Picking Up The Pieces: How Georgia Lives 10 Years After War
9 August, 2018

August 8, 2008. This is the day the war between Russia and Georgia began. Over the course of five days, a small country torn apart by internal national differences, ultimately lost a part of its territory. This territory is now separated by barbed wire.

10 years after the war, it appears as though nothing happened at first glance. The ruined buildings in the eastern city of Gori, which were destroyed during air raids, have been rebuilt. No visible reminders of the war remain.

Hromadske traveled to Georgia to find out what life in Georgia has been like over the past decade and whether or not the country is ready to move on.

Ergneti is a village 30 kilometers away from Gori. The road between them continues on to Tskhinvali, the capital of Ossetia. However, it’s not easy to get there. You first have to get through the Georgian checkpoint, and then through the South Ossetian checkpoint. There’s around 100 meters between these two points. It’s only 15 minutes on foot between Tskhinvali and Ergneti.

Tskhinvali, the view of the city from the Georgian checkpoint in Ergneti, Georgia. August 3, 2018. In the distance, on the right-hand side, there are the remains of buildings destroyed during shelling in August 2008. Photo: Anna Tsygyma/Hromadske  

“I walked up to there once, almost to the wall,” Georgian Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalist Goga Aptsiauri tells us as we stand in between the Georgian and South Ossetian checkpoints. The wall starts on the South Ossetian side and behind it flies the flag of the unrecognized republic and a fence.

Goga points to some bushes along the road:

“This is where a Russian soldier was sitting and straight away went to me: ‘You can’t go here! You can’t go here,’” he recalls an encounter that occurred shortly after the active conflict. “I left immediately, I didn’t want to provoke [him.]”

Russia has banned entry into South Ossetia via Georgia. There’s barbed wire along the separation line, but not everywhere, so you get in and out of Tskhinvali through the gardens and orchards. Russian soldiers arrest shepherds from Ergneti, who enter unrecognized territory when looking for animals from their flock. The fine for this is around 2,000 rubles ($32.) South Ossetians sometimes “illegally” travel to Georgian territory, and when they return to Tskhinvali they are arrested and also fined. Goga says that this is three times more likely to happen to Ossetians than Georgians.

Georgian checkpoint near Ergneti, August 3, 2018. Photo: Anna Tsygyma/Hromadske

In the first few years after the war, people were detained for months on end, until their relatives came to find them and release them.

“I know that they won’t beat me on South Ossetian territory,” Goga laughs. “Because there is a European Union monitoring mission in Georgia, all the Russian soldiers are there as well, so the responsibility would fall on them. They would be blamed immediately. They won’t beat me. I’ll pay the fine and that’s it.”

Checkpoint in unrecognized South Ossetia, August 2, 2018. The flagpole is flying the flag of the self-proclaimed republic. Photo: Anna Tsygyma/Hromadske

Lia Chilachidze’s house is located on the edge of Ergneti. She’s heard about how they play Georgian and Russian soldiers train at their training facility. “The day after tomorrow, my friend is supposed to visit me from Tskhinvali,” Lia says. “She’s been calling me for days on end saying: ‘How is that I have to go through Vladikavkaz to get to you when it takes 15 minutes to walk here?’ You can only get here officially along the military road. Eight hours! Look, there it is, there’s Tskhinvali, you can see the buildings!”

A Destroyed Home

The village of Gugutiantkari is 15 kilometers from Ergneti. The police officers at the checkpoint on the Georgian side help themselves to apples, nuts and blackberries, which grow everywhere here. The fruit trees and grapevines are the only things that remain of the ruined homes. On August 8, 2008, the South Ossetian side shelled the village. The Russian and Ossetian soldiers arrived a few days later. The building that survived the shelling were burned down.

