Georgia: Seven years ago there was a war

August 08, 2015
Tatjana Montik

August 08, 2015 Tatjana Montik
Report from the unrecognized border

Today marks seven years since the beginning of the Russian-Georgian war, a few days blitzkrieg the consequences of which extend far beyond the borders of Georgia and now resound in Ukraine. An anniversary is always one more chance to remember, to think on and draw conclusions. It’s interesting to think what conclusions are being drawn in that side of the boarder, which is slowly creeping its way further south into the heart of Georgia.

Another movement of the border signs which happened in July along the administrative border between Georgia and South Ossetia in the villages of Orchosani and Tsitelubani have given Georgia a new reason to consider the nature of this unresolved problem.

Is there any chance of returning Georgian territory after the occurrence of an identical incident in Crimea and again in Eastern Ukraine? Is it possible to come to terms with the Kremlin or should preparations be made for another war? These are the kind of questions many Georgians are asking themselves

Two years after my last report from Tskhinvali region I returned to the border which my Georgian friends prefer not to visit. And I understand their reluctance, of course. The fact is that in that place arrests are often made of people who accidentally step into “foreign” territory. Arrests, it goes without saying, are not being made by the Georgian side

My trip to the border happened spontaneously. Almost at the last minute I was informed that in the border area village of Ergneti under the European peace mission of the EUMM there was scheduled a meeting of the group “Conflict prevention and creation of response mechanisms (IPRM) in which usually three sides take part, I.e. The Georgians, the South Ossetians and the Russians. In such meetings the conversation is usually not about political questions but rather about ways and methods to address local conflicts where local residents are directly involved, for instance, about the arrest for “illegal border crossing”, about disputes of access to farmland by peasants, about trips to cemeteries and churches, visiting relatives on both sides of the administrative border which is overgrown with barbed wire

The press secretary of the EUMM mission John Darin kindly invited me to the special meeting of the group, asking one condition, that all transportation be arranged independently and not in any EUMM vehicles as the mission cannot accept responsibility for the safety of journalists. I decided to go to Ergneti in my own car by myself after several friends declined accompanying me.

The village of Ergneti is located approximately 30 kilometers from the city of Gori. The trip there from Tbilisi takes just over one hour. When I stopped at a gas station not far from Ergneti, one of the workers there surprised me with a question (since a large convoy of EUMM jeeps had passed along this road just before me) “so, is there going to be another war?” An unexpected question. I was surprised and shook my head, “I hope there won’t be.”

Reached the edge of the village, I encountered a massive wall and passageway made of tires bound together in such a way as to make a truly tank worthy barrier. All around were police and parked cars from various international organizations, among which the majority was from the EUMM mission

The group for resolving conflicts did not allow journalists into the meeting itself, allowing us to be present only at the opening and closing remarks.

I decided not to wait for the closing. Instead I had a short interview with the speaker of the mission, after which I photographed the field tent in which the meeting was held, marveled at the view of Tskhinvali located no more than 1.5 kilometers from the village of Ergneti and did not miss the opportunity to stand beside the border recognized by no one, and also the cement barricades with the South Ossetian and Russian flags blowing just 100 meters away.

It is, of course, interesting to converse with officials. But first I should say that I’d conducted a similar interview two years ago and in the second place a was still looking forward to a scheduled interview in Tbilisi with the head of the EUMM mission K. Yankauskas. Additionally, in the bigger picture, it’s much more interesting to find out something else, how people manage to live in this empty place, what do they think, what do they hope for, what do they fear

And so I head for the village. No one could be seen on the main street. So I turned to the right and decided to go deep into the village along the dirt road until I met someone

I’m glad to think that my interaction with the local residents will occur without any witnesses since the questions I plan to ask are delicate and not everyone is ready to talk about such things in front of a lot of strangers. And if such a conversation is for the journalist just the means by which to write one of many articles on many topics, for the people there it is their whole life, often broken, crumpled and mutilated by war. I remember that from last time. Then, two years ago, no one in either the village of Ditsi or Khurvaleti was particularly keen to share with me the stores of their difficult fate. And truly, what is the point? And so I decide to be extremely sensitive and not overly familiar.

