Displaced Georgian refugees of 2008 war await justice

The ICC takes on war crimes case against Russia, South Ossetia and Georgia.

Russian soldiers backed South Ossetian separatists during the conflict in 2008 [Burak Kara/Getty Images]

Khurvaleti refugee camp, Georgia – The war over a speck of land the size of Rhode Island lasted only five days. The death toll was in the low hundreds. And most of the tens of thousands of people displaced by it live within driving distance of their former homes.

Yet, the brief 2008 conflict between Russia and ex-Soviet Georgia signalled the Kremlin’s comeback as a power to be feared – at least, in its former backyard – and the West’s failure to counter that assertiveness. The war and Moscow’s recognition of breakaway South Ossetia’s independence paved the way for Russia’s annexation of Crimea, hostilities in Eastern Ukraine and air strikes in Syria.

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For years, people such as Aliona Gvaramadze, a 27-year-old Georgian woman who fled Russian-backed separatist conflicts twice and now lives in a squalid refugee camp 60km away from her burned-out and looted house, had little hope that the ordeals they had lived through would ever be recognised.

Now there is a glimmer of hope that this will change, at least symbolically. The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague has requested that an investigation be held into the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during that war.

And the victims know who to blame.

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“It was mostly Moscow’s fault,” Gvaramadze, an almond-eyed, short-haired housewife, told Al Jazeera in late October, sitting at a table in a tiny community centre of the Khurvaleti camp.

Becoming a refugee

Gvaramadze calls herself a “two-time refugee”.

She was four years old in 1991, when her family fled their house in Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, a rustic, autonomous region of orchids, vineyards and forested mountains in soon-to-be-ex-Soviet Georgia.

During the chaotic liberation from the Communist regime, Georgia elected its first democratic government led by nationalists who wanted to remove the Soviet-era administrative system and introduce Georgian as the only language of education and governance.

However, ethnic minorities made up almost a third of the population in this small nation, wedged between Turkey and Russia. Three autonomous regions, including South Ossetia, broke away from the central government amid civil and separatist wars that turned Georgia into a “post-Soviet Yugoslavia”.

The wars killed thousands of people and uprooted hundreds of thousands, including Gvaramadze’s family. They had chosen to build a new home in the village of Ksuisi, close to Josef Stalin’s place of birth.

Unfortunately, Ksuisi was close to South Ossetia, which was to become one of the ex-USSR’s smallest “frozen conflict” zones because of Moscow’s political backing and the deployment of Russian peacekeepers.

The Gvaramadzes lived in constant fear of South Ossetians who often crossed the nominal border “to drive around drunk, looking for an excuse to beat up [ethnic] Georgians,” Gvaramadze recalls.

The bear’s comeback

In August 2008, Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s reformist president, ordered an offensive to reclaim South Ossetia. He had already sucessfully placated another potential conflict in the semi-autonomous southwestern Adjara province and had fallen out with Moscow over his pro-Western policies. 

The Georgian attack killed scores of civilians and ten Russian peacekeepers, Moscow and the separatist government said. They claimed that Georgians had planned a “genocide” and used internationally banned multiple rocket launchers to attack civilians, allegedly killing up to 2,000, although the Human Rights Watch later said the actual death toll among civilians was “fewer” than 100.

Moscow retaliated, deploying thousands of troops, hundreds of APCs and dozens of planes to push the Georgians back, prompting fears that Russians would take over all of Georgia. The Kremlin soon recognised the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another breakaway Georgian province.

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Gvaramadze’s village, Ksuisi, was burned down and looted, and the family fled, again ending up in a refugee camp just a stone throw’s from the South Ossetian border and some 60km from its capital Tskhinvali.

Just days after hostilities stopped, the nearly deserted village was filled with a frightening silence and the smell of burned wood and ripe, honey-sweet peaches no one cared to pick.

Several elderly people who tried to protect their homes or had nowhere to go said they were beaten and intimidated by marauding South Ossetian separatists, while Russian troops drove by in their APCs without interfering.

Compensation from Russia?

The Khurvaleti refugee camp, a chessboard of small, government-built houses protected by the Georgian police, is a sad place less than a kilometre away from the South Ossetian border. Jobs are scarce in impoverished, resource-poor Georgia. Many refugees feel isolated and depressed, men often resort to gambling and drinking.

“Things are far from easy,” said a Georgian officer who guards the camp.

Proximity to their former property aggravates the pain of the refugees. Many detest former president Saakashvili, who has been expelled from Georgia by his political rivals, but most blame the Kremlin for the ordeals their families have had to endure.

“Putin’s death will be our best compensation,” a middle-aged refugee with bloodshot eyes and gray stubble told Al Jazeera. He refused to be named – pointing in the direction of the South Ossetian border and adding, “They are too close.

ICC charges

In early October, Fatou Bensouda, a prosecutor with the International Criminal Court, stated that Russia, South Ossetia and Georgia committed alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity during the 2008 war.

They were “part of a campaign to expel ethnic Georgians from South Ossetia as well as attacks on peacekeepers by Georgian forces, on the one hand, and South Ossetian forces, on the other,” she said.

Established in 2002, the ICC deals with war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. So far, the organisation has indicted fewer than 40 individuals, several of whom are African leaders.

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But the chances of getting monetary compensations for people like Gvaramadze are very slim.

Elizabeth Evenson, a senior international justice counsel the Human Rights Watch, an international rights watchdog, told Al Jazeera that this was a new and untested dimension of the ICC with the first reparations proceedings only now under way for cases in Congo. It was very difficult to predict if there would be compensation for Georgia, she said.

The sad irony of the investigation’s outcome is that Georgia is an ICC state party that is obliged to comply with the court’s decision – while Russia and unrecognised South Ossetia are not, she said.

Russia and South Ossetia doubt ICC’s objectivity.

Russia’s foreign ministry claimed that Bensouda’s interpretation of events was “far from real” and claimed in a statement published on its website that the court’s verdict would “shield” Georgia’s actions. South Ossetia’s leader, Leonid Tibilov, is reported to have called the investigation part of an “information war” against Russia and its allies.

Although Georgian officials welcomed Bensouda in the capital, Tbilisi, some expressed caution about her investiation’s possible outcome – even though Saakashvili’s allies are mostly gone from Georgia’s current government that tries to distance itself from the decisions made in 2008.

“I am sure that huge mistakes were made by the Georgian military, Georgian politicians, against Georgia’s state interests, but these have nothing to do with war crimes,” Tinatin Khidasheli, who became Georgia’s defence minister in May, was quoted by the Georgia Online website as saying.

Source: Al Jazeera