Warning sign on the demarcation line between Georgia and the unrecognized South Ossetia, Gugutiantkari village, near Ergneti, Georgia, August 4, 2018. Photo: Anna Tsygyma/Hromadske

Georgian police near the checkpoint in the village of Gugutiantkari, near Ergneti, Georgia, August 4, 2018. Photo: Anna Tsygyma/Hromadske

Ketevan has a large family: four daughters, a son, husband and many grandchildren. Before the war, her house in Gugutiantkari bordered on the village of Disevi, which was almost completely destroyed. The the demarcation line between Georgia and unrecognized South Ossetia passes right in front of Ketevan’s house. There’s a barbed wire fence and a sign stating that this is South Ossetian territory. The old Georgian village of Disevi also ended up on this side of the separation line.

Territory of unrecognized South Ossetia behind the the barbed wire near the Georgian checkpoint in the village of Gugutiantkari, near the checkpoint in the village of Gugutiantkari, near Ergneti, Georgia, August 4, 2018. Photo: Anna Tsygyma/Hromadske

Villagers graze their livestock, along the demarcation line, near Ergneti, Georgia, August 4, 2018. Sometimes animals wander across the line. The shepherds, who cross over into the unrecognized territory are arrested by Russian soldiers and fined. Photo: Anna Tsygyma/Hromadske

“We took the children away immediately after the war ended,” Ketevan says. “Then, on August 12, we left. Although, my husband didn’t want to. He went with some of his fellow villagers to sleep in the garden, they were able to hide there. One time, four Ossetians came up to them with guns. They started to beat them with clubs. Then they ordered to them to walk past the house and lie on the floor. They doused them in petrol. Took out a match, lit it and then threw it in another direction. They did this three or four times. They beat them again and let them go.”

Ketevan’s house was destroyed and burned in 2008. Gugutiantkari village Ergneti, Georgia, August 4, 2018. Photo: Anna Tsygyma/ Hromadske

Ketevan left with her family on August 12, when Russian troops arrived at the village. There wasn’t any conflict between the soldiers and the locals: no one was beaten or insulted, Ketevan says, however, it was painful watching the Russian soldiers walk smugly through her village, as if they had just conquered it. The family traveled to a settlement for displaced people outside Tbilisi. In October 2008, the Russians left the Gori region and Ketevan returned. Her house had been burned down, so the family resettled in a former elementary school.

Nine people are cooped up in a 20-square-meter room. Ketevan’s youngest daughter pushes her daughter round in a pushchair. The middle daughter shows us their beds and where they lay the other mattresses on the floor at night. There’s no light in the kitchen, so in the summer they cook outdoors.

Ketevan and her middle daughter and granddaughter in the courtyard. The family returned from the settlement for displaced people and settled in a building of a former elementary school, Gugutiantkari village, near Ergneti, Georgia, August 4, 2018. Photo: Anna Tsygyma/Hromadske

Living conditions have not improved, but, together, the family get by, Gugutiantkari village, near Ergneti, Georgia, August 4, 2018. Photo: Anna Tsygyma/Hromadske

In the summer, they cook outdoors, there is no electricity in the room that is now their kitchen. Ketevan’s middle daughter. Gugutiantkari village, near Ergneti, Georgia, August 4, 2018. Photo: Anna Tsygyma/Hromadske

“As we were leaving, my husband started to feel unwell,” Ketevan explains why they’ve lived in these conditions for so many years. They received a one-off payment of $15,000 from the government and bought one of the daughters an apartment. But they stayed where they were.

Ketevan (left) and her husband, daughters and grandchildren, Gugutiantkari village, near Ergneti, Georgia, August 4, 2018. Photo: Anna Tsygyma/Hromadske

Ketevan’s grandchildren play in the yard, Gugutiantkari village, near Ergneti, Georgia, August 4, 2018. Photo: Anna Tsygyma/Hromadske

There were 274,000 displaced people in Georgia in 2008. As a country with a population of four million people, this seemed catastrophic. However, this was already the second wave of migrants to Georgia. The first influx happened in the 1990s during the conflict between Georgia, Abkhazia and Ossetia. This time round, the Georgian government was far better prepared. At least that’s what Dzhana Dzhavakhishvili says. She has worked with displaced people as a psychologist for 25 years.