The village of Ergneti is unusually beautiful because it is located just between to blossoming orchards. At noon, the shadows from the old trees play everywhere, on the ground, on the houses and fences. It’s a heavenly kind of place

The road turns to the left. Suddenly some old, broken down taxi is blocking my path. On a bench in from of the house sit four men, one of whom jumps up quickly to move his car and allow me through. I nod my thanks but also pull my car up to park alongside another car, a completely rusted out Zhiguli.

I get out and greet them. I tell them why I am there. They invite me to sit on the bench and talk with them.

“It’s so beautiful here,” I say to them truthfully. “A true heaven!” “Really?” My conversation partners seem surprised by this. “It was so much better before the war. In 2008 they destroyed everything. It’s wrong somehow now. Everyone has moved away. It’s become difficult for people to live here, so the young people moved out and only us old people remain.”

I find out that of 200 village houses, 150 were destroyed. What’s more, not all of those were destroyed at once. The majority were burned later, at the end of August, when the Ossetians moved the border further south and for a time the village of Ergneti ended up in the territory of the self proclaimed republic of South Ossetia.

They say they left the school whole, but they robbed it, carried off the computers and broke the windows. The school is, in fact, still there although there are hardly any students in it

And so what do the people who remained here live on

A very thin, rather intellectual man, Nika, age 38, answers, “Farming. But it’s difficult. Since 2006, and that’s well before the war, we’ve been in the middle of a different kind of battle with Russia, the embargo on our goods, and since 2006 the prices for what we raise have fallen sharply. Later there were other political and economic wars – sometimes the Russians would turn the gas off on us, sometimes the electricity. In the end they didn’t gain anything by all these measures and the consequences were outright war.

“But they’ve ended the embargo already. Why is it still hard to make a living in agriculture?” “They’ve ended the embargo, but they are constantly creating new barriers which for us amount to the same thing as embargo. The tariffs are different, and our goods in any case never get through. It’s just not feasible with all the artificial barriers. There are no official barriers, it if the goods don’t get through, well, that’s that.

“Aren’t you scared living so close to Tskhinvali? What if they suddenly open fire again?” I ask

Nika sighs deeply. No, it’s not scary. What’s scary is that they have broken a people apart. That’s what’s scary. I used to have a lot of Ossetian friends. Now I can’t even speak with them. And a lot of Georgian relatives lived in Tskhinvali and the region and now they are refugees. They are scattered throughout the country. And I don’t get to speak with them much either. There’s no connection. It’s hard.

It turns out that Nika even studied in Tskhinvali since it’s just a stone’s throw away. He finished sixth grade there, but then, due to various wars, he had to go to a school in Gori, about 30 kilometers from here. “That was not really studying. I didn’t manage to finish school.”

Maybe it’s better to leave here? After all many others have left…

Malkhaz: “No, your homeland it still your homeland, after all. But what’s difficult? Earlier people lived fine, all kinds of relatives and friends, we were born and raised in Tskhinvali, finished school there, even higher education. And then in the 1990s – that’s it. Then we made peace again and then in 2008 they really destroyed everything. And now you see the way it is here. Earlier this place was full of people. They were happy and everything was wonderful. Now it’s hard.

I got lucky: Malkhax had just returned from Kiev. He says that he lived in Ukraine for a long time and worked in various towns, but things there now “weren’t great”and so he decided to come back and take a look at his home, maybe even stay.

I asked him what he thought of Saakashvili in the role of governor of Odessa. Malkhaz laughs, “Not too shabby. Ukrainians don’t believe what I tell them – if he gets it into his head to do something, he will manage to do it. He’s that kid of a guy.” Does he think Saakashvili will return to Georgia? “Come, Sir Misha! But he doesn’t want to. He knows that here they will remember him for his old sins.” And Malkhaz laughs again.

But it’s clear that people here are just not up to thinking about Saakashvili. They have enough problems of their own.

