This is the ninth day of the Russian occupation of my country. The Russian invasion devastated all of us. Today is the Feast of Transfiguration. This is a feast of regeneration and hope. This is something that is badly needed, here in this country and everywhere.
I look from the car and see those roads and paths I used to take along with my best friends, or alone. Now they have been sealed off by Russian tanks and soldiers. Nobody can freely walk in the highlands and enjoy the beauty of creation. It is a time of war. I left home early without knowing whether I would be allowed to travel to the war zone. On the way I filled my bag with five loaves, two fish (freshly fried trout), a bottle of red wine, some chocolates and water as food for the journey. I also had taken with me my pastoral staff in case I had to walk all the way to Gori. I thought I had everything I needed for the unpredictable journey: I had bread and wine to celebrate the Eucharist; I had food to eat and water to drink. What else should I need? But as we left the last Georgian check point in Igoeti I realized that I had foolishly forgotten something very important or something I considered to be very important: I had no passport, no ID with me!
"How stupid!" I shouted in the car.
“What’s the matter?” said my driver, Lado, as he turned to me.
“I have forgotten my passport,” I said angrily. The driver went pale.
“What shall we do now?”, he asked.
“We cannot go back. I think I know what to do.” I answered him as calmly as possible so that he would not start panicking. I produced from the back of the car my episcopal attire and got vested in great haste. By the time we were stopped at the first Russian check- point I was fully dressed in clerical vestments, with my hat on my head and a large, chained encolpion on my chest.
The Russian soldier pointed his machine gun at the car and signalled to stop. He was a very young, newly recruited, handsome lad. The driver slowed down to stop the car. I opened my window and calmly looked into the face of the soldier. He also stared at me for a second and then signalled the driver to continue. We passed this check-point but there was no guarantee that we would be able to continue further on.
The cross and the checkpoint
Obviously I started to think what could happen if they found that I had no passport with me. A day earlier Russians did not let the British military attaché into the conflict zone, insisting that he had to have a Russian visa to travel in Georgia!! I realized that I had to be ready for anything, whether it was intimidation, arrest or something else.
We went through countless check points along the motorway to Gori. The Russians carefully checked the driver’s papers, the car, and the boot. They all looked tired and weary under the hot Georgian sun. Luckily they never asked for my papers. I could not take my garb off since the checkpoints were very close to each other. The only thing I could do was to take my hat off during the intervals between the check-points. The car has no air-conditioning, therefore I had to endure the heat and the sweating. I hate sweating.
The occupied territories and its villages now looked different. There were very few signs of life in the villages. Some buildings were damaged by bombs or tanks; there were burnt Georgian tanks and military lorries left along the road. There were burnt forests here and there around Gori, with their apocalyptic imagery.
Finally we got to the city of Gori, which has not been hugely damaged. The capture of the city was a conspicuous symbol of humiliation. Most of the buildings were intact, although the windows were smashed and most of the flats seemed to be abandoned. Stalin’s museum and his monument had also survived the air strikes. In the depth of my heart I wished they had been destroyed by the strikes. The mediaeval castle was also left undamaged. A Georgian flag was still flying on one of its towers. I always liked this city. Not because of its fame as Stalin’s home town but because of my family ties with it. One of my ancestors was in charge of the city in the Middle Ages. My family name was mentioned for the first time in the mediaeval records of this city. My father was one of the founding ministers of the Baptist churches in this city and in its surrounding villages. As a minister’s son I used to visit this city during the Communist time. I have lots of friends and tons of reminiscences of my time in this city. My father used to build up Christian congregations here that were ethnically both Georgian and Ossetians. We never thought that one day Georgians and Ossetians would be separated and stirred up against each other.
First of all I visited two of our churches in the city. Both buildings were still undamaged. Even though it was the Feast of the Transfiguration there was nobody there. Most of our people had fled the city, and those who did not were scared to leave their homes.
We stopped the car near the City Hall. There were lots of people there: journalists, aid workers, fully armed Russian troops. The village people had come here to seek some help and comfort. Some were asking for food, some for medicine, some for help in looking for their lost or dead relatives.
I wanted to go further on to visit some of our people in the villages. Reportedly the situation in the villages around Tskhinvali and Gori were much more difficult than in Gori. I did not want to risk my driver’s life by taking him to those villages. On the other hand I could not walk to those villages in the terrible heat wearing my clerical vestments. There was a great chance that our car could be taken away either with us as hostages or without. I tried to hire a local taxi in Gori but it did not work. Finally I ask Lado what he thought. He immediately agreed to come with me, and off we went again.