“Take, for example, the village of Tskneti, not far from Tbilisi,” Dzhana says. “Three thousand people there, and then it doubled. And this was the 90s: no electric, food, terrible inflation. And that’s when the divisions set in. In science, we call this period, when displaced people have only just arrived, the ‘honeymoon period.’ Everyone wants to help them, international funds are coming in. But then they forget about them.”

Psychologist Dzhana Dzhavakhishvili has worked with displaced people for 25 years, Tbilisi, Georgia, August 5, 2018. Photo: Anna Tsygyma/Hromadske

In 2008, displaced people received one-off payments and monthly welfare payments, settlements for them opened up throughout the country. 36,000 displaced people received apartments. However, Dzhana still critical of the government. She says that the programs to support business do not work on a state level, and there aren’t enough one-off payments. The situation has remained difficult for displaced people

“Look, you see these settlements for displaced people? They were built in rows. Like barracks. Georgian villages were always build around a center, a place where people gather. The houses face each other. But not in these settlements. People can’t live there, it’s hard. They’ve lost their sense of community.”

Man in the village near Gori, which was built especially for displaced people from unrecognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia, August 4, 2018. Photo: Anna Tsygyma/Hromadske

Woman next to a shop in a village near Gori, which was built especially for displaced people from unrecognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia, August 4, 2018. Photo: Anna Tsygyma/Hromadske

Tested by Nationalism

The 1990s were a difficult decade for Georgia. This period is marked by civil war: an armed conflict between Georgians, Abkhazians and South Ossetians. Abkhazia formally became an independent state in 1993, but this is not recognized by most countries of the world. South Ossetia also declared itself independent after the war in 1992. They received active support from Russia. A constitution was adopted and both Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) moved into the republic.

“We made a lot of mistakes in the 1990s,” says Paata Zakareishvili, the former Minister for Reconciliation and Civic Equality of Georgia, whose work has centered around the conflict between Georgia and South Ossetia for 25 years. “There were extremely high levels of nationalism in Georgia back then. People were afraid of it. For example, a teacher was working in Georgia. She was fired because she was Ossetian. They wrote: ‘Dismiss because she is an Ossetian nationalist.’ And that was of best case scenarios. At worst, people were expelled from their homes. These were grave mistakes.”

Former Georgian Minister for Reconciliation Paata Zakareishvili, Tbilisi, Georgia, August 5, 2018. Photo: Anna Tsygyma/Hromadske

“It used to be that Ossetians were named criminals,” journalist Goga Aptsiauri says in agreement with the former minister. “But this is not right. A criminal has a name and surname, so how can you say that about a whole nation?”

In 1992, after the first President of Georgia Zviad Gamsakhurdia was deposed, Eduard Shevardnadze became the de-facto president. He started negotiations to end the military conflict with Russia and South Ossetia in 1993. After two years, when Shevardnadze officially became president, peace talks between Georgia and South Ossetia began, with the OSCE and Russia also taking part. A memorandum on “measures for providing security and confidence building” was signed.

The conflict froze. Paata Zakareishvili says that nothing happened under Sheverdnadze – there were no escalations, but there was no progress either. Editor-in-Chief of Jam News Margarita Akhvlediani says that contact between the two regions increased: refugees from South Ossetia returned home, Georgian businesses operated in Tskhinvali and vice versa, buses ran between Tskhinvali and Tbilisi, Georgian lari were accepted in South Ossetia and people spoke Georgian.

