Davit Ratiani glanced up as the Russian military aircraft buzzed across the skies of Georgia, clenching his fist in such anger that his nails tore into his skin.
‘”I will never forget the feeling of powerless that came over me at that moment,’” Ya Shashviashvili remembers her husband later telling her in one of the few moments he divulged any details of his experience during Georgia’s short, devastating war with Russia in 2008.
The war, ignited in the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, killed more than 200 soldiers, 300 civilians, and displaced thousands, and left both territories in a state of frozen conflict. Fifteen years after the war, on an anniversary that is marked on both August 7 and August 8 in Georgia, Russia still has troops based in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
For many in Georgia, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine evokes memories of their country’s own conflict with their powerful neighbor and former overlord. Many Georgians who fought in 2008 have traveled to Ukraine to take up arms on the side of Kyiv’s forces. Dozens have paid the ultimate price.
Hundreds of ethnic Georgians are believed to be fighting in Ukraine, most notably with the Georgian Legion, a unit of fighters that was formed in 2014 after Russia began fomenting unrest in Ukraine’s eastern industrial Donbas region, shortly after the Kremlin illegally annexed Crimea. The legion, which is said to number from 800 to1,000 personnel and is roughly an even split between ethnic Georgians and a mixture of other nationalities, has been integrated into the Ukrainian armed forces.
‘There Was An Unfinished Battle And He Wanted To Finish It’
For, Ratiani, or Dato, the nickname he went by, there was no question whether to fight for Ukraine against the same foe.
“That’s why he left for Ukraine,” his wife, Shashviashvili, recounted to RFE/RL’s Georgian Service. “There was an unfinished battle and he wanted to finish it. This feeling, this pain of defeat, was buried deep in his mind. He hoped that the time had come for victory and revenge and left at the first opportunity.”
Back in 2008, Ratiani, who was in the Georgian military, was quickly deployed after hostilities with the Russians erupted, Shashviashvili says.
“As soon as the news was broadcast on television that military operations had started, he was packing his bags right away. Even now, I can still see him before my eyes going from room to room, running into the bathroom, throwing things into a bag and then leaving the house,” she recalled.
At that time, Ratiani was leaving behind not only a wife, but a 1-year-old son, as well as his mother, who lived with them.
“We were standing outside the house, in the yard, my mother-in-law and I, holding the baby, with saddened faces, and we’re watching these guys heading out and we’re thinking what to do,” Shashviashvili remembered, adding that at the time she had just found out she was pregnant with another child.
When he returned from the battlefield, her husband rarely talked about the conflict.
“He said almost nothing. In general, he didn’t like to talk about his life in the military. It was like a taboo topic. But in those days, he was silent even more so,” she said.
One of the few memories he did share was the time the Russian military aircraft flew over his head at the Senaki military base, when he shook his fist and yelled “like a small child.”
After the 2008 war, Ratiani continued to serve in the Georgian military and, in 2014, was deployed to Afghanistan to take part in NATO’s Resolute Support mission to train, advise, and assist Afghan security forces to fight terrorism. During that time, Shashviashvili says, he saved someone’s life during a terrorist attack.
In 2019, Ratiani, then 50 years old, retired from active service and began civilian life, working as a driver for various private companies. He was also interested in politics, becoming a member of Strength is in Unity, an opposition faction in Georgia’s parliament.
But when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Ratiani quickly set off to fight with the Ukrainians. It was his last battle. On March 18, 2022, the 53-year-old Ratiani was killed, reportedly by Russian mortar fire on the front lines of Irpin and supposedly the first fatality of a Georgian fighter in Ukraine.
Outside the capital of Kyiv, Irpin was devastated by Russia’s military, with most of its buildings turned to rubble and many of its civilians enduring incredible hardships at the hands of invading Russian forces.
Formerly home to an estimated 65,000 people, Ukraine designated Irpin a “hero city,” an acknowledgement of the resolve its people had shown in the face of such adversity.
‘As Long As I’m Alive, I Won’t Turn Off My Phone’
On August 7, 2008, at 4 a.m., when Avto Rurua was called and ordered to report to the base, he told his 20-year-old wife, Elmira Inalishvili, “Don’t worry, no matter what happens, as long as I’m alive, I won’t turn off my phone.”
