GENTSVISHI, Georgia — Struggling fiercely, the Georgian woman wedged herself aboard a refugee helicopter waiting to fly from an alpine meadow here in the cold north Caucasus Mountains. But in the terrifying crush, the woman's baby was wrenched from her grasp.
Screaming, clawing as if possessed, she managed to attract the attention of other refugees outside. A helicopter porthole opened and a tiny, bundled child was pushed through.
The woman collapsed on the battered helicopter's metal floor, hugging the baby to her chest, weeping and crossing herself. The helicopter rose into the air, scattering those still clambering to get aboard.
The madness that has become almost a way of life in the former Soviet republic of Georgia rolled on.
Behind the headlines of nation-building, civil war and Russian military meddling in this mountainous belt of land between the Caspian and Black seas, such human dramas have become part of everyday life. The once-multifaceted societies that dwelt calmly under strict Soviet rule are being torn apart as the small, far-flung republics stagger from freedom to anarchy.
At least one in 10 of the people of the three Transcaucasian republics of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan has already been displaced by civil strife. That amounts to about 1.5 million shattered lives: 200,000 in Georgia, 400,000 in Armenia and 800,000 to 1 million in Azerbaijan, perhaps a third of them having lost their homes to advancing Armenian forces this summer alone.
The international community is preoccupied elsewhere: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Somalia, Haiti. But the harsh Caucasian winter is coming again. And despite their vows of independence from nearly 200 years of domination by Russia, Caucasian leaders have been forced to beg for help from their old masters in Moscow.
Georgian leader Eduard A. Shevardnadze was the last to buckle, his country down to its last week of grain supplies after the September rout of a national army that had fought for a year to regain control of Georgia's autonomous republic of Abkhazia. Ethnic and civil conflicts in Georgia have now split the country of 5 million mainly Orthodox Christians into five virtually independent segments.
Georgia had virtually no resources to cope with the latest influx of about 50,000 refugees, and no way to protect those left behind to the mercy of the victorious Abkhazian forces, many of them mercenaries or free-lancers keen on carrying off booty.
The Georgian woman fighting to save her baby might be counted lucky to be among the column of displaced people who made it to this last pocket of Abkhazia not taken by the rebels--a village at the headwaters of the Kodor River in mountains along the border with Russia.
Hundreds of dispirited and disoriented families waited here for weeks, not knowing what to do. Some lacked the strength to fight the mobs struggling to board each helicopter rescue flight. A few set off on foot farther up into the mountains--some with just a small bundle, some bearing suitcases and some bent under improvised backpacks made out of sacking.
Small dots on a panoramic landscape of forested mountainsides, they plodded along a muddy track through the debris of what had once been part of their civilized life in the Abkhazian capital of Sukhumi. Fire engines, ambulances and city buses had performed miracles in traveling the 50 miles to reach these heights.
Abandoned cars littered the way, out of fuel, or broken down. All had been wrecked and their windshields smashed to prevent their becoming booty for looting Abkhazians. Tires were stripped off to be burned for warmth through the freezing nights.
In one sense, the alpine setting was idyllic, replete with apple orchards and the tinkle of cowbells. But few found the scenery reassuring. Although rebel Abkhazian forces were still 20 miles away, the rattle of apparently random machine-gun fire frequently echoed down the valley. A local goatherd had even forsaken his shepherd's crook, instead urging on his flock from horseback with shots from a Kalashnikov assault rifle.
The only local authority appeared to be a half-crazed militia leader who drove madly up and down, parking his car in a way that kept blocking the mountain track. None of the refugees--often educated people such as teachers, clerical workers and hospital staff--knew exactly what to do or where to go, whether to wait for the occasional helicopters or take a risk with the weather and head up to the pass.
Tamava Dochvili, wearing a woolen knit jersey and a soiled skirt, stood beside her small old Soviet car. She had buried her aunt an hour earlier after the woman died of a heart attack following six days and freezing nights on the road. At least 60 people are thought to have died in the exodus from Sukhumi.