Jam News editor-in-chief Margarita Akhvlediani at their offices in Tbilisi, August 2, 2018. Photo: Anna Tsygyma/Hromadske

However, at the same time, smuggling and human trafficking also increased and prisoners were detained in South Ossetia. When Mikheil Saakashvili entered government in 2003, the fight against smuggling became the official reason for sending Georgian security officer into the conflict zone.

This happened on May 31, 2004. Skirmishes between Georgia and South Ossetia went on until August. And relations between Georgia and Russia were tense. The situation almost turned into an active military conflict. In November of that year, the governments of Georgia and unrecognized South Ossetia agreed on demilitarization.  

“After 2004, all contact virtually stopped. In 2008, it just ended. There was no way of restoring trust or reconciliation,” Margarita says.

“Saakashvili came after Shevardnadze and cleared out all the Soviet nomenclature. That was good, that was right and I welcomed the step,” Paata Zakareishvili comments, “But he also cleared out all the people who had contacts with that side.”

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalist Goga Aptsiauri, Gori, Gerogia, August 3, 2018. Photo: Anna Tsygyma/Hromadske

Both Margarita and Paata think that Saakashvili and his National Movement are unequivocally to blame for the 2004 escalation in the conflict. In the end, before the new war in 2008 began, the Georgian president’s rhetoric was apologetic. He emphasized the fact that the main task was to prevent hostilities. Yet shelling, terrorism and kidnapping continued throughout the region.

South Ossetia’s appeals to Russia for protection increased and there were even talks of joining the Russian Federation. In August 2008, the conflict entered its hottest phase. South Ossetia and Georgia accused each other of provocations. And on August 8, Russian soldiers officially took South Ossetian side and started firing on Georgian territory. Over the course of five days, Georgia and South Ossetia were at war with one another.

A Traitor’s War

Rati’s father was a professional soldier and died during the active military conflict between Georgia and South Ossetia of 1991-1992. Rati decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a soldier. He served in 2008 as a contract soldier. On August 5, 2008, his unit were deployed closer to Tskhinvali.

“The Russian soldiers arrived,” Rati recalls. “We had even seen them earlier, they said hello to us. We thought they were peacekeepers. And then the tanks appeared.”

The battles for Tskhinvali started on August 7, 2008. Rati’s unit was withdrawn on August 10. Seven people from the unit died during shootouts with the Russian military.

“It was very painful, we did not expect events to escalate that way,” Rati says. “The Russians said that we are brother nations, but it turned out the opposite.”

Georgian soldier Rati served as a contract soldier in the 2008 and fought in the battles for Tskhinvali, Tbilisi, Georgia, August 3, 2018. Photo: Anna Tsygyma/Hromadske

Like many young people in Georgia, Rati does not speak Russian. But the language barrier is not the only thing that makes talking to him difficult. He does not like recounting these events. For him, the war was a failure and betrayal from the Russian army.

What first comes to mind for Rati is the post-traumatic stress he suffered in the few months that followed the war. A lot of his fellow servicemen had it worse and received treatment from psychologists. Rati says that the psychologists came to them and asked if anyone from the unit needed help. However, as Dzhana Dzhavakhishvili explains, the Georgian Ministry of Defense is an extremely closed institution and no one spoke out about the rehabilitation programs for soldiers. Volunteers mainly worked with displaced people.

After the war, Rati went to Afghanistan as part of the Georgian peacekeeping mission. In 2014, some of his colleagues decided to go and fight in Donbas for Ukraine. Rati says that a lot of Georgians sympathised with Ukrainians after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas against Russia-backed separatists.

There are still many reminders of the 2008 conflict in villages throughout Georgia. Bullet holes line the walls. Gori, Georgia, August 3, 2018. Photo: Anna Tsygyma

There are still many reminders of the 2008 conflict in villages throughout Georgia. Bullet holes line the walls. Gori, Georgia, August 3, 2018. Photo: Anna Tsygyma

Ways of Reconciliation

Since 2004, there has been a ministry within the Georgian government, which works on the issue of reconciliation. It has changed names three times in the last 14 years. Up to 2008, it was called the Ministry of Conflict Resolution Issues, and between 2008 and 2014, it was known as the Ministry of Reintegration. Jam News Editor-in-Chief believes this to have been an important step.

