Enlisting in the ‘forever war’: the untold story of Georgian soldiers in Afghanistan

In an unnamed desert landscape, inside a military compound, a group of soldiers are playing cards. When the ping of a nearby microwave goes off, one of them reaches inside, takes out a carton, and says: “No, it’s not ready yet.” Being an army complex in a warzone, alcohol here is banned — which has led this particular group of Georgians to hope that their microwave can perform a miracle and turn grape juice into wine.

Scenes such as this were witnessed by Magnum photographer Thomas Dworzak during his time embedded with the Georgian army in Afghanistan and Iraq in the years after 9/11. For nearly a decade, he was a spectator to the soldiers’ lives as they fought a war in a country far from their own.

Through this small band of Georgian soldiers, we come to learn about one of modern Georgia’s most under-examined political expeditions. Under its then-president Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia joined the war in Afghanistan in 2004, sending troops to fight as part of the UN-founded International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). As part of Saakashvili’s efforts to bring Georgia closer to NATO membership (and further away from its hostile Russian neighbour), Georgian troops in Afghanistan crystallised into a tangible measure of the sacrifices Tbilisi was willing to endure in service to the West’s mission in the Middle East. By 2012, Georgia had become the largest non-NATO and largest per capita troop contributor to the multinational military mission in Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11.

“This in-between nation tries to get established and connected, and struggles between the Afghans and the Americans,” Dworzak tells me one early autumn morning in Tbilisi. “Georgia in Afghanistan was complicated. With the Americans it was more straightforward: Americans signed up after 9/11. In Georgia, there is NATO and the fear of Russia, and this need to belong to the West, to be woven into the system. It was felt on a human level. People really thought that NATO would help them.”

Many of the moments he photographed could be described as insignificant: portrayals of everyday life away from the theatre of war. Dworzak’s new book, Khidi — The Bridge, created with writers Jeroen Stout and Ineke Smits, brings together these photos for the first time.

“Georgia in Afghanistan was complicated ... It was felt on a human level. People really thought that NATO would help them”

One of the great achievements in Khidi is that not all that much “happens”. Action here is subordinate to the portrayal of life, a focus less on momentous events than the quotidian; jokes, quarrels, uneventful missions in the field. Yet, it’s these moments that depict soldiers biding their time, waiting to be told what to do next or goofing around, that capture the nature of a small country fighting a war that wasn’t theirs.

Featuring nine years worth of photography, Khidi is hybrid both in form and content; photography and text, reality and embellishment. Dworzak had recounted tales of the people and situations he encountered in Afghanistan and Iraq to Smits and Stout. After a few interviews, and with an idea for what the publication could be, Dworzak and Smits started developing the characters and working on turning the photographer’s experiences into a screenplay for a film: less about battles than evoking the atmosphere of Georgia in this war.

Georgia, Svanetia, Mestia, 2010/9. Funeral of the first Georgian soldier, 1st LT M.Shukvani, killed in combat in Afghanistan in his home village. © Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos

The screenplay, created without the intention of it being made into a film, is already cinematically self-contained. The left-hand pages of the screenplay-photobook are where Dworzak’s photography is displayed; on the right runs the script with a plot line generally corresponding to what we are seeing. It is an unusual format that makes for strangely evocative storytelling. Writing and including the screenplay allowed Dworzak the space for dramatisation — not usually something associated with war photography. At the end of the book, for example, a car bomb hits the barricade in front of a bridge. There are no photos from the attack because it never really happened, making this scene perhaps the greatest flex of artistic licence in the book (“to my knowledge, a big attack didn’t happen,” Dworzak says. “Casualties were small incidents”). But this untruth works nicely to turn the title of the book into a metaphor for futility. Protecting a problematic bridge with no water underneath it in a war far removed from Georgia’s security orbit, these soldiers can’t help but wonder: why are we here?

In this way, Khidi brings to life, if not always the tangible truth of his time there, then a faithful telling of the minutiae of war. “I was looking for authenticity in a fictional context,” says Dworzak.

