Life Through Barbed Wire:
The Georgia–South Ossetia Demarcation Line
Zhanna Bezpiatchuk, Anna Tsygyma
"That's where the Gori-Tskhinvali minibus arrives," says 78-year-old Vitaliy Kasradze, standing on the road leading from the Georgian city of Gori to Tskhinvali, the capital of Russian-occupied South Ossetia. We are 200 meters from the line of separation in the Georgian village of Ergneti, which borders Tskhinvali.
It seems as though the minibus goes straight to the checkpoint and then onto the Tskhinvali region, but it still stops. Further on is a road divided by green billboards. No one exits the bus. Vitaliy, an Ossetian Georgian from Ergneti, corrects himself: "Sorry, the bus is Gori-Ergneti. No one gets off at Tskhinvali and no one is allowed to get on."
"Russian video-eyes are watching us"
Vitaliy lived in Tskhinvali for decades. His sister, who is married to an Ossetian, still lives there now. He hasn't seen her since the Russian-Georgian war in August 2008. Along the line between unrecognized South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia, there are hundreds of thousands of such stories: it's forbidden to travel from government-controlled parts of Georgia to uncontrolled South Ossetia to visit relatives or even the graves of one's parents. After the 2008 war, border control from Russia's Federal Security Services (FSB) took control of the demarcation line. They are responsible for establishing strict rules such as these, which interrupted human contact between Georgians and Ossetians.
Destroyed Georgian Villages in South Ossetia
Inhabitants of South Ossetia now enter Georgia through Russian territory. They travel through the North Caucasus to border crossing points between Russia and Georgia, and finally enter Georgian territory using Russian passports. They also hold South Ossetian passports issued by the de-facto authorities of the unrecognized republic.

At the same time, barbed wire was gradually stretched along the demarcation line instead of fences. Most checkpoint villages on the line of demarcation are closed: there are neither people nor transport to cross from either side. Inhabitants of the Ossetian town of Akhalgori (known as "Leningori" in Ossetian) have permission to cross this line, which the Russians and Ossetians call the "state border," and Georgians and the international community refer to as the demarcation line. To do this, they have to be issued a special pass.
 
 
 
 
“No one can cross the line. Everything is sealed off here, so that it’s impossible. There are Russian border guards and ‘video-eyes’ here. We’re standing here with you now and they’re watching,” says Vitaliy Kasradze
“Initially, this line was guarded by the Ossetians. Now there are only Russians. Ossetia has no one. Sometimes they congratulate us through the barbed wire,” Vitaliy Kasradze says.
 
 
 
 
Vitaliy hurries after his two cows. They graze right next to the barbed wire.
 
 
 
 
A man rebuilt his burned house: four years after the war, he lived in Georgia's capital Tbilisi, then in the town of Caspian, 10 kilometers from Tskhinvali, in the former home of an Ossetian family.

This was a common practice. Georgians found Ossetians who were forced to leave their homes in Georgian villages and cities, and made agreements with them as to who would live in their homes until they rebuilt their own. Vitaliy Krasnadz had such an agreement with an Ossetian family.
 
 
 
 
A few hundred meters through the velvet greenery of trees on the outskirts of Tskhinvali, buildings belonging to the Russian military can already be seen.
They have a military base there with a “Dzarts” proving ground. When there are tests, they rumble and buzz over Ergenti like bad weather.
 
 
 
 
Under the Medvedev-Sarkozy plan to resolve the Russian-Georgian conflict in 2008, the Russians had to withdraw their troops to the demarcation line that preceded the start of the hostilities. Today, their units have full control of the situation along the demarcation line and throughout South Ossetia by de-facto. The Georgians had to withdraw their own armed forces to their permanent positions. At present, only the police are on the demarcation line from the Georgian side.
"How did you get there? Come back!"
Tskhinvali begins almost immediately where Ergneti ends. The last houses in the village are separated from the South Ossetian capital by the Liakhvi river and another stream.