“You know how it sounds? The Ministry of Reintegration. It’s very categorical and does not take into account the interests of that side. Renaming it  was a definite compromise. Because to tolerate does not mean to reintegrate.”

The ministry is now headed by Ketevan Tsikhelashvili. She is friends with Lia Chelachidze, who has set up a war museum in Ergneti. In the run up to August 8, officials gather at Lia’s house. This year, even the US Chargé d’affaires (acting ambassador) to Georgia Elizabeth Rood came. Ketevan and Lia hug each other upon meeting. The minister explains to the US diplomat: “This is Lia, she has created a war museum.”

Left to right: founder of the war museum Lia Chilachidze, Minister for Reconciliation Ketevan Tsikhelashvili and US Chargé d'affaires to Georgia Elizabeth Rood during a meeting at the museum, Ergneti, Georgia, August 3, 2018. Photo Anna Tsygyma/Hromadske

The Tskhinvali border begins right outside Lia’s house. She was born there, her husband is buried there. Lia’s house burned down during the active conflict in 2008. When rebuilding her house, she decided to build a museum in her basement. It houses photographs from that period, several shells, items abandoned in war. Lia says that people continue to bring her new artefacts. She believes that the barbed wire separating Georgia and South Ossetia will one day end up in her museum.

“Georgia and Ossetia are the closest nations each other has, they will always find a common language,” Lia asserts. “That’s why Russia has closed the border, to prevent Georgia and Ossetians from meeting.”

Exhibition pieces at the war museum. These items and dishes were left behind after the war in August 2008, Ergneti, Georgia, August 3, 2018. Photo: Anna Tsygyma/Hromadske

A few months ago, the Georgian Ministry of Reconciliation introduced a program dubbed “Step Towards a Better Future.” Ketevan Tsikhelashvili says that it contains some neutral mechanisms, which aim to help find a compromises between Georgia, which considers Abkhazia and South Ossetia its territories, and the unrecognized republics, which stand by their right to independence.

Under this initiative, South Ossetians and Abkhazians in Georgia have access to free medical treatment and education. Before, they had to obtain a Georgian passport in order to leave the occupied territories and get a doctor’s appointment. Now, according to Ketevan Tsikhelashvili, people from the unrecognized republics are issued with an individual electronic number, which is not the same as citizenship, but identifies them as eligible for medical assistance. The number of people applying for this scheme has increased several times over the past year.

Another way in which the Georgian government has attempted to improve relations with the occupied territories is a program of business development in Abkhazia. According to this initiative, goods produced in Abkhazia can now be sold in Georgia. But this has turned out to be easier said than done. And the reason for this is the difference in place names.  

For example, Abkhazians call their capital Sukhumi, and Georgians call it Sokhumi. Georgians also refer to part of the South Ossetian territory as Samachablo. These place names have become important sticking points.

Minister for Reconciliation Ketevan Tsikhelashvili (right) speaks during a meeting at the war museum. Lia Chilachidze (left) and US Chargé d'affaires to Georgia Elizabeth Rood (center). Photo: Anna Tsygyma/Hromadske

Ergneti residents, who personally lived through the war, or returned home after the war during a meeting at the war museum, Ergneti, Georgia, August 3, 2018. Photo: Anna Tsygyma/Hromadske

“People have spilt blood over this,” Margarita Akhvlediani says, “And now they’re presenting this trade program. They give the example of adjika (a spicy red pepper-based dip), which is produced in Abkhazia. The city where it’s produced is Sokhumi. Is this kindergarten? Compromise. What’s so hard about writing Sukhumi? Someone has to be the bigger person. And that should be Georgia because Georgia is an independent state, it has declared a path towards Europe. And Georgia wants to return [Abkhazia] to its territory.”

