As news spread that the presidents of Georgia and Russia had agreed on a French-brokered ceasefire to the fighting that began last week, the capital of Tbilisi erupted in celebration. Thousands of people crammed onto Rustaverli Avenue, and young Georgians, wrapped in white banners reading STOP RUSSIA, gathered in front of the Parliament building for a rally that lasted until early this morning. Some held candles; others carried Georgian and EU flags that had been handed out on the spot. When leaders of Ukraine, Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Georgia appeared before the crowd, the people chanted, "Sakartvelo!," an old name for Georgia. Each leader expressed understanding and promised full support for Georgia. "You have the right to freedom and independence. We are here to demonstrate our solidarity," Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said.
With constant fear of bombardment as the war approached their city, most of the crowd had been awake for hours on end. Photographer Tomari Bolkvadze, 26, and her husband, Alexandre Katsiadze, also 26, an architect, said they hadn't slept much during the last four days. "We did not want the war, we did not want to kill Ossetian people," Bolkvadze said. "To stop the war now, we pray for the EU to help us." The couple said they grieved for the young men of their age dying at the front, and for the Western journalists killed and wounded in a bomb explosion minutes before Russia's president announced the ceasefire.
Many people at the rally expressed doubt that a ceasefire would last. "Conflict with Russia is like a disease we have," said Georgy Pakhviashvili, 25. "I doubt peacemaking can be agreed upon on one day. Maybe it is too early to celebrate yet," he said.
"Ethnic conflicts in this part of the Caucuses have lasted for centuries. It is a very controversial and fragile issue; everybody should handle it carefully," said Katia Metriaveli, 30, a half-Georgian, half-Russian attorney from New York who flew to Georgia as soon fighting broke out to show her support. "The most important goal for all of us here is to establish peace and stop the disaster," she said.
The skepticism is hardly unwarranted. Some Georgians who'd fled the city of Gori attempted to return, only to see black smoke rising near the city. "These are Russian tanks outside of Gori, shooting at our military bases," Shota Utiashvili, a spokesman for Georgia's internal ministry, said in a phone interview. As rumors spread that at least 10 Russian tanks were parked on the outskirts of Gori, many returning cars stopped or turned back. Inside, the city looked empty—just a few elderly pedestrians could be seen in the central Stalin square, where a day earlier five people, including a Dutch journalist, had been killed by a missile. At Gori University around the corner, all the windows were broken and the walls cracked.
Talk of Russian tanks turned out not to be just a rumor. In apparent defiance of the peace deal brokered by French president Nicolas Sarkozy, about a hundred Russian military vehicles, some dragging trailers with heavy artillery, drove through Gori today on their way to the Georgian capital. Soldiers with happy smiles on tired unshaved faces waved to journalists. When asked where they were going, they said "to Tbilisi" and laughed. Some took pictures of journalists with cell phones. Asked by a NEWSWEEK reporter why they'd come to Georgia, one of the soldiers said, "That was not us who started this war." The tail of the procession looked less like a professional army. Irregulars, some in balaclavas, some in running shoes and civilian T shirts, didn't smile and pointed their guns at journalists, demanding that they stop photographing them.
Among those who haven't yet returned to Gori are Yana Khromova, 39, her four daughters, and her husband, Zurab Vanishvili, 44, an owner of a jewelry store in Gori. When the Russians invaded the town a few days ago, the family left their house in Ateni village and drove to a refugee camp in Mtskheta, where they are now staying with dozens of other refugees from South Ossetian and Georgian villages. Khromova worries what they will find when they return, because of looting there (Russia has denied that there has been looting). "We had a bad feeling that would happen when we abandoned our chickens and everything valuable we had in our home, when shelling grew stronger. Looting is one of the old war traditions," Khromova said. Her husband sits in his Lada automobile all day, listening to radio news: "I still hope the war will stop, but we are loosing our hope to return home. I heard that the Russians want to make a buffer zone along the border, and our village might happen to be in it." Such is the price of peace these days in Georgia.