Georgian Professors Now Safely Back at UB After Escaping Conflict

Release Date: August 22, 2008

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Ia Iashvili, Ph.D., and her husband, Avto Kharchilava, Ph.D., both assistant professors of physics at the University at Buffalo, and their five-year-old son have now returned to their Amherst home after escaping the conflict in their native Georgia, where they were spending summer vacation with their families.

The family arrived in Buffalo on Aug. 15. Iashvili (first name pronounced Ee-ah; last name pronounced Yash-vili) and Kharchilava (first name pronounced Ahv-tow; last name pronounced Karch-ee-lava) are available to speak with media about their experiences in Georgia when fighting broke out between Russia and Georgia on Aug. 7. In the following question-and-answer interview, Iashvili answered questions about the family's experience and their escape.

Where were you when the fighting broke out earlier this month?

We were staying with our families at one of Georgia's beautiful resorts in the Caucasus Mountains. We typically go back to Georgia in the summer to visit with our families. We had hoped to spend three weeks there. On Aug. 7, we started to see the news reports on TV of the fighting in South Ossetia.

So you came to Georgia for your annual summer vacation and you found yourself in a war zone. As you learned about what was going on, what did you think?

It's difficult to describe. People were frantic, we were glued to the TV. We hoped that the civilized world would react quickly in support of Georgia's young democracy. We are just a country of 5 million people, not even as large geographically as New York State, and Russia is a huge country with nuclear power. On Aug. 8, Russian tanks invaded Georgia and their planes started bombing the entire country. Everybody was shocked, it was surreal. We didn't know if we should leave the mountains. It felt like no place was safe.

What did you do then?

For a few days, we stayed at the resort, but then we decided that we should try to get all of our family members, some of whom were in other parts of the country, together in Tbilisi, the capital city. My husband's sister, for example, was in the western part of the country, where they were bombing and there were Russian ground forces there, too. On our way to Tbilisi, we had to pass through Gori, a key city in central Georgia where roads were being bombed. We knew we could be bombed at anytime but we took a chance and started driving on Aug. 10. Luckily, we narrowly escaped bombs near Gori and reached Tbilisi safely, but even in Tbilisi, we heard bombs. It was mostly during the night. First you would hear the sound of an airplane, then the bombs. It became obvious that things were becoming worse. On Aug. 12, we attended a rally of 200,000 people in downtown Tbilisi with the main slogan, "Stop Russia." Presidents from six European countries came and gave speeches of support. By Aug. 13, we saw that the situation was not improving. Because we had our young son with us, we had to try to leave. It was very hard because our parents, brothers and sisters are still there.

We were scheduled to leave Tbilisi on a Lufthansa flight on Aug. 17, but Russians started bombing the airport facilities and the major airlines stopped flying. On the 13th, a friend of ours took the risk and drove us toward Azerbaijan; it took us an hour to reach the checkpoint. When we entered Azerbaijan, it took 10 hours to drive to the airport. We took a flight to Frankfurt, then another flight to Geneva, then to New York and finally to Buffalo.

How did you feel when you arrived in Buffalo?

I wanted to kiss the American soil. You know, there are things that the American government does that we do not always agree with, but this is nothing compared with what the Russians are doing in the 21st century.

Are you in contact with your family? What do they tell you about the situation, now that the cease-fire has been signed?

We communicate with our families by email and by phone. Things are changing there so fast. Even after the Russians signed the ceasefire, my family tells me they are burning virgin forests, looting and destroying the infrastructure. The resort where we stayed is burning. It seems like the Russian aim is to bring as much damage as quickly as possible targeting the seaports, airports, roads, railroads and factories. The other day, I spoke to my mother and she said that they were mining the roads with bombs. And a friend of my mother's told her that the Russians don't care about their own soldiers. Some soldiers came to her house and they said "we are so hungry." She said, "Of course we are against the Russian government but these were teenagers, a 17-year-old boy." So she gave them some bread and blankets.

Now that you have had some days to reflect on your experience, why do you think this tragic event occurred?

I hope this will be eye-opening for the entire world. I think this was allowed to happen because so many other countries depend on Russia for oil and gas. The world has to find other strategies for energy. Because of our profession -- my husband and I are both physicists -- we work in very large international collaborations and we have Russian colleagues, with whom we share many years of friendship and loyalty. I really feel sorry for Russia. It's the nation of Tolstoy and Chekhov and Dostoyevsky; they have a very rich culture and many intelligent people. This country deserves democratic government and change inside Russia should come from the people.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.

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