Rurua was serving in the Georgian armed forces along with his brother and cousin.
When war with Russia broke out, Rurua, a refugee from Abkhazia, and his wife were living in Abastumani, a town of less than 1,400 people. They were also new parents, with a baby just 3 weeks old.
When Rurua left to fight, a neighbor took Inalishvili and their baby to the village of Lesichina, believing it would be safer there.
“Up until August 8, I was in contact with Avto by phone,” Inalishvili told RFE/RL. “He told me that everything was OK, but on August 8, I lost contact with him. Since he told me he would never turn off his phone as long as he was alive, I thought Avto had died.”
For the five days of fighting, Inalishvili had no word about the fate or whereabouts of her husband. “I even stopped lactating because I was so nervous. There was no food for the baby and no news about Avto,” she explained.
Just before dawn on the sixth day of the war, with hostilities on the wane, Inalishvili’s phone rang.
“I remember holding the baby in one hand and the phone in the other. That’s how I was sleeping. I will never forget his voice when he said, ‘I’m alive.’ Suddenly all the fears vanished. The main thing was that he was alive,” she said.
Rurua returned home to his family exhausted. “His feet were so swollen from all the walking in the forest and the mountains that he couldn’t take off his military boots,” Inalishvili said.
While Rurua’s brother also survived the August war, his cousin, Badri Beradze, was killed.
“Avto couldn’t forgive Russia for the August war. He lost a cousin and friends. That’s why he went to Ukraine. When he was going to the war, his eldest son, Aleksandr, asked him, ‘Why are you going, you are Georgian, the war is in Ukraine?’ Avto answered, ‘Russia took our brother away, took away Georgian territories,’” Inalishvili remembered about the day her husband left for Ukraine in 2022.
“He gave the older boy an icon to wear around his neck and asked him not to take it off until he came back. I just couldn’t believe that he was going to war, that he was signing up for near certain death…. I get mad when I hear people say that these fighters go to Ukraine for money and die for money. These people had a fight to finish and that’s why they went to war,” Inalishvili said.
Before heading off to Ukraine, Rurua had a job as a security guard at a hotel in the Black Sea resort of Batumi before working construction in the capital, Tbilisi.
On December 2, 2022, Rurua died at the age of 41 along with four other Georgian fighters near the embattled eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut in what was reported to be an assault by Chechen fighters.
His brother, now also fighting in Ukraine, has vowed that he won’t return home without Rurua’s body, which was never recovered.
‘He Was Unhappy, But He Didn’t Let Any Of Us Know It’
Edisher Kvaratskhelia was a member of the Georgian military during the August 2008 war, serving in the 4th Mechanized Brigade, which was reported to have suffered the highest casualty rates during the conflict.
When Kvaratskhelia was drafted into the August war, his younger brother, Bakur, was eager to join him but was rejected due to his lack of experience.
“He fought with the 4th Brigade. When the army retreated, he came out with them. If I remember correctly, on August 14, I met the guys when they pulled back with all their equipment and tanks,” Bakur told RFE/RL’s Georgian Service. “That’s when I saw for the first time how a person can lie down on a tank and sleep from exhaustion. He was unhappy, but he didn’t let any of us know it.”
After the war, Kvaratskhelia remained in the military even after his obligatory service ended. He studied military engineering and mining, becoming a specialist.
His brother, Bakur says, believed the blood spilled by Georgian soldiers in 2008 was not in vain. And perhaps for that reason, Kvaratskhelia left to fight in Ukraine already in 2014, when Russia illegally seized control of the Crimean Peninsula and began backing separatist fighters in the Donbas.
Seeing Kvaratskhelia off at the airport in 2014 was the last time he would ever see his brother.
“Edisher was seven years older than me. He was always my idol and role model. When he went to war in 2008, he entrusted me with the difficult task of keeping the family calm,” Bakur said. “That mission fell to me again when he went to fight in Ukraine. When someone goes to war, family members may even subconsciously adjust to the fact that they may never see them alive again. I know it’s the way of the warrior, but it’s agony to lose your flesh and blood.”
Kvaratskhelia died, aged 44, on October 10, 2022, during fighting near Bakhmut. He was awarded several medals for heroism in Ukraine.