WIDE SCREEN – Villagers bordering Georgia’s breakaway regions fear Russia’s next move

By Daro Sulakauri

KHURVALETI, Georgia, Nov 24 (Reuters)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.

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.

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.

A few days after Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow is calling a special military operation, soldiers who Otinashvili said were Russians began moving signs prohibiting Georgians from crossing.

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

“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.

The armed forces of South Ossetia were already involved in an agreement with Russia in 2017 in the military command structure of 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.

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”.

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.

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 .

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.

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.

“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.

“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.

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.

(Reporting by Daro Sulakauri; Additional reporting by Jake Cordell; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Daniel Flynn)

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