Tbilisi May 26, 2011 - Georgia celebrated its Independence Day on Thursday with a massive show of force, showcasing tanks, rocket launchers and aircraft similar to those used during its failed war against Russia in August 2008. The parade came just hours after its government had unleashed a lethal body blow to protestors who had gathered along the Georgian capital’s Rustaveli Avenue the night before with the aim of preventing the military parade from taking place as planned.
Standing in the pouring rain with hundreds of protestors, it was shortly after midnight on May 26, 2011, when I received the message from a friend on the outside: "They've got you surrounded. Get out of there!" The anti-government protest, which had been organized by Georgia’s Parliamentary Speaker, Nino Burjandze had now officially become unsanctioned and illegal, and the protesters refused to leave and were standing their ground in front of Tbilisi’s iconic Parliament building, naively ready for a showdown with hundreds of well-trained and equipped Special Forces and riot police.
Special forces & riot police in the streets of Tbilisi. © Ian F. Carver
With time running out - parade rehearsals were still scheduled for that evening at that very spot - the heavily armed police wasted no time and charged - wave upon wave - from all sides, firing teargas, water and rubber bullets, including at those who sought safety well out of the way in the entrance of the nearby Cashueti Orthodox Church. The makeshift barricades of the rally’s perimeter were swiftly overrun and the protestors – many elderly and frustrated youth – were crushed by the overwhelming numbers of police under excessive use of violence.
Armored cars and fire trucks spearheaded by two water cannons quickly pushed the protesters past Parliament and down towards Freedom Square where more police were waiting as if corralling a herd of people for a slaughter. Those with no immediate escape route were quickly beaten to the ground, handcuffed with plastic ties and rounded up into small groups waiting for transport to detention centers.
It was at this point that I witnessed a bewildered elderly man being roughly escorted by two riot policemen away from the church; he collapsed out of their grip and to the ground gasping for air. The police, initially keeping me and other journalists away, stood by and did nothing to assist the old man, as he lay on the ground in agony, suffering in what appeared to be a possible heart attack. At this point, a fellow American journalist (Jeffrey K. Silverman) and I tried to revive the old man and demanded an ambulance be immediately be called.
Collapsed elderly man. © Ian F. Carver
Approximately 10 min later, a convoy of ambulances rushed in on their way towards Freedom Square. An ambulance medic, assisted by Silverman and I carried the heavy set man into an ambulance, all the while police were preoccupied with brutally attacking a group of men who were desperately running out from the Parliament building, seemingly unaware of the ambush that had been laid for them. The police were clearly more concerned with snuffing out any resistance than calling in for help for captured protester and bystanders, many of whom were bleeding from head wounds.
The now subdued and demoralized captives were pulled up and marched away with one police on each arm, as if on parade for the cameras of the local and foreign media. Large columns of police units began heading back in the direction from where they came as if they were marching in preparation for tomorrow’s events.
Silverman and I decided to slowly make our way towards Freedom Square, walking past the trashed wooden stage erected for the parade below the Parliament building, and witnessing movie goers being evacuated from the Rustevli Cinema whose windows had been smashed in the free-for-all.
Now with the protest totally crushed and hundreds of police still cordoning off the area, Silverman noticed the unattended body of what immediately appeared to be a dying or deceased protester lying on the curb of Rustaveli Avenue near the cinema.
Deceased protester. © Ian F. Carver
Only because of Silverman’s indignation and insistence did medical assistance finally arrive to inspect the body. Nonetheless, it was too late, the man was stone cold dead. No attempts were made to provide CPR, the police and medics quickly focused on threatening us and preventing me and other journalists from taking any additional photos of the dead man.
The medics then instructed an ambulance to relocate in what appeared to be an attempt to block the media from having a clear view of the body laying on the curbside, now that unwanted attention was being drawn to the dead man. Apparently the intention was to prevent Silverman from being heard; he was pointing at the drenched body and shouting in Georgian and Russian that “he is a human-being and not a piece of trash. Do something!”
With police starting to get irritated (many appearing to be on an adrenalin high), we promptly left the scene out of our own safety but not before taking a few more photos.
The next morning, the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) announced that two people had died during the crackdown – one protestor and one policeman – while scores had been hospitalized. According to the MIA, the two deaths resulted from a speeding convoy of Burjanadze supporters who recklessly attempted to escape the chaos created during the police onslaught. We suspect that there were more, and the dead man we witnessed may not be in the official body count. Either way, the way he was treated shows utter disrespect and the unnecessary recklessness on both sides of the political standoff.
Come sunrise, the unrelenting rain had stopped and any evidence of the illegal protest and its brutal crackdown had been cleaned away. The military parade went ahead as planned and Georgian spectators watched as their once defeated army marched down the same streets which a victorious police force had used earlier that same day to violently disperse what may be best described as pro democracy protestors under the circumstances.