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Bordering Georgia“s breakaway regions, villagers fear Russia“s next steps

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2022-11-24T12:19:36Z

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

“I know what it feels like hiding in the basement while your village is being bombed. I know that horrible feeling of fear,” said Mari Otinashvili, whose family fled the shelling of her village when she was a 13-year-old in 2008.

After a ceasefire ended that five-day war, Russia recognised South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia, as independent states and garrisoned troops there.

In the years since, Russian forces and the separatists they back have erected barbed wire fences along the Administrative Boundary Line, the de facto limit of South Ossetia. The previously unmarked line between two regions of Georgia feels increasingly like an international border.

Barbed wire now runs through gardens in the village of Khurvaleti, and others like it, leaving family members unable to reach relatives on the other side, cut off from their crops and livelihoods.

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

Otinashvili, who lives in a settlement on the edge of Khurvaleti for families displaced from the breakaway region, fears Russia will seek to take more territory or formally annex the breakaway region, following Moscow’s moves to incorporate parts of eastern and southern Ukraine into the Russian federation.

A couple of days after Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow calls a special military operation, soldiers that Otinashvili said were Russians began moving signs forbidding Georgians to cross.

They shone a powerful light towards her settlement, she said.

“I was so scared I could not stop crying and was shaking for two days. I thought again the war started,” Otinashvili said.

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

Already, in 2017, an agreement with Russia in effect incorporated the armed forces of South Ossetia into Russia’s military command structure. There are also Russian troops stationed in the region. South Ossetia is only recognized as independent from Georgia by a small handful of countries including Russia.

The Kremlin and leadership in South Ossetia did not respond to requests for comment for this story. Georgia’s government did not respond to a request for comment.

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

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

Russia previously annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014.

Responsibility for the war in Georgia is disputed. An EU-backed report concluded in 2009 that it was started 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 recognised as part of Georgia but under the control of Russian-backed separatists. Some 288,000 Georgians remain internally displaced by the war and previous secessionist conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, according to the U.N. refugee agency.

Life for residents who fled and those who live near the administrative line has been unsettled ever since the war there 14 years ago, with rights groups and the Council of Europe documenting restrictions on freedom of movement, illegal detentions and discrimination against ethnic Georgian citizens among other issues.

Maia Otinashvili, who is unrelated to Mari Otinashvili, says she was walking near Khurvaleti when Russia-backed militants kidnapped her in 2018, pulling her over a barbed-wire fence and into Russia-controlled territory in South Ossetia, where they imprisoned her.

She was then accused of crossing the boundary illegally. She denied the accusation but was sentenced that year by a South Ossetian court to eight months in jail. She was freed after 11 days following an outcry in Georgia.

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

Reports of such detentions are common and tracked by Georgian authorities and rights groups. Earlier in November three residents were detained in Gori municipality, according to Georgia’s State Security Service, which says the detentions are intended to scare residents.

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

“Anti-occupation” activist David Katsarava has taken to patrolling parts of the line, accusing the Georgian government as well as a civilian European Union monitoring mission of not doing enough to resist what he sees as Russian encroachment and illegal detentions.

Katsarava, who set up a group called Power is in Unity, hands out GPS trackers to shepherds and other residents to locate them rapidly if they run into trouble on the frontier so they can refute claims they have flouted it.

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

“The creeping occupation will not stop. It can be stopped only when you resist it and when you are constantly close,” he said in an interview. “The Russians must see that we are getting as close as possible to the occupation line.”

Russia’s foreign ministry and South Ossetia’s de facto authorities did not respond to Reuters requests for comment about the allegations of wrongful detentions, or the hardening and movement of the administrative line.

Georgian citizen Genadi Bestaevi was detained in 2019 and held in South Ossetia for two years before he had a stroke in custody and was returned to Georgia, international observers reported. He died three months later aged 53.

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

His sister, Naira Mestavashvili, 63, said Russian-backed forces took Bestaevi from the bedroom of his house, which was located 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,” said Mestavashvili. The family denies the accusation of smuggling.

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

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

“I am all alone. The guards forbid my family members to come into the occupied territory. If they do cross the border, they will be jailed,” Valishvili said.

