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Near Russian-controlled areas of Georgia, people are watching what happens in Ukraine

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: This is the main East-West highway. It cuts across Georgia - connects the capital, Tbilisi, to the Black Sea. And what you can see - we've just pulled over - is a snowy field. Only less than a mile is the boundary line that separates Russian-occupied, Russian-controlled - one of the breakaway republics from the rest of Georgia. And the fear that you hear over and over here in Georgia is - what if Russia decides to try to move that boundary? What if they inch it forward just a few hundred yards? They could cut off the capital from key ports.


KELLY: We are traveling the East-West Highway on a road trip to get a sense of what life is like up against that boundary line - to hear how people who live with Russian troops on their doorsteps are feeling watching war in Ukraine play out. The first person we have come to meet lives in Khurvaleti, a tiny settlement in territory controlled by Georgia, but so close to the line that, to drive there, we're told we need permission.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

KELLY: Once we get it, we're accompanied by police escort - three guys in a white pickup truck. We pull up at the front gate of 65-year-old Luda Salia.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Non-English language spoken).

KELLY: Flying proudly in her front yard - a Ukrainian flag.

LUDA SALIA: (Through interpreter) For me, the victory of the Ukraine would be the victory of Georgia, and I believe that we will take back our lost territories.

KELLY: Luda is 65. She runs an elder care facility from her home. She graciously offers us coffee and cookies and, as she bustles back and forth to the kitchen, my producer Karen's phone lights up with a message - welcome to Russian Federation - alerting her she's crossed over to a Russian data roaming plan.

How close is the boundary to where you live - to this house?

Luda points.

SALIA: (Through interpreter) So if you look across from the house at the mountain, you would see that Russians are standing everywhere there.

KELLY: She tells us she likes to get her binoculars out and watch them. Like one time, this past summer...

SALIA: (Through interpreter) And one of them noticed that I was watching them with the binoculars, so they mooned me, and I took a photo of it, and I can show it to you.

KELLY: (Laughter) Yes, OK. So you're pulling up the photo on your phone?

SALIA: (Non-English language spoken) (laughter).

KELLY: OK (laughter).

SALIA: (Through interpreter) For me, this is the mentality of the occupier.

KELLY: Luda is laughing, but what Russia is doing in her neighborhood is not funny. They are slowly moving the boundary line, taking more and more Georgian land foot by foot, something people here call encroaching occupation. Luda says they do it at night, five or six times a year.

SALIA: (Through interpreter) So every time I see that they do any advances, I always start to make a big deal out of it. And because of this, they don't like me, and they see me as a problem.

KELLY: But lately, she says, the hill across from her house has been oddly quiet.

SALIA: (Through interpreter) So past ten days, there has been no Russians around, and they have all left. It is very quiet, and it seems like they have all moved.

KELLY: Huh. Why, do you think?

UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: (Non-English language spoken).

SALIA: (Through interpreter) They took them to fight for Russia because they were having problems.

KELLY: Just to make sure I understand - you think the Russians who guard your hill have been moved because they're needed to go fight in Ukraine?

SALIA: (Through interpreter) Yes, that's exactly what I think - and the person who mooned me might be on the front line and already dead.

KELLY: We've got a road trip to get on with, so we say our farewells, hop back in the car.


KELLY: OK, we have just rolled into Gori. This is a city in central Georgia. This is the hometown of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator. They've got a museum here in his honor, which we're about to head into, which is right in front of his childhood home, which they have preserved, built this multi-columned shrine around, marking this is where Stalin lived when he was a kid.


KELLY: Inside, room after room of Stalin portraits, letters, uniforms. Ketevan Akhobadze, the main curator of the museum, shows us some favorites.

KETEVAN AKHOBADZE: (Through interpreter) You can also see his signature, as well as some of his favorite pipes, his clock. Many of us who work here also have the family members who were repressed during the Soviet times, and it might surprise you that we still work here. However, I would like to say that it is still the history, and we should not erase the history, and we should try to maintain it as it was.

KELLY: You're saying it's history - do people who work here also feel proud of Stalin...

AKHOBADZE: No. Not proud.

KELLY: ...Because he is famous?

AKHOBADZE: Not proud.

KELLY: Not proud.

AKHOBADZE: Not proud.

KELLY: Not proud.

In recent years, under her direction, the museum has added an exhibit which documents how Stalin presided over famine and how many people he had killed.


KELLY: We need a break after that, so we stop at a restaurant in town. The owner, Zaza Aduashvili, sits with us for a bit. We talk about Russian propaganda, which he says is everywhere here, and he says he's glad the rest of the world is catching up to understanding the nature of the threat from Russia.

ZAZA ADUASHVILI: (Through interpreter) This is a very well known enemy for us. We could not really communicate it well enough to the West before - what kind of threat we are under and what we have to go through - and now I think it has become more obvious with the war in Ukraine.

KELLY: We finish up plates of cheese-filled khachapuri bread and continue on.


KELLY: All right. We are back in the car, back on the road, leaving Gori. We're going to drive about half an hour north, get to, hopefully, one of the villages that is right up against Tskhinvali. That is the capital of the breakaway republic here that, internationally, is known as South Ossetia.

We arrive in the village of Ergneti and follow a road until we can go no further. It is blocked - big stop signs, fortified barrier - marking where the Russian-occupied area begins. On the last driveway, right before that, Lia Chlachidze is waiting for us.

LIA CHLACHIDZE: (Non-English language spoken).

KELLY: She leads us to her basement...


KELLY: ...Where she has started a small museum to document the war in 2008. She hid in a basement next door to this during the war with her children, her grandchildren, until they fled, and it was later bombed. One roped-off section of the floor has been left exactly as it was after it was burned and bombed. She wants people to know what that looked like.

CHLACHIDZE: (Non-English language spoken).

KELLY: Fragments of bottles that melted in the heat, bullet casings.

Is that unexploded ordnance there?

CHLACHIDZE: (Non-English language spoken).

KELLY: What is this?

UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: (Non-English language spoken).

CHLACHIDZE: (Through interpreter) Yes. So these are the pieces of cluster bombs.

KELLY: I'm sorry for what has happened to your home. Is it hard to watch what's happening in Ukraine? Does it bring back everything from what happened here 14 years ago - all the memories?

CHLACHIDZE: (Through interpreter) Yes. It is very identical. I feel like I have already seen, like, this movie, and I feel, like, almost like I know how it's going to play out and what's going to happen, and so I totally feel the Ukrainian people.


KELLY: Lia Chlachidze, speaking with us in the museum she built in her basement to bear witness to the destruction of the 2008 war with Russia. We also heard from Luda Salia, Ketevan Akhobadze, and Zaza Aduashvili about the war that tore apart the lives of people here in central Georgia and continues to divide them today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.