The drive to the airport in Bucharest was eventful as anytime spent on a Romanian road is. The only trouble was that Mette and the crew needed to get to Bulgaria and my flight wasn’t till 7.30 in the evening so I was dropped at the airport at midday for a mind numbing 7 hour wait. I am quite good at these as I just turn my brain off and descend into a deep vegetative state. I write a bit and watch people go by. People are always entertaining to watch. The flight finally came and I made the short hop back to Istanbul. More waiting till the 11.30 pm flight to Georgia. I wore a groove in the departure hall wandering up and down looking at the bling and shinny new toys that people buy in these places. I don’t get it but I am not much of a consumer.
Brand handbags and ‘cool’ sunglasses with masses of stink liquid (perfume), fags and booze. So there you have it, the zenith of the consumer world. What we all strive for, except me. I have never fitted into this world of consumption very well.
Tbilisi airport was new and the immigration booths ready for action. I presented my passport and he said, “You must pay”. Sixty of the local currency was extracted and I was in. It’s amazing the more insignificant the country the bigger and flasher the stamp. This was no different. They invaded a full page of my over full passport with a massive colourful sticker with holograms. At least I got something for my sixty bongos. As one bongo is about two thirds of a euro it was a very expensive sticker.
Joe and Irakli were waiting outside for me and we headed to Joe’s place to grab a few hours sleep before we went in search of cluster bombs. The road in was in surprisingly good condition and the city looked like it had money. Plenty of expensive cars and good housing were all about and the old part of the city was really beautiful with ancient flood lit ancient walls. It was past 4 am when we got to Joe’s so sleep was to be brief.
Tbilisi was not our destination as the heavy strikes were around Gori, so by 1030 we were on the road north. In the daylight the place is still nice with the usual dose of manic traffic all about but that’s life where ever you go here. The route was north into the mountainous part of Georgia. Gori was the birthplace of Joseph Stalin and probably one of the only places on earth with massive bronze statues to him still standing. After the end of communism tributes to Stalin, Lenin and Marx were very unpopular and dragged down and destroyed but not here. Old Uncle Joe stood tall and proud in the town square as a timely reminder to Gori’s favourite son.
Gori was one of the epicentres of the fighting and took some direct hits. In the beginning many thought the strikes in town were cluster bombs but that was proved wrong. Rockets and mortars were most probably used killing around 20 people and wounding many others. This is where the Greek journalist we met in Athens was. We drove out of town to Rusi which is a small village west of here. NPA are doing this area for clearance. The tell tale strike marks of varying sized craters and blast marks dot the area and quickly the team was locating live munitions. Their next problem was what to do with them, as they are having great trouble getting explosives.
Cluster bombs are very sensitive and any movement can spell death, so they must be blown up where they are found. The same old problem also exists here that local people do not understand the continuing danger, so do some really stupid things. They feel as the war is over it is safe and to reinforce this, if the military have been through and destroyed surface munitions then it must be ok. They will really find out how wrong they are once they try to farm somewhere and run a plough across the earth.
On the NPA site the guys were working an area that had taken hits from 9N210. These are 100% Russian munitions so their claim that they have not used cluster bombs in this conflict is absolutely shattered. You can run but you just can’t hide the evidence that will always remain. A 9N210 is a sub munition that is fired from a multiple launch rocket system. There are 12 launch tubes with one rocket in each. Each rocket contains 72 munitions. That is 860 clusters bombs on a target per firing. The munitions are mixed with delay and impact fuses and have high failure rates. The ones that fail are normally underground and will stay in a highly dangerous condition till someone does something like farming. At this point they self deactivate by blowing themselves and the farmer to pieces. Of course with so many fired there are enough left over to blow plenty of farmers to pieces for many years to come. Where is the military utility in this?
Up till now the Russians have claimed they did not use cluster muntions. One word for that, busted! I always find it funny that a country like Russia or America can do something then deny it. They behave like naughty children who broke a window and will not admit that they did. It’s actually very childish. The President was, childish. The General was, childish.
During and after wars there are many lies. Lies for propaganda, lies to cover up, lies to avoid responsibility, lies to damage your enemy.
The Russians are not the only ones to lie, the Georgians are very competent it too. The truth they told is that they admitted to using cluster bombs themselves on their own land on their own people. The lie is that they are running around as fast as they can picking up the evidence of their cluster strikes. This is nothing like clearance, just a surface skim. Any site where they have done this is even more dangerous than before as they leave the false impression that a place is clear. Just because you don’t see cluster bombs does not mean none are there.
