Villagers bordering Georgia’s breakaway regions fear Russia’s next moves | The broader picture

For displaced villagers living near the border of Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia, the war in Ukraine has brought back horrific memories of Russian bombing.

“I know how it feels to hide in the basement while your village is being bombed. I know that terrible feeling of fear,” said Mari Otinashvili, whose family fled the shelling of her village in 2008 when she was 13.

After a truce ended this five-day war, Russia recognized South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia, as independent states and stationed troops there.

. Karkushaani, Georgia. Reuters/Daro Sulakauri

Georgian “anti-occupation” activist David Katsarava, leader of the group “Power is in Unity”, and his team are patrolling with a drone in an area where Katsarava said a local man was kidnapped and later released, near the Border of Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia.

In the years since, Russian forces and the separatists they support have erected barbed wire fences along the administrative border, which is the de facto border of South Ossetia. The previously unmarked line between two regions of Georgia is increasingly feeling like an international border.

Barbed wire now runs through gardens in Khurvaleti village and other similar ones, preventing family members from reaching relatives on the other side who are cut off from their crops and livelihood.

Villagers say they are often detained and accused of straying into South Ossetia, which Georgia and most other nations do not consider a separate country.

. Bershueti, Georgia. Reuters/Daro Sulakauri

Local farmer Nika Tsiklauri, 33, shows Reuters a piece of white fabric. Tsiklauri said the white pieces of cloth are used to indicate the “border” between the breakaway region of South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia.

Otinashvili, who lives in a settlement on the outskirts of Khurvaleti for families displaced from the breakaway region, fears Russia will try to seize more territory or formally annex the breakaway region after Moscow attempts to take over parts of the eastern and to incorporate southern Ukraine into the Russian Federation

Federation.

A few days after Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow is calling a special military operation, soldiers calling Otinshvili a Russian began moving signs prohibiting Georgians from crossing.

They shone a powerful light on their settlement, she said.

. Khurvaleti IDP settlement, Georgia. Daro Sulakauri

Otinashvili poses for a photo at her home next to sacks of wheat.

“I was so scared I couldn’t stop crying and was shaking for two days. I thought the war would start again,” Otinashvili said.

Authorities in South Ossetia planned to hold a so-called referendum in July on whether it should become part of Russia, but later suspended consultations. Georgia has called such a plan to join Russia unacceptable.

As early as 2017, the armed forces of South Ossetia were integrated into Russia’s military command structure through an agreement with Russia. Russian troops are also stationed in the region. South Ossetia is only recognized as independent from Georgia by a small handful of states, including Russia.

. Odzisi, Georgia. Reuters/Daro Sulakauri

A barbed wire fence erected by Russian-backed forces marks the breakaway region of South Ossetia photographed from the village of Odzisi.

The Kremlin and the leadership in South Ossetia did not respond to requests for comment on this story. The Georgian government did not respond to a request for comment.

Like Georgia, Ukraine is a former Soviet state bordering Russia and the Black Sea.

Moscow announced in September its annexation of four partially occupied regions in Ukraine after staging so-called referendums. The United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly condemned what it called the “attempted illegal annexation”.

. Odzisi, Georgia. Reuters/Daro Sulakauri

People walk beside a school on a road leading to the village of Odzisi, near the village of Mukhrani, next to the de facto border of Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia.

In 2014, Russia annexed the Crimean region of Ukraine.

Responsibility for the war in Georgia is disputed. An EU-backed report concluded in 2009 that it was initiated by Georgia’s armed forces, but that Moscow’s response went beyond reasonable limits and violated international law.

The war was also over Abkhazia – another region internationally recognized as part of Georgia but under the control of Russian-backed separatists. According to the UN refugee agency, around 288,000 Georgians are still internally displaced by the war and earlier secessionist conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

. Shavshvebi IDP settlement, Georgia. Reuters/Daro Sulakauri

Ani Gelashvili (right), 12, and Tamar Mazmashvili (left), 10, both originally from Argvisi in South Ossetia, pose for a photo. “I was three years old and Tamar was three months old when the war happened,” Gelashvili said. “We had to flee our homeland.”

