He trained his rifle on me but his eyes were on our car

By Anshel Pfeffer, August 22, 2008

I flew out to cover the war in Georgia but made the news myself when a Russian soldier robbed me at gunpoint

If we had known a few seconds earlier that the young Kalashnikov-toting Russian soldier only wanted to steal our Mercedes, it would all have been much simpler.

But Dato, our Georgian driver, had disappeared. So we were stuck: three Israeli reporters and a photographer, and no shared language with the furious youngster.

Moments earlier, we had been chatting to Russian officers at the roadblock. Even the stern-faced deputy division commander had been making jokes at the expense of a nearby French camera crew. The Russians were flushed with pride at the way a Georgian force had just turned tail and driven back from the entrance to Gori, without their firing a shot.

But then an elderly militiaman had driven up to the roadblock in a white Jeep stolen the day before from a Sky News team. Brandishing a revolver and the TV camera he had taken, he started swearing at us, shooting wildly and demanding our cameras.

Suddenly, everything turned ugly. The officers melted away. Another Russian fired into the air. We were unlucky. Our car was the closest one to the roadblock.

Tzur Sheizaf, a Y-Net reporter who had borrowed the car from a friend in Tblisi, was sitting in the back. I shouted at him to get out and start driving, but the soldier blocked his way. I tried to get into the driver's seat, but the soldier pointed his rifle in a gesture that left little room for misunderstanding.

We tried with sign-language to explain that we just wanted to drive away, but he fired into the ground, missing Tzur's foot by millimetres. Then it dawned on me. He just wanted the Merc. I started to open the door, shouting to the others to run, but he brandished his rifle again. The key was in the ignition and I pointed to it. Then I ran with the others the 300 metres to the Georgian lines, waiting to get a bullet in the back. But the soldier just got into the car and drove off. No-one was ever so pleased to have their car stolen.

I had flown to the war-zone two days earlier on behalf of the Ha'aretz newspaper in an empty Boeing 767 sent to fly out Israeli holidaymakers. Ten journalists and half a dozen Foreign Ministry officials sprawled over the business-class seats.

"We've taken on double the normal amount of fuel," the El Al pilot told us, "in case we can't land and have to fly back to Ben Gurion."

If that was supposed to reassure us, the next message didn't: "We are flying into the unknown, not all the radar systems at Tbilisi Airport are functioning, so we'll be landing using our own instruments."

In the event, the landing went smoothly and the terminal was quiet and peaceful, apart from the pandemonium around the check-in desk to Tel Aviv. The Foreign Ministry had chartered three planes to fly people home and there were more than enough seats, but a stampede ensued nevertheless.

We were more concerned with the news that our colleague, Yediot Ahronot's Tzadok Yehezkeli, had been critically wounded by Russian fire that morning in Gori. And a Dutch cameraman had been killed along with five locals.

The altercation with the car thief wasn't the hairiest moment at that roadblock. That had been an hour earlier, when only about 15 reporters were there and the way was blocked by one tank and a few soldiers, commanded by a baby-faced lieutenant. Then, a convoy of about 30 Jeeps and trucks drove up loaded with heavily armed Georgian soldiers, all loading and cocking their rifles.

The Russians immediately took to battle-stations, and five more tanks rumbled out of the town. Caught in the middle, we ran to a wood by the road, only to find more machine-gunners and anti-tank teams lying in wait.

Any moment a firestorm was about to be unleashed. Two groups of officers were shouting at each other in the middle of the road. We starting creeping back behind the Russian lines, assuming that when the bullets begin to fly, it would be the Georgians getting the worst of it. Then they came to the same conclusion and the entire convoy turned and drove off, making a big show of setting up their own checkpoint around the bend of the road.

The showdowns and the air of martial law within Gori, when we were finally allowed to enter, was in sharp contrast with the almost carefree atmosphere of open shops and packed restaurants in Tbilisi. President Mikheil Saakashvili's government wagered that if the quarter of the country's population in the capital could continue with business as usual, it could remain in power, despite the rest of the country being at the Russian's mercy.

At the main synagogue in central Tbilisi, Shabbat services proceeded as normal. Two rabbis and all Israelis had fled, but only about 230 Jews, most of them from the Gori region, had applied for aliyah visas. The Jews of Tbilisi seem to be staying put for now. They don't believe the Russians will overrun the capital; and anyway, they lived under Russian rule for 70 years.

Last updated: 1:39pm, August 21 2008