The lie is what I enjoy uncovering and its uncovered now.
We headed out in the morning on information given to us by the HALO Trust about some sites they thought we would find cluster bombs in. The coordinates were punched into the GPS and we headed to a village called Shirdisi about 15 km away.
GPS coordinates only give you a point location and don’t show you how to get there. In a place like Georgia it could be any combination of tiny farm tracks and gates. We turned into the first one near our desired latitude and longitude and began weaving through the maze. Our figures showed a few kilometres to the north-west so we kept trying tracks that led left and right but kept hitting dead ends or the tracks swung away to the east. Back track then start again. The range closed till finally we were only 400 metres away but still it was across fields. Now was time to walk and hop fences.
The safest way to walk into a strike area is to slowly check the ground and look for the tell tale signs. Shattered tree tops, shrapnel scarred trees and strike marks in the ground and pieces of the munitions themselves are all the signals of a dangerous area. The first few pock marks in the ground gave the clue we were closing in. A woman appeared through the trees and we asked what she knew.
She had left during the fighting with her family, as most others had, and returned to find small strange objects strewn around in amongst the general war damage. The HALO Trust had come out and done a survey of the area and the Georgian Army had followed and destroyed the munitions. Warning bells were starting to ring in our heads as she told us what had happened. HALO had identified the dangerous area and the Georgian Army had taken on the roll of clearing what was there but they had only removed and destroyed what was obvious on the surface. This is always only a fraction of the munitions, as many more will be hung up in trees or subsurface. If these are not cleared then the victims will be the farmers and their families. Spring will be lethal.
Much of this year’s crop has been lost already due to the fighting but some farmers had rushed back quickly and tried to recover what they could. Tomatoes and corn were devastated and a year’s income for people who had meagre earnings already were to suffer more. That loss, in a place like this, can be a life threatening prospect.
As the woman explained what she thought the army had done, another neighbour arrived and was in a bit of a panic. She had a labourer who was picking tomatoes yesterday and spotted a piece of red tape protruding from the ground. She thought it was the same colour as the tapes they had seen on the cluster bombs. She led us through the fields to her house and pointed to a stick in the backyard of her house. “There,” she said, “It’s somewhere there. I go no further, I am too scared.”
Amer has a twin brother and I was with him last year in Lebanon. Both are Bosnian and survived the war then moved into demining. Now they are at the top of their trade and moved from being local Bosnian staff to International experts. It’s very heartening to see these men make the full transition from scratching a living after the conflict to being top international professionals. A future is slowly emerging for them.
We carefully walked into the field and in front was a small orchard. Some tomatoes had been picked but many more lay on the ground rotting. The corn field hadn’t been touched at all. “In front to the right a bit,” she says, as we move in and make every step count. Look at the earth, carefully move the weeds and leaves then put a foot down. Look around slowly and carefully then take the next step. As we scratch about we can’t find the tape but do see a stick that the man who found it had left. We scour the area and still nothing. There are some tell tale shrapnel marks on the trees, the odd broken branch and even a few hard to see strike holes. Definitely something has hit here. Amer parts a little clover and spots 2 cm of muddy red tape poking out of the ground. Here is the culprit, a small submunition that has imbedded itself in the earth.
Amer unfolds his pocket knife and cuts like a surgeon into the compacted moist mud. He lifts out a plug of earth like you would remove a wedge of cheese and sees the body of the munition.
“An M-95,” he says.
“Don’t you mean an M-85?” I ask.
“No, an M-95. See the same casing as the M-85 with the rings but no self destruct cap. I can’t see if it is armed or not. Ok, go away for awhile,” he says.
I wander away and squat down at a safe distance. I am covered by a set of cement stairs and I can see Amer’s head moving in the trees. Bomb disposal is a solitary task, because if it goes wrong then it only kills or maims one, not two. He bobs down then back up and looks to me and waves. “Ok, come back now.”
These bomblets have a small slide that protrudes from the side of the cap when armed. The tape ribbon works like a small parachute pulling the striker up and at the same time, sliding the booster in below it. Like this, the slightest bump can cause it to detonate. Amer was able to see the slide with a little more excavation and also see it had not fully moved in the armed position. He gently slid it back to the unarmed position then wrapt tape around the head so it could not be accidentally rearmed.
