From The Ground In Georgia

Russian military forces continue to occupy South Ossetia and Abkhazia, in what appears to be a defiance to compromise with Georgia over the disputed territories. Michel Martin talks to Davit Mamulaishvili, a graduate student from Georgia, about the conflict and its impact on the people there.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Just ahead, millions of Iraqis have been displaced by the fighting in their country. A few thousand have made it to the U.S. We speak to one man who came here after working for the U.S. military, about the hard decision to leave and what his life is like now. And a little later, another installment in our Summer Sipping series. We'll have some tea. But first, we're going to continue our international briefing with developments in Georgia.

Heavy fighting erupted over the weekend, when Georgian and Russian soldiers clashed over the breakaway region of South Ossetia. A ceasefire was signed on Tuesday, but Georgian officials accused Russia of violating the agreement just a day later by bombing the central city of Gori just outside South Ossetia. An unofficial estimate puts the number killed in the conflict so far at about 2,000 people, with another 100,000 displaced. The conflict has raised tensions between the U.S., Russia, and western Europe, with the U.S. strongly urging the Russians to pull back and the Russians insisting on the right to defend nationals living in the disputed area.

We wanted to know how this situation was affecting people, so we called on Davit Mamulaishvili. He's a graduate student in political economy at Central European University in Hungary. He joins us on the phone from his hometown of Batumi in Georgia. Welcome. Thank you for speaking with us.

Mr. DAVIT MAMULAISHVILI (Political Economy Graduate Student, Central European University, Hungary): Thank you, Michel. Thank you for inviting me.

MARTIN: How are you doing?

Mr. MAMULAISHVILI: We're doing good, all right so far. Everything is peaceful, for now.

MARTIN: Can you talk to me about South Ossetia and how is it viewed by the people in your country?

Mr. MAMULAISHVILI: South Ossetia has always been believed to be an integral part of the country. Prior to the Soviet occupation, it was a Georgian territory with lot of Georgian citizens living in the territory and lot of Ossetian citizens also in. And, as you probably know, in the beginning of the 90s, a couple of military conflicts erupted and a lot of refugees, Georgian refugees primarily, had to flee the region, and therefore, now, it's a problematic area because it's been impossible - quite difficult, not to say impossible, to return these refugees. And the belief in the heart and soul of every single Georgian person is that it's an integral part of Georgia, as integral as Tbilisi or any other part of the country.

MARTIN: And you know, of course, that the Russians see it the opposite way? Is that accurate?

Mr. MAMULAISHVILI: Actually, I think that the Russian diplomatic position on the issue right now is that the status of South Ossetia is still undetermined. They do not yet claim it as part of their own country, even though they provided a massive passportization of the citizens there.

And because of the conflict now, as it stands today, the Russians claim that all their military actions on the territory of Georgia, including this area of South Ossetia, is soley for the purpose of defending the Russian citizens, meaning those Oseetians that they provided the passports for.

MARTIN: And how is that being reported in the media there, in the Georgian media? And I'm particularly interested in how it's being reported, who was the provocateur in this, because, obviously, there are two points of view about that, also. What are you being told about this?

Mr. MAMULAISHVILI: Well, about two to three weeks prior to the fightings, there was media reports of some military attacks, even bombing, some civilian kidnappings from the side of Ossetian-controlled villages over to the side of Georgian-controlled villages and Georgian inhabited villages. And our side of the story is that we got the information of heavy military buildup from the Russian side, on the Russian-Georgian border, and we got the information that we were attacked from the Ossetian's side.

So our entrance into the South Ossetian region, which was not controlled by the government but within the territorial integrity of the country, was for self-defense purposes and to eliminate the aggressors, primarily South Ossetian criminals who were trying to provoke Georgia into making a mistake and entering into an open conflict. And our president has exclusively been very open, and in his very first statement, he said that he regretted the decision to commit the country to a war. But he said that there was no other choice, and we had to do so in order to defend ourselves.

MARTIN: Now, I know that this is hard to estimate because you're just one person, but do you have a sense of whether most people in Georgia support President Saakashvili right now? Do they agree with the way he's handled the situation?

Mr. MAMULAISHVILI: I can assure you that coming, especially from the issue of territorial integrity of the country, and the popular absolute belief that we have that South Ossetia and the other breakaway region of Abkhazia are integral parts of the country. I'm sure that, if not the entire, at least 95 percent of the population is behind the president and the Georgian government on this issue.

And there was public uprising in Tbilisi on August 12th. It was just another proof of how committed and united the Georgian people are, and how we will not give up on our causes, maintaining our freedom, and maintaining our country.

MARTIN: And I know that you're about 200 miles away from the, sort of, the active conflict or the scene of the bombing, but are people scared? Are they worried that the conflict is going to widen? Are they concerned?

Mr. MAMULAISHVILI: Yes, people are very concerned. I would even say scared, probably, because we have lived through the military might of the Soviet Union for 70 years. So we have no doubts about the military capacity, and we have witnessed how far they're willing to go. So I would say people are scared.

MARTIN: And is day to day life being affected? Like, are people stockpiling food and supplies and things like that? Or how are you - how are people responding to this crisis?

Mr. MAMULAISHVILI: Actually, as far as I know, and the thing is that I was in Tbilisi exactly when the war erupted, and I had to travel to Batumi two days after that. I had to go through the town of Gori right before it got bombed. I can assure you that in the two cities that I lived in, in Tbilisi and in Batumi, the situation is very calm.

People are living there as if there is no serious threat. I mean, you can see people in the streets. There is no chaos. There is no robberies, no crimes, no nothing like that. I think that people understood the importance of the situation, and they have concentrated and mobilized themselves even more so to make sure that whatever problems we're facing externally, we don't add any internal problems to it.

MARTIN: And finally, you are a student of political economy, as I said, and I just wondered if you would put your future diplomat hat on and tell me, what do you anticipate next? Do you think there will be a diplomatic resolution here?

Mr. MAMULAISHVILI: I think, right now, everything depends on what the plans are of the international community with regards to Georgia. I think the situation can be handled diplomatically, and I think that very soon, hopefully, with God's help, everything will go back to its normal life.

MARTIN: Davit Mamulaishvili is a graduate student in political economy at Central European University in Hungary. He joined us on the phone from his hometown of Batumi in Georgia. Davit, thank you so much for speaking with us, and good luck to you.

Mr. MAMULAISHVILI: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: For more information about the conflict and the region, we suggest you go to npr.org. There are a number of stories explaining the history of the conflict, the key players, and an interactive map.

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