10 years behind barbed wire The life of Georgian families who have lost houses, gardens and pastures in the Georgian-Ossetian conflict zone due to the movement of the demarcation / border line. An Amnesty International report

International human rights organization Amnesty International published a report titled “Behind barbed wire: Human rights toll of “borderization” in Georgia.”

The report describes the lives of those living in the conflict zone of South Ossetia/Tskhinvali and Abkhazia after the Russian, Ossetian and Abkhazian military began to conduct so-called "state border", or "borderization" operations.

The purpose of the report is not to provide a political assessment of the “borderization” process. It describes only the problems that directly affect the population.

The report is based on interviews with 150 residents of the conflict zone in the South Ossetian/Tskhinvali region and Abkhazia, and mainly concerns those locals affected by the conflict who live in the territory controlled by the Georgian side.

Experts from Amnesty International have come to an upsetting conclusion - borderization has had a catastrophic effect on the lives of those in the conflict zone.

JAMnews has compiled a short summary of the main points of this report.

* This material contains the terminology used by Amnesty International

Main Problems

The report states that the 10-year borderization process has:

• divided the villages located on the administrative border;

• left people without agricultural land - the main source of their livelihood and income;

• restricted access to pastures, fruit orchards, water and forest resources;

• separated families and broken off relationships between relatives;

• separated people from the shrines and graves of loved ones;

• put them in a state of constant stress - every year Russian officers detain hundreds of people for crossing the administrative border;

• limited their right to free movement guaranteed by international law;

• limited the possibility of trade between villages on opposite sides of the barbed wire, which led to even greater impoverishment of the local population on both sides.

REUTERS/ David Mdzinarishvili


A short history of the conflict in Abkhazia and the South Ossetian/Tskhinvali region

During the Soviet Union, South Ossetia and Abkhazia were autonomous republics within the territory of Soviet Georgian.

After the fall of the USSR, Georgia began to strive for independence. The autonomous republics wanted the same - they did not want to remain part of Georgian territory.

The Georgian-Ossetian ethno-territorial conflict began at the end of the 1980s and grew into an armed conflict between 1990-1992.

A few years later, in 1992, war broke out in Abkhazia, and ended in 1993 with the almost complete expulsion of Georgian military units and ethnic Georgians from Abkhazia.

In these conflicts, Moscow formally supported Georgia, but in fact helped South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

By 1994, when the ceasefire agreement was put into force, Tbilisi had lost control of much of Abkhazia and several parts of South Ossetia. The joint peacekeeping forces of Georgia, Russia and Tskhinvali were located in South Ossetia, and Russian peacekeepers are in Abkhazia.

According to some reports, the armed conflict in Abkhazia claimed the lives of more than 13 thousand people, and 250-300 thousand became refugees. Most of them are ethnic Georgians. Later, about 40-50 thousand ethnic Georgians returned to their homes, but only in the Gali district. Gali is the only region in Abkhazia where Georgians live today.

The conflict in South Ossetia in the 1990s, according to various estimates, claimed the lives of up to a thousand people, and 60 thousand became refugees. Most of them are ethnic Ossetians living in different parts of Georgia. Up to 10 thousand ethnic Georgians living in South Ossetia also became refugees.

After the ceasefire, armed confrontation would still break out from time to time in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In August 2008, the confrontation in South Ossetia turned into a full-scale war.

Military operations swept over and captured territories controlled by Tbilisi. This included the part of Abkhazia that was controlled by the Georgian authorities before the war.

As a result of the hostilities, Georgia lost control over the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia that it controlled before the armed confrontation in 2008.

Military operations ceased on August 12 with the signing of a six-point treaty, mediated by the EU. The 2008 conflict created a new wave of refugees - around 26 thousand people, most of them ethnic Georgians, who were forced to leave the villages located in the South Ossetian conflict zone. After the war, only the Georgians who lived in the Akhalgori region returned home. The ethnic Georgians living in other regions were unable to return to their homes.

On August 26, 2008, Russia recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. However, these two territories still remain unrecognized by the absolute majority of countries in the international community.

