L K, civic activist, Tskhinval.
‘When one morning my husband told me that a family of a father, mother, and two children had been shot at a petrol station, I said out loud: that’s what they deserved! And only after I had pictured these little kids did I realise that I had stopped being a woman, a mother, a human being. I understood that if I did not save myself, I would be over for good.’
‘As someone who was raised in a mixed family, I found it very difficult to watch my mum, a Georgian woman, who had been a very dedicated activist all her life. She was beautiful and strong, always the one to steal the spotlight. And we, the whole family, adored her. But literally overnight she turned into a weak creature, a person who was in need of protection.’
‘After the Zari tragedy [the shooting of more than 30 Ossetian refugees by Georgian armed formations on 20 May 1992], my mum called her sister and said: pass this on to [other Georgians], today I buried you all and you must also bury me because I no longer have you in my life and you don’t have me. This was the gravest tragedy for her.’
‘She saved me from all my demons’
‘Such episodes were frequent and I won’t recall them all. I just tried to briefly describe the background in which I started working and got involved in peacebuilding. Back then I didn’t think it was my calling. Rather, this was an opportunity I was clinging to in order to get rid of my internal rage, and everything alien that was growing inside me after the conflict broke out.’
‘And suddenly, in 2004, Manana Mebuke emerged in my life. I don’t even remember how exactly it happened, but my heart started to melt when she appeared. Her husband was severely wounded in Abkhazia and this wound eventually killed him. She was actually leading two organisations: the Veterans’ Union, once chaired by her husband, and the Union of Wives of Invalids and Widows of Participants of Armed Conflict in Georgia. And Manana, who was 10 years my junior, became like a mentor to me, a spiritual leader, who slowly but surely saved me from all my inner demons. She brought peace to my soul.’
‘Manana was a true patriot of her country and she suffered a lot from what was going on there. She used to say ‘my Georgia does not deserve what is happening there now’. She was very kind to us, to Ossetians and to South Ossetia. She was empathetic towards us. She felt embarrassed for everything, as she would often visit us and could see everything with her own eyes.’
A mass grave
‘2008 was a catastrophe for Manana! We were closely cooperating and I had great trust in her. I called her and said: “the Oak Grove is covered with the bodies of Georgian soldiers. The stench has almost reached the town. They need to be removed from there, otherwise they are going to be buried in a mass grave. Do something!” ’
‘She called me back in the evening and said: “I spent the whole day talking to people in the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Defence, but they said not a single Georgian soldier has been killed on the territory of South Ossetia.” ’
‘Luckily, the South Ossetian side exhibited a great deal of humanity, they ordered coffins rather than burying them in pits. They put them in coffins, called in a priest who administered funeral rites, and buried them all together in a common grave. And only after [the then–Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas] Hammarberg was updated on the situation during his visit, did Georgian authorities send huge refrigerators and a priest from [the nearby Georgian village of] Nikozi who also administered relevant rites and they were taken away.’
‘I will not have anything in common with Georgians’
‘What happened on 7 August  we all knew: the President of Georgia sang us all a lullaby, and at 12 AM bombed us with cluster bombs.’
‘Since 8 August Manana had been calling me non-stop. Non-stop! “Lira, how are you doing? What’s going on with you? How are the kids? Hide somewhere, Lira! Lira, Lira, Lira…” ’
‘She cursed everything and everybody in this world, cried through the phone. It became such an absurd situation whereby I ended up calming her down. I would tell her: “Manana, calm down! We will survive.” ’
‘On the 8 August 2008, even though it may sound horrible, I felt relieved. Probably because I would no longer have to bounce between Ossetians and Georgians. Georgian blood, the Georgian culture, a Georgian mother, love to my grandparents — I carried it all inside me. My whole conscious life had passed in Soviet Georgia, I grew up in it, in Soviet South Ossetia. And my mentality was always different from pure-blooded Ossetians, which is still the case!’
‘And even now I cannot say that I hate Georgians. I know very well who I despise. But back then I felt relieved and told myself: “Here we go — I don’t have to choose any more. All the dots were there. Never ever in my life will I have anything in common with Georgians.” ’
‘First of all, everything fell into place for me. Second of all — I thought, the whole world now knows who is who. And now we will start building a new Ossetia. We will have a new future. As a historian, I am well aware that after every war there is a constructive process to ensue because tragic events always cement the nation. I knew it. I also knew right there and then that a new Ossetia was being born in the ruins and the wreckage. And I was very happy for it.’
‘We were absolutely incapable of doing anything’
‘After the war, in October 2008, Manana called me to say that some Georgian women wanted to meet with us. I thought she’d lost her mind! It was a South Caucasian meeting — there were people from Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia.’
‘I didn’t want to go, but the minute I saw the list of participants from Georgia, I was happy and changed my mind. I was determined to go because I saw it as an opportunity to tell them everything — all the conclusions that I had come to. I had decided to finish with peacebuilding! In fact, we were absolutely incapable of doing anything!’
When we started talking at this meeting, one of the participants from the Georgian delegation got very emotional and suddenly flew off the hook at us. “Why are we talking to them?” she said, “it’s evident they have been tasked by the security services. This is not their narrative, but the security services' ”. To cut it short, it almost came to a fight. This was a nightmare. But I’m not sorry that we decided to go to that meeting.
We had an opportunity to relay what we wanted to say. And our friends from other republics also heard us.
‘This is Tskhinval, not Gori’
‘In November, our donors from [Swedish organisation] Kvinna till Kvinna invited Manana and me to Stockholm.’
‘I couldn’t refrain from telling the truth in Manana’s presence, and Manana could not help but tell the truth in my presence. At this large conference attended by up to forty individuals we were asked very crucial, very fundamental questions.’
‘And when I put up a huge photo, portraying the demolished Tskhinval, one of the journalists sitting in the room stood up and said: “I know this photo. This is Gori after shelling by Russian planes!” ’
‘I was embarrassed and looked at Manana. Manana raised her head and responded calmly, even though I felt that she was upset: “This is Tskhinval, not Gori”. Manana was a very decent partner. I could trust her with my eyes shut.’
‘Sadly, Manana Mebuke is no longer with us. She passed away on 6 March 2016. Memory eternal to her.’
[Read from the other side of the conflict: G V, the village of Saribari, Kaspi Municipality — ‘If only the Russians didn’t stand between us’]
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.