Ditsi, Georgia – A chilly wind whips down from the snow-capped Caucasus mountains, rustling the trees of Ilia Baruashvili’s orchard in the tiny village of Ditsi, 120km northwest of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.
Mere metres away, just beyond the plentiful fields of walnuts and peaches, a row of green metal posts march off into the distance. Seemingly innocuous, they represent an existential threat to Ilia and his neighbours. In recent weeks, Russian soldiers have resumed construction of a fence that would concretely demarcate the boundary of South Ossetia, the disputed territory over which Russia and Georgia fought a bloody war in the summer of 2008.
At any point, Baruashvili could suddenly find his house behind the fence, cut off from the nation where he grew up and marooned in a country recognised by only a handfull other countries in the world.
The path that runs parallel to Baruashvili’s orchard is speckled with small craters caused by shelling from the 2008 conflict that claimed more than 1,000 lives and displaced about 130,000. Tensions with Georgia over Ossetians’ desire for greater self-determination were reignited after the election of Western-leaning president Mikhail Saakashvili in 2003, who stated his intention to bring the regions back into Georgia’s fold.
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According to the European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM), the civilian force that conducts daily patrols along the administrative boundary line, Russia has constructed 79 percent of the current length of fencing this year. Baruashvili said he thinks these developments have been planned to coincide with the Georgian presidential elections on October 27.
“It’s political. Putin is trying to force [Georgian Prime Minister] Bidzina Ivanishvili to negotiate with them, to pay attention and to bring him to Russia and talk.”
When asked what he will do if the fence construction resumes and his home is swallowed up inside South Ossetian territory, Baruashvili scrunches up his face and pauses. “I don’t want to imagine that they will do that. While I am alive, I will not give them the chance.”
Baruashvili shares his house with his 80-year-old mother, Venera, who remained in Ditsi during 2008 while rockets and shells rained down around her. The fence has brought back painful memories for the widow and she begins to weep.
“My husband is buried near the boundary and when I visited his grave, the Ossetian people told me to take him away. I told them, ‘where should I take him?’ He was born here, he grew up here and he died here,” she said.
In an email exchange, analyst and former chairman of the South Ossetian parliament Kosta Dzugaev denied the fence construction had anything to do with the upcoming election.
“This is planned work and has nothing to do with the Georgian presidential elections. The physical protection of the border is needed now because the conflict between Georgia and South Ossetia is still unresolved,” Dzugaev said.
“Both sides could and should have peaceful relations, provided that force and the threat of force is renounced and we make progress toward the recognition of certain realities. One of these realities is the consequences of Georgian aggression against South Ossetians in August 2008.”
A few kilometres away in Kveshi, Kakha Khaduri and his father know only too well the dangerous nature of living by a seemingly arbitrary border. Months ago as they were watering their vineyard, five uniformed Ossetian soldiers suddenly appeared and told them to present their documents.
From a humanitarian perspective … this barbed wire is a totally shameful, uncivilised form of building a new Berlin wall
Kaka’s friends stand around him and joke that he was given beer and fried meat during his incarceration and that he shouldn’t complain. But his testimony is just one of a litany of similar stories reported by villagers living on the border.
Keti Tsikhelashvili, deputy minister for reintegration – considered a politically loaded term for many in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another pro-Russian breakaway territory – said while mistakes had been made by previous Georgian governments regarding relations with the disputed regions, building a fence is unacceptable.
“This population already suffered a lot in the aftermath of 2008, and this depressed area is very dependent on agriculture and opportunities are limited. From a humanitarian perspective … this barbed wire is a totally shameful, uncivilised form of building a new Berlin Wall.”
Though the border region is particularly fertile, most of the housing is decrepit and many families live below the poverty line – often just farming for subsistence. During one of their daily patrols, a team from the EUMM arrived in Kveshi and were immediately surrounded by a group of local men, eager to report their issues with the Russians on the other side of the fence. Some of them shout, “This is no man’s land!”
Ilia Loloshvili, 37, stands back quietly near the village’s memorial to Stalin, one of the few remaining in the world (the Soviet leader was born in the nearby regional capital, Gori), and recounts how a whole herd of cattle recently went missing, presumed to be stolen by those on the other side.
“We used to feel secure here – that’s why we were grazing our cattle in this area. But we were nowhere near the so-called border when the cows disappeared. I am sure that the Russians or Ossetians were watching us and waited until nobody was looking and took them. This cow was our breadwinner, my only one – we are living hand-to-mouth and we needed it for milk and yogurt for the kids. I still hope they will give it back.”
Back in Ditsi, Tamar Mdzinarashvili, 24, is one of the few young people who decided to stay and work in the village. Most choose to migrate to Turkey for seasonal construction work due to the lack of local opportunities.
Mdzinarashvili runs the only pharmacy in a 30km radius, and today she is slightly jittery – the village heard gunshots coming from across the boundary. Sometimes the gunshots come from wedding celebrations or hunting, but other times Russian and Ossetian soldiers conduct joint training exercises.
“I don’t see Russians as my enemies,” she said. “These political issues should be decided elsewhere by others, and we are just ordinary people. But unfortunately, not everyone in the village thinks like this. Last week some people here got into a fight with some Ossetians near the fence, and everyone was worried that there would be some kind of retaliation. The only thing left here is hope, nothing else.”