The would-be border between South Ossetia and Georgia is being entrenched. Will the Georgian government own up to its role in the war and help the displaced return home?by Thomas de Waal / January 17, 2009 / Leave a comment
Standing in the muddy farmyard, I couldn’t see the flag at first. Then the farmer pointed out a beige canvas tent perched on the bare hillside opposite and above it the white-blue-and-red tricolour. It was a new Russian military post.
Meghvriskhevi, a village in Georgia, has the misfortune to be on a somewhat surreal would-be international border. A mile away an Ossetian village named Grom now lies within the new, supposedly independent state of South Ossetia, recognised only by Russia and Nicaragua. The camp is a sign of Russian intent to score a black line across the map.
No one wants it that way. The villages have always been intertwined and they used to share a Sunday market. My host, a farmer called Zakharia with a permanent smile and thick charcoal eyebrows, was the vet for both villages. “A year ago, I bought two cows from some Ossetians in Grom,” he said. “They kept wandering home to their former owners and I kept picking them up. No problem at all.”
When the tide of the five-day war turned on 10th August and Russians and Ossetians counter-attacked, Zakharia and his family fled, dragging their tractor all the way to Tbilisi. That happened right across the region. But in 1991, during the first South Ossetian war, the villagers of Meghvriskhevi had stopped Georgian militias from looting Grom. This time, the Ossetians repaid the debt and when Zakharia and the villagers returned, not a single house had been touched.
The tragedy of South Ossetia is of a war that local people, mixed together by trade and intermarriage, did not want. The conflict tore up those relationships, with atrocities on both sides. Thirty thousand Georgians fled South Ossetia. Among them were Shalva and Tanya, a couple I met as they moved into a bleak refugee camp not far from the border, where newly erected box-like cottages stood like cells in a beehive. They had spent four months sheltering in a kindergarten because their village, only a few miles away, had been torched. “My son went there yesterday and saw our apple crop on the trees but he couldn’t pick them,” said Tanya.
In Ergneti, the last Georgian village before the border, an orange crane was lowering breeze-blocks onto the road. Faced with a checkpoint on the other side bristling with snipers and sporting the Russian tricolour and the white-red-and-yellow South Ossetian flag, the Georgians had opted to fortify their post as well. This is how frontiers are made.
The village is a long procession of black skeletal houses. In one roofless room, I saw a blackened bicycle and piles of broken crockery and with a depressing inner lurch I was back in Grozny or the Karabakh war in the early 1990s. The voices of people, who were starting to rebuild, were sadly familiar too, a Greek chorus of victims: “We never thought this would happen… We used to be so close to them, look what they did to us!”
Ergneti is just above Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia. The town’s oblong apartment blocks lay below us, glowing a pale yellow in the winter sun. Behind, the jagged snowline of the Caucasus completed the scene. Akaki, wearing a camouflage jacket and mixing cement in the burned wreck of his house angrily pointed into the valley. His was the pain of a family member hurt. “I went to school for eight years there,” he said.
Georgia is in a tough position. Russia still has one hand round its throat, keeping troops just 30 miles from Tbilisi. Abkhazia and South Ossetia are entrenching their de facto independence.
The Georgian government faces a hard choice. On the one hand it can continue to assert its sovereign rights to these territories, condemn the Abkhaz and Ossetians as pariahs and insist that this is entirely a matter of Russian aggression. “This is pure occupation,” Alexander Lomaia, a close adviser to President Mikheil Saakashvili, told me.
But that does nothing to get Zakharia selling milk again to his Ossetian friends. A harder option is to concentrate on the rights of people, not territories and to begin to open up the Abkhaz and Ossetian borders from the Georgian side in exchange for allowing the Shalvas and Tanyas of this world (and hundreds of thousands of Georgians from Abkhazia) the right of return. In other words, renouncing some claims of sovereignty, so that ordinary people can go home.
That is a tricky step for a government that has not yet admitted its role in starting the war on 7th August. But more and more of its supporters are jumping ship. The latest is Irakli Alasania who won authority as an emollient negotiator on Abkhazia and who resigned as Georgian ambassador to the UN on 5th December.
Another is former Georgian ambassador to Moscow, Erosi Kitsmarishvili, who has blasted Saakashvili for plotting war and for spurning channels of mediation with Russia. He says a reckoning for the August tragedy is essential before Georgia can move forward. He told me, “If the Georgian people want the right to tell the Abkhaz and Ossetians they should be living in a common home with us, we need to be able to tell them we judged the people who were responsible for all this.”