Friday, August 26, 2016

Behind The Poti Lines

Relief In Poti, As Residents Come To Grips With Damage Done

Abandoned checkpoints outside Poti

10 p.m. local time (6 p.m. GMT)

After exactly one month and two days of the Russian military presence, the town of Poti is finally free again. The mood has been festive and euphoric all day long. Streets, parks, restaurants, and cafes are full of people, who keep congratulating each other on the occasion, expressing hopes the "aggressors" will never return to their town.

Needless to say, the events of the last month have left many scars on Poti and its residents. Once the euphoria settles down, the town will have to start coming to terms with the many traumas and losses -- the most tragic of which, of course, are human deaths. Apart from this, the last month has entailed looted military bases, destroyed and sunk ships, illegally logged forests, excavated trenches and ditches, and $2 million worth of damage inflicted on the town's seaport.

The demining units have finished inspection of the areas that, up until this morning, hosted Russian military checkpoints, and concluded they were all mine-free. According to Major Irakli Maisuradze, the head of the Defense Ministry's demining unit, the areas were actually mined against pedestrians -- however, the Russian soldiers had removed all mines prior to their departure. So it is now safe for everyone to go to those places, Maisuradze said.

But not many people have done so. The places that used to host the Russian checkpoints are deserted tonight, unusually silent and dark. Someone told me a pair of Russian combat boots was discovered at one former checkpoint earlier. Perhaps their owner found a better pair on a looted Georgian military base, and left the old ones behind; perhaps he just forgot to take them. Either way, this simple pair of Russian boots is a poignant -- and perhaps even a little bit obvious -- symbolization of everything that has happened here. Poti has had a firsthand experience of Russian military aggression, and our collective memory is likely to retain this trauma for many decades to come.

Tags:end, poti, blog

The Russians Leave Poti -- At Last

A Russian tank leaving for Abkhazia

Noon local time (8 a.m. GMT)


Up to 150 Russian soldiers left Poti this morning -- their entire contingent. At exactly 8 a.m. the Russians vacated the Nabada checkpoint; 15 minutes later the personnel stationed at the Seventh Kilometer checkpoint followed them.


The Russian forces and their military hardware formed a long column. There were eight loaded Ural trucks and 10 armored personnel carriers; Russian flags were flying on the armored vehicles.


The soldiers were not aggressive towards journalists -- they were even waving good-bye to us. But they still declined to make any comments. On their way out of Poti they were taking photographs; some even crossed themselves as they left town. It seemed like they were happy to leave -- needless to say, this mood greatly resonated with how the residents of Poti felt as they watched them leave.


Demining units have started inspecting the areas where the Russian checkpoints were located. Journalists are not allowed to approach those areas, as it is still not known whether it is safe to go there. Presumably, the inspection will be finished by the evening and it will become possible for us to go and see those places then.


This is the first day in a long while that residents of Poti awoke to genuinely good news. A great sense of relief and joy is palpable everywhere.

Tags:poti, blog

The Wolves Are Leaving, The Sheep Return

Fatima Katsitadze and her sheep

8:30 p.m. local time (4:30 GMT)

At this time, it seems highly probable that the Russians really will leave tomorrow.

Preparations for their withdrawal are almost over. "Ural" trucks are loaded with goods and seem to be on stand-by. A short time ago, one armored personnel carrier, with up to 30 soldiers on it, left the checkpoint on Nabada. The number of soldiers has significantly decreased at the other two checkpoints, as well.

The rain has stopped, and it is warm again in Poti. Everyone is calm; people are no longer afraid.

Today, I took a stroll near the checkpoint at the Seventh Kilometer, and I met a local woman, Fatima Katsitadze, who lives in the nearby settlement of Shavghele.

Before the Russians came in, the surrounding territory was routinely used as pasture by the local people. So today Fatima resumed her pre-conflict everyday activity and brought out her sheep near a bridge that is only a couple of meters away from a Russian checkpoint.

When I spoke with her, she was glad to point out that she is no longer afraid of the Russian soldiers, as they are on their way out.

