THE WIDER IMAGE

Bordering Georgia’s breakaway regions, villagers fear Russia’s next steps

THE WIDER IMAGE

Bordering Georgia’s breakaway regions, villagers fear Russia’s next steps

Mari Meladze, 18, poses near Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia in the village of Odzisi, Georgia, August 19, 2022.

Bordering Georgia's breakaway regions, villagers fear Russia's next steps

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Local farmer Nika Tsiklauri, 33, shows Reuters a piece of white cloth, in the village of Bershueti, Georgia, May 12, 2019. Tsiklauri said that the white pieces of cloth are used to indicate the “border” between the breakaway region of South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia.  REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri
Georgian “anti-occupation” activist David Katsarava, the leader of the group ‘Power is in Unity’, and his team patrol an area with a drone, near the border of Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia, near Karkushaani village, Georgia, June 15, 2021.  REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

In the years since, Russian forces and the separatists they back have erected barbed wire fences along the Administrative Boundary Line, the de facto limit of South Ossetia. The previously unmarked line between two regions of Georgia feels increasingly like an international border.

Barbed wire now runs through gardens in the village of Khurvaleti, and others like it, leaving family members unable to reach relatives on the other side, cut off from their crops and livelihoods.

Otinashvili poses for a photograph in her home next to sacks of wheat in the Khurvaleti IDP settlement, Georgia, August 21, 2022. REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

Villagers say they are frequently detained, accused of straying into South Ossetia, which Georgia and most other nations do not consider to be a separate country.

Otinashvili, who lives in a settlement on the edge of Khurvaleti for families displaced from the breakaway region, fears Russia will seek to take more territory or formally annex the breakaway region, following Moscow’s moves to incorporate parts of eastern and southern Ukraine into the Russian federation.

A couple of days after Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow calls a special military operation, soldiers that Otinashvili said were Russians began moving signs forbidding Georgians to cross.

They shone a powerful light towards her settlement, she said.

“I was so scared I could not stop crying and was shaking for two days. I thought again the war started,” Otinashvili said.

A barbed wire fence, erected by Russian-backed forces, marks the breakaway region of South Ossetia, photographed from the village of Odzisi, Georgia, April 12, 2021. REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

Authorities in South Ossetia planned to hold a so-called referendum in July on whether to become part of Russia, but later suspended the consultation. Georgia has called any such plan to join Russia unacceptable.

A young girl sits at a desk during her first day of school in the village of Meghvrekisi, Georgia, September 12, 2018. REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

Already, in 2017, an agreement with Russia in effect incorporated the armed forces of South Ossetia into Russia's military command structure. There are also Russian troops stationed in the region. South Ossetia is only recognized as independent from Georgia by a small handful of countries including Russia.

The Kremlin and leadership in South Ossetia did not respond to requests for comment for this story. Georgia’s government did not respond to a request for comment.

Like Georgia, Ukraine is a former Soviet state bordering Russia and the Black Sea.

Moscow in September proclaimed its annexation of four partially occupied regions in Ukraine after the staging of what it called referendums. The United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly condemned what it called the “attempted illegal annexation.”

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 started by Georgia’s armed forces but that Moscow’s response went beyond reasonable limits and violated international law.

The war was also over Abkhazia - another region internationally recognised as part of Georgia but under the control of Russian-backed separatists. Some 288,000 Georgians remain internally displaced by the war and previous secessionist conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, according to the U.N. refugee agency.

People walk next to a school, on a road leading to the village of Odzisi, near Mukhrani village, next to the de facto border of Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia, Georgia, September 17, 2018. REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

LIFE AND DEATH ON THE LINE

Life for residents who fled and those who live near the administrative line has been unsettled ever since the war there 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 is unrelated to Mari Otinashvili, says she was walking near Khurvaleti when Russia-backed militants kidnapped her in 2018, pulling her over a barbed-wire fence and into Russia-controlled territory in South Ossetia, where they imprisoned her.

She was then accused of crossing the boundary illegally. She denied the accusation but was sentenced that year by a South Ossetian court to eight months in jail. She was freed after 11 days following an outcry in Georgia.

