Khurvaleti: Waking up to a Barbed Wire Fence

By Viivi Mikkola, Fatima Karimova and Senna Brammer

Some 60km north-west from Tbilisi, a barbed wire fence divides the village of Khurvaleti in two. On one end is the Georgian side, on the other the South Ossetian. South