“There will be many more of these for sure,” says Amer, “just below the surface maybe armed, maybe not. The Georgian army’s walk through and pick up of surface submunitions will only give a false sense that this place is clear.”
“I have no explosive to destroy this with so we will mark it properly and call the army to destroy it.”
The farmer and his wife were terrified by what had happened here. As many munitions were found on the surface, many more will be underground. There is no guarantee that the surface is clear either.
“Look at the corn, not broken. No one has been in there searching and if they have, they have not done a god job.”
The farmer’s wife has brought coffee and they insist on us joining them. Coffee here means more than coffee. A feast is appearing plate by plate. Everything is home made from cheese to beans and bread. The generosity I have been shown over all the years I have been travelling has been one of the most memorable parts of my many years on the road.
We talk for awhile and eat a little. They would give us everything if we were to take it so we eat a little from each dish to be polite and make sure we are not taking the food from their mouths. The predictable happens and an old soft drink bottle full of homemade moonshine arrives along with a neighbour. One of us has to take a drink with them and as I’m neither driving nor pulling bombs it’s me who takes one for the team. Its berry booze made of all the local buds and packs quite a punch. My only regret is that I can’t get this in my local pub. It’s actually not too bad.
With civilities complete and a mass of local information we hit the road back to Gori. It’s now I see the amount of Stalin that still exists here. We live on Stalin Ave, opposite the birth house of Stalin with a statue to him and another one down the road. Gori’s favourite son would never be forgotten, but if he was still about there would be no independent Georgia and this would still be a Russian satellite state. At least they wouldn’t have a cluster bomb problem.
The rain that had so far held off was about to hammer us. Thunder could be heard around the hills and the sky darkened. It was either that or the Russians were back. The place was taking on a very grey and gloomy air. After locking up the car and dropping our gear in Amer’s apartment we walked down the street towards his favourite bar and grill. This was a smoky little hole in the wall that served cheap beer and fine pork shish kebabs. We ordered and listened to the rain begin to belt down outside. The talk was war and politics and subtleties of various bombs and the situation here with a little Balkan reminiscing. Finally old friends were remembered who were now dead and we laughed at the absurd silly stuff we had all done together over the years then fell to a reflective silence.
“Think of me sometimes, but not too often,
Think of me as I was in life, it will be pleasant to remember,
And as your days live on, may your thoughts remain with the living.”
We raise our glasses and proposed a toast then downed the brandy in one.
The rain had eased enough to head home so we took the opportunity and opened the door to the water logged street. Going past the central square Amer pointed out that this was the place that took a direct hit and killed many people during the war. Many though it was a cluster bomb strike but he thought differently.
“Look here, no way this was a cluster strike. Four hits from mortars, 240mm, look at this crater, no way it is a cluster strike.”
We walked on towards home and the heavens opened again.
The apartment stairs led in from the back street and were pitch black with plenty of sharp bits of twisted iron sticking out. This wasn’t war damage but a left-over of Uncle Joe’s 50’s building boom. The cement stairs were only held up by rusty angle iron and each tread creaked and moved under our feet.
When Amer arrived a few weeks ago Gori was a ghost town. Most had fled south and now they were returning. The problem with his arrival was he had only four hours to find a place to live then get to work. Beggars can’t be choosers so he found this flat through a local contact and moved in. It was two rooms and a tiny bathroom and kitchenette. My imagination ran as I thought of how many people would have been crammed in here during the bad old days of the Soviet period. They may have felt lucky as they looked across the street to the tiny shanty that Stalin was born into. In his day, his mother would only have had a room in that place for the whole family.
The rain continued outside and we went to sleep, Amer in a cot in the other room and me on the old couch. Thunder and lightning boomed outside till the sound of drip, drip, drip, kept me from sleeping. I turned on the light and saw a small pool of water on the ceiling and the drops just missing Amer’s computer. It was hard to tell where the water might flow as the whole ceiling was stained so I got a pot and put it under the drip and moved the gear that might get wet to the far corner of the room and went back to bed. The rain persisted heavily and the first drip was joined by a second and a third till there were a few steady streams pouring out of the roof.