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

“They will take everything when I am gone: all my land that is Georgian,” Valishvili said.

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Local farmer Nika Tsiklauri, 33, shows Reuters a piece of white cloth, in the village of Bershueti, Georgia, May 12, 2019. Tsiklauri said that the white pieces of cloth are used to indicate the “border” between the breakaway region of South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia. Tsiklauri said he was resting near where some white cloth was tied, when a Russian militant put a gun to his head, saying that he crossed over their border. Tsiklauri was later let go. “I went close to the occupied borderline, to the trees where the white cloths are, untied them and threw them on the floor, as a protest. I do it often,” Tsiklauri said. REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri SEARCH “SULAKAURI BORDER” FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH “WIDER IMAGE” FOR ALL STORIES

Local people and journalists stand and pass flowers over to Data Vanishvili’s grandson Dato Vanishvili, 14, as he stands in Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia, during 88-year-old Data’s funeral in the village of Khurvaleti, Georgia, March 22, 2021. Data Vanishvili, then already in his eighties, became a symbol of this fearful frontier existence after he, his wife and son woke up in 2013 to find a barbed-wire fence had been erected in the night, putting their home on the Ossetian side of the boundary. Vanishvili became well-known in Georgia for staying put and defiantly speaking out publicly. Despite the risks, he would cross the boundary to get his pension and to buy food. On his deathbed at the age of 88, his final words to his wife were a plea not to abandon their home. “Do not leave the house, do not go anywhere, sit by the stove, the Georgians will help you,” his family recall him saying. He was buried in the breakaway region of South Ossetia. REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

A Georgian border policeman speaks on the phone near the entrance to the village of Karapila, near the de facto border with Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia, Georgia, July 9, 2021. After the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, Russia recognised South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia, as independent states and garrisoned troops there. Russian forces and the separatists they back have erected barbed wire fences along the Administrative Boundary Line, the de facto limit of South Ossetia. The previously unmarked line between two regions of Georgia feels increasingly like an international border. Villagers say they are frequently detained, accused of straying into South Ossetia, which Georgia and most other nations do not consider to be a separate country. REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

Mari Meladze, 15, poses for a photograph at her school in the village of Odzisi, Georgia, December 27, 2019. “It has been years since anything major has happened in my village, so we have no more international or local attention,” said Meladze. “Right after the war, we had people sponsoring us in art or other activities, but it died away. People are continuing their daily lives, trying to adjust to living next to the Russian-controlled territory. There is always fear that something might happen, but even that people got used to being constantly scared of something. No one dares to go close to the occupied borderline, no one wants to be kidnapped and fined.” REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

People walk next to a school, on a road leading to the village of Odzisi, near Mukhrani village, next to the de facto border of Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia, Georgia, September 17, 2018. Authorities in South Ossetia planned to hold a so-called referendum in July on whether to become part of Russia, but later suspended the consultation. Georgia has called any such plan to join Russia unacceptable. REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

Ani Gelashvili, 12, and Tamar Mazmashvili, 10, who are both originally from Argvisi in South Ossetia, pose for a photo near Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia, in Shavshvebi IDP settlement, Georgia, September 22, 2018. “I was three years old and Tamar was three months old when the war happened,” Gelashvili said. “We had to flee our home. I don’t remember anything. I only imagine what home was like. I know my house is destroyed, some people showed me photos of my land from a plane. It’s now a home to Russians and Ossetians. There is a Russian military base in Argvisi village. Me and Tamar now call Shavshvebi settlement home. But if the Russians ever let us return home, we will.” REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

Mari Melua, 6, who lives next to the de facto border with Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia, plays outside in her village, near hills that stand in the region of South Ossetia, in the village of Khurvaleti, Georgia, April 29, 2019. After the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, Russia recognised South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia, as independent states and garrisoned troops there. Russian forces and the separatists they back have erected barbed wire fences along the Administrative Boundary Line, the de facto limit of South Ossetia. The previously unmarked line between two regions of Georgia feels increasingly like an international border. Villagers say they are frequently detained, accused of straying into South Ossetia, which Georgia and most other nations do not consider to be a separate country. “No one dares to go up there,” Mari said about the hills. “People get scared of being kidnapped.” REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