Today, te administrative borders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia aree controlled by the Russian Federation. Tskhinvali and Sukhumi believee that Russia will guarantee their safety and protect them from aggressive Georgian policy.

Georgia has called the Russian presence in Abkhazia an act of occupation.

The majority of UN member states support the territorial integrity of Georgia.

What is “borderization?”

The Russian security services, together with representatives of the de facto governments of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, began the process of borderization, or marking the border, in 2009 - a few months after the war.

The goal of this process is to turn the administrative borders between Georgia, Abkhazia and the South Ossetia / Tskhinvali region into state and international borders.

The process of borderization is carried out mainly by the Russian military. The Abkhazian and Ossetian military participate as well.

They install barbed wire, as well as metal or wooden barriers, dig ditches and fire-resistant furrows, and hang up signs marking the border and observation infrastructure.

For ten years now, there has been intensive borderization. It has become especially active since 2013. This year, barbed wire fences appeared.

Georgian authorities state that over the course of ten years, the Russian military has installed physical barriers in 34 villages.

Barbed wire fences were installed across the land of at least 20 different families.

In the village of Dvani, three families were forced to relocate. They dismantled their homes and moved the materials to Tbilisi-controlled territory to build new housing.

The Georgian authorities and most of the international community, which recognizes the territorial integrity of Georgia, consider borderization illegal.

Tbilisi calls the dividing line an “occupation line.” But Russia and the de-facto governments consider it to be a national border.

Georgian government representatives say that borderization sometimes extends several kilometers beyond the territory of the conflict region, into the territory controlled by Tbilisi.

And in Moscow, Sukhumi and Tskhinvali they say that during the borderization process, they use by a map of Georgia from Soviet times, when Abkhazia and South Ossetia were autonomous states within Georgia.

The Russian Border Service is responsible for protecting the administrative borders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russian officers regularly patrol the "border.”

As for Tbilisi, in the Amnesty International report, we read that the Georgian side does not deploy its military forces along the administrative border. Georgian police in this area respond only to security incidents.


“Borderization” in the South Ossetia/Tskhinvali region

Over 60 kilometers of territory have been fenced in

Observation equipment stretches across 20 kilometers of land

More than 200 signs have been erected, reading “Border of the South Ossetian Republic”

There are 19 bases and four checkpoints controlled by Russian border guards


“Borderization” in Abkhazia

More than 40 kilometers of fenced-in territory

Observation posts from which an approximately 25-kilometer section of the administrative border is controlled

19 bases and two checkpoints controlled by Russian border guards


Issues moving within the South Ossetian/Tskhinvali conflict zone

There are two modes of movement on the administrative border of the South Ossetia / Tskhinvali region.

For the population of the Akhalgori region, where many ethnic Georgians still live, the rules are different. Ethnically Georgian residents of Akhalgori have “passes” issued to them by the de facto authorities, which they use to pass through checkpoints subordinate to the Russian Federal Security Service.

As for the rest of the Georgian population of South Ossetia / Tskhinvali region, who left the area during the 2008 war, travel or visiting houses in the region is still prohibited. People cannot cross the administrative border.

“Russian soldiers came to my house and said that the area is no longer part of Georgia. That evening, they started to put up barbed wire in my yard. They cut me off from the rest of the village and country,” said 85-year old David Vanishvili from the village of Khurvateli. “Borderization” cut him off from his village, neighbors, and relatives.

In 2013, when the Russian and Ossetian soldiers put up barbed wire in his village, David Vanishvili was faced with a difficult choice: he had to say goodbye to either his house and land, or his village, neighbors and relatives. David Vanishvili was unable to remain in his home. Now, he and his wife rely on their neighbors to survive. They secretly pass retirement money, medication, and other items to the elderly couple through the barbed wire. In gratitude, David Vanishvili takes care of the graves of their deceased relatives, who also ended up on the other side of the administrative border.

Issues moving across the administrative border of Abkhazia

In Abkhazia, the process of borderization is accompanied by additional difficulties and limitations.

