Georgian Villagers Routinely Detained by South Ossetians

Behind the Headlines – 7

Georgian Villagers Routinely Detained by South Ossetians

Behind the Headlines – 7

Geronti Babitashvili has been detained twice by the Russian security forces, even though he lives in Georgia: 

Like many villagers living close to the administrative boundary with South Ossetia, he was picked up while going about his daily tasks, in this case gathering firewood, and whisked off to the self-declared republic’s capital Tskhinvali.

“On the map they showed us that we were on their territory. But how could we know where we were? There was no sign, no indication, no line. We had no idea,” he told IWPR.

Along many parts of the boundary, the South Ossetians and their Russian allies have put up fences that divide families and farmland. In Babitashvili’s area, there is no such demarcation.

“The second time, I remembered the place where we had been detained and we tried to avoid that area, but we were detained anyway,” he said.

Many other people in his village, Kirbali, and other settlements have been detained, and typically released after several days after paying a fine.

Natia Nadiradze works with the international group Saferworld, which helps communities along the boundary cope.

“Most of their traditional natural resources happen to be on the other side of the administrative boundary line, so therefore people have no longer access to woods and forests, for example pastures, that they have traditionally used for ages,” she said. “In order to collect firewood, they need to cross the so-called ABL. And in many cases, the ABL is of course not demarcated and it’s pretty vague to tell where actually it lies, especially in unpopulated areas like farmlands and fields and forests.”

Nadiradze says the detentions have become almost routine.

“When a person is detained, then family members have to pay official fines to the South Ossetian government, and then they are released. There have been very few actual cases of abuse or maltreatment in Tskhinvali. But nevertheless, they feel threatened,” she said.

Every spring sees an upsurge in detentions as villagers venture into the forests to pick “jonjoli”, an edible flower.

“For these people, picking jonjoli is an incredibly important thing, because there’s not much in terms of livelihood… and therefore the possibility to pick jonjoli and turn quite a bit of money by local standards in a very short period of time is incredibly attractive,” the head of the European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM) Toivo Klaar said. “So even with the risk of being detained, you’ll do it.”

This year, the EUMM team counted 35 people detained between mid-April and mid-May. At one point in May, 18 jonjoli pickers were in detention in South Ossetia, and the EUMM issued a statement calling for their swift release.

“The jonjoli detentions became an avalanche at one point. And there we said, ‘Woah, this is getting out of hand.’ So we made a statement saying that we hoped that this would be speedily resolved,” Klaar said. “And whether through our intervention or for other factors, fortunately these people were released in the next few days.”

In Kirbali, local resident Eliza Takadze points to a church on a hill about a 30 minute walk away. Next week is Lomisoba, a religious holiday celebrated seven weeks after Easter.

“Our main concern is that we can’t visit our sacred places. Our Lomisoba is coming, but we cannot go to the church because it is on their territory,” Takadze said. “We have to go there very early in the morning to light candles and come back before noon. We are afraid. Maybe they will let us go, but we are not sure.” 

Heather Yundt produced this edition of Behind the Headlines, a radio programme made by IWPR Georgia. 

The programme is part of IWPR’s Building Bridges/Building Capacity in the South Caucasus programme, funded by the Norwegian foreign ministry. The contents of the programme do not reflect the views of the funder.

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