Homage to the Caucasus

The year is 2014. The Georgian Civil War has begun. After a close fought Presidential Election in 2013, the ruling United National Movement (UNM) almost lost due to a series of large protests against the reported corruption of the government. The result was extremely close with the UNM winning by 2% and losing their majority support as they only achieved 43%.

Following another series of large protests, the UNM introduced Anti-Protest legislation that resulted in hundreds of arrests. Protests were now turning violent and the first casualties appeared in late 2013. After the Military cracked down on the largest protest (almost 300,000 people), Martial Law was declared. Civilians began arming themselves and most opposition parties left government. The Georgian Civil War had started...

Part One: Arrival in Sukhumi

It was a cold morning in February when I first arrived to cover the Georgian Conflict. I was your average 32 year old Scottish Newspaper journalist from the UK and had dreams of reporting from the great battle around Tbilisi. Sadly for me, that wouldn't happen. That bastard Ken Heath got that job and I'm stuck in Abkhazia (region in North West Georgia that fights for Independence) in a burnt out city living in poverty since 1991. As I disembarked from a small fishing boat in Sukhumi (the Abkhaz capital) I was greeted by two Russian Federation Peacekeepers, armed with AK-74s and wearing surprisingly little body armour.

"Welcome to Abkhazia, Mister McCusker. I am Lieutenant Radashk and I will be your bodyguard along with most of my platoon." Radashk stood at ease with good posture. He was in his early twenties, had bright blonde hair and a somewhat gaunt face.

"Thank you, Lieutenant," I replied and shook his hand.

The other Russian had stepped onto the boat and was retrieving my luggage.

"Are you aware of your living arrangements, Mister McCusker?" Radashk asked.

I replied "not completely, no. As far as I know I'll be attached to two units over my stay here and that's it." I could see the other Russian placing my luggage into the back of a Military jeep.

"You will be living on our base just outside Sukhumi and will be free to do as you please there. We have an excellent satellite connection meaning you can make telephone calls anytime."

"What about movements outside the base?"

"You will be unfortunately restricted there. You may join most groups leaving the base but only some combat patrols. Loyalists aren't that common in Abkhazia but they are out there and often target our patrols. We need to be careful."

At least they were letting me go somewhere. I remember when I reported on the Libyan conflict back in 2011 that I was restricted by Ghadafi loyalists and had bugger all to report about apart from the odd mortar strike.

Radashk walked me to the jeep and I was in the back seat with him. The other Russian sat in the passenger seat and took a cigarette off of the driver.

As we set off the most common sight was Russian soldier out on patrol. We often passed checkpoints that were guarded by around ten soldiers as well as a machinegun position and sometimes an APC (Armoured Personnel Carrier).

"Lieutenant, if I may, you seem to be wearing little body armour. Is your service jacket enough?"

Radashk thought about it for a few moments. "Most of the Abkhazians don't mind our presence, as we somewhat deter the Loyalists from attacking Sukhumi. Hardly any of us wear body armour around here and those who do are usually HVT's (High Value Targets (Colonels up to Generals)). We don't really have a reason to fear the locals. Move outside Sukhumi and it's a bit different. Due to Loyalist attacks we have to prepare. Go south of the River Kodori and it's a true warzone."

It took us a short while to reach the Russian base a few miles out of Sukhumi. The 3rd Battalion of the 148th Infantry Regiment called Camp Communard home. We pulled up at the vehicle depot of the camp and were welcomed by Major Yushgen, a small Siberian with distinctly Asian features. Yushgen seemed cheerier than the other officers and spoke excellent English.

"Hello. You must be McCusker. Major Yushgen, how do you do?" He shook my hand, not gently but not firm. I couldn't help but notice his slightly western accent, he didn't sound like the other Russians who spoke English.

"Thank you Major. I notice a slightly Western accent, may I ask how?"

"Of course my friend, I studied at Edinburgh University in the 1990's. I picked up a bit of a Scots accent." He turned to Radashk and ordered him to do something in Russian, "Poluchit' svoi veshchi i privlech' ih k svoyeÄ­ palatke."

I was shown my living quarters, a large tent where the two other journalists reporting from Sukhumi were resting. After my Radashk had left, I sat down on my bed and started talking to the other journalists.

"So where are we all from?" I asked.

A Hispanic looking man answered first, "Chicago Tribune, you?"

"The Guardian," I responded.

The other journalist was a small, middle aged woman with greying brown hair. "Toronto Globe and Mail. I get lumped with this shit while someone else gets the prize. You know I reported during the August War, so this place isn't exactly new to me."

After a long conversation, night came. I went to sleep thinking of what my first day as a combat reporter here would bring. As I was drifting off gunfire could be heard in the distance...