Family photos belonging to Sidonia Gochashvili, 67, hang on a wall in her home in Shavshvebi IDP Settlement, Georgia, September 22, 2018. “I lost my home during the war in 2008,” said Gochashvili. “I had to flee South Ossetia and settle here in Shavshvebi IDP settlement. Life gets lonely.” REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

Local farmer Naira Mestavashvili, 63, the sister of the late Genadi Bestaevi, who was detained in 2019 and held in South Ossetia for two years before he had a stroke in custody and was returned to Georgia in a coma, wipes away tears in the village of Zardiantkari, Georgia, July 9, 2021. “The barbed wire fence was erected next to my brother’s home,” said Mestavashvili, who herself is half-Georgian and half-South Ossetian. “It was right next to his door. Russian troops patrolled there constantly. On the day he was kidnapped he did not cross into the occupied territory, but he was taken from his home. He was a healthy man, but he was in a coma when the South Ossetian authorities gave him back to us. He was in hospital for two months, and he is dead now. He is a victim of the Russian occupation. My brother had a wife and son in the South Ossetia region.” REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

A hut stands on a mountain on the de facto border of Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia, photographed from the village of Bershueti, Georgia, May 12, 2019. After the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, Russia recognised South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia, as independent states and garrisoned troops there. Russian forces and the separatists they back have erected barbed wire fences along the Administrative Boundary Line, the de facto limit of South Ossetia. The previously unmarked line between two regions of Georgia feels increasingly like an international border. Villagers say they are frequently detained, accused of straying into South Ossetia, which Georgia and most other nations do not consider to be a separate country. REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

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A barbed wire fence, erected by Russian-backed forces, marks the breakaway region of South Ossetia, photographed from the village of Odzisi, Georgia, April 12, 2021. After the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, Russia recognised South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia, as independent states and garrisoned troops there. Russian forces and the separatists they back have erected barbed wire fences along the Administrative Boundary Line, the de facto limit of South Ossetia. The previously unmarked line between two regions of Georgia feels increasingly like an international border. Villagers say they are frequently detained, accused of straying into South Ossetia, which Georgia and most other nations do not consider to be a separate country. REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

A shrine on a tree, memorialising local people who died in car crashes at the spot, stands by a road that leads to the village of Upper Nikozi, Georgia, March 2, 2019. Upper Nikozi was heavily bombed during the 2008 war with Russia. REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

‘Power is in Unity’ team member Davit Mtvarelishvili, 27, helps to read out a doctor’s prescription for Gogi Papitashvili, 59, in Gori, Georgia, June 15, 2021. Papitashvili, who works as a shepherd, says he was held captive for a few hours by Russian soldiers who accused Papitashvili of being on their territory. “I thought they would never let me go,” he said. “A young boy was with me but he ran for his life and escaped.” He recalls telling the soldiers he didn’t cross beyond the white cloth they hung on bushes and trees, but the soldiers claimed the cloth was simply used to mark the roads, not the border. REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

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Ramaz Begheluri, 35, who says he has been kidnapped several times by Russian-backed separatists, and his mother Nona Behgeluri, 53, pose for a picture at their home, near the border of Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia, in the village of Gugutiantkari, Georgia, May 12, 2021. Ramaz says he suffered health issues after being beaten while he was detained. “The militants have no boundaries, they have a good training in beating people,” he said. “But now my main problem is that I can’t work, I can’t support myself or my mother. I want to die sometimes, I can’t bear to live like this. Why should I ask my mother for money…this is not life. Out of nowhere I am knocked out and have spasms. I get this weird smell in my nose and then start to feel bad, that’s when I know that I have to sit down.” REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

