By Daro Sulakauri
KHURVALETI, Georgia, November 24 (Reuters) – 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 bombing.
“I know what it’s like to hide in the basement while your village is being shelled. I know that horrible feeling of fear,” said Mari Otinashvili, whose family fled the shelling of her village as she was 13 in 2008. .
After a ceasefire ended this five-day war, Russia has recognized South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia, as independent states and has garrisoned troops there.
In the years since, Russian forces and the separatists they support have erected barbed wire fences along the administrative border, the de facto boundary of South Ossetia. The previously unmarked line between two regions of Georgia increasingly resembles an international border.
Barbed wire now crisscrosses the village gardens of Khurvaleti, and others like it, leaving family members unable to reach loved ones on the other side, cut off from their crops and livelihoods.
Villagers say they are frequently detained, accused of wandering off to South Ossetia, which Georgia and most other nations do not consider a separate country.
Otinashvili, who lives in a settlement on the outskirts of Khurvaleti for displaced families from the breakaway region, fears Russia may seek to take more territory or formally annex the breakaway region, following moves by Moscow to incorporate parts of eastern and southern Ukraine in the Russian Federation.
Days after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, which Moscow calls a special military operation, soldiers who Otinashvili said were Russians began moving signs prohibiting Georgians from crossing.
They shone a powerful light towards her colony, she said.
“I was so scared that I couldn’t stop crying and I was shaking for two days. I thought the war had started again,” Otinashvili said.
Authorities in South Ossetia planned to hold a so-called referendum in July on whether to join Russia, but then suspended the consultation. Georgia has described any such plans to join Russia as unacceptable.
Already, in 2017, an agreement with Russia indeed incorporated the armed forces of South Ossetia in Russia’s military command structure. Russian troops are also stationed in the area. South Ossetia is only recognized as independent from Georgia by a small handful of countries, including Russia.
The Kremlin and South Ossetian leaders did not respond to requests for comment on this story. The Georgian government did not respond to a request for comment.
Like Georgia, Ukraine is a former Soviet state bordering Russia and the Black Sea.
In September, Moscow proclaimed its annexation of four partially occupied regions of Ukraine after organizing what it called referendums. The United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly condemned what it called the “illegal annexation attempt”.
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 launched by Georgia’s armed forces but that Moscow’s response went beyond reasonable limits and violated international law.
The war also involved Abkhazia – another region internationally recognized as part of Georgia but under the control of Russian-backed separatists. Some 288,000 Georgians remain internally displaced by war and previous secessionist conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, according to the UN refugee agency.
LIFE AND DEATH ON THE LINE
The lives of residents who fled and those living near the administrative line have been disrupted since the war 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 has no connection to Mari Otinashvili, says she was walking near Khurvaleti when Russian-backed militants kidnapped her in 2018, pulling her over a barbed wire fence and into territory controlled by Russia in South Ossetia, where they imprisoned her.
She was later charged with illegally crossing the border. She denied the charge but was sentenced that year by a South Ossetian court to eight months in prison. She was released after 11 days following an outcry in Georgia.
“They threw me to the ground and hit me in the back,” Otinashvili, 41, told Reuters.
Reports of such detentions are common and monitored by Georgian authorities and rights groups. Earlier in November, three residents were arrested in the municipality of Gori, according to Georgia’s state security service, which says the detentions are aimed at scaring residents.
Villagers describe the detentions as kidnappings, saying Russian or Russian-backed South Ossetian forces are constantly pushing the demarcation line forward, erecting barriers, barbed wire fences and signs to make it a hard border.
‘Anti-occupation’ activist David Katsarava has taken to patrolling parts of the line, accusing the Georgian government and a European Union civilian monitoring mission of not doing enough to resist what which he sees as Russian encroachment and illegal detentions.
Katsarava, who started a group called Power is in Unity, distributes GPS trackers to herders and other residents to locate them quickly if they run into trouble at the border 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 only be stopped if you resist it and 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 on the allegations of wrongful detentions, or the hardening and movement of the administrative line.
Georgian citizen Genadi Bestaevi was arrested in 2019 and held in South Ossetia for two years before suffering a stroke in custody and being returned to Georgia, international observers have reported. He died three months later at the age of 53.
South Ossetian authorities said he crossed the border illegally and charged him with drug trafficking.
His sister, Naira Mestavashvili, 63, said Russian-backed forces took Bestaevi to the bedroom of his house, which is located just next to the barbed wire demarcation line. “My brother is a 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,” Mestavashvili said. The family denies the smuggling charge.
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 stuck on the side of the village controlled by the Russian-backed authorities.
“I am all alone. The guards forbid my family members from entering the occupied territory. If they cross the border, they will be imprisoned,” Valishvili said.
Valishvili said Russian forces told her to leave her home but she refused, saying she promised her late husband she would not abandon their home.
“They will take everything when I leave: all my land which is Georgian,” Valishvili said.
(Reporting by Daro Sulakauri; Additional reporting by Jake Cordell; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Daniel Flynn)
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