Georgia: Taking a Stand Against Creeping Occupation

Ordinary citizens turn to small acts of protest to show their defiance.

Georgia: Taking a Stand Against Creeping Occupation

Ordinary citizens turn to small acts of protest to show their defiance.

Luda Salia, who runs a care home in Khurvaleti, points out the occupation line and Russian military structures from her yard.
Luda Salia, who runs a care home in Khurvaleti, points out the occupation line and Russian military structures from her yard. © Anastasia Mgaloblishvili
A view of the military buildings in Tskhinvali from Lia Chlachidze's driveway in Ergneti.
A view of the military buildings in Tskhinvali from Lia Chlachidze's driveway in Ergneti. © Nika Vetsko

On May 26, Georgia’s independence day, Luda Salia went up to the line of occupation separating South Ossetia and laid a Georgian flag down over the barbed wire.

“I was terrified but I… laid down the flag anyway,” said Salia, an internally displaced person (IDP) originally from Abkhazia. “I don’t know if you can call it fighting against occupation, but I certainly protest it. I protest every time I see the soldiers or any additional signs, buildings or barbed wire going up. It’s not that I want to end up in their hands but I protest the situation in every way possible.”

Salia will also raise a Georgian flag near the occupation line on August 8 to mark the 13th anniversary of the outbreak of the 2008 war.

Despite the time that has passed, a significant number of Georgians affected by the conflict continue to live in a state of fear and uncertainty. Around 20 per cent of the country remains occupied, and three years after the war ended Russia began enacting a policy of borderisation, characterised by the construction of illegal fencing, barriers and signs as a way to slowly take over the land.

As a result, other than the 26,000 people who were displaced during the war, thousands continue to be impacted by so-called creeping occupation. According to the Economic Policy Research Centre think tank, 155 cases of borderisation have been logged since 2011. Amnesty International also reported in 2018 that at least 34 villages had been divided due to borderisation.

In the absence of progress to resolve the conflict or improve security and the standard of living, many – like Salia - have resorted to their own means of resisting occupation.

In 2014, when Salia moved to her husband’s village of Khurvaleti, she found that Russians and South Ossetians were erecting barbed wire near the village.

“Since then, little by little, they’ve been creeping closer,” she said. “The police don’t allow us to approach the area but if you were to go out there you can see how it changes every day.”

Salia wanted to strengthen life in the village as well as address the issue of the neglected and largely elderly population left in Khurvaleti. In 2016, she opened a care home there with the assistance of several NGO that now employs a dozen local people.

“When I came back to the village to find it desolate with mostly elderly people here, I saw it as a necessity,” she said, adding “I chose to come back and open it here to draw attention and fight back against the occupation, and I’ve had people from all over the world visit to see the home.”

Officially, the Georgian government continues to be involved in some level of negotiations with their Russian and South Ossetian counterparts. However, little progress was made during the 52nd round of the Geneva International Discussion (GID) in March, which brings together the OSCE, EU and UN, along with representatives of the US, Georgian administration, Russia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The principle of the non-use of force is championed by Russia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia because it would essentially mean the legal recognition of the breakaway republics as states. An international security arrangement, on the other hand, is favoured by Georgia as it would involve the increased involvement of the EU, UN and NATO in monitoring these territories.

The GID co-chairs released a statement after the meeting which said that “a discussion on the core issue of IDPs and refugees could not take place” as “some participants walked out”.

Despite these communication difficulties at an official level, some Georgians living near the line of occupation have managed to keep their friendships with their neighbours alive.

Lia Chlachidze is a retired journalist who has lived in Ergneti, which borders occupied Tskhinvali, her whole life. She said that although the conflict had brought her a great deal of pain, she continued to value and miss those friendships. 

“We can’t see each other in person, but the relationships have stayed the same - very warm. We never speak about politics, or status - that this is our land. Because they say it’s our land too - we were born and raised here too,” Chlachidze said.

Chlachidze’s husband was murdered by South Ossetians during a period of unrest in 1991. She still clearly recalls the support she felt from friends across the occupation line.

“Many South Ossetians went to my father at the time and said that this was a horrible mistake, that this wasn’t supposed to happen,” she said. “And this gives you motivation that it’s not all of them [South Ossetians] who are to blame, there are other people, and another force involved in this.”

When Chlachidze recently wanted to attend a friend’s funeral in Tskhinvali, she said her friends there told her, “‘Lia, we’d do it with pleasure, but the Russians are controlling us too. And we are scared.’ And that’s their attitude towards us.”

To keep these memories alive, Chlachidze has opened a museum about the 2008 war in the basement of her rebuilt home in Ergneti, which was burned to the ground during the conflict.

She said that young people in South Ossetia were now being brought up to hate by the Russians.

“The new generation is already raised with an enemy image of us. The young people have been poisoned - they are in an isolated, closed space - they aren’t allowed to go anywhere - only to Russia, from where even Russians are running away. They don’t want to be in this closed space - they want to breathe lightly, feel what freedom is, get a European education, go to Europe, but they aren’t allowed to go.”

Nino Niparishvili, a head teacher in Kaspi, a village heavily affected by the 2008 war, has also opened a museum dedicated to educating Georgians about the history of Soviet repression and more recently, the conflict with Russia.

The school and museum are located in a former Soviet police station and interrogation centre.

“Why this museum? For the future generations to know real stories and not myths,” said Niparishvili. “There is currently a serious disinformation war, and those of us who understand it, who have processed history - those of us have to show the children what choice is most important for our country, why we should know these stories and why we shouldn’t return to the past. If we achieve this, I have lots of hope for the future generation.

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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