"The Russian border guards can already sit in the bushes here," says Liya Chilachidze, gesturing to the other side of the stream. Liya lives in Ergneti, where a faction of the ruling party "Georgian Dream" is currently headed by the "sakrebulo" – the representative body of Gori's local self-government. When asked about herself, she says she had to start her life over three times. The first time was in 1991 when her husband was killed in the midst of the Georgian-Ossetian conflict and she was forced to leave Tskhinvali. The second time was in 2008, when her house in Ergneti was burnt down during the war. She had to seek temporary housing and live off of humanitarian aid. The third time was when she returned to rebuild her house in Ergneti.
After the death of her husband Liya raised three children on her own. In order to pay for their studies she opened-up her home as a mini-hotel for those who came to the Ergenti market. Until 2004, Ergenti was the center of trade and communication for Ossetians and Georgians. "They came to it from all over the Caucasus," Liya recalls. It was mostly Ossetians who stayed with her. "This market united people. The state played no role in it. And then, Saakashvili and his 'adventure' closed it," she says.

Georgian songs at Ossetian weddings and the rumbling of tanks at the Russian military training ground – these are the sounds from Tskhinvali that can be heard in Liya Chilachidze's courtyard today.

"[The Ossetians] mainly sing Georgian songs and dance to Georgian music at weddings. It's said that they don't want to see Georgians. Recently, my friend who works in Tbilisi called me – she could hear the music in the background. 'A wedding?' she asked. 'Yes, yes, a wedding. I'm in Tskhinvali,' I answered. She almost fainted: 'How did you get there? Come back!"

Liya Chilachidze can hear the songs sung at Ossetian weddings, but can't call her friends in Tskhinvali. She communicates with them through social networks. "There's a Russian mobile operation there. Additionally, I don't want them to have problems because of me, I don't want them to be pressured because they communicate with us," she explains.

Over Tskhinvali, the July sun is at it's peak. Slowly, Liya Chilachidze looks for her city in the inaccessibly landscape that is both native and foreign. She can describe every house there. On the other side of the barbed wire, the same Russian 'video-eyes' that Vitaliy Kasradze described are watching both her and us. A large CCTV camera is attached to a tall pillar that resembles a tower.
These cameras help the Russians catch "perpetrators" on both sides for "illegally crossing the state border." They are then taken to the Tskhinvali detention centre. Locals say that the detained are held there for two days. For Georgians crossing to the Georgian side, the consequences may be different. In order to free people, the Georgian authorities, the International Committee of the Red Cross and an EU Monitoring Mission work together. Sometimes they succeed.

Sometimes detentions end in court sentences, as in the case of thirty-year-old Georgiy Gyunashvili. According to his relatives, he travelled to the South Ossetian side to check on a building he abandoned there. Once there, he was seized, accused of participating in an illegal armed group and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The South Ossetian Secret Police (KDB) claim that Giunashvili took part in the "self-defense" of the village of Diseu in the Tskhinvali region. The Georgian authorities call these allegations "fictitious."

The Russian-Ossetian side allows Georgiy to meet with his son. His relatives say he is in bad condition, but they refuse to tell us anything else about his state for fear that he will be harmed.
"Busy"
In the basement of her restored home, Liya Chilachidze built a museum of the 2008 war: "It will prove that we have survived. People should see what happened here. Many of those who live not far from here, for example in Tbilisi, don't know what we experienced here. We have to establish all the facts, but it will not be a museum of aggression. Somewhere – in 10 or 20 years – all the walls will fall. All of these lines are temporary. Do you think they don't understand that in Tskhinvali?"
 
 
 
 
For the museum in the basement, Liya Chilachidze collects things that were destroyed by fire and cluster bombs: pianos, children’s toys, baby cradles, melted glass bottles.
Upon entering the future museum, the word “ZANYATO” (“occupied” in Russian) can be seen, written on the wall in capital letters.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Before the house was burned, either Russians or volunteers from the Caucasus lived there for a while. Liya plans to cover their inscriptions on the walls in glass so that rain and snow won’t destroy the words over time.
Vitaliy Kasradze says that Ossetians burned the homes in Ergneti in 2008. Here they're called either "self-defense" or "volunteers." Sometimes they say that Georgian buildings were destroyed by "Caucasians," without attributing nationalities to the attackers. The Russian army, as they recall, did not take part in this. At the same time, Russia's military did not prevent this armed group from setting fire to homes and looting.

