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South Ossetia: fear and loathing in the buffer zone

Varvara Pakhomenko
15 November 2008

Over a month has gone by since the withdrawal of Russian troops from the so-called ‘buffer zone' - a strip several dozen kilometers wide which separates the territory of South Ossetia from the rest of Georgia.

There is probably no one who can mark the precise border of this zone - not in Georgia, Ossetia or in Russia. But you can tell where it is because of the burnt houses, the ruins, and shell holes. And also the silence that is unusual for villages. There are no cows or chickens, and the few remaining dogs are too scared to make a sound. When the Russian army left the region and the Georgian police arrived, people began to return. They returned erratically, of course: the further from the border with the separatist republic, the safer the village is, and the more people returned. There are also people who did not leave, mainly elderly. Many wanted to leave, but did not manage to.

This place was also called the ‘safety zone'. Several hours after the retreat of the Georgian army, Russian troops arrived. They were formally responsible for law and order in the fifty or so villages included in the ‘zone'. But in fact, in the two months that followed, no one could guarantee the safety, or indeed the life, of anyone in the ‘zone'.

In less than two months - from 12 August to 9 October - dozens of people were killed, hundreds of houses were burnt down, and thousands were robbed. All this happened after the end of the war: it was on 12 August, the day that the Russian troops withdrew to the Gori region, that the Russian president signed the Medvedev-Sarkozy principles.

The first days were the most terrifying. Almost all the Russian soldiers marched from Gori to Tbilisi. The villages remained in the hands of the ‘victors' - Ossetian and North Caucasian militiamen, and even armed bandits. Houses were  stripped of everything of value. Cars were stolen. Those who tried to resist were often killed.

Dozens of people were taken hostage, including people who could certainly not be classified as soldiers - women, children and the elderly. The ‘lucky' one were kidnapped, exchanged for Ossetian militiamen and held in a Tskhinvali detention centre. At least we know the exact number of these people. These hostages were used to remove and bury the bodies of Georgian soldiers who had been lying in the August heat for over a week.

But there is no knowing how many people were kidnapped and held in houses or in the forest until their families paid a ransom for them. In the small Georgian village of Gogeti, which neither Georgian or Russian troops entered, bandits took an entire family from their own home - elderly parents with two children (for more detail on the situation see the report of the Memorial human rights centre and the Demos centre, ‘Humanitarian consequences of the armed conflict in the South Caucasus: the Buffer zone after the withdrawal of Russian troops'). After they reached an Ossetian village, the mother and children were released, and told that tomorrow they would have to pay ransom for the father. Too terrified to show themselves on Ossetian territory in daylight hours, they moved by night through the forest - and got lost. And on the third day, when they finally reached their village, they found that their home had burned down. Their neighbors said that the bandits returned when they did not get the ransom, took everything from the house and then burned it down. The woman gave the only thing she had left - gold jewelry hidden in the forest - to an intermediary. Only then was the head of the family released.

At first the fires, robbery and kidnapping often took place right in front of the Russian soldiers, who simply preferred to ignore it. But from mid-August the situation began to change. The army tried to establish control. The situation improved slightly, and in some villages looting was almost completely brought under control.

The soldiers tried to deal with the hostage taking. Archbishop Isai, a priest from the village of Nikozi, which is in shooting distance from Tskhinvali, stayed in his village the whole time. He now laughs as he tells a story which sounds quite absurd: ‘A few days after the Russians established their checkpoint here, the Ossetians came to us again. Some were in uniform, some were not, but almost all of them were armed. They walked around the village and told the old people who were left to gather at the crossing. They promised that nothing bad would happen to them - they would simply be taken to Tskhinvali to be exchanged for captured Ossetians.

‘Zamira, who stayed in the village to look after the abandoned cows, said that she wasn't going anywhere - this was very brave of her, but she was simply tired of being afraid. And they didn't do anything to her.

‘Eleven people gathered at the crossing. And the Russians who were standing there started trying to persuade the Ossetians not to take the old people away. They said: "What will do you with them there? There is little food in the town, you have nothing to feed them". The Ossetians thought this over for a while, and left the people there. They only took the things they had stolen.

‘But the old people were afraid to leave - they kept standing at the crossing. The soldiers then offered them shelter for the night at the police building. So the old people spent several nights in custody.'