Until 2016, six checkpoints operated on the administrative border of Abkhazia. They were used by the population living on both sides of the conflict.

Today there are only two crossing points left. One of them, the Pakhulani-Saberio crossing, serves only employees of the Inguri Hydroelectric Power Station (the hydroelectric station is the main source of energy for the territory controlled by both the Abkhazian side and Tbilisi).

Currently, access to Abkhazia from Tbilisi-controlled territory is possible only by means of a bridge over the Inguri River. This bridge is the only checkpoint for ordinary citizens. It is used by up to three thousand people a day. Most of the people who use it are Georgians living in the Gali region, who regularly cross into the territory controlled by Tbilisi in order to see their relatives, buy household products, trade, receive medical treatment or pension money, etc.

The closure of the four crossing points has greatly complicated life for the local population. Now people have to cross 20-25 kilometers more land - that means spending more time and money on the road.

For example, a resident of the village of Otobaya of the Gali region told Amnesty International that before the closure of the Orsantiya-Meore Otobaya crossing, he spent only two lari ($ 0.77) in order to get to the territory controlled by Tbilisi. And now, to cross the bridge to Inguri, he needs 12 lari ($ 4.62).

“It’s just like the rest of our lives,” says a 85-year-old villager from Khurcha.

After the de facto government of Abkhazia closed the passage to Kurcha, the village lost its ability to trade. Some the population left the village.

Before borderization, Khurcha was a local trade hub. Now all it has is abandoned stores and cafes.

Photo: Inguri bridge. Patrick Salat, JAMnews

People are detained for illegally crossing the “border”

Before the 2008 war, Ossetians and Georgians moved relatively freely across the conflict zone. Crossing the so-called “border” was much easier. There was trade between Ossetian and Georgian villages. Relatives living on opposite sides of the “border” visited each other freely for funerals or weddings.

Since 2009, after Russia deployed its border forces, the situation has changed dramatically - the "border" is tightly controlled and accessible only to the local population.

Dozens of ethnic Georgians are detained annually for "illegal entry into South Ossetia" from Tbilisi-controlled territory. According to the Georgian authorities, this happens to an average of ten people a month

However, problems on the so-called “border” arise not only among ethnic Georgians. The statistics of arrests published by the de facto authorities of South Ossetia / Tskhinvali region are much larger. According to the Ossetian side, in 2016, 549 people were detained for “violation of the border regime.” Interestingly enough, most of them (325 people) were "citizens of South Ossetia" who tried to move to the territory controlled by Tbilisi.

People are regularly detained on the administrative border with Abkhazia. According to the border service of the Russian Federation, from 2009 to 2016, 14 thousand people were detained. Most of them are Georgians living in Gali. Violators of the “border regime”, are usually released after paying a fine (in case of repeated violation, the question of criminal liability may arise with a corresponding fine or imprisonment for two years).

Most of the detainees in South Ossetia / Tskhinvali region pay around 2000 rubles (about $30) in bail.

The fine in Abkhazia is much higher - 15 thousand rubles (about $232) and up. Repeated violations are punishable by a fine of 30 thousand (about $464) to 60 thousand rubles (about $928).

Residents living in Gali told Amnesty International that they were not able to pay such high fines. Therefore, relatives of detainees have to borrow money, which further worsens the quality of their lives.

Also often, physical violence is used against detainees for “crossing the border illegally.”

71-year-old Amiran Gugutishvili lives in the village of Gugutiantkari. He told Amnesty International that in February 2017, Russian officers detained him while he was working on his land. Officers entered his garden and detained him by force. Gugutishvili’s relatives recall that when the elderly man returned home after a five-day detention, his whole body was bruised and required treatment at a hospital in Gori.

Amiran Gugutishvili, a 71-year-old resident of Gugutiantkari, lost an orchard due to borderization in 2017:

“Every year I grew about a hundred boxes of apples. This fed the family. Since 2017, I haven’t been able to enter my orchard. The Russians put a sign saying that the “state border” is there. Sometimes I go and look at my apple trees from afar.”