"In Ergneti 80 percent of the homes were destroyed. When conflict arose in 1991, we [Georgians] destroyed their property. And in 2008 they responded with the same," says Vitaliy Kasradze.

Does Vitaliy believe that the monthly meetings of the delegations of Georgia, South Ossetia and Russia mediated by the European Union Monitoring Mission in Ergneti can change or solve specific problems for people such as those living along this section of the administrative line?

"These meetings with the Ossetians will not result in anything. There are groups of people both here and there who cannot communicate in any way. And they will not understand if they are not led by smart people. And there are none now. They're doing the opposite. Those who are on top want war. They make good money, but what do we do? Nothing. And it's no different than what you have now [in Ukraine]," he replies, looking ahead at the outline of Tskhinvali.

In Gori, near the office of the EU mission you can see a long line of off-road vehicles painted with European emblems and bearing flags. Are they really useful? The mandate of the mission is limited to monitoring the situation along the demarcation line from the Georgian side. They are not allowed on the Russian-Ossetian side.
White on Green: "The State Border"
Just nine years ago, before the war, Georgians and Ossetians could cross the administrative line between South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia in order to get to the neighbouring bazaar or visit the graves of their parents. Now, the Russians have placed green and white billboards with the words "State Border" and "South Ossetia." The regime along this line resembles the borders of a great ghetto. The route upon which the demarcation line was drawn and marked with barbed wire after the war in 2008 was determined at the discretion of the Russians and Ossetians.
In the Georgian village of Khurvaleti they positioned the barbed wire so that 83-year-old Dato Vanishvili's courtyard was on the side occupied by the Russians, while the rest of the village was controlled by Georgia. In Soviet times, the village belonged to the Gori Municipality of Georgia – not to the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast.

Georgian-Ossetian Dato Vanishvili refused to move anywhere. He and his wife, Valentina, and their grandson Malkhaz now live just under the barbed wire. "[The Russians and Ossetians] told me: either come to us or get out of here. Where will I go? I have been here 80 years," he says.

Generally, Dato doesn't use Russian rubles, he receives a Georgian pension in lari (the Georgian currency) and emphasizes that he's not afraid of the Russian border guards. Today, a string of international delegates come to greet Dato, albeit through the barbed wire. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko also visited in July 2017. Since the speech from Ukraine's head of state, Malkhaz Vanishvili, Dato's grandson, is convinced that the barbed wire will be removed soon.

On the day we came to see Dato, a delegation from the Moldovan government visited him in the morning. The Moldovan delegation promised to bring his grandson a laptop next time.
Malkhaz catches Georgian cigarettes, thrown to him through barbed wire to the sound of sirens. They are "special" – from the occupied territory – a local policeman jokes.
Local residents say that after such visits from delegations to the Vanishvili family, Russian border guards arrive for "preventative conversations." Dato personally doesn't see the problem. His main headache is finding a wife for 28-year-old Malkhaz. He asks both visitors and the police for help with this.

Malkhaz is not going far from the barbed wire and Russian border guards. He says he'll continue to live here.

Another problem for Dato is getting his wife to the hospital. Ossetian doctors offered to take her for treatment in Akhalgori. "How do I get there? I don't know anybody there," he says. Georgian doctors also came to see Valentina Vanishvili. They examined her through the barbed wire and said that she had to be taken to Gori or Tbilisi. However, the de-facto authorities of South Ossetia will not allow them to leave. As a result, Valentina Vanishvili remained at home without medical aid.
When asked what can help you, she replies: "Groceries." Georgian police, who are on the line of separation send bread to the Vanishvili family through the barbed wire from the Georgian side.
The Man With Two Houses on the "Border"
Khuvaleti is not the only Georgian village where the barbed wire has become a part of everyday life. Another example is the village of Dvani. Three years ago, the Russian-Ossetian side announced that it would transfer the demarcation line in the village 500 meters deeper into Georgian territory. Georgia claims that this of type creeping occupation of several hundred meters can also be seen in other parts of the de-facto administrative line.