My coming and going to the kitchen woke Amer and he found he also had some drips. We strategically placed pots about the rooms, covered everything and went back to bed. The noise was not letting me sleep so I rummaged through my pack and found and a set of ear plugs from some flight somewhere. That was my version of paradise as I pushed them in and cut off the outside world. I started to nod off when little splashes of water began rhythmically hitting my face. Another stream was splattering against the window sill so I rolled over and threw the nylon floral covering over my head. It had the definite smell of an old Russian armpit. In a ball, in the corner, under the cover with earplugs I finally fell asleep.
I don’t think I moved all night because when I did stir at dawn I rolled into the rest of my wet bed. That was a definite signal to wake up. The plumbing here was interesting too as there was an electrical plug hanging from the roof by a socket. When you plugged it in a pump began and every tap in the kitchen and bathroom began to run at full speed. There was no way to shut anything off so when you wanted water or to flush the toilet you plugged in sparky and the water theme park started up. This was comical till I decided to try and have a wash. A torrent poured into the bath tub and I stepped into the frigid water. To hell with that idea, stinky is just fine with me.
We headed out again, this time we had a call that the NPA team had found some Russian clusters in good condition. I want film of this. The 9N210 has a so called self destruct mechanism like what I saw in Lebanon two years ago in the M-85. There is a small striker that ignites on impact then sets a burn trail in action that should detonate the main charge if the first fuse fails. Technology to replace already failed and flawed technology.
Back on the site the guys have a few excellent full munitions and many components. Here is the main charge and fragmentation casing and here the delay self destruct fuse. All failed and have various degrees of damage, some are even in pristine condition. Maybe what they need to do is add another self destruct mechanism that will take over when the second fail safe fails.
There are many reasons why a cluster bomb fails: from the terrain it is fired into; to height deployed; to the design itself but two issues have always stood out as reasons for failure. Firstly they are deployed at high speed, either out of rockets or dropped from aircraft. The container opens and many collide creating the first point of damage. The very fact that you throw a bunch of these together at high speed means that will happen. The second is that they are entering an explosive environment. As the first hit and explode, the rest are entering that maelstrom. More collisions, more damaged munitions that have hung up somewhere in their detonation process.
My brief diversion to Georgia has been very productive but it time to grab a flight out and reconnect with the Ban Bus. Joe drives up to Gori to pick me up and we head to Tbilisi.
“You stink,” he says.
“Yep, a hot shower at your place will be very nice indeed.”
After getting fluffed, it was time to get stuffed and we headed to a local Georgian restaurant. Joe was waxing lyrical about Georgian food and this coming from a Frenchman really carried some weight. He ordered up a feast and he was right, this place has fantastic food. I was tired but satisfied as we drank a red and ate. Tbilisi is a really beautiful city with a mix of Medieval and 19th century and none of it in ruins. It really was so different from Gori and its surrounds. The streets were full of wealthy life with name brand stores and plenty or BMW’s and Mercedes cruising the boulevards. So strange compared to the abundance of horse drawn transport north.
Two points that stick in my head are the Georgians used cluster bombs to defend themselves. They hammered their own territory and the Russians hammered them back. Both have ruined the country.
From Gori to the south there are masses of new towns being built. These are to house those who fled from South Ossetia. The ones who stayed are generally sympathetic with the Russians. The area truly has been ethnically cleared and segregated. The strange thing is the speed that these towns have been constructed. It’s only seven weeks since the fighting and already thousands of good quality houses are almost complete. This has cost a fortune and apparently has been paid for by the Americans. Is it an appeasement to the Georgians for their bad advice and no backing in this war. “Sure, give those Ruskis a slap, we’ll be right behind you.” The Georgians just didn’t realise that right behind you meant “and going the other way”.
I also have a creeping feeling that the Georgians knew they were going to lose South Ossetia. Why else unleash such horrendous strikes with a stupid system on your own people. Maybe it’s now the Russians with the worst part of this legacy. Who knows?
I walked into the airport at 4 am for the flight to Istanbul then onto Sarajevo. This time I had access to the business class lounge and I loaded a plate with croissants and a coffee. My mind is not at its best at 4 am but in walks Diego Maradonna, the Argentinean soccer great. I look at him and him at me and we nod to each other and I think, he’s a look alike. Following him are ten more Argentineans in football shirts. They all looked a little long in the tooth and I could only think they must have done some kind of show match here in Tbilisi. This really put the cap on a weird place for me. Bright lights, big city, great food and football then up the road, bombs, poverty and refugees. Funny old world really.