LIFE AND DEATH ON THE LINE

Since the war 14 years ago, the lives of those who fled and those living near the administrative line have been unbalanced, with human rights groups and the Council of Europe documenting restrictions on movement, illegal detention and discrimination against ethnic Georgian citizens, among other issues.

Maia Otinashvili, who has nothing to do with Mari Otinashvili, says she was walking near Khurvaleti when she was kidnapped by Russian-backed militants in 2018 and dragged over a barbed wire fence into Russian-controlled territory in South Ossetia and imprisoned there .

. Khurvaleti, Georgia. Reuters/Daro Sulakauri

Otinashvili poses for a photo at her home.

She was then accused of crossing the border illegally. She denied the accusation but was sentenced to eight months in prison by a South Ossetian court that same year. After an outcry in Georgia, she was released after 11 days.

“They threw me on the ground and hit me in the back,” Otinashvili, 41, told Reuters.

. Khurvaleti, Georgia. Reuters/Daro Sulakauri

Data Vanishvili, 84, holds on to a stretch of barbed wire fence on the de facto border of Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia, photographed from the village of Khurvaleti. Vanishvili, his wife and their son woke up in 2013 to find that a barbed wire fence had been erected during the night, bringing their home to the Ossetian side of the border.

Reports of such detentions are widespread and are being pursued by Georgian authorities and human rights groups. At the beginning of November, according to the Georgian State Security Service, three residents in the municipality of Gori were arrested in a bid to scare local residents.

Villagers describe the arrests as kidnappings and say Russian or Russian-backed South Ossetian forces are constantly pushing the dividing line forward, erecting barriers, barbed wire fences and signs to turn it into a hard border.

. Khurvaleti, Georgia. Reuters/Daro Sulakauri

Locals and journalists stand and present flowers to Data Vanishvili’s grandson Dato Vanishvili, 14, as he stands during the funeral of 88-year-old Data in Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia.

“Anti-occupation” activist David Katsarava patrols parts of the line and accuses the Georgian government and a civilian European Union surveillance mission of not doing enough to resist what he sees as Russian incursions and illegal arrests.

Katsarava, who started a group called Power is in Unity, gives out GPS trackers to herdsmen and other residents to quickly locate them if they get into trouble at the border so they can refute claims they disregarded them.

He says Georgia has already lost tracts of land beyond the territory it originally lost control of.

. Karkushaani, Georgia. Daro Sulakauri

David Katsarava (R) and his team member Davit Mtvarelishvili (L), 28, patrol South Ossetia’s de facto border.

“The creeping occupation will not stop. It can only be stopped if you fight back and if you are constantly around,” he said in an interview. “The Russians must see that we get as close as possible to the occupation line.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry and the de facto authorities of South Ossetia did not respond to Reuters requests for comment on allegations of unlawful detention or the hardening and shifting of administrative lines.

Georgian citizen Genadi Bestaevi was arrested in 2019 and held in South Ossetia for two years before suffering a stroke and being returned to Georgia, international observers reported. He died three months later at the age of 53.

. Zardiantkari, Georgia. Daro Sulakauri

Local farmer Naira Mestavaschvili, 63, sister of the late Genadi Bestaevi, wipes away tears.

South Ossetian authorities said he crossed the border illegally and accused him of drug smuggling.

His sister Naira Mestavashvili, 63, said Russian-backed troops took Bestaevi from the bedroom of his home, which was right next to the barbed wire dividing line.

“My brother is the victim of the Russian occupation. I don’t know what happened to him or what they did to him in prison. He was a healthy man,” Mestavaschvili said. The family denies the smuggling allegation.

The European Union called Bestaevi’s death a “tragic example of the devastating consequences of the de facto regime’s illegal actions”.

In Khurvaleti, Valia Valishvili, 88, is stranded on the side of the village controlled by Russian-backed authorities.

“I am all alone. The guards forbid my family members from coming to the occupied territory. If they cross the border, they will be imprisoned,” Valishvili said.

Valishvili said Russian forces told her to leave home, but she refused, saying she promised her late husband that she would not leave home.

“They will take everything from me when I’m gone: all my Georgian land,” Valishvili said.

(Photography and reporting by Daro Sulakauri; Additional reporting by Jake Cordell; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Text editing by Daniel Flynn; photo editing by Gabrielle Fonseca Johnson; Design by Eve Watling)

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