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Voice from the Georgian–South Ossetian conflict | ‘A conflict started and kindled by bad politicians’

27 November 2017

L Ch, 60, Ergneti village, Gori Municipality.

‘Those days, Tskhinvali was a city where the doors of houses were never locked, there was such intimacy and enormous trust. We played in the street and didn’t know the nationality of our friends: there were Ossetians, Russians, Jews, Armenians. I was raised in such an environment, where the people were not segregated by their nationality. Probably everyone knows who hid that ‘bomb’ in Tskhinvali, which was put into operation from the 1990s.’

Cost of Conflict: Untold Stories — Georgian–Ossetian Conflict in Peoples’ Lives is a series of personal recollections from people directly affected by the conflict who continue to pay a price today. They are a continuation of George Mason University's collection of analytical articles, Cost of Conflict: Core Dimensions of Georgian–South Ossetian Context, which are available online.

[Read in Georgian — სტატია ქართულ ენაზე]

‘I remember the tense situation which began in 1989, when our roads, our links with one another, started to weaken. When the Ossetian side started talking about separation and independence. Although, Zviad Gamsakhurdia [the first President of Georgia] also contributed to that process with his policy and actions. Now, when I look back, this seems to be such a big mistake, the biggest, which brought nothing but misery and unrest to our side, our region. At any rate, it did not bring any good.’

‘I remembered every house and stone’

‘The worst period was in 1991. As for my family, these events did affected us: my husband died in a battle close to Ergneti. He died on the 23 November 1991. This is when my alienation from Tskhinvali started. Before that we had a normal relationship, exchanged visits, everything. We had a house in Tskhinvali, where I was born and raised. I had friends, relatives. Within 10 years I lost virtually all connection with them. For ten years I never visited Tskhinvali. Although, I remembered every house and stone, every street. I missed all of that.’

‘The first time I visited Tskhinvali after that was in 2000 and I saw that the city was not the same anymore. Many people, including those creating the cultural and political atmosphere, had left. I walked in the streets and didn’t have the chance to meet my old co-citizens, as the situation was somehow different, tense; we were not able to interact with each other, although eventually, these relationships started to heal. The Spontaneous opening of the Ergneti Market played an active role in restoring these relations.’

‘The existence of the Ergneti Market in that place was a very special thing. You had to deliberately come up with such an idea, a form of relationship, leading to the reconciliation of close but alienated nations. But life and coexistence, which had continued over the years and centuries, led to the restoration of relations, closeness and confidence.’

‘I’m not saying only Georgians were guilty, the Ossetian side also committed great sins. So many innocent young people were killed.’

‘But it was not a state policy. There were those people, known as militia — those dark people, who, instead of uniting people’s grief and joy, kindled everything further, which led to the deterioration of the situation.’

‘I remember very well during one of the meetings they claimed that Georgians had to apologise to Ossetians. But if Georgians had to apologise, then Ossetians had to do the same. My family experienced a horrible tragedy in 1991. I would apologise, but would they? Society should have worked on this particular issue, although there was a third party involved quite seriously, who would not benefit from our reconciliation, and who aggravated the situation even more.’

‘Sometimes certain groups complicated the situation, there were ongoing shootings, provocations from both sides, but the peace, however fragile, was there. At least, the situation had not reached war.’

‘People did not lose connections’

’The Ergneti market was very successful until 2004. it practically led to the reconciliation of two nations. Ergneti was attended not only by Ossetians, but also residents of North Ossetia.’

‘I believe that business and economic relations have the best effect in terms of reconciliation for two nations. I did not have a good income then, we did not have any connection with that market; but I had a small hotel where different peoples from the North Caucasus would gather. You may remember that half of Georgia depended on Ergneti market. It certainly had some disadvantages, those black holes and smuggling and so on. But it could have been regulated on a state level; they could have established some control, put a customs system in place. But unfortunately, Saakashvili’s and Okruashvili’s adventurism led to the closure of the market. The system broke down.’

‘Although Ergneti market was shut down in 2004, travel was still possible. Both our and the Ossetian introduced stricter controls, but this did not prevent people from visiting each other, as most of the populated areas close to Tskhinvali were located, in the south.’

‘They came to Tbilisi to see doctors, for trading, to purchase construction materials, various goods, everything.’

‘More than a half of Tskhinvali’s population had graduated from universities in Tbilisi. These people did not lose those connections. The war tore us apart completely. As of today, we have reached a dead end. No negotiations can solve these issues. But I am certain that maybe after one, two, ten years, the time will come and communication will be restored.’

‘We got closer to this war step by step’

‘For us, the war did not start unexpectedly. That war was ongoing for several years and tense incidents took place every day. There were shootings every day, the sound of explosions. We got closer to this war step by step. August 2008 was a turning point, when there was no way back and large-scale war began.’

‘And when everything grew calm, I was surprised they had stopped shooting. We had become so accustomed to living under these shootings and explosions. To be honest, the silence started to scare me.’