Not everything turned out so well for everyone. Dmitry Sanakoev, an employee of the pro-Tbilisi administration which existed in South Ossetia parallel to the separatist administration, was taken hostage along with his mother while he was at his home in the village of Tamarasheni. He was able to hide his documents and gave his mother's maiden name, which may have saved his life. Nevertheless, the mother and son, like many other kidnapped Georgians, were held at the temporary detention center in Tskhinvali. Sanakoev was beaten. He says that he was kicked in the face by the head of the South Ossetian Interior Department Mikhail Mindzaev. Now Sanakoev is in hospital and waiting for an operation. His mother was luckier - women and old people were not beaten and not even made to clean up the streets.

Over 170 people passed through this detention center in August, not counting 20 or so captured Georgian soldiers. The people were held in several small rooms - they had to sleep in turns. However, as spokesmen for the Ossetian authorities explained, had the people been held anywhere else their safety could not have been guaranteed. At least in prison it was not so easy for anyone to come and take revenge on the Georgians.

At the end of August they were all exchanged for Ossetians captured during the war. According to the head of the Georgian parliamentary commission on issues of killed and missing persons, Givi Targamadze, the Georgian soldiers took ‘fighters and those suspected of spying'. It remains unclear how the swiftly retreating soldiers were able to detect spies. Especially as according to the Ossetian side, there were old people among the hostages. The 30 or so captured Ossetians and five captured Russian soldiers were held at the military base in Vaziani in Georgian jails, and a few injured people were taken to hospital.

Along with them, at the request of the Tskhinvali authorities, several other Ossetians were handed over who were serving sentences for crimes committed in Georgia. Also, at the personal request of the deputy head of the Russian air assault forces, Major General Vyachesalv Borisov, Georgia handed over the Georgian general Roman Dumbadze in exchange for 12 Georgian soldiers captured by Russian soldiers on 18 August in Poti. General Dumbadze refused to take Mikhail Saakashvili's side during the conflict in Adzharia in 2004, and in 2006 was sentenced to 17 years in prison for treason.

Back in August, both sides seemed to be trying to reach a compromise and resolve the problem as soon as possible. The Red Cross was allowed to visit the prisoners in Tskhinvali, humanitarian aid was provided, and they were finally examined by doctors. The exchange of hostages took place with the mediation of the Georgian church and the Commissioner of the European Council for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg. The Russian soldiers themselves took part in negotiations and provided security in the ‘buffer zone'. Almost 50 bodies of dead soldiers were handed over to the Georgian side.  It looked as if the problem of hostages had been at least temporarily solved.

But in September, it was discovered that there were new hostages on the Ossetian side. At the time, it was very easy to kidnap people - villages in the ‘buffer zone' were still under the control of the Russian army, thus accessible from South Ossetia. A proposal was made to exchange these hostages, and also the bodies of another 10 Georgian soldiers found in Tskhinvali, for four Ossetians previously sentenced on charges of murder and terrorism. Three of them were sentenced for the act of terrorism in Gori in 2005 (this was the first act of terrorism in Georgia involving fatalities). Many people in Ossetia believe that they were all sentenced unjustly, and demand their release. The exchange did not take place - Tbilisi categorically refused to create a precedent. And the hostages themselves managed to escape. They later said that they were held at the home of relatives of one of the sentenced Ossetians. After this incident, the negotiations came to a halt - if the parties exchanged information, they did so only through intermediaries.

It looked as if the withdrawal of troops from the ‘buffer zone' might put an end to the ongoing madness. But in the last days before the withdrawal of the Russian units, there was another outbreak of violence and robberies. At this stage, even the Russian soldiers joined in the looting, according to local residents. For instance, they are said to have stolen equipment from a canning factory located in the area where they were stationed.

The Georgian police began to act in the first days after the withdrawal of troops - in border villages, 11 residents of South Ossetia were arrested. The Russian commandant in South Ossetia, Colonel Anatoly Tarasov, said in a conversation with human rights advocates that some of them could have been arrested for looting, and some for carrying weapons. But this war on crime only served to exacerbate the situation.

David Sanakoev, the human rights representative for South Ossetia, noted that among the people arrested there were three minors, one of whom had bronchial asthma. Enquiries by human rights advocates at the end of October to the various Georgian state agencies about the fate of these people met with no response. Even though the information presented stated that the people were said to being held in the Tbilisi prison Gldani, as the relatives of the arrested men established.

There were rumors in Ossetia that the Georgians were holding people for subsequent exchange or ransom. The continuing uncertainty increased the panic - it was starting to look as if they had been kidnapped. And after the arrest on 25 October of two people, the inevitable happened - six residents of the Georgian village of Zerti were kidnapped. One of them was able to ring relatives, and told them that they were to be exchanged for two Ossetians. On that occasion, the prisoners managed to escape five days later. But on the following day there were six new hostages, this time from the village of Kirbala. The new wave of kidnapping gathered momentum, and no one seemed to making any attempt to stop it.