Instead of truth, perhaps what Dworzak offers is sincerity. For readers familiar with Georgia, there is much to recognise in Khidi; aside from the direct references to polyphonic singing and supras, a sense of Georgianness is carried by a jovial haphazardness, and a particular, sometimes inflated sense of pride in belonging to a triumphant nation. When Rebecca, an American doctor at the field hospital comments with surprise on the Georgian soldiers’ sense of duty to the war, Captain Dato Shervashidze replies: “They’re warriors, like all Georgians.”

For readers familiar with Georgia, there is much to recognise in Khidi; aside from the direct references to polyphonic singing and supras, a sense of Georgianness is carried by a jovial haphazardness

What works so well in the screenplay is that it enlivens the lighter, more humorous moments in both action and image in a way that the photography alone doesn’t achieve. Photography on its own, as Dworzak points out, isn’t funny. The slapstick, laughter-through-tears kind of humour that flecks some of the pages in Khidi is Kusturica-esque, but it’s not through the images alone that this is achieved. “I don’t laugh out loud about photography,” says Dworzak. “When do you ever look at a picture and burst out laughing like you do at a comedian or a movie?” The tonality that exists in films like the iconic 2001 film No Man’s Land — a moving tragi-comedy about two men on opposing sides trapped together during the Bosnian war of 1993 — is present here in Khidi, too, a characteristic made possible only through the movement and humour of the text.

One of the most memorable — and true — vignettes in Khidi takes place during a scene in which the Caucasus’ most burning contemporary conflict is played out. Next to each other in the alphabetical register, Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers are troublingly allocated a single tent to share. Ameliorating an awkward situation, the Georgian soldiers find a solution to physically separate both nations. “The Georgians said ‘you can’t do that‘,” Dworzak recalls. “They piled up mattresses to build a wall out of them, and then cut a ‘door’ out of the canvas of the tent. There was an argument about who would get the proper entrance.” For anyone even cursorily familiar with Caucasus geopolitics, the situation is so alarming as to become almost amusing: for over a century, Armenian and Azerbaijan have been fighting violently over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and officially consider themselves enemies.

Through cultural affinities, from the nature of hosting a guest in your home to a general comradery with locals, what comes across in Khidi is a kind of naturalness and cultural ease that the Georgian soldiers felt while in Afghanistan. In one scene, soldiers are invited to drink tea with a villager in his home. While the Georgians take off their helmets and armour to accept their invitation properly, the American soldier with them keeps on his full gear “as if he’s on guard”. “[The Georgians] got along very well with the translators and Afghan kids,” Dworzak recalls. “There is a kind of natural closeness, unlike the American army who were a very foreign element. The Georgians didn’t feel so foreign.”

With the Georgian army not practicing conscription, those who fight in it must choose to do so. Within that, the Georgians who ended up in Afghanistan and Iraq had to agree to their deployment, making it a double-voluntary process. The high number of repeat deployments of Georgians to Afghanistan and Iraq is suggestive, not only of the economic appeal of serving abroad (Georgians almost certainly earned more there than most would have at home), but perhaps also to a deeper rapport to the cultural landscape.

20 years later and we see how little Georgian’s presence in the “forever war” fed into either the pursuit of peace in the country or Georgia’s imagined future as a European entity

It was only coincidence that publication of Khidi happened at the same time as the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the dizzying fall of Kabul to the Taliban. Against this backdrop, the moments in the book where joviality rubs up against something serious, against the vulnerability of a small nation fighting a war in the service of a larger international dream, become even more poignant. Twenty years later and we see how little the Georgian presence in the “forever war” fed into either the pursuit of peace in the country or Georgia’s imagined future as a European entity.

Through its conceptual hybridity, the great triumph of Khidi is the coherent presentation of duality — of at once feeling geopolitically out of place and culturally at home — conveyed not as an unresolvable conflict, but a readily realistic take on the state of in-betweenness in which we all live.

You can buy a copy of Khidi — The Bridge here.

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