Data Vanishvili, 84, holds on to a piece of a barbed-wire fence at the de facto border of Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia, photographed from the village of Khurvaleti, Georgia, October 2, 2018. Vanishvili, his wife and their son woke up in 2013 to find a barbed-wire fence had been erected in the night, putting their home on the Ossetian side of the boundary. He became well-known in Georgia for staying put and defiantly speaking out publicly. Despite the risks, he crosses the boundary to get his pension and to buy food. “I voted in Georgia by going over the occupied border line. When I got home, the Russian soldiers came to my house and jailed me in Tskhinvali. I had to pay a fine to get out. I asked the Georgian police and they helped. They paid 2,000 roubles,” said Vanishvili. “Once I shook hands with the president of Ukraine and Georgia over the barbed-wire fence when they paid me a visit from the Georgian-controlled territory. I do not know how the Russians found out, but once that happened, the Russians once again came to my house blackmailing me. I was jailed twice. This is not a life to live. I am confused. I woke up discovering myself not in Georgian-controlled territory, but in the hands of the Russians.” REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

David Katsarava, the leader of the “anti-occupation” group ‘Power is in Unity’, and his team member Davit Mtvarelishvili, 28, patrol the de facto border of South Ossetia near Karkushaani village, Georgia, August 19, 2022. Katsarava accuses the Georgian government as well as a civilian European Union monitoring mission of not doing enough to resist what he sees as Russian encroachment and illegal detentions. “A woman, Tsisana Khubashvili, was kidnapped in Mikeliani village cemetery, close to the occupied territory, while she was burying her dead brother. The cemetery is a dangerous place to be, no one dares to go near it, and people are afraid,” said Katsarava. REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

An unidentified soldier emerges from the bushes as they cross the boundary line into Georgian-controlled territory, as activists from the “anti-occupation” group ‘Power is in Unity’ patrol the border, near the breakaway region of South Ossetia, in the village of Atotsi, Georgia, July 7, 2021. After the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, Russia recognised South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia, as independent states and garrisoned troops there. Russian forces and the separatists they back have erected barbed wire fences along the Administrative Boundary Line, the de facto limit of South Ossetia. The previously unmarked line between two regions of Georgia feels increasingly like an international border. Villagers say they are frequently detained, accused of straying into South Ossetia, which Georgia and most other nations do not consider to be a separate country. REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

Mari Meladze, 18, poses near Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia in the village of Odzisi, Georgia, August 19, 2022. On that day, the de facto South Ossetian authorities announced they would reopen the Odzisi checkpoint after three years, for 10 days per month. “My village is so isolated,” Meladze said. “When the checkpoint closed in our village, many were left isolated from their family members. After three years, the checkpoint is open, and locals can relocate between the regions. For relocation locals need a special pass which has an expiration date. After the expiration date, the holder of the pass is not guaranteed to get extension of the pass. This makes it hard for anyone who works in the region or has a small business.” REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

Grocery store owner Mari Otinashvili, 27, poses for a picture in her home next to sacks of wheat in the Khurvaleti IDP settlement, Georgia, August 21, 2022. “We don’t know what will happen,” she said. “Russia might invade, war can start. We have to be prepared. It is incredibly stressful to live here. A few months ago, the Russians moved the border at night. I was so scared of what was happening, I cried all night.” Otinashvili is originally from Achabeti village, which was completely destroyed when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 when Otinashvili was 13 years old. She and her family had to flee their home after hiding in the basement during the bombing. Along the way, their car broke down and they had to walk all the way to Gori in Georgia, through a forest. “I remember walking past the body of a Georgian soldier. His body was still warm,” she recalls. REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

An Ossetian person and a Georgian person pay respects to a deceased relative of theirs, as they have a drink together at a cemetery in the village of Khurvaleti, Georgia, April 29, 2019. After the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, Russia recognised South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia, as independent states and garrisoned troops there. Russian forces and the separatists they back have erected barbed wire fences along the Administrative Boundary Line, the de facto limit of South Ossetia. The previously unmarked line between two regions of Georgia feels increasingly like an international border. Barbed wire now runs through gardens in Khurvaleti, and others like it, leaving family members unable to reach relatives on the other side, cut off from their crops and livelihoods. REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

A young girl sits at a desk during her first day of school in the village of Meghvrekisi, Georgia, September 12, 2018. Meghvrekisi was one of the villages that was heavily bombed during the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, which many villagers had to flee. REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

