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South Ossetia: Peacekeepers Honoured For Mission Success
Ten years after a peacekeeping mission was established in South Ossetia, the mayor of the capital Tskhinval has marked its continuing success by renaming a city street in its honour. After the idea was overwhelmingly backed by a grateful community, Ulitsa Privokzalnaya - Railway Station Street - was renamed Peacekeepers Street in early June.
War broke out between Georgia and South Ossetia in 1989. Three years later, the autonomous district announced it had seceded from Georgia. Around 2,000 people were killed in the ensuing bloodshed and up to 100,000 were forced to leave their homes.
An agreement to deploy a peacekeeping force was signed in summer 1992 in the Black Sea resort of Dagomys. In addition to the warring sides, the meeting was attended by Russia and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE.
The force, consisting of Russian, Ossetian and Georgian battalions working side by side, entered South Ossetia on July 1, 1992 when the fighting was at its peak. "This place was a mess," recalled Colonel Filipp Hachirov, commander of the Ossetian battalion. "Problems were solved exclusively with weapons - and every home had plenty of those."
Today, the peacekeepers' operations are usually limited to breaking up street fights or tackling gangland shootings. The region is still extremely sensitive. Ossetian and Georgian villages live side by side in South Ossetia and a routine household quarrel can provoke a major ethnic conflict.
One recent clash erupted over the water supply. The pipe bringing water to Tskhinval and the Ossetian villages in the nearby valley is fed by a source in a mountainous area populated mostly by Georgians. These villagers felt entitled to take as much as they needed for their agriculture, which reduced the supply to the Ossetians in the valley. Peacekeepers were forced to intervene to stop a full-scale armed conflict, and one unit later removed all unauthorised water outlets connected to the main pipe.
The peacekeepers' tasks in South Ossetia are very different to those of their Russian counterparts patrolling the divide between Georgia and the breakaway province of Abkhazia. As South Ossetia remains ethnically mixed, there is no dividing line here.
"My mother cried when she learned they were sending me to South Ossetia," said Private Edik Voronov, of the Russian battalion. "I told her not to worry. There has been no shooting here in ten years."
Voronov, from Rostov in southern Russia, speaks highly of his time in the region. "The people are very friendly and treat us well. The locals always smile and make you feel your service is appreciated. This feels good."
Major General Vasily Prizemlin, commander of the Joint Peacekeeping Force, said the current priority was to track down and confiscate illegal weapons held by locals. As they have no powers to search property, the peacekeepers have devised an ingenious method to encourage villagers to dismantle their armouries. In a joint initiative with the OSCE entitled A Farewell to Arms, they are offering home appliances or office equipment of equal value to anyone handing in their guns.
Givi Gugutsidze, chief of the Georgian battalion, said the move will encounter problems, "Fighting apart, hunting and game shooting are very popular sports here. The locals prize their weapons and will not part with them easily."
Some locals surrender their arms without seeking compensation. Peacekeepers tell of a young man who recently handed in a Mukha grenade launcher that he had hidden in a couch in his flat. On one occasion an electricity surge caused his television set to catch fire right next to the couch where his grandmother lay sleeping. Thankfully, the blaze was soon brought under control - otherwise the weapon might have gone off and caused enormous damage and loss of life.
The peacekeepers remain optimistic, even though they know that the weapons handed in by the locals are not the only ones they possess. "Even if a man surrenders one of his two submachine guns, that's still progress," said Prizemlin.
Political leaders on both sides agree the mission has been a great triumph on all levels. Georgia's OSCE envoy Michael Lacombe describes it as "singularly successful and productive", while Prizemlin adds, "The South Ossetian peacekeeping mission is one of the few thriving ones."
For all its achievements, the mission is unlikely to leave soon. Its mandate means it must remain in the area until the conflict is fully resolved.
For now, the issue that sparked the struggle - the status of the self-proclaimed Republic of South Ossetia - remains unresolved and there is nothing the peacekeepers can do about it. "A settlement is up to the politicians," said Colonel Gugutsidze of the Georgian battalion. "Our mission is to follow orders. We'll leave when we're ordered to but I think we still have work to do here."
Inga Kochieva is a journalist with the newspaper Molodyozh Osetii in Tskhinval
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