Saturday, June 10, 2006

As I watched President Bush lay a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier this past Memorial Day, I couldn’t help thinking of other forgotten soldiers.

In particular, 850 young men from the tiny country of Georgia (population 4.5 million) who are serving — and dying — in Iraq in support of the American effort to liberate the country.

My country Georgia (about the size of Maryland) has no fight with Iraq. In fact, we have lived for centuries in peace with that country and its citizens. I have never been to Iraq, but I know its history and civilization. Georgia agreed to send troops to Iraq at the start of the invasion. The Georgian people support America in its effort to rid the country of dictatorship and terrorism. It may be the one country in the world where President Bush’s approval rating is above the freezing point.

Unlike Americans, Georgians understand deep within their bones what it means to have no liberty. The country suffered under Islamic fundamentalism during the Ottoman Empire and before that Iranian occupation.

Why are Georgians in Iraq? Because they know the price of freedom. Americans take this for granted. They are allowed to drive, to go to the supermarket without fear of being shot or kidnapped, to vote, to raise their families in total religious freedom and to openly express their opinions. When President Bush speaks of Homeland Security, many Americans simply do not understand what this means.

Under ordinary circumstances, American men and women go to work every day with the knowledge their families are safe. This is not the case in other countries, where homes are bombed and burned, family members arrested for no reason and taken off to jail, or even worse, executed on the spot. America is a safe country, and Mr. Bush is trying to make it even safer for all its citizens.

I do not support any political party. I am not a citizen, merely a guest. I love America because of its deep values and determination to uphold the Constitution.

Every man and woman is equal. Watching Saddam Hussein’s trial, he complained he couldn’t take a shower twice a day or change his sheets. He whined about not being able to have more free time to read the Koran or enjoy his favorite food.

Under Saddam’s rule, can you imagine any prisoner complaining of such ill treatment?

Georgia admires America for it’s strength and guts. In 1981, an unknown laborer from the docks of Gdansk captured the world’s imagination by his heroism. His name was Lech Walesa, and he encouraged tens of million of citizens from the former Soviet blocks to throw off the yoke of evil control. And his words rang in my ears: “America is watching us. Do not be afraid.”

I remember Czech President Vaclav Havel speaking to a crowd in 1989 in Prague, waving an American flag as a symbol of freedom and democracy. I was 16 and a high school student, watching the news on television. Tears of happiness welled in my eyes. It was breathtaking for me in Tiblisi to watch this moment. Suddenly, I had hope the same revolution would happen in my country, then under harsh Soviet rule.

Our dream finally came true. I can only hope some young Iraqi man is sitting at his family table, much as I did, dreaming of the day when freedom would ring out its clear and unalienable message.

Americans must have patience at this crucial time. You may not have a relative or family member who suffered under terrible regimes. But in the end — as I have learned — didn’t all Americans come from countries that squashed political and religious freedom?

It’s time for us all to remember what America represents: tolerance, freedom and a spirit of generosity. The overwhelming heart of this country has been, and always will be, a welcoming one. When President Bush visited a wounded 22-year-old Georgian soldier recently in a Baltimore hospital, there was not a dry eye in my country.

Yes, it’s Georgia the country. Not the state.

Tsotne Bakuria is a former member of Parliament from Georgia. He is writing a book on post-Soviet emerging Democracies.

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