A member of the EUMM (European Union Monitoring Mission), an unarmed civilian monitoring mission, observes from afar the “anti-occupation” group ‘Power is in Unity’ patrolling the de facto border with Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia, in the village of Atotsi, Georgia, July 7, 2021. After the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, Russia recognised South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia, as independent states and garrisoned troops there. Russian forces and the separatists they back have erected barbed wire fences along the Administrative Boundary Line, the de facto limit of South Ossetia. The previously unmarked line between two regions of Georgia feels increasingly like an international border. Villagers say they are frequently detained, accused of straying into South Ossetia, which Georgia and most other nations do not consider to be a separate country. REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

Valia Valishvili, 88, the widow of the late Data Vanishvili, who lives on the side of the village controlled by the Russian-backed authorities in Georgia’s de facto breakaway region of South Ossetia, is visited by activist David Katsarava, the leader of the “anti-occupation” group ‘Power is in Unity’, as he and his team bring her wood for the winter, in the village of Khurvaleti, Georgia, September 28, 2021. Data Vanishvili, then in his eighties, became a symbol of this fearful frontier existence after he, his wife and son woke up in 2013 to find a barbed-wire fence had been erected in the night, putting their home on the Ossetian side of the boundary. He became well-known in Georgia for defiantly staying put and speaking out publicly. On his death bed at the age of 88, his final words to his wife were a plea not to abandon their home. “Do not leave the house, do not go anywhere, sit by the stove, the Georgians will help you,” his family recall him saying. He was buried in the breakaway region of South Ossetia. REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri SEARCH “SULAKAURI BORDER” FOR THIS STORY.

Georgian “anti-occupation” activist David Katsarava, the leader of the group ‘Power is in Unity’, and his team patrol an area with a drone, where Katsarava said a local had been kidnapped and later released, near the border of Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia, near Karkushaani village, Georgia, June 15, 2021. Katsarava hands out GPS trackers to shepherds and other residents to locate them rapidly if they run into trouble on the frontier so they can refute claims they have flouted it. He says Georgia has already lost tracts of land beyond the territory it initially lost control of. “The creeping occupation will not stop. It can be stopped only when you resist it and when you are constantly close,” he said. “The Russians must see that we are getting as close as possible to the occupation line.” REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

Shepherd Jumber Psitidze, 64, wears an ‘SOS watch’ GPS tracker, as he poses for a photograph in the village of Akhalubani, Georgia, July 12, 2021. Psitidze, who lives close to the de facto border of Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia, was given the tracker by Georgian “anti-occupation” activist David Katsarava, the leader of the group ‘Power is in Unity’. The GPS trackers handed out to residents have an ‘SOS’ button that they can push to prove their location when they are seized. Katsarava believes their activism has helped reduce the number of border kidnappings by 30 to 40 percent. “I feel protected wearing this watch,” Psitidze said. “Whoever has these watches, there was not one case of kidnapping. As if the Russians know that we are wearing it. I know that they know, they are not stupid.” REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

School security officer Maia Otinashvili, 41, poses for a picture at her home in the village of Khurvaleti, Georgia, July 9, 2021. Otinashvili says she was walking near Khurvaleti when Russia-backed militants kidnapped her in 2018, pulling her over a barbed-wire fence and into Russia-controlled territory in South Ossetia, where they imprisoned her. She was then accused of crossing the boundary illegally. She denied the accusation but was sentenced that year by a South Ossetian court to eight months in jail. She was freed after 11 days following an outcry in Georgia. “They knocked me to the ground and hit me in the back,” Otinashvili said. REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

Tiniko Mamagulashvili, 34, looks out of the window of her family home in the village of Dvani, Georgia, November 14, 2021. In the years since the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, Russian forces and the separatists they back have erected barbed wire fences along the Administrative Boundary Line, the de facto limit of South Ossetia. The previously unmarked line between two regions of Georgia feels increasingly like an international border. In Dvani, farming families fret about the dividing line that in one place passes directly through Mamagulashvili’s family home. Mamagulashvili says her husband likes to joke that he sleeps in Georgia with his feet in Russia. But the family is worried, she says. “If the occupation continues, what will happen to our house and our land? It is split in two and our main harvest and water is on the side of the occupation line. It is frustrating and scary to think about.” REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri    
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