How they make a living in South Ossetia/Tskhinvali

Georgia is a low-income country. According to World Bank statistics, approximately 20 percent of the country's population lives below the poverty line. This can be especially hard for the villagers.

And those in the South Ossetia/Tskhinvali region, who are tired from the many years of conflict, suffer more than most. 59% of them live in abject poverty.

Residents of South Ossetia / Tskhinvali region traditionally survived by growing fruits, vegetables and other agricultural products, as well as livestock.

Previously, local residents sold crops in neighboring villages and in local markets - both in Tbilisi-controlled territory and in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

But after borderization separated local residents from their agricultural land with barbed wire fences, their economic situation became significantly worse.

The government cannot help families that have lost land. Only a small portion of Amnesty International respondents said that the Georgian authorities offered them alternative agricultural land. And some of those who were offered land refused it, because the plots either were located far from their housing, or there was a problem with their irrigation.

As it turned out, the state had no land to distribute - according to the National Statistics Office of Georgia, in 2009, in the Shida Kartli region (which was hit the hardest by borderization), whose total area is 69,425 hectares, 56,682 hectares of land are already privately owned, and the state-owned land (12,116 hectares) is almost completely leased out (95 percent).

In addition to cultivating the land, there are almost no alternative sources of food.

Before the Ergneti market was closed, the main component of the local economy was trade. The Ergneti market was a center of informal trade between people living in territories controlled by Tbilisi and Tskhinvali.

The market was closed in 2004 as part of the Georgian government’s anti-smuggling policy.

According to local residents, after the market closed, they were still able to transport crops harvested in other regions of Georgia to the regional center - Tskhinvali. They were sometimes transported through Tskhinvali to Russia. But after the barbed wire fences were erected, almost all trade ceased.

Ergneti farmers told Amnesty International that as a result of the 2008 war and borderization, they were unable to get into the Tskhinvali market, which cut their sales in half.

And the residents of the village of Nikozi say that after the borderization, they lost access to the dairy product market.

Both villages are three kilometers from Tskhinvali. Because of this, villagers could go to the market and sell crops daily without needing vehicles.

For comparison - the nearest markets are now in Gori - 30 kilometers away - and Tbilisi - 100 kilometers away.

Photo: REUTERS/ David Mdzinarishvili

How they make a living in the Abkhazian conflict zone

Khurcha village, located on the territory of Tbilisi controlled by the administrative border, was a local trade center prior to the start of borderization.

There were cafes, restaurants and shops at the crossing point. The local economy thrived.

According to one of the local residents, ethnic Abkhazians often came to the village to trade. This was the main source of income for local residents.

But after the Abkhazian side closed four checkpoints, including one located in Khurcha, the life of local residents deteriorated sharply. The closure dealt a financial blow to the entire population of the region as a whole.

In a conversation with Amnesty International, Georgians living in Gali echo the same sentiments. Restrictions on movement significantly worsened the financial condition of their families, as they often cannot travel to Zugdidi (a city in western Georgia on the administrative border of Abkhazia), where everything is much cheaper than in Gali. Now it’s become more difficult to get to Zugdidi and you have to buy everything in Gali, which is twice as expensive, and there is no way to bring goods from Zugdidi to sell them.

How the Georgian authorities are helping those living in the conflict zone

After 2013, the Georgian authorities launched several social and infrastructural projects to help the population affected by borderization, including projects to transport gas across the country, fix irrigation systems, and subsidize agriculture.

Villages near the administrative border were given the status of highlands, which provides special benefits for local residents - pension and social assistance are increased by 20%, and they are exempt from property and income tax.

However, citizens interviewed by Amnesty International say that government assistance is not enough and they feel that they have been “abandoned” by the authorities.

“We live like refugees in our own homes,” they say.

The main problem here, as in the whole of Georgia, is poverty and unemployment. In addition, borderization has robbed these people of their previous minimum-wage income sources.

The villagers complain that the Georgian authorities did not offer them any compensation in exchange for remaining the lands and pastures on the other side of the barbed wire.

