LeftEast: What is your situation? How do you feel?
Anna: I have been living in Tbilisi for several years, but had to return to Russia for family reasons. Of course, I was anxious and scared about what would happen next, whether I would be able to return to Tbilisi and what the situation would be like there.
LE: Can you tell us about the general situation at the border: how many people are there, what are the conditions, the weather, etc.? Has the Russian state tried to stop people at the border, or is it expected that the border will be completely blocked?
Anna: The situation at the border has exceeded all my expectations, even though I’ve been monitoring the news and chats about what’s going on there. There are very, very many people. The traffic jam towards Georgia starts from Vladikavkaz, cars barely move. Many people complained that they drove a couple hundred meters in 24 hours. People walk along the cars, offering various services, some selling food, gasoline, water, bicycles, some offering a place in line, some offering to buy a car back. There are a lot of such “businessmen”, some of whom queue only to sell their place in the queue to those who are farther from the border. The most successful “businessmen” are said to earn hundreds of thousands of rubles per day. In addition to cars, a stream of pedestrians moves toward the border. With children, animals, suitcases and bags. Ahead of them is a huge line of people, who, according to various reports, stand for 6-10 hours, maybe more. Also, not far from the border there are military vehicles, soldiers with machine guns, but in my presence at least they did nothing, they just stood there.
Then people found themselves in neutral territory. It is all filled with cars and trucks. Cars spend about 15-24 hours there (going to Georgia, going back – I do not know), it depends. Through all these cars, through the tunnels, people go, already exhausted, many at this point run out of water and food. Many lie down to rest on the rocks along the road. Some barely drag their bags on half-dead rusty bicycles, many bicycles do not stand the test and remain lying by the road, crooked, without wheels or parts. At the end of the neutral area another huge line of people are waiting, waiting for hours, some standing for 10 hours, some less, some more. Many people end up standing in it all night when it gets really cold. I was in the car and was freezing while I smoked a cigarette. It was scary to think how cold they were. I met people who couldn’t stand it and went back to Russia.
There are a lot of rumors that the borders will be closed, of course, many people are talking about it. But so far, as far as I know, it has been decided not to allow cars with license plates from other regions into Vladikavkaz. There are also selective refusals at the border, but it seems that so far there are no masses.
LE: And exactly what kind of people are trying to cross the border? (Are there Ukrainians from southern and eastern Ukraine, since for “men” the main way out of the occupied territories is through Russian and then beyond.) What are their motives, political or otherwise? What is the mood of the people there?
Anna: People are very different, a lot of people from the North Caucasus, all kinds of regions of Russia, a lot of families, women with children, old people, of course, a lot of young guys. A lot of Georgians are also trying to return. The checkpoint on the Georgia side of the border is full of guys from the North Caucasus, some with their wives. Many of them have not been allowed into Georgia and they stay there, sleeping on the floor, trying to go through the control again and again. One guy from Dagestan told me he would try to the very last: he doesn’t intend to fight for “such ambitions.” He is ready to return home only if “the war comes to his house.” Also on the Georgian side, many people are standing for days waiting for their relatives, because they often cannot get in touch. There was a family from Abkhazia who are now fleeing to Georgia but whose children have stayed behind in Russia to study. “We were refugees before, and now we have to run away again,” they said. There was a Georgian who went to Russia for a wedding for three days, and is now trying to go back. There were a lot of questions about the Ukrainian passport in the chats about the situation on the Lars, but I personally only met a guy from Donetsk who was on his way home. “I’m just tired of living like this,” he said.
LE: What do people expect to find and/or do in Georgia? Do they know the country? Do they expect to stay there, look for work, etc., or do they use it as a starting point to travel to other countries, and if so, where? Or do they plan to go back to Russia? (If so, when?)
Anna: Many go to friends/acquaintances, hoping to wait it out for a while and come back. Some are traveling without money or plans, hoping to find a job in Georgia. Some say directly that they do not know where and why they are going, and what to do next. Many people are transiting to Turkey and other countries. Already in a hostel in Vladikavkaz I met a girl from Mongolia who was planning to walk to the border to get to Turkey. To my attempts to dissuade her, she replied that she had no choice, as her residence permit in Russia was coming to an end and so was her money, and there was a job waiting for her in Turkey.
LE: Who do they leave behind? (Do they move their families?)
Anna: Many travel with their families, but women and children are left to wait in line as men are sent to walk to get across the border as quickly as possible.
LE: How has the Georgian society reacted? Are there support networks for incoming Russians? Anti-migrant sentiment?
Anna: So far, as far as I can see, the Georgian side is letting most people in. Of course, I see that Georgian society is frightened, and I understand these worries perfectly, but I also understand why people are fleeing, and it pains me to think about it. Some may think that wealthy Muscovites, who don’t care about anything and just want to keep their comfort are running away, but most people are very frightened. They don’t want to fight, they don’t want to lose their loved ones and they see their helplessness in the current situation.
People try to help each other, share their last meal, organize order in the lines. After it became clear what was happening there, many went to the border to try to pass food and blankets.
Anna is a painter based in Georgia.