The checkpoints jointly manned by Russians and Ossetians continued to give free passage to thieves from Southern Ossetia into the almost empty border villages of the ‘buffer zone. They did not let anyone from the Georgian side through. The Georgian police checkpoints, fearing provocation, tried not to interfere - they paid no attention to the cars of the Ossetian looters, which were sometimes parked just a few hundred meters away from them. On 15 October, armed men stole a herd of cattle from the Georgian border village of Zemo-Khviti, taking two shepherds and the owner of the herd along with his car. The people were taken to Tskhinvali, but by evening the armed men changed their minds, took them to the border and let them go. Naturally, they kept the cows and the car.

On 11 November, a month after the arrest of five residents of South Ossetia, the head of the Department of Information of the Georgian Interior Ministry, Shota Utiashvili, said in an interview with Kommersant newspaper that these people were being held at the Tbilisi detention centre. A lawyer appointed by the state contacted the relatives of 16-year-old asthma patient Alan Kelekhsaev and his father Avtandil Kelekhsaev.

At the same time, on 11 November relatives of the Georgian hostages blockaded the Georgian central highway in the region of Gori. That evening the kidnappers handed over six people wearing blindfolds to the Russian soldiers, who took them out of Ossetia to the territory controlled by Georgia. And on 12 November, Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg took the Kelekhsaevs to Tskhinvali, who had been handed over by the Georgian side as a ‘gesture of good will'.

With the mediation of Hammarberg, talks were held on the border of South Ossetia in which the Georgian and South Ossetian sides took part. Givi Targamadze, representing Georgia, clarified the whereabouts of another eight of the 13 arrested residents of South Ossetia - they were being held in Tbilisi jails, and were facing charges.

Thanks to the efforts of both sides, the negotiation process that had broken down over a month ago had started again.

Three days later, on 15 November, Tbilisi handed over two more of the people arrested in October - residents of the village of Grom, Erik Margiev and Murat Kusraev. After their arrest on 25 October they were charged with drug trafficking. However, the men say that the drugs were placed on the table in front of them after they were arrested, and they were told that the drugs belonged to them. The remaining six men are awaiting trial: the Georgian authorities say that these people were carrying weapons, although the men themselves deny this. And Georgian officials now say that they are being held in the Gldani prison in Tbilisi.

On the next day, 16 November, the bodies of the Georgian soldiers were exhumed and handed over. Ten bodies mean another ten lives. According to Ossetian ombudsman David Sanakoev, a DNA test will be needed  to determine the identity of eight of the ten bodies. Only then will it be clear who can be struck off the list of the missing, and whose relatives will mourn their dead. The identity of almost all the Georgian soldiers handed over by the Ossetian side can only be determined after  complex, lengthy tests: it is impossible to recognize the bodies - they have rotted beyond recognition, and nothing remains of their clothes. Another 20 of the bodies handed over in August have yet to be identified.

Neither of the sides wants to call the process an exchange - it is all a sign of good will. By mutual agreement, of course. Call it ‘good will'. The main point is to find out what happened to these people. This depends almost entirely on the willingness of the  politicians to talk to one another. Many issues still remain unresolved.

The wives and mothers of missing Georgian soldiers hope that they may be found in Russian prisons - the attempt to determine this is being discussed in Georgia at the highest political level. Throughout August, there were constant reports that injured soldiers from Georgia were lying in the hospitals of Tskhinvali and Vladikavkaz. It was not possible to confirm this information - there were no replies to enquires, but many people are now living in hope that these soldiers are somewhere in Russia.

Talks are continuing about the Ossetians held in Georgian prisons. The whereabouts of another three men who recently went missing is also unknown - Alan Khachirov, Alan Khugaev and Soltan Pliev. Two of them are under 18. It is also unclear what happened to six Ossetian militiamen of whom there has been no news since the fighting in August. The Ossetian side claims to have proof that one of them - Rafik Ikaev - was at the military base in Vaziani: an Ossetian elder has testified to having been held with him, and there is a video recording made on a mobile phone where Ikaev is surrounded by people in military uniform who are speaking in Georgian.

The border strip between Georgia and South Ossetia remains an extremely dangerous place, from which new hostages may still be taken. Thanks to the silence of the one side and the willingness to turn a blind eye to crimes on the other, the conflict here is now not so much political as personal. Ossetians and Georgians who once lived on neighbouring streets are now too frightened to show their faces to one another.
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