In Istanbul the bus station is a multi-layered curved-concrete spiral – stuffed with little ticket-offices. Something that somebody might have found cool when concrete was young – or when they realised just how cheap it was to build. Outside each bureau a moustachioed man shouts out a destination.
“Adana” “Ankara” “Izmir” “Antakya” “Diyarbakir” “Kars” “Batumi”
Coaches are pulling in, people are pilling out. They’re migrating, trading cans for crates, lugging suitcases or picking up plastic bags of their belongings. Some are swearing as others rush to buy bits of food or bottled water. And then there are the goodbyes. Some tearful ones, some that seem more indifferent.
So there are still buses to the Caucasus. An overweight, never-shaven guy in a stained orange shirt pulls me to the bureau. There is only one bus to Georgia. It’s his – and it leaves in twenty minutes. I don’t give myself enough time to properly make up my mind. Pretty soon I’m sitting next to Sofia, who begins to tell me her story in broken Russian.
She is looking for her son. His name is Soso. He’s seven and she hasn’t heard from him since the Russians pulled into Senaki last week. Sofia has dyed black-hair, more wrinkles than women of thirty tend to and a mobile phone. Soso is her background. Every ten minutes she pulls her Nokia out to look at him.
“I thought it would a good idea…for him to stay with his grandparents…I…I”
She never finishes the sentence. I sat next to her the whole twenty hours to Batumi and she could never say any more than that. At four in the morning the coach stopped somewhere on the motorway. Orange lights from the streetlamps flooded the tarmac. As whole families boarded, I watched colourfully veiled women holding their babies and fathers telling jokes to little girls. Sofia jumped off the bus. I think she must have been sick because when she got back on she was pale. Her eyes are Georgian, they almost have something Cherokee in them. She tries to explain;
“This happened to my parents…when there was a war…this happened…happens..”
The Turkish peasants are too excited by the bus to fall asleep. Children rush up and down the gangway. Men are strolling along talking to their new friends and seat-neighbours. None of them is going to Georgia. Sofia falls into a kind of sleep, but still every half-hour she pulls out her phone to look at Soso.
At the border the Georgian Cross of St. George is still flying – but little else is in the right place. Half the police have rushed off to the front-line, half the staff have gone to find their families. Papers are piled up, left unfiled, and nothing has been cleaned for days. An exhausted women stamps my passport without bothering to scan it. I can’t make out where her mascara ends and where the black rings below her eyes begin.
Dense-forests cover the mountain foothills nearby and along the road life-size rusted metal crosses occasionally appear at the cross-roads. We pull into Batumi. I saw Sofia pulling a wheelie-suitcase through rows of taxis and mini-buses shouting out the name of her village. Then she vanished.
All these buildings are cheap blocks of flats, painted ‘cheerful’ colours. The pinks and pale greens are greeting me. There is nothing in Batumi. Everything seems to be under sixty years old. Perhaps there was nothing here before. Maybe they all lived in huts. Maybe there was a big war that destroyed what was here. Maybe I’m right. I need an Internet Café. I need to get to Tibilisi.
The taxi-drivers won’t take me. Tattooed men wave their hands in the air.
“We can’t. The road is closed…there is War in on the highway…and I don’t know the mountain passes.”
I asked several times and every answer was the same. Groups of people are arriving in the main square clutching bags, suitcases and stacks of pots and pans. A handful of refugees has just arrived. So this is what the edge of a war is like. Confusion. A mess in which nobody know what’s going on. People are shouting each headline to those around them.
“The trains aren’t working.” “Are they moving to Capital?” “They’re withdrawing did you see the news.” “They’ve dug in.” “What did Bush say?”
The only way out is the airport. The driver smokes Chesterfields, wears a neatly pressed yellow shirts and grips the steering wheel with thick hands used to labour. He has four rings, only one of them from his wedding.
“The Russians are coming…and they’ve brought Chechens. Aren’t you ashamed – you British…that they can just crush this place you made so many promises to? You see those ruined churches on the hills up there… there have been many wars here.”
He points at the airport. The sleek new building shows that until a few weeks ago Georgia was a bold experiment in free-market capitalism and westernisation. The EU flags hopelessly hangs down its pole.
The main hall echoes to screams for a ticket. Somebody’s mother, brother, whatever, is in Tibilisi. Old women are knocking on the closed booths of the airlines. Children are crying because they don’t know what’s going on. I try and imagine Heathrow falling to pieces. Somehow there’s a seat for me.
Three policemen are sitting around smoking Parliaments are muttering intp microphones. They offer me a lighter, then a seat. Levan is in his early thirties. His eyes never stop moving. His face still has bits of shock stuck to it.
“I was in the Zone…two days ago. We were both there.” He points across the table to his friend. “And there was another guy from the brigade. He stayed there.” He pulls out his mobile phone. His Russian is thickened by an accent I’m unused to. It’s hard to understand. He clicks play on his Motorola videos.
On the tiny screen a column of camouflaged men are moving through the mist. He taps this moving image. “That’s us. They sent the police in when they ran out of soldiers.” A guy is smiling. Another is smoking. Somebody tells a joke. “You see there was mist.” Then there is a whistling sound. Tiny-sounding gunfire. The camera rolls along the floor and starts to focus on somebody who’s not getting up.
“He used to be the guy at the baggage counter.”
I once saw a happy-slap on a mobile phone and it disgusted me. A Turkish coach-driver once insisted I see the porn collection on his Samsung. But seeing death on a Motorola leaves me numb. As I wait for the delayed plane the policemen smoke two packets of Parliaments and then move onto mine. They are speaking to each other quickly in Georgian now. I can only make out a few words.
“Bush” “Shakashvili” “Sarkozy” “Putin”