Speaking Truth to Power
In August, U.S. Representative Chris Smith ’75 risked his own safety to save two children trapped in the war-torn Republic of Georgia. It wasn’t the first time Congressman Smith has put himself in harm’s way to aid a constituent.
Over his nearly three decades in public office, U.S. Representative Chris Smith ’75 has traveled the globe arguing for the rights of religious and political prisoners held by heavy-handed regimes from the former Soviet Union to Indonesia. He accepts that it is sometimes necessary to speak truth to power—and wait.
But when Smith received a plea for help last month from Tea’h and Joseph Evans, the parents of two young girls from Howell trapped in one of the world’s hottest spots—the Republic of Georgia—he feared imminent danger and acted immediately.
“I dropped everything,” Smith said.
The girls, Ashley, 7, and Sophia, 3, were visiting their grandparents in Chiatura, west of Tbilisi, when the Russian army stormed across the Georgian border to aid the breakaway province of South Ossetia. The Evans began to panic as efforts to evacuate the girls fell through, and the invading army drew within a few miles of the family farm.
Nearly a week into the conflict, Beso Tsutskiridze, Tea’h’s brother, flew to Yerevan, Armenia, where he set out by taxi and later on foot to his parents’ house—dodging gunfire and trying to evade Russian troops who twice stopped him and instructed him to turn back. When he reached Chiatura, he called his sister to say it was not safe to bring the girls back the way he’d come.
“By that point, I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep,” Tea’h said.
Smith’s response to their frantic appeal was deeply encouraging.
“He told us he had a team working on it and that they were going to get our kids home,” Joseph said. “He seemed very confident.”
Smith said he immediately put out dozens of calls to contacts at the State Department and the National Security Council to begin forming a plan. He called a friend in the Duma, the Russian parliament, to get the word out that American children were caught in the middle of the conflict.
But he said he grew alarmed when he heard the family was considering fleeing the farmhouse when they learned that Russian forces were fast approaching. He feared they would run into army irregulars in an out-of-the-way spot, an encounter he described as potentially deadly.
“These people pursue a scorched earth policy—kill and ask questions later. I saw this in Chechnya,” he said of the local militants who join in military campaigns, often to settle local scores and to advance their own political agenda.
Smith said he discussed the development with his wife, Marie (Hahn) Smith ’77, who put it to him this way, “If they were our kids, what would you do? Start packing your bags. You’re going to Tbilisi.”
When he reached the Georgian capital, he found a skeleton crew at the American embassy.
“All of the embassy family members had been evacuated to Yerevan, Armenia, with the non-essential staff. There was a real sense of foreboding. Russian tanks had been coming toward Tbilisi, and then making u-turns at the last minute,” he said. “The people left at the embassy were ready to go on an hour’s notice in prearranged transports.”
Smith said he and U.S. Ambassador John Tefft put out calls for help to the other embassies in the capital, and the French ambassador, Eric Fournier, not only responded, but offered to retrieve the girls as he passed through the region to monitor a recently brokered ceasefire. The thinking was that French officials would have an easier time getting through military checkpoints, as French President Nicolas Sarkozy, head of the European Union, was leading the talks with Russia and Georgia throughout the conflict.
Of Fournier, whose drive turned into a six-hour ordeal with a tense standoff at one of the checkpoints, Smith said, “He’s just a kind person, with a big heart, who loves kids.”
Knowing nothing of these arrangements, Joseph Evans flew to Tbilisi a day after Smith and learned shortly after his arrival that the girls were on their way to the capital. He was ecstatic.
“I thought I was going to be there for two weeks, and [Congressman Smith] got the job done in less than 24 hours,” Evans said. “It was fantastic.”
It was not the first time that Smith had hopped on a plane to aid a constituent. A decade ago, he flew to Thailand to help broker the release of Michele Keegan, a college student from Hamilton who was arrested by the authorities in neighboring Myanmar after handing out pro-democracy literature.
Smith, a 14-term Republican representing New Jersey’s 4th congressional district, has spent much of his political career in the international arena, advocating human rights issues from religious freedom to bans on sex trafficking and child labor. He recently sponsored a measure in the House of Representatives to establish an international version of Megan’s Law that would require the U.S. to notify foreign governments when sex offenders travel abroad, and would prevent foreign sex offenders from entering this country.
Smith made his first human rights trip to the Soviet Union in 1982, shortly after winning his first election, to meet with “refuseniks,” Russian Jews prevented from emigrating by Soviet authorities.
“I’m in favor of human rights, from womb to tomb,” Smith said, noting that he takes his inspiration from scripture, and in particular the passage from the Book of Matthew (25:40) that reads, “Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
While he had never traveled to Georgia before, he has followed the brewing conflicts over the provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia since 1992, as longtime chairman of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, known as the Helsinki Commission. Smith is on friendly terms with Nino Burjanadze, the former speaker of the Georgia parliament.
Smith believes the U.S. will help dampen conflicts between Russia and its nervous neighbors by keeping a cool head.
“To go back to a cold war mentality would be catastrophic. We need to be prudent and use a mix of carrots and sticks,” he said, adding, “We have to speak truth to power, but we need to keep a dialogue going.”
Posted on November 1, 2008