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An invisible wall divides villagers in north Georgia from their neighbors in South Ossetia. From Mtisambebi.ge.

Transitions note: The 2008 war between Georgia and Russia was largely fought in South Ossetia, the Georgian territory that broke away from Tbilisi in the early 1990s. Prior to the war, people on both sides of the unofficial borderline were able to cross it with ease. Since then, crossing the line between Georgia’s highland Racha region and South Ossetia has not been possible. Parts of the road were blown up by the Russian military and troops closely monitor the administrative border. People from Racha avoid coming near the line, and those on the other side can no longer enter Georgia proper.

Anyone who visits the village of Iri can’t fail to recognize Vasil Maisuradze’s house. It’s the one with the big blue flag dotted with gold stars on the fence. If you were to ask him about it, he’d likely reply: “People usually display flags of those they want to have here. I would certainly not display the flag of those who have come here with weapons.”

Vasil Maisuradze outside his house in Iri

In 2008, those who came with arms were Russian forces. On their maps, they drew a line three kilometers (1.9 miles) from Iri, on the administrative border with the breakaway South Ossetia territory, effectively turning the village into a cul-de-sac. The remaining population started to leave the stagnating village. Today, only seven people live here, all over the age of 70.

“If not for us, the old people, the Russians would be in Oni by now,” Maisuradze says.

A Line in the Sand

Before the 2008 war, Iri was a large village with many households; it had a combined kindergarten-school and a community center. The barite mill that once employed up to 300 residents of Iri and nearby villages was destroyed by a major earthquake in 1991.

“It was a wealthy village; we lived here just like people live in towns. People from Oni and Tskhinvali [the local district town in Georgia proper and the main town in South Ossetia, respectively] worked here,” Maisuradze says. “There were shops, a gym, a club, and a hospital along that road where you see ruins now. Georgians and Ossetians used those facilities equally.

“Despite the upheavals in the 1990s, we would visit them, and they would visit us. We had good neighborly relations. When the Russians came, everything was shut down. If there were no Russians stationed here, we would start visiting them and our neighborhood would be restored.”

A Racha scene

After the Russian-Georgian war of 2008, Russian troops blew up the Oni-Tskhinvali road near the village of Kvaisa and closed it down. People from Iri used to travel to Tbilisi by bus, via Kvaisa and Tskhinvali, in three hours. Now, they have to take a circuitous route via Oni, Ambrolauri, Terjola, Zestaponi, Khashuri, and Gori; the journey takes almost twice as long.

Locals reminisce about the times when the road was open. Ossetians selling various food products would arrive in cars, go door to door in the village and hawk their products. Local Georgians and Ossetians respected each other and even married into each other’s families. Almost everyone living on both sides of the occupation line has both Georgian and Ossetian relatives.

Tatiana Tedeeva, hailing from the village of Korsevi in the South Ossetian Java district, is married to a local man; she lives in Tsedisi, the next village over from Iri. Once home to 150 households, now only 15 families remain.

“I really love local people,” she says. “I’ve been living here for 52 years and I can’t remember any wrong word either from close friends or outsiders. I love this place. The Russians are the ones to be blamed – they stirred things up. If not for them, relations would be restored. The Ossetians are not doing so well right now. And with these Russians stationed here I don’t know what will happen.”

Flight to the Cities

Many families decided to uproot themselves and leave for fear of the Russian troops. The Russians drew the occupation line across the nearby fields, which Ossetians and Georgians previously used for pasture and hay fields. After the war residents of Iri and Tsedisi were unable to graze their cattle there as before. In 2009, Tsedisi resident Abesalom Maisuradze and his son went to a field to gather hay. They encountered Russian soldiers in the field, which was supposed to be under Georgian control; the Russians tied them to a tree and took away their bulls. After that people got scared and stopped going to the fields.

Map of Caucasus, by Ssolbergj / Wikimedia Commons

Several families stubbornly refuse to leave the area. “When the village is emptied out, they [the Russians] will come here. We’re here and we’re afraid that they may still come, and when there are no more people left, of course they will come here. Who will oppose them?” asks Mamuka Metreveli. He expresses anger towards the government for leaving these villages without any protection. “They should be coming up here regularly – it’s their duty. It’s a ‘border’ village; these so-called borders need to be checked. Who knows what’s going on there right now while we sit here and talk? Did anyone go there and check? Nobody did, nobody checked anything.”

In the evening, there are only two young people,along with Metreveli, in the place where Tsedisi villagers usually gather. One reason for the young people’s flight is the absence of a school and internet connection. Fear of the Russians aside, their children’s education was one reason many families left Iri and Tsedisi. They left the highland Racha region altogether and settled in larger towns, because they couldn’t even move to the nearby town of Oni – there are no jobs there and families need to pay rent and feed their children. Right now there’s only one family with a three- and a five-year-old living in Tsedisi. When they reach school age that family, too, will uproot itself and leave the village.

Almost everyone left in Iri and nearby villages is elderly.

The village school managed to stay open until 2012. Former principal Mediko Maisuradze says it had to close when the last remaining pupil completed ninth grade.

“There were no school-age children left in the village; I was like a general without an army. It was a big tragedy for me; it was as hard for me as losing my siblings. A school brings a different kind of life to a village – it raises its viability. It’s a ‘border’ village and if there are no people left here we shouldn’t expect good things in the future,” Maisuradze says.

Nobody would open a school if only the old remain; if the village is to survive, young people have to settle here. Saba Chikhradze, 30, returned to Tsedisi from Rustavi five years ago to look after his aging parents. He doesn’t own a car, so whenever he needs one he has to rent it in Oni for 60-80 laris ($18-$25). That is a lot of money for locals, who get along mainly on money earned by selling milk products and their government pensions.

“Lack of transport is a big problem; it’s killing this village. We can’t actually ride horses to Oni, can we? There’s no shop or pharmacy here; we don’t have any facilities here; everything is in Oni. If we had normal public transport at least twice a week, then it would liven things up a little around here,” Chikhradze says.

No public transport has served Tsedisi or Iri since the 1990s. Locals have grown unaccustomed to seeing buses in the area, as Vasil Maisuradze notes sarcastically: “Whenever we see a bus around here we start chasing it with stones, because for us it’s a wild beast.”

A few years ago, the UN donated an all-terrain vehicle for the use of villages near the conflict zone. The vehicle was supposed to be on standby at all times for use whenever necessary, but the Oni town hall appropriated the UN’s gift. Officials said the villages were incapable of looking after it independently. Oni sends the vehicle to the villages only once a week on Wednesdays (market day). But the vehicle can take only a limited number of people, so some villagers are forced to stay behind.

A newly formed Racha Community Organization is fighting for transport to be restored in the mountain villages. The group’s director, Eter Arsanidze, says, “People have a pessimistic outlook. They say, ‘there are only five of us in the village, so who would allocate transport for us?’ But we won’t stop till we make them allocate transport. We will definitely make locals’ voices heard at the central government level.”

This article originally appeared on Mtisambebi.ge, a site specializing in reports and multimedia features on the lives of people in Georgia’s mountain regions. It was produced as part of the Strengthening Independent Media in Europe and Eurasia project in partnership with Internews Georgia and Internews.   

Translated by Giorgi Maghularia. Images © Mtisambebi.ge