Out of Georgia: Coming in on a wing and a pair - of Mausers

TBILISI - Cleaning one's nails with the pin of a live grenade is an apt way to describe the thrills of flying in some of the newly independent southern republics of the former Soviet Union.

Indeed, that was exactly what the man across the aisle was doing as we sat waiting for take-off at Tbilisi airport in Georgia. And he was modestly armed compared with the piratical gang of soldiers around us. One commander had a pair of Mauser pistols the size of meat cleavers strapped to each of his tree-trunk thighs.

When a domestic ticket costs less than a cognac and a chocolate bar in the gloomy airport cafes of the Caucasus, a sense of danger is not surprising. But there was no charge at all for this flight to the front line of Georgia's war with separatist rebels in Abkhazia.

The gate was marked by a clutch of civilians with bundles of luggage tied up in paper, trying to get past a check- in desk wedged against the door. Soldiers lounged in corners swapping stories, toasts of brandy and comparisons of their personal armouries. Do come along, they insisted, but explained there might be a delay because of the national shortage of fuel. 'Don't worry, we'll find some,' they said. That, we learned later, sometimes involved surrounding another plane about to take off and siphoning off fuel.

Far too many other people seemed to have been invited to join us. The pilot stormed on, off and back on again. Fistfights broke out and the man with the Mausers waved one in the air and led a charge up the boarding steps. Teenage soldiers downed vodka as if it was water. An apparently dead body on a stretcher stewed in the heat, along with nauseating smell-waves of garlic sausage and sacks of onions.

It was only five hours later that we managed to take off for the 250-mile trip to the war-torn Black Sea port of Sukhumi, cut off from the capital by bandits on the roads and rebels on the railways.

As we taxied to a halt a dozen cars surrounded the plane. Within minutes, hundreds of soldiers were fighting to get up the stairs. Others tried to force their way down. As the first shots rang out, we escaped down a metal scaffold thrown up against a little-used emergency exit.

Our 24 hours in Sukhumi, touring frontline positions, came to seem like rest and recreation, however, compared to the flight back to Tbilisi. We limped to the airport in a wreck of a car looted from the Abkhazians. An armoured vehicle had appeared on the tarmac, symbolising an order that did not really exist. One plane was up on three huge jacks, being looked over by a dubious ground crew. Another had been blown apart, perhaps hit in a legendary bombing raid by an Abkhazian rebel in a hang-glider. It was being subjected to the kind of cannibalisation for parts that in Dushanbe, capital of Tajikistan, has reduced half the aircraft on the apron to skeletons.

A flight had just arrived, miraculously, from Moscow. Its passengers were allowed off in peace. Dragging their baggage through puddles, they headed up the overgrown steps and through the broken window-frames of still-locked doors into the terminal and out through another window into the car park.

What, only six months ago, had been a rather pleasant neo-classical building among cypresses and palm trees now looked like a scene from a film about post-nuclear chaos.

Gunmen had wantonly fired bullets into the smooth plaster dome over the main hall. A gang of men had made a bonfire in the middle, sitting on planks, swilling vodka and insulting strangers. Snatches of song rolled down from a drunken party in progress upstairs.

Outside, dogs thrown out on to the streets by owners no longer able to afford pets had formed a pack to sniff for food among the debris, misty rain and advancing sub-tropical vegetation. Under the wings of the Moscow plane, local people had started bleeding fuel into kerosene cans to heat their homes, looking for all the world as though they were milking a giant cow.

The Tupolev from Tbilisi landed in a shower of spray and it was our turn to lay siege to the plane. After the coffins and the walking wounded were on board, screams, shots and women's tears made no difference as we were crushed together with our luggage. A big soldier blocked my way with his rifle, hitting me one moment and gently pushing my dislodged glasses back up my nose the next.

Another gangway went up nearby. We threw ourselves off our boarding steps and headed over there. Bliss: two seats were left. Nothing else seemed to matter as the plane filled as full as a Cairo bus and a man with four machine-guns invited himself on to the table over my lap. Pockets full of bullets spilled over the seats and boisterous thugs in bandannas tied like pirates pretended to toss grenades at each other like English schoolboys with buns.

After hours of pleading, the pilot popped out to survey the bizarre scene. A crewman said there were 230 people on board the 170-seat plane. 'Normal,' said the captain, and went to start the engines.

Did the Georgian doctor- turned-militiaman beside me miss the safe old certainties of the Soviet Union? Not a bit of it. War is war, he said, and the plane still flies.

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