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…