Paata Zakareishvili, who worked on developing part of the program recently introduced by the government, is critical of his successors. The former minister believes that the main problem is that Georgia does not discuss these steps with the other side.

“What are we doing? We present a program, but where are we presenting it? In Vienna, in Brussels,” Paata says. “And then we throw it to the Georgians. We don’t talk to them, we don’t know what they want. All these programs aimed at reconciliation are good, correct initiatives introduced for the sake of the West – so they can say: Look how good Georgia is.”

However, the idea of negotiating with the unrecognized governments is unpopular in Georgia, as Paata and Margarita both note. Some people event support the idea of blockading the occupied territories. Others – like Rati, for example – think that Georgia should focus on its own development, that way South Ossetia and Abkhazia would want to return. Of course, neither side wants a war. But if a war does begin, Rati says he would still go and fight. He considers it to be his duty.  

View of Gori from the walls of Gori Fortress, August 4, 2018. Photo: Anna Tsygyma/Hromadske

“We want peace”

There is no barbed wire in the village of Plavi, South Ossetia, only a warning sign. The police at the Georgian checkpoint have promised to “ensure protection” and say that no one is permitted to come within 200-300 meters of the border.  

There is no green grass in the field on the Georgian territory, it’s all been eaten by the cattle that are only able to graze here. In the nearby territory of unrecognized South Ossetia, the scene is completely different. It’s covered in lush vegetation. In front of the field there is an old Georgian cemetery. After the 2008 war, part of the cemetery ended up in occupied territory.

Georgian cemetery in the village of Plavi, Georiga, August 4, 2018. In the distance there is the part of the cemetery that ended up becoming part of the unrecognized South Ossetian Republic. Photo: Anna Tsygyma/Hromadske

View of the South Ossetian part of the cemetery in the village of Plavi, August 4, 2018. Photo: Anna Tsygyma/Hromadske

Lia has lived in Plavi her whole life. Georgians and Ossetians used to live side-by-side in peace here. But after the conflict in the 1990s, Ossetians left the village for the other side of the demarcation line. However, this did not prevent locals from traveling back and forth.

Lia’s father, cousin and uncle are buried in a section of the cemetery that is now part of the unrecognized republic. Lia has not visited their graves since 2008. For the Georgians who want to honor their ancestors, this divide came as a heavy blow.   

“Do you know about our Easter tradition?” a police officer asks. “We place eggs on the graves of our ancestors. It really hurts Georgians when they are unable to do this.”

Police at the checkpoint near the cemetery in the village of Plavi, Georgia, August 4, 2018. Photo: Anna Tsygyma/Hromadske

Georgian cemetery in the village of Plavi, Georgia, August 4, 2018. Photo: Anna Tsygyma/ Hromadske

There wasn’t any fighting in Plavi in 2008. But the war ruined the lives of many families. As well as almost the rest of Georgia. People have been trying to learn how to forgive for 10 years.

After work, Goga takes to a restaurant in Gori and treats us to khinkali (Georgian dumplings) and white wine, which can only be found in this region. This is also served with dzhondzholi, a marinated white flower, similar to acacia. Goga says that a lot of people are detained because of this flower. They cross the demarcation line to pick it, where the patrol police are waiting for them.  

We ask Goga whether he thinks that Georgians and Ossetians are ready to reconcile with one another.

“Reconciliation has already happened. There is communication on a human level. Today we have the internet, social media, we can find out a lot about each other’s lives this way. This was impossible in 2009, 2010. When they bombed Gori, there were a lot of Russians here, a lot of Ossetians. Not a single one of them even lost a hair from their head. The majority of people who died during those days were civilians. Not soldiers. Not officials. They were civilians. This is why no one needs war.”

/By Yuliana Skibitska and Anna Tsygyma

/Translated by Sofia Fedeczko