Many are afraid of another war, especially after what’s happened in Ukraine. “Maybe Georgia can make peace with Russia somehow?” I ask. “It’s possible to make peace if Russia treats our side as a partner and ally and not as a government that needs to be punished all the time. The power has shifted in our country. The current administration has made many steps toward normalizing the situation, but there are no answering steps from the Russian side. They look on us like a country that just needs to be punished and can only offer one thing: “It’s bad for you now, but if you don’t listen to us, it’s only going to get worse.” They have nothing else to say. The only way things are going to change, it’s going to take decades for them to understand that we can be allied nations and exist normally, but they can’t understand that,” says Nika

“Maybe they are angry at Georgia because it wants to enter the EU and NATO?” “Georgia would never have wanted into either NATO or the European Union if not for the 1990s conflicts with Abkhazia and Tskhinvali which were initiated by Russia. But even after that it would have been possible to normalize relationships, return refugees, all this could have been restored in time, but Russia didn’t take a single action of substance, all of it was just on paper, and not one refugee could return. So what you have is that Georgia looked again and again to Russia, didn’t receive anything, and ?Georgia was left with no other choice. Think about it for yourself. Georgia is an agrarian nation and everything we grew was sold to Russia before,” explains Nika

I ask how I might speak to some of the people of the older generation here in the village. And Nika unexpectedly invites me to his home to speak with his parents

We pass by a few neighboring houses, partially in ruins and left untouched since the war. Nika opens the gate and leads me down a narrow path past a barn and an orchard, where there are roses in bloom, manicured bushes and peach trees heavy with fruit, in the direction of a small house standing in front of a much larger house also partially destroyed.

Nika explains to me that the old house with the huge balcony that was built by his grandfather was burned in the war. I remember how on the balcony we used to have a whole garden of house plants, so many that people would come in off the street to have a look. And in winter when mother made the children carry them all inside, God, how I hated that day. And now I remember it all with such feelings,” sighs Nika.

After the war, funds from the UN High Commission on Refugees helped the Kasradze family to build a small temporary home, so that they could continue to care for their orchard. It’s turned out such that the family returned to this home, a single room structure containing both kitchen and bedroom, and has spent four years in it before they managed to renovate three of the rooms in the old house. The garage whether a bomb fell is in ruins to this day.

A nice, friendly woman walks toward us, Madina, Nika’s mother. The father, who we catch having supper in the temporary house, greets us politely, gets up and leaves.

Nika’s mother speaks Russian completely without an accent. It turns out that she is Tatar from Kazan and has lived in Georgia more than 40 years. Madina is a woman of few words.

“Do you know Georgian well,” I ask her. “Of course, I know it. I learned it in three months. I can can read and write, too.” “So you feel like this is your homeland now?” “Of course. My homeland is where my family is.” “Which were the best years of your life?” “The seventies and eighties, of course. We lived without much money then, but very peacefully and happily. But in the nineties, all that came to an end.

Madina has two daughters and a son, Nika. Madina sighs deeply when she admits that he is still. It married.

Nika says that he won’t interrupt our conversation and heads to the temporary house to make us coffee. Then he carefully washes peaches just pulled from the tree under a faucet in the yard and offers them with the coffee.

We sit on the bench outside the temporary house and I just can’t get enough of looking at the garden, at the trimmed bushes, various colored roses, peach and apple trees hung with fruit. Now I understand why they call this the fruit garden of Georgia.

“It’s truly beautiful at your place here!” I say. Madina smiles. “Yes, it’s beautiful. And the land here is good, but you need water, you have to water a lot. And after the war they cut off the irrigation water from that side. Until last year we had no water in the fields. Last year they fixed it but it wasn’t enough for everyone. With help from other countries, they put in a motor, and that pumps water from the river into the irrigation canal, and then under pressure here so that we can water. This year at last there is enough.”

It’s difficult for Madina to talk about the war with Russia that started on August 8.

