Georgia On My Mind
April 14th, 1990. I remember the date clearly: I was to turn twenty-two and, by a quirk of calendrial fate, celebrate Easter all at once. One would normally consider this Christian concatenation of birth and resurrection propitious, an omen of better things to come; I certainly did at the time, though I was, and still am, a professed, albeit slightly superstitious, atheist. My Muslim captors, however, felt differently about the matter - quite natural, really - and were rather adamant that it be their lucky day.
Our Georgian hosts were taking us to Telav, an area redolent in religious history. It had adopted Christianity in the fifth century and eventually became one of the Caucasus' holiest places by virtue of its church, an age-old stone building perched high atop a rocky outcrop overlooking a family of smaller hills. Telav had also once been, for a brief period, the capital of the tiny medieval kingdom of Kakhetia, but its inevitable absorption by Georgia, and, later, Russia had brought it firmly back to its pious roots. Soviet-imposed godlessness had been a mere blip.
We numbered twenty in all: fourteen Canadian students from Leningrad State University and half-a-dozen sons of Georgia's top party cadres. We rented a beat-up old bus and set off from Tbilisi at nine in the morning with several bottles of red wine and an Azeri driver already hung over from an evening of malted revelry.
The bus broke down twice on our way up; it just couldn't handle the steep inclines which mark Georgia's mountainous landscape. After a couple of one-hour delays spent in futile repairwork, we finally traded it in for a more reliable model at a depot halfway between Tbilisi and Telav, and resumed our course.
Half-an-hour later, something went horribly wrong. The driver pulled into a tiny village, stopped the engine and walked out. Within a minute, we were surrounded by a gang of plug-uglies demanding that our hosts step outside for a little chat. That's when we realised that the village was one of the many Muslim settlements which spill over the Azeri border and into Georgia, and that we were pawns in an ethnic feud which centuries of blood-letting had failed to resolve. No sooner had the participants gathered in a circle than the shouting began in earnest: threatening, vituperative, curse-ridden, laced with contempt and defiance.
Such a turn of events would have been disconcerting in the best of times, but the horror stories of jilted lovers on vengeful sprees, of drunken gangs on murderous rampages, of localised intifadas and counter-crusades with which our Georgian friends had regaled us the night before had set our imaginations running wild. Many of us noticed the glint of knives and switchblades tucked behind the men's belts, and I myself glimpsed the barrel of a gun peeking out one shack's window. We could already see next week's headlines: "14 Canadians Shot Dead in USSR", and hastily began drawing up our wills. Something was going to happen, of that much we were sure.
Suddenly, the skies opened and everyone moved into the bus. The rain did nothing to cool tempers, however, and in fact inspired the antagonists to scream spittle into each other's faces with even greater force than before. They were by now bellowing in Georgian, and nerves were becoming dangerously frayed. We Canadians looked on nervously, eyeing one another in shared fear and understanding: sooner or later, someone would snap, weapons be drawn, and then...
Mark, the youngest member of our group, slowly, carefully, deliberately picked up his guitar and strummed out the most beautiful song - or so it seemed to me at that moment - I had ever heard. He sang in a slightly squeaky voice which cracked at times, but that made the song all the more poignant: it was almost as though he were crying.
The result was startling. Voices were immediately hushed or lowered. The lull allowed a measure of reason to set in, and even a hint of civility: one of the village elders left the bus and came back with large balls of homemade carmelised popcorn which he handed out to everyone. Mark laid down his guitar and accepted this peace offering as tenderly as he had sung.
The mood had changed from bellicose to almost serene. The Georgians and the Azeris soon came to a mutually acceptable agreement whereby an undisclosed amount of money would change hands. The ransom was a huge sum for the latter, but a pittance for the former - one of the many perks of being born into the Communist Party's upper echelons. In any case, two of the Georgians were set free to fetch the money, while the rest of us were billeted in a dingy restaurant with an outhouse too disgusting to describe.
The furnishings were bare in the extreme: a worn-down wooden floor, three plank tables, some rickety old chairs and a television set sitting on a shelf in the corner of the room. We sat down and tried to make the best of it. We talked for a while, then played cards. A few hours later, the Azeris brought us some fried cabbage and potatoes, the closest thing we had had to a meal since breakfast. By nightfall, we were disporting ourselves in a series of arm-wrestling duels; the Azeris, quite sensibly, refused to join us.
Finally, at about eight o'clock, just when some of us were beginning to wonder, sotto voce, whether we would have to spend the night under lock and key, perhaps to be murdered in our sleep, our envoys returned. They had walked for three hours through hostile territory before catching a ride to Tbilisi, where they rounded up the money and a few friends, including a bus driver. Thence it was a short ninety-minute drive back to our village.
We Canadians initially feared that the new arrivals would provoke the Azeris into an O.K.-Corral-type shootout, but the exchange went ahead smoothly: the Georgians handed over the ransom money, and our captors gave us back our bus. With wary leers and grumbling from all sides, we boarded and pulled out.
As I looked back and watched the village recede in the twilight, my mind a jumble of contradictory emotions - why is near-death so exhilarating? -, I swore that that would be the last time I was ever kidnapped.
Little did I know...
October 1997