The villagers have no money to invest in agricultural businesses themselves, and because of the high risks, banks will not loan them money.

Some say that the government even deprived them of benefits because they no longer meet the requirements for receiving them.

The situation is even harder in Gali and Akhalgori. [These two regions are exceptions - after the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, only the ethnically Georgian population remains in these two regions].

Although they returned to their homes after the conflict, they must live in constant stress and poverty.

These people retain the status of internally displaced persons, since Tbilisi does not consider their return “safe and sustainable.” Based on this status, the Georgian state pays them 45 GEL (about $ 17) as a monthly allowance. In addition, pensioners receive around 200 lari (about $73). And that’s all the help they get.

In addition, these people do not enjoy the medical benefits that the Georgian authorities used for Abkhazians and Ossetians in an effort to reconcile with and reintegrate the population. Under this program, Georgia fully covers the medical costs of those living in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But this does not apply to ethnic Georgians from Gali and Akhalgori. They, like other Georgian citizens, only have access to the public health program, which does not fully cover the cost of treatment.

Georgians from Gali and Akhalgori call this program discriminatory, since only ethnic Abkhazians and Ossetians can enjoy benefits.

Inguri bridge.. Photo:Patrik Salat , JAMnews

Broken families

“I last saw my sister five years ago. She lives very close to me,only about 5 kilometers away. I can see her house, but we’re separated by barbed wire.”

A 60-year-old resident of the village of Tsitelubani told Amnesty International about how difficult it is for her to visit her sister. Her sister lives in the Tskhinvali-controlled village of Orchosani, and Tsitelubani is in Tbilisi-controlled territory.

The distance between these villages is only five kilometers. But in order for the sisters to see each other, the sister living in Orchosani must travel 300 kilometers through Vladikavkaz to Tbilisi.

Their story is one of many.

In South Ossetia / Tskhinvali region in particular, there are many mixed Georgian-Ossetian families. The families torn in two, with relatives remaining on the other side of the “border”, and the constant feeling of longing making life here even more tragic and complicated.

Citizens of Tsitelubani say that before the barbed wire, they went to their relatives in Orchosani almost every day.

Today, it is dangerous to even try to cross in secret, as you are very likely to be detained for “illegal border crossing.”

And residents of the village of Nikozi say that Russian border guards do not like when friends and relatives on opposite sides of the administrative border talk to each other through barbed wire. When Russians see Ossetians talking to Georgians, they silence them and threaten with detention, Nikozians said in an interview with Amnesty International.

It is also difficult for Georgians living in Tbilisi-controlled territory to visit relatives in the Gali district. This requires a special invitation, which is not easy to obtain. To do this, you need about 10 days and five thousand rubles (about $73). And you may be denied for no good reason.

But an invitation alone does not guarantee a person that he will get to the Gali district. Gali respondents told Amnesty International that even people with an invitation often pushed back from the “border” without explanation.

One of the respondents told Amnesty International that in July 2017, despite receiving an invitation, he was unable to visit his grandfather, who was dying, in Gali. His grandfather soon passed away without ever seeing his grandson.

Borderization blocked residents of Khurvaleti, Kveshi, and six other villages of the conflict zone in South Ossetia / Tskhinvali region from visiting the graves of their relatives. After the barbed wire fences were installed, the village cemeteries ended up in Tskhinvali-controlled territory.


Who is to blame?

10 years after the Georgian-Russian conflict in 2008, effective control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia / the Tskhinvali region has fallen into the hands of the Russian Federation. According to Amnesty International, the responsibility to protect international humanitarian law and international human rights in these territories lies with Russia. The report also says that Russia is responsible for the violations committed by the de facto authorities.

At the same time, in its report, Amnesty International emphasizes that the Georgian authorities should allocate more financial assistance to citizens living in the conflict zone. At the very least, authorities should abolish the discriminatory healthcare system, which does not give ethnic Georgians living in the conflict zone the right to free treatment, while fully covering the medical expenses of both Abkhazians and Ossetians.

The organization also calls on the international community to pay more attention to the people living in the region and to have more concern for their rights and needs.