Their third day in the field, they saw a parade of military vehicles headed north, toward Russia. They noted it but continued collecting data.
The situation escalated quickly. Soon they were leaving Tbilisi for Turkey, in a commercial van that took them through Gori. They arrived in Gori, Andrea De Giorgi says, just after the first air strike.
“All the sudden we were exposed to the ugliness of a major bombing, with debris all over the city, and the smell of explosives and plastic burning and people running around and seeking help ... not knowing where to go and what to do, at which point the driver decided to speed up and he did so. In true NASCAR style, we drove through the city of Gori,” says De Giorgi, a visiting assistant professor in Case Western Reserve University’s classics department who was leading three students on an archaeological survey in Georgia before they evacuated to Turkey, which they did via a detour in Gori – a major site of fighting in the recently-erupted and perhaps now stabilizing conflict with Russia.
As the van sped down Gori’s main avenue, De Giorgi watched Georgians chase after them, wanting a way out of town. “Unfortunately our van was full and we could not accommodate any more passengers. It was a tragic moment. You should have just seen the despair on these faces,” he says.
“Even though we were driving really fast, you could still see the faces of the people -- not knowing what was going on, what it is that was happening to their town.”
“As we were leaving,” adds Nathan Bensing, a sophomore at Case Western, “we actually passed about five or six tanks coming into Gori.”
De Giorgi, who on August 3 bussed from Ankara to Tbilisi with his colleague Steve Batiuk, of Johns Hopkins University, to start the expedition, is now back in Ankara. He's hastily planning a new study abroad trip of sorts for the three Case Western students – two undergraduates and one graduate student. (De Giorgi has extensive work experience in Turkey.)
“We’re just going to go visit some of the extraordinary archaeological sites in the environs of Ankara, and eventually we’ll go see some of the beautiful monuments in Istanbul,” De Giorgi says. “That will be a good way to leave all of this behind us, even though some of the things we saw a few days ago are going to be with us for a long time.”
Having haggled with travel insurance companies, two of the students now have arrangements to leave Turkey: one on the 18th and one on the 21st. Only Bensing’s travel plans home haven’t yet been finalized. This was his first trip abroad.
According to Institute of International Education data, just 20 U.S. students studied abroad in Georgia in 2005-6, the most recent year for which statistics are available. On Saturday, the University of Washington canceled a month-long “Exploration Seminar” to Georgia scheduled to start August 25. Six students were signed up for the faculty- and staff-led program, which was intended, according to the program description, to investigate Georgia’s transition to democracy in context of its history and culture. “How have its language and culture survived so remarkably intact, given its tragic and turbulent history? What makes Georgian national identity so strong and its culture so appealing? How is Georgia managing to maintain its traditions and sense of national identity and yet interface with the West?”
Three U.S. graduate students in Georgia for summer language study safely left for Armenia via an embassy convoy, says Timothy Blauvelt, country director for the American Councils for International Education in Georgia. The students were from Emory University, the University of Michigan, and one of the Claremont Colleges, he says. Meanwhile, a group of 27 Georgian high school students bound for U.S. exchanges was set to leave for Baku, in Azerbaijan, at 6 a.m. this morning.
“For the last few days people were very worried,” Blauvelt says. “I went to pick up bread at the store. People were trying to buy up everything possible.”
"Yesterday it seemed as if the city of Tbilisi was going to be under attack or under siege."
But by Tuesday, with reports of a ceasefire (Russia, the New York Times reported its president as saying, "had 'punished' Georgia enough for its aggression against the separatist enclave of South Ossetia"), the mood had changed.
“The city was deserted the last few days, even more than August usually is. People are coming back to the city today,” Blauvelt says.
“Hopefully things will actually calm down now.”