Thirty kilometres from Gori we entered a village called Ptsa, one of the last Georgian villages in the neighbourhood of the South Ossetian provincial capital Tskhinvali. Here I wanted to see a retired Baptist bishop of this area, Zaal Chimchiuri and his wife Nasi, a member of St Nino’s Order of Charity. I called the bishop as we approached the village and told him that I was coming. At the sound of our car those who had still stayed in the village went into hiding. Nowadays the only cars that go to the village belong to the paramilitary groups that come here to raid, to loot the houses and to take hostages.
The bishop lives here in a lovely two storey building with a small chapel on the ground floor where the local Baptist congregation meets. The house is surrounded by a large garden with apple orchards, vines, and all sorts of fruit trees. The entrance to the house goes through a vineyard full of the pleasant aroma of grapevines. I had been to this place many times. The gate of the entrance always used to be open. I had never seen it closed. This time it was firmly closed and Lado and I had to try our best to open it.
Eating the broken body and drinking the shed blood in a war zone
The elderly bishop was sitting half naked on the veranda of his house. His wife Nasi was helping him to wash. When they saw me both burst into tears.
“I knew you would come to see me, I knew,” cried the bishop like a little boy and then turned to his wife: “I told you Nasi, I told you. Didn’t I?” All of us were weeping as we embraced each other.
“Sorry, brother, I had to wash before I saw you,” said Zaal. “Both my wife and I have not slept in our beds since the invasion. We have been hiding in our back garden.
They can come here any time. They come, raiding houses, taking anything they like and then burn the houses... the other day they burnt my brothers’ houses. One of my brothers has been taken hostage like many of our men. They demand 10,000 Lari as ransom.”
“They have taken 90 cattle from our village,” continues the bishop’s wife, “But believe it or not both our cows came back home two days later. Somehow they managed to escape and find they way home...”.
“They must have been holy cows.” I tried to joke but neither the bishop nor his wife had any sense of humour left. Both wanted to tell me what had happened and what they had experienced. They are such a lovely couple, in their late seventies. You can rarely meet a couple that are so much in love with each other. I realized that I did not need to tell them anything - they wanted to get out what they had felt during the war. Our listening presence was something they wanted to enjoy.
After having listened to their dreadful stories I suggested that we would celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration and get the food for our spiritual journey – the Eucharist. I produced from my bag the bread and the two fish. Nasi laid the table and the bishop brought a chalice from the chapel. When everything was ready we celebrated a very simple yet very meaningful Eucharist in tears and silence.
The Eucharist was immediately followed by a meal that Nasi had prepared for us. We had bread, cheese, red wine, freshly picked tomatoes and purple basil.
“This is for peace!” said bishop Zaal and raised the glass of home-made red wine.
“This is something we all need.” I joined him in proposing the toast. We only drank three glasses: for peace, for the departed people from both sides of the conflict, and for the future.
Both bishop Zaal and his wife refused to come with us to my place in Tbilisi.
“We cannot leave,” said Zaal firmly. “This is our home. This is our village. We will not flee anywhere.”
I left the village with prayer that there will be happier times and that I will see this couple again. I pray I will.
The church, our refuge and our strength
On my way back to Tbilisi I visited some other villages and rescued from one of the villages a member of the Gori Baptist church. It will take pages to describe what I had seen in those villages. For the first time I realized that the occupiers take not only our territories but our minds as well. We all have been occupied by fear, humiliation and hatred. This is exactly what the enemy is looking for. I was too late getting to Tbilisi. I did not make it to the Cathedral where the Feast of the Transfiguration was celebrated. But when I got to the Cathedral there were a mother with two young children still waiting for me.
“We fled from the Gori area when the city was bombed. Will you pray for my sons? They have seen houses and cars on fire and they are still terrified,” the mother told me with her voice choking.
It was late when I finally made it to my house. I thought my brain would explode. I could not sleep. I could not think, I could not read or pray. I switched the TV set on and looked for a channel with international news. There was a talk about the war in Georgia where an expert was asked by a journalist whether it was Georgia’s fault to have started the war. I could not listen to it. After all my experiences of the day even the question seemed so irrelevant. Is it so simple to say who is wrong? Is it so simple to blame one side for countless atrocities, robbery, humiliation, rape, and killing? I sat in front of the switched-off TV screen and wept in powerlessness and helplessness. How is it our fault, what has been the fault of all the people who lost their loved ones in the war from either side?
*This item is a revision of an article Bishop Malkhaz submitted for publication in Europe.