‘Many years have passed since the war, and from today’s perspective, I and probably the entire Georgian side and I’m sure the Ossetian side as well, regret many things that led to our isolation from each other. There were moments when my friends called and said that living there without us made no sense, Tskhinvali was not the city it used to be.’

‘Ergneti was certainly in the middle of it, 160 houses were burned there. It was very hard for us. As soon as the fighting was over I returned home. I didn’t know what condition my house would be in, because we had to leave without even taking our documents with us. I had to save my children, there was no other way. I returned on 19 August and saw an empty village; every house had been burned down. Ossetian and Russian cars were still patrolling the highway and seeing those cars was so hard for me. When they approached us I would close my eyes thinking that they might shoot us, and I did not want to see who was shooting me.’

‘When I came back to my village, each and every gate was open. There were still chickens and dogs running in the yards, but the silence was unbearable. A gentle wind was blowing, shaking the tin roofs of those houses, which emitted squeaking sounds, those terrifying sounds. Somehow we survived everything. But there were victims, several people in Ergneti were burned inside their houses and shot, not by Russians, but by Ossetians.’

‘Those wounds are healing gradually, slowly. Life slowly got back on track and people’s lives went back to normal.’

‘That man called me crying’

‘The border had already when a friend of mine, an ethnic Ossetian man working for the police as a high ranking official, called me from Tskhinvali at 6AM. He was crying that his 60-year-old brother from the village of Tbeti had been bitten by wolves and was in a terrible condition. The wolves had bitten off the tip of his nose and his entire ear. He was completely mutilated. He was in coma. They transferred him to Tskhinvali hospital, but the doctors told them they did not have any means for saving him in Tskhinvali, and he had to be taken to Vladikavkaz, although they did not know whether he would survive the trip. They could not even administer medicine.’

‘He called me crying, saying: “Lia, you have to transfer this man from here somehow”. I asked him if he would come with him. He said that the government had warned him that if he left the territories adjacent to Tskhinvali he wouldn’t be able to go back, and would lose his job.’

‘It was very hard for me to complete this task, since the road had already been closed. They might have accused me of multiple provocations, so I coordinated with some people, called the Ambulance in Tkviavi and told them that we were going to transfer a man from Tskhinvali. The doctors answered that unless we gave them security guarantees, they would not go there. Then I used my official status as a journalist of the Joint Control Commission and called Kulakhemtov (Marat Kulakhmetov was the commander of the joint peacekeeping forces deployed in Tskhinvali). I explained the situation and he agreed. Kulakhmatov sent us a security guard and we with the Tkviavi ambulance, accompanied by guards, went to Tskhinvali. We took that man, who was already dying and in a coma, and transferred him immediately to Gori hospital, as we would not be able to make it to Tbilisi.’

‘That man survived, he regained consciousness, started eating, I fed him myself, let him use my phone to call his brother. People from Tskhinvali feared that someone might hurt him on purpose, and he always told them on the phone that he was in good hands, he was not afraid of Georgians, everyone took good care of him, treated him well.’

‘The war began’

‘But soon that ominous day, 8 August came, and the war began. We had to save ourselves and run, and to be honest, during those couple of days I forgot about that person. We had to think about ourselves, where and how to go.’

‘When we finally settled down and regained some reason, I asked about this man. The hospital had been immediately evacuated. I mobilised all of Tbilisi looking for him, and found him in the Hospital for Infectious Diseases. Unfortunately he was no longer alive when I found him. Before passing away, he had asked to be taken to Ergneti, where there was a woman who would save him and take him to Tskhinvali.’

‘As a result of negotiations, that man’s body was transferred to Tskhinvali in a vehicle from the Red Cross. At that time, our soldiers were being held hostage in Tskhinvali and he was exchanged for three Georgian hostages. These are the rules of war. Although, it’s still very hard for me to remember, war has its laws too.’

‘You are asking about the cost of conflict — I paid a very high price in this conflict. Besides the fact that my husband died, other family members died every three years or so, and to be honest, their funerals and everything was on one woman’s shoulders, on my shoulders. The human victims, this was the hardest part, and it was completed by August 2008, when only ashes remained from my 80-year-old family. When nothing was left, no history, everything was destroyed.’

‘Thank God my children survived. I am nobody, I am one ordinary Georgian, a regular person, who had to pay the price of conflict started and kindled by bad politicians, which grew into large-scale war, which was of not benefit to anyone, neither to Georgians nor Ossetians.’

[Read from the other side of the conflict: E J, 62, the village of Dzau, teacher — ‘As long as we have Putin…’]

The is an edited version of a story recorded by Goga Aptsiauri for George Mason University, with funding from USAID, and the UK Conflict, Stability, and Security Fund. All place names and terminology used are the words of the authors alone, and may not necessarily reflect the views of OC Media or George Mason University.

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