Merab Mekarishvili's house in Dvani was exactly within the 50-meter zone. When he learned this, he moved all of his belongings and building materials 120 meters away from his house, and began to build a new house there. Now, he has two houses on the demarcation line: the old one, destroyed in the 2008 war, rebuilt and then abandoned, and the new one he is erecting.
 
 
 
 
The old house was on the border – the Ossetian village begins just behind it.
The new house will also be on the border. Other families that lived on the demarcation line abandoned their homes destroyed by the war.
 
 
 
 
Merab Mekarishvili neighbours are Russian border guards, he invites them into his garden. They have yet to move the barbed wire and posts of the "border" 50 meters, but Merab is convinced that it could happen day or night.

Hypothetically, the creeping occupation could continue and consequently, the Russians may later want to move the fence and barbed wire 50 to 100 meters deeper into Georgia. Then, Merab's new house would once again be outside of the territory controlled by the Georgian authorities. When asked if he was afraid of this cycle, Merab replies: "No. Not yet. We'll see later. Georgia, of course, disagrees. It's all our territory. But what do you do? They have power there, tanks there."

Russian border guards are Merab's neighbours on two sides at once. Their bunkers sit on a hill that rises above his garden, as well as his old and new homes. At the bottom of the hills is the end of the street where the former and future villages are located. The road crosses a stone boulder, one of the markers of the demarcation line. Behind it there is a South Ossetian barn. Marab says he often sees Russian security forces hanging around this place.
Merab often makes wine from grapes that grow near the old house, they have to be gathered from this part of the garden. In his garden he grows apples, grapes, pears and walnuts.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
We go with him to the middle of the garden. The hideout on the hill for the Russian security forces is easily visible.
– Up to this point is our territory. And this is theirs – Merab says in the part of the garden near the old house and the "border" with South Ossetia.

– Are those apple trees yours? – We ask Merab.

– No half of them will be theirs and half mine.

– And this pear tree? Will it end up in their territory?

– No, I'll cut down these trees. Do you think I would leave them to them? – he replies.

Everyday he sees his old house – everyday he finishes building part of his new home. Merab says that he does not feel sorry for its loss. Going away or building a new house in the depths of Dvani, far away from the Russian guards and the unrecognized border, was never his intention. His two daughters currently live in Tbilisi.

"I was the first one from South Ossetia in Dvani – and I will remain the first. Where would I go? If everyone leaves, who will stay? No one. I'll go, then my neighbour will go, my friend will leave here. We have no weapons, but we must stand firm."

During the war 40 houses were burnt down in Dvani. In Ergenti – 160. Today, it's possible to see abandoned homes in these villages. However, many homes have been rebuilt, with the help of bricks and slate purchased at the expense of the state and international donors. Liya Chilachidze's home, for example, was restored with money from the Danish Government. The state and local villagers helped Merab build his new house.
Those who lost their homes entirely, that is, those who left their homes in occupied territory, have several options for obtaining new homes.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
They can either get an apartment in a new building from the state or privatize the temporary housing that internally displaced persons received after the war.
In Gori, for example, refugees from South Ossetia were given the opportunity to adapt the buildings of three kindergartens. People rebuilt the building's rooms as apartments. Liya Chilachidze helped families living inside the former kindergartens file documents for privatization.

Newly built apartments from the state mainly go to large families, low income families and war veterans.

In Gori you can also see a refugee settlement, consisting of identical, pre-fabricated mini-cottages. These were set up right after the war with the help of international donors. This temporary housing became permanent for people.

There are many, who like Vitaliy Kasradze, Liya Chilachidze, Dato Vanishvili and Merab Makarishvili, chose life practically on the demarcation line, near Russian border guards, with the view of Tskhinvali on the horizon and barbed war in their gardens and fields. They can see their houses from Tskhinvali – рукою подати. The graves of their parents, friends, childhood memories and youth are all there. Where they are now, they have their own houses, restored and maintained, despite the war and new barbed wire walls.

"Georgia had no better, more glorious city than Tskhinvali. It's so quiet, calm. And what now?" Vitaliy Kasradze finally says. The "Gori-Ergenti" minibus turned on the road to Tskhinvali and went back to Georgian Gori.
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