We'll see how soon this will happen. Tomorrow is a big day for Poti.


Hopes For Poti's Future

Busy streets in a more optimistic Poti

1 p.m. local time (9 a.m. GMT)

This is supposed to be the Russian soldiers' last day in Poti. If Mayor Saghinadze's claims are true, the last of the forces should leave by Saturday. 

Indeed, the Russians are clearly preparing to leave -- but they don't seem to be in any kind of hurry. In theory, all they have to do is fold up their tents and go. But the tents are still standing, and the soldiers are continuing to slowly load their Ural trucks.

At least there seem to be fewer of them.

The mayor of Poti is already sharing some positive news. Countering widespread fears that the destruction and insecurity caused by the invasion would have a long-term impact on Poti's economic future, Mayor Saghinadze is already engaged in negotiations with new investors. Part of Poti's coastline, the site of citrus plantations during Soviet times, has been granted to the Orthodox Church, but 450 hectares remain and are in need of development.

Now, it turns out, a company from an Arab state has expressed interest, and is planning to invest $2 million in the area. The local authorities have reportedly received the news as a sign of Poti's imminent development and bright future.

Tags:poti, Georgia, blog, Russia

Rain, Rain, Go Away...And Take These Russians With You!

10:30 p.m. local time (6:30 p.m. GMT)


The Russian troops are still packing up to leave, as far as we can tell. (As you can see, we're all watching them pretty closely.)


Their tents are still pitched and flags are still flying, but today there were noticeably fewer soldiers at the checkpoints.


Last night, the Russians lit campfires and just sat around trying to keep warm. It's gotten colder in Poti with the approach of fall and virtually nonstop rain.


The pullout, obviously, is the main topic of everyone’s discussions these days. The anxiety and skepticism that dominated the general atmosphere have given way to hopefulness and anticipation. One of the most telling indicators of that transformation is that most people I talk to now say they plan to send their children to school when it opens on September 15. It’s gotten safe enough to do so, they say, unlike even a few days ago.

Russians Even Taking The (Protected) Logs

A Russian soldier at a checkpoint in today's driving rain

3 p.m. local time (11 a.m. GMT)

Preparations for withdrawal are continuing at all three Russian checkpoints.

A group of soldiers and several trucks left Poti late last night. Despite the fact that it's been raining heavily, Russian soldiers are continuing to dismantle sections of the checkpoints.

At this moment, military hardware is being removed from the trenches and Ural trucks are being loaded. Apart from equipment and arms removed from Georgian military bases, the Russians are also taking away wooden logs that were, presumably, cut and prepared on the spot.

One of the three checkpoints is located on the territory of a national park, which is a protected zone. Georgia's minister for environmental protection, Irakli Gvaladze, has spoken about this already, calling the logging of rare tree species by the Russians a "catastrophic fact."

A short time ago, I spoke to Poti's mayor, Vano Saghinadze, who told me that from what he knows, the pullout of the Russian forces should be completed on Saturday.

Tags:poti, blog

Keeping Their Distance

Poti from the 9th floor
8 p.m. local time (4 p.m. GMT)

It seems like preparations for the Russian forces' pullout have continued throughout the day. In the morning, as I wrote already, the Russians removed the razor wire at all three checkpoints. Now they are also removing the posts around which the wire was wrapped.

Ural trucks are still being loaded with equipment and supplies. Excavators are no longer digging trenches. As for the troops, it looks like their numbers have decreased as well -- but there's still a lot of them in Poti.

The Russian soldiers continue to keep their distance, and won't let anyone approach. Today, I went with a group of local journalists -- we climbed up a nine-story apartment building near the checkpoints and observed the Russian forces from there. The people in one flat let us in, and let us use their balcony. From there, we could see how a group of international reporters approached the Russian forces, presumably to ask them for interviews. But the Russians refused to be filmed -- they did not allow the reporters to turn their cameras on.

It's still raining in Poti. But the overall atmosphere has significantly improved. It's becoming palpable that the Russia forces are really going to leave -- and people in Poti can't wait.

Tags:poti, blog