“When the bombing started, we left. That was on the 7th. You couldn’t go outside. On the fifth my grandsons were still here, we all slept upstairs on the second floor, but then we came down to the first floor. It was dangerous up there. When the shooting began, my grandkids covered themselves with a blanket to cut out the sound. And when it stopped, they came out from under the covers, crossed themselves and said, “God save Georgia!” My grandson was 5 then! There was a lot of shooting, even as early as the third. They wouldn’t even let me go milk the cow. They were afraid a bullet would get me. That’s how much shooting was coming from that side.”

Like many others in the village, during the three day war Nika’s house didn’t suffer too much damage, but when the family left the village not long before the war, the Russian soldiers together with the Ossetians came here and shot from tanks. “How it did t all burn down I don’t know. That neighboring house over there caught fire and burned down. But our house stood until August 25th, that’s when the Ossetians came and burned houses. When it’s war, anything can happen. When no one is fighting, all the people have already left, that’s when they went around burning houses. Ours as burned on the 25th, when there surely was no more war, when they were in place at Karateli. They made themselves a border. When we came back, the grapes had been picked, and of the house, only the walls were left and nothing more. We had two cows and a big pig pen, all lost, and chickens, and our harvest – they took it.”

“That was the Russians!” Says Nika heartfelt. “Even if it was executed all by Ossetians, the Russian soldiers stood by and watched, and what difference does it make who committed these crimes?

Madina doesn’t want to talk about politics at all. And as soon as Nika turns the conversation in that direction, she says something sharply to him in Georgian

I’m interested to know whether they know how the people on the other side in Tskhinvali are living. “How should we know?!” exclaims Madina. But then she admits that they do get Tskhinvali television, it they don’t watch it. “It’s just propaganda, about the fact that the Putin administration is always right. Earlier, before the war, there used to be talk shows, more democratic programming. I remember that in the last years before the war they forbid the topic of Georgia altogether. Because Georgia was developing quickly at that time.” Then my companion adds, “We don’t know what’s going on there in Tskhinvali. But anyone who wants to get something out of life probably didn’t stay there, I’m sure. There they’re in the same place as we are, they have nowhere else to go. Until 2008 they were really free and independent in Ossetia. They weren’t controlled by Moscow or Tbilisi, but now they are under strict control.

Which administration has a better policy regarding Moscow, this one or the last one? Nika thinks for a bit and says that it’s difficult to say. “Then, during Misha, there was a certain view of this conflict and certain actions which were understandable. Now you can’t understand anything. Misha tried all possible ways to attract the attention of the world to Georgia. This administration is always silent, hiding, as if there is no problem. But on the other hand, inside the country during Misha there were some quite heavy handed policies, but the result of that was order. Everything has pluses and minuses. Now there’s more freedom but less order. And now you can’t see any development, and there’s no hope. Then at least there was some ascent, there was hope.”

And is there anything from the EUMM mission? “They, of course, aren’t going to go to war for us if another war happens. We do t nurse such hopes. But at least they will record it if it does happen. And that’s already good.”

I say goodbye to my hospitable new acquaintances and Nika leads me back to where my car is parked. Along the way to the car, we stop by a mulberry tree with white fruit as sweet as sugar. I pick some with Nika’s help and pop the, right in my mouth, and I can’t stop they are so delicious. I think to myself, this is no simple village. This is truly a heavenly place

On the bench in front of the house, Malkhaz is sitting with his elderly mother, an Ossetian. It turns out she doesn’t speak Russian at all.

That day I spoke with others besides Malkhaz, Nika and his family. But I think that the story of these people is enough to show what happened during the last war, and also to show the consequences – moral, psychological and physical.

Epilogue

According to the head of the EUMM mission Kestutis Jankauskas, last year 150 arrests of local residents were registered by the South Ossetian side. People were arrested for “illegal attempt to cross the border” while on their way to the graveyard on the border and to churches, during searches for lost livestock, and also while picking berries, mushrooms or the beloved jonjoli in the forest. The term of arrest was several days. The amount of the fine for the infraction – from 2000 to 3000 Russian rubles.

Ergneti-Tbilisi-Berlin, July –August 2015