.
“You will write that we are not monsters, won’t you,” said Maia, a Baku police captain who had gone all the way to Turkey to buy clothes for her children, but had been robbed at the customs post. “We really hope things get completely back to normal soon.”
The Independent, “Out of the Caucasus”, 8 February 1992