“They knocked me to the ground and hit me in the back,” Otinashvili, 41, told Reuters.

Maia Otinashvili poses for a picture at her home in the village of Khurvaleti, Georgia, July 9, 2021. REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri
Maia Otinashvili looks at herself in the mirror at her home, July 9, 2021. REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

Reports of such detentions are common and tracked by Georgian authorities and rights groups. Earlier in November three residents were detained in Gori municipality, according to Georgia’s State Security Service, which says the detentions are intended to scare residents.

Villagers describe the detentions as kidnappings, saying Russian or Russian-backed South Ossetian forces constantly push the dividing line forward, erecting barriers, barbed wire fences and signs to turn it into a hard border.

“Anti-occupation” activist David Katsarava has taken to patrolling parts of the line, accusing the Georgian government as well as a civilian European Union monitoring mission of not doing enough to resist what he sees as Russian encroachment and illegal detentions.

David Katsarava (right) and his team member Davit Mtvarelishvili (left), 28, patrol the de facto border of South Ossetia near Karkushaani village, Georgia, August 19, 2022. REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

Katsarava, who set up a group called Power is in Unity, hands out GPS trackers to shepherds and other residents to locate them rapidly if they run into trouble on the frontier 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 be stopped only when you resist it and when you 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 about the allegations of wrongful detentions, or the hardening and movement of the administrative line.

Data Vanishvili, 84, holds on to a piece of a barbed-wire fence at the de facto border of Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia, photographed from the village of Khurvaleti, Georgia, October 2, 2018. REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri
Local people and journalists stand and pass flowers over to Data Vanishvili’s grandson Dato Vanishvili, 14, as he stands in Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia, during 88-year-old Data’s funeral in the village of Khurvaleti, Georgia, March 22, 2021. REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

Georgian citizen Genadi Bestaevi was detained in 2019 and held in South Ossetia for two years before he had a stroke in custody and was returned to Georgia, international observers reported. He died three months later aged 53.

South Ossetian authorities said he had illegally crossed the border and accused him of drug smuggling.

His sister, Naira Mestavashvili, 63, said Russian-backed forces took Bestaevi from the bedroom of his house, which was located right next to the barbed wire dividing line.

“My brother is the 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,” said Mestavashvili. The family denies the accusation of smuggling.

Naira Mestavashvili, the sister of the late Genadi Bestaevi, wipes away tears in the village of Zardiantkari, Georgia, July 9, 2021. REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

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 stranded on the side of the village controlled by the Russian-backed authorities.

“I am all alone. The guards forbid my family members to come into the occupied territory. If they do cross the border, they will be jailed,” Valishvili said.

Valishvili said Russian forces had told her to leave her home but she refused, saying she had promised her late husband she would not abandon their home.

“They will take everything when I am gone: all my land that is Georgian,” Valishvili said.




 Daro Sulakauri was a winner of the Reuters Yannis Behrakis Photojournalism Grant. See other stories by grant winners Melissa Renwick, Mahe Elipe and Nyancho NwaNri.


















REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

Valia Valishvili, 88, the widow of the late Data Vanishvili, is visited by activist David Katsarava as he and his team bring her wood for the winter, in the village of Khurvaleti, Georgia, September 28, 2021.

REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

Georgian border police block a road during a protest between the breakaway region of South Ossetia and Georgia, near the village of Odzisi, Georgia, December 15, 2019. Protestors were demanding the release of Vazha Gaprindashvili, a doctor, who said he was detained and charged with illegally crossing the border between Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia and Georgia.

REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

A member of the EUMM (European Union Monitoring Mission), an unarmed civilian monitoring mission, observes from afar the “anti-occupation” group ‘Power is in Unity’ patrolling the de facto border with Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia, in the village of Atotsi, Georgia, July 7, 2021.

REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

Ramaz Begheluri, 35, who says he has been kidnapped several times by Russian-backed separatists, and his mother Nona Behgeluri, 53, pose for a picture at their home, near the border of Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia, in the village of Gugutiantkari, Georgia, May 12, 2021. Ramaz says he suffered health issues after being beaten while he was detained.

REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

Shepherd Jumber Psitidze, 64, wears an ‘SOS watch’ GPS tracker, as he poses for a photograph in the village of Akhalubani, Georgia, July 12, 2021. Psitidze, who lives close to the de facto border of Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia, was given the tracker by David Katsarava, the leader of the group ‘Power is in Unity’. The GPS trackers handed out to residents have an ‘SOS’ button that they can push to prove their location when they were seized.

REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

‘Power is in Unity’ team member Davit Mtvarelishvili, 27, helps to read out a doctor’s prescription for Gogi Papitashvili, 59, in Gori, Georgia, June 15, 2021. Papitashvili, who works as a shepherd, says he was held captive for a few hours by Russian soldiers who accused Papitashvili of being on their territory.

REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

Ani Gelashvili (right), 12, and Tamar Mazmashvili, 10, who are both originally from Argvisi in South Ossetia, pose for a photo near Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia, in Shavshvebi IDP settlement, Georgia, September 22, 2018. “I was three years old and Tamar was three months old when the war happened,” Gelashvili said. “We had to flee our home.”

REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

A shrine on a tree, memorialising local people who died in car crashes at the spot, stands by a road that leads to the village of Upper Nikozi, Georgia, March 2, 2019. Upper Nikozi was heavily bombed during the 2008 war with Russia.

REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

An Ossetian person (left) and a Georgian person (right) pay respects to a deceased relative of theirs, as they have a drink together at a cemetery in the village of Khurvaleti, Georgia, April 29, 2019.

REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

Mari Melua, 9, and her sister Lola Melua, 7, stand on water pipes as they play together near mountains that stand in Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia, in the village of Khurvaleti, Georgia, September 27, 2021. “Our neighbour went up the hill and got captured by a Russian soldier,” said Mari.

REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

Mari Meladze, 17, opens the curtains at her former school in the village of Odzisi, Georgia, October 4, 2021. “There is nothing for me here in my village, no future,” said Meladze. “We all live near the occupied borderline, there is nothing going on here for kids my age. I want to be somebody; work, study. But I have to get out from here to be able to pursue my dreams.”

REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

Family photos belonging to Sidonia Gochashvili, 67, hang on a wall in her home in Shavshvebi IDP Settlement, Georgia, September 22, 2018. “I lost my home during the war in 2008,” said Gochashvili. “I had to flee South Ossetia and settle here in Shavshvebi IDP settlement. Life gets lonely.”

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REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

Tiniko Mamagulashvili, 34, looks out of the window of her family home in the village of Dvani, Georgia, November 14, 2021. In Dvani, farming families fret about the dividing line that in one place passes directly through Mamagulashvili’s family home. Mamagulashvili says her husband likes to joke that he sleeps in Georgia with his feet in Russia.

REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

 A Georgian border policeman speaks on the phone near the entrance to the village of Karapila, near the de facto border with Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia, Georgia, July 9, 2021.

REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

Mari Melua, 6, who lives next to the defect border with Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia, plays outside in her village, near hills that stand in the region of South Ossetia, in the village of Khurvaleti, Georgia, April 29, 2019. “No one dares to go up there,” Mari said about the hills. “People get scared of being kidnapped.”

REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

 An unidentified soldier emerges from the bushes as they cross the boundary line into Georgian-controlled territory, as activists from the “anti-occupation” group ‘Power is in Unity’ patrol the border, near the breakaway region of South Ossetia, in the village of Atotsi, Georgia, July 7, 2021.

REUTERS/Daro Sulakauri

A hut stands on a mountain on the de facto border of Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia, photographed from the village of Bershueti, Georgia, May 12, 2019.

The Wider Image

Photography and reporting: Daro Sulakauri

Additional reporting: Jake Cordell

Writing: Frank Jack Daniel

Photo editing: Gabrielle Fonseca Johnson

Text editing: Daniel Flynn

Design: Eve Watling



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