Three students and one faculty member from Case Western Reserve University are safe after finding themselves in the middle of the armed conflict between Russia and Georgia.
Andrea De Giorgi, visiting assistant professor in the Department of Classics; Nathan Bensing, sophomore from Columbus, Ohio; Gabriel Suprise, sophomore from Portage, Mich.; and Danielle Maynard, art history graduate student from Detroit, are now safe in Turkey. They plan to return to the university by August 24 in time for fall classes.
De Giorgi's group was based in Tbilisi in southeast Georgia, where they conducted a landscape archaeology survey tracing the interactions between human agency and the environment through the ages. The survey combined fieldwalking, data collection, global positioning system (GPS) recording and geographic information system (GIS) processing in an area inhabited by civilizations spanning the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the Greek, Persian and Roman empires and various kingdoms of the Byzantine empire.
On the third day of fieldwork, the team saw columns of military convoys heading north on a nearby military road. Shortly after, the team's Georgian colleague, Mikheil Abramishvili, professor at the Tbilisi Archaeology Museum, received a call that the Russian army was active in the northern region of Georgia.
Back at their hotel, reports from the BBC and CNN provided confusing details of the Russian invasion. Events escalated overnight and in the morning, bags and equipment packed, the team traveled to the bus station and boarded a van headed to the city of Akhaltsikhe, the nearest point to cross into Turkey.
The van first headed northwest to the city of Gori, not knowing that the city was to be the target of a Russian airstrike. Arriving just after the bombing, the team found themselves surrounded by smoke and debris. Amid the confusion, terrified residents tried to stop the van in order to flee the city.
The van was already loaded to capacity and the driver began driving at what De Giorgi described as "insane speed" to get out of the city.
"We are still coming to terms with the sight of Gori's civilians," said De Giorgi. "One often hears about civilians paying the highest price in armed conflict, but experiencing it first-hand is a completely different thing. It was heartbreaking to see people begging our driver to stop for them."
The escape route took the van across the path of a line of armed Georgian tanks heading north.
The trip over the remaining 30 kilometers to Akhaltsikhe was uneventful. Hiring a cab, the team reached the Georgian side of the border with Turkey. Once they passed through security, they carried their bags and equipment by foot across the border where they hired a driver to take them 100 kilometers southeast to the town of Kars.
Once the College of Arts and Sciences was made aware of the situation, Dean Cyrus Taylor immediately offered to help the group make travel arrangements for their safe return to the United States.
Now based in the city of Ankara, De Giorgi's team is planning to utilize the remaining time abroad to visit archaeology sites and monuments in and around Ankara and Istanbul. The three days spent in Georgia resulted in the collection of a substantial amount of data, said De Giorgi.
"The success of those three days of surveying is grounded in Nathan, Gabriel and Danielle really grasping the purpose of our research," De Giorgi said. "They are really remarkable students. What we all experienced is going to stay with us for a very long time."
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