Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Russian Border Closure Hits Passengers
For almost a month now 45 Armenian bus passengers have been waking up every morning under the open skies of the Daryal Gorge in the Georgian mountains, hoping that this will be their last day in this beautiful spot.
The busload of passengers from Armenia had the misfortune to try to cross this mountainous border into Russia just as the Russian authorities closed it on September 3, the day the bloody Beslan tragedy unfolded. Since then every day they have pestered the Georgian border guards to relay back to them any news from their Russian colleagues.
“The Georgians told us that because of the Beslan tragedy the Russian authorities are closing the border with Georgia for several days,” said Viktoria Piroyeva, one of the passengers, in a despairing voice. “We have been here since September 3 and every night we go to sleep hoping that they will open the border on the next day.”
The bus, which was supposed to take them to the Northern Ossetian capital Vladikavkaz, is uncomfortable even for sitting, but has now become their sleeping quarters. The passengers manage to buy food with the little money they still have with them. Fortunately, the border checkpoint has a canteen where the passengers take turns to eat. The nearby river Terghi has become their bathroom.
The Armenian bus is one of the few survivors of what three weeks ago was a mass of vehicles trying to get into Russia.
“There were a lot of people during the first week after the border closed, but then the numbers went down,” Georgi Kulumbegov deputy head of the checkpoint, told IWPR. “Three buses with Armenian citizens, most of whom were going to Russia to work, turned back a few days ago. All those who could go back left Daryal a long time ago.”
The Georgian foreign ministry says it is in daily touch with its Russian counterpart, seeking the opening of the frontier. All the border guards can do is refer to a statement issued by the Russian foreign ministry which says, “Because of the sharp deterioration of the situation in the North Caucasus, the Russian side is temporarily suspending international vehicle traffic on the Kazbegi-Verkhny Lars section of the state frontier.”
Many of those stuck in the gorge have burned their bridges with home and have nothing to go back to. Russian language teacher Susanna Peranian sold her house in Yerevan two months ago and was moving to live with her son in Moscow. Now her main concern is getting a daily meal. “We barely manage to eat once a day, soon we probably won’t have even that,” she said unable to hold back tears. “We are all like prisoners, but even they live better than we do – prison cells, at least, have beds.”
The Georgian government gave the trapped passengers a one-off gift of humanitarian aid in the form of food, warm blankets, medicine and first aid kits. But some of them are in failing health.
Elizaveta Abramovna, who worked as a doctor herself for 40 years, was travelling to Russia to have an urgent operation on a tumour. For the last week, she has been in acute pain.
“Would anyone care to explain to us why and for how long we are going to be in this situation?” the 68-year-old Armenian asked aloud. “Those who are doing this, they are the enemies of any people. Three years ago a tragedy worse than in Beslan happened in New York, but there the borders were not closed and people could freely move from one country to another.”
As well as worsening the health of passengers, the long wait is inflicting material damage.
Zia Bogirzade is an Azerbaijani citizen, who was transporting ten tons of tomatoes to Moscow with her business partner and has spent over three weeks at the closed border. Every morning Bogirzade throws away several dozens of kilos of rotten tomatoes. “More than half the cargo has gone bad,” she said. “A bit longer like this, and I will probably leave my last tomato here.”.
Bogirzade said she had lost 10,000 US dollars already, and the losses were growing by 50 dollars each day.
Russia’s land border with Azerbaijan has also been closed since the crisis, with devastating results for the traders who usually shuttle back and forth between the two countries.
This reporter managed to approach the Russian-controlled checkpoint at Lars for twenty minutes and talk to the Russian border guards, but they gave only one answer to all our questions, “We know nothing.”
An even more dramatic scene has formed on the Russian side of the border, with the authorities there refusing to let through a huge column of lorries and cars and thousands of passengers. About twenty hauling trucks loaded with sugar and meat are standing in the neutral zone. Georgian border guards say about 300 vehicles of various kinds, mostly transit, are waiting on the other side of the frontier.
Although this is the Georgian-Russian border, check point officials believe that Armenia is suffering the most.
“For them, Daryal is effectively the only road that links them with Russia – practically, the ‘road of life’ because many Armenian citizens work in Russia as seasonal labourers and travel by this road year in year out,” said Kulumbegov.
And one other thing is now on everyone’s minds: the approach of winter. The first snow fell in the gorge this year on September 12 and the longer the standoff continues, the greater the risk that the weather will shut down the crossing point altogether.
“Now is not the time to ask who is right, who is to blame,” said Kulumbegov. “Our main job is to help these people to get out of here as soon as possible.”
Eteri Mamulashvili is a correspondent with the Georgian newspaper 24 Hours.
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