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[Voice from the Georgian–South Ossetian conflict] ‘As long as we have Putin…’

23 October 2017

E J, 62, the village of Dzau, teacher.

‘I was born and raised in Java [Dzau]; my father is a local man. During the Soviet Union he was the head of the police of the May First district in Tbilisi — the city’s largest district. He lived among Georgians and we would often host his friends, elderly people, and I could never imagine that something could happen between us — that they would never come to visit us or could betray or deceive us.’

[Read in Georgian — სტატია ქართულ ენაზე]

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.

‘The worst had happened’

‘However, the worst happened. By that time my parents had already passed away. My brother, who was born in Khashuri, was diagnosed with cancer and we wanted to take him to Tbilisi, but we couldn’t even consider this option anymore.'

‘It was the beginning of the 1990s. They called us to tell us that there would be an attack on Tskhinval, where two of my married daughters lived. As soon as I realised it was no longer possible to freely travel to town and I may not see my children for a while, I became paranoid.’

‘The road from Java to Tskhinval crossed through Georgian villages, and they [local people] came to the motorway calling us names. Even those we had known for a long time, who sold greens and sunflowers. Women I knew very well would stop cars and curse at us. Often I could not even understand them. And so we had to take a route through the Zari motorway.’

‘We lived in dire conditions’

‘At one point, my neighbours came to me to say we all had to get in a bus and leave towards Vladikavkaz, because they were going to open fire at Java and Tskhinval. Somehow automatically I got in the bus together with the other women.’

‘When we got to the village of Ruk, it suddenly struck me that my daughters were sitting in basements, while I was trying to save myself. I stopped the bus, lied to the driver that I only wanted to get off and check on the school. But then I hitchhiked back home. I was the only woman in the neighbourhood, as they were all told that they would distract the men from protecting Java.’

‘Then we had a horrible earthquake and everything happened suddenly. Back then my husband was a headteacher, and he brought railway carriages from Volgograd, if I am not mistaken. And the children would sleep in them. Of course, we did not have anything but these carriages and without them we would not have been able to maintain the school. We lived in dire conditions: we were scared to death for our children.’

‘There were no young men in the neighbourhood that weren’t protecting their community. I would often think of feeding them but there was nobody left to be fed! This is because they were all on the front line.’

‘It was a horrible time. My colleague at the boarding school died. And there was no food to lay on the table for her funeral. We only had tinned fish and bread. That’s how we buried the poor woman.’

‘I cannot forgive the Georgians’

‘My only niece, my brother’s daughter, stayed in Tbilisi. And the thought that I would never see her and hug her again scared me to death. And whenever we could talk on the phone she would say that they were alright, it irritated me: how come they were all good while we were in such a condition?!’

‘I cannot forgive the Georgians. We lived together, there were mixed families, we were friends, we taught their children. There was a time when 30% of our students [were Georgian], I am not saying that they were all ethnic Georgian, but at least from their territory. And I cannot forgive them for the fact that there was not even a single person to warn us: “You will be attacked in the evening! Protect yourselves or do something!” They simply left. How is this possible?!’

‘After several years I participated in a public diplomacy meeting in Turkey and as we were saying goodbye to each other a Georgian lady came to me and said: “Kalbatono (Madam), next time we meet, please bring me soil from my son’s grave. He is buried in Kekhvi”. She was hitting her knees sobbing, “I am never going to see his grave! I will never be able to kiss his grave!” ’

‘I am an emotional person and tears came to my eyes. Seeing the tears of another woman, a mother, I could not help myself. I asked her: “Why did you ask me?” And she replied: “I worked in Java hospital as a nurse for 25 years and you are from Java. That’s why I decided to ask you” ’.

‘When I returned home and told this to some people in Java, they told me: “When she worked with us, she was a wonderful woman, a good colleague. But when the war broke out, she went out to the motorway to stop cars”. And of course, I did not bring any soil for her.’

‘They were heading to North Ossetia’

‘2008 was the most horrible year; 27 refugees lived in my house! Back then I was working on a project “Assistance to Sick Children”. I was able to obtain funding for my project as I had concrete data on this: on the area between Gufta and Khvtse, and we are talking about just three kilometers, there were 16 individuals with cerebral palsy and Down syndrome.’

‘I really wanted to do some kind of programme for them. They called and said: “please come to collect the money”. This happened on 6 August, but I did not have time. I thought they will wait and meanwhile the dust will settle, then I will go and collect the money, doing everything the right way… The project was funded by the OSCE and of course, I could not go. The war broke out.’

‘The whole family was sitting in front of the TV and suddenly Saakashvili said that there would be no attack. But we could not, of course, believe him completely. This would have been naïve. But it was calm anyway and we could never imagine something like this was going to happen. Attacking a sleeping town, the town where your children and grandchildren are, this is… My husband stood up, grabbed his weapon and left. I did not see him for 48 hours. Then he came back, took some stuff and went again. I could not understand how I continued to live.’

‘My house is located right on the road. You did not even have to turn to get there. And I could see cars bringing in refugees. They were full and some people would wave at me and I knew they were my acquaintances. They were heading to North Ossetia as it was the only way out for them. Most of the women and children from the neighbourhood had left too. There was nobody around, as everyone was scared.’

‘As long as we have Putin and Medvedev’

‘Then, when Russian tanks started appearing on the motorway near my house, I started to relax little bit. I had some candy at home, slightly over a kilogramme. We took it out and gave it to the soldiers in the tanks passing by.’

‘I would have kissed them all if we could. But we could not stop the tanks. One of them tossed me a piece of paper with the words, “we will protect you” written on it. Later on I handed this paper to Leonid Kharitonovich, our president, so that they could put it either in a museum or archive.’

‘Something went wrong with one of the tanks, a part broke, and they had to stop near our house. My husband helped repair it. We wanted to invite him to the house so he could have a quick bite, but he refused “I can’t”, he said, “we don’t have time for that.’

‘I remember going to Tskhinval from Java for the first time. I left for the town with two girlfriends, and we could not talk about anything as we were driving. We were just looking around and could not believe our eyes. We could not believe what had happened was real. All the houses were destroyed. We entered the town, looked into each other’s eyes and cried. We couldn’t say anything, absolutely nothing.’

‘I didn’t know where to go, whether I should find my aunt’s house or visit other people close to me. My sons-in-law lived there, my daughters lived there. I did not know where to go! The three of us were standing there, looking at the houses and crying. A lot of people who we knew had been killed. I met with my daughter but she did not want to tell me anything, “mum, everything’s ok, it’s over now”.’

‘Nobody mentioned that their houses had been destroyed and that they had to restore them. What they talked about was the sorrow that had befallen the town. How could they fire at a sleeping town?! Knowing that there were children, women, the elderly, the young.’

‘As long as we have Putin and Medvedev, one can feel more or less safe. But what will happen afterwards?’

‘I don’t trust those people anymore’

‘I’m still scared; I don’t feel good. When they talk about free movement to Tskhinval or Tbilisi, I don’t like this. I don’t know what others think but I would not approve of it. I don’t trust those people anymore. Though I have many loved ones and many relatives there.’

‘A refugee from Georgia was enrolled in our school, here in Gufta, in the 7th grade. I realised that the young souls have been poisoned. He had been told that this is not South Ossetia but Georgia, this is Georgian soil etc. I felt that the child was poisoned and I was kind to him.’

‘I started telling him how we lived under the Soviet Union, how much I loved a novel by Nodar Dumbadze “I, Grandmother, Iliko, and Ilarion”. He was all beaming. And the following week he declared that not only did he now have a favorite place in South Ossetia, but that South Ossetia was his favorite place. I can only imagine what they do to Ossetian students in Georgian schools based on this very example.’

‘My daughter used to work for a human rights committee. They were collecting statements at schools about psychological damage inflicted by the war, damage that had been caused to our children by Georgia. I am already 62, I have a lot of experience working with children, and I’m scared.’

‘If this process will ever end, if they decide that our children suffered and that they sustained immense psychological damage, let alone the financial losses, I will be more relaxed. Not before that. However, psychological damage can never be reimbursed.’

[Read from the other side of the conflict: A A, 80, the village of Chvrinisi, Kareli Municipality — ‘Everybody stole’]

The is an edited version of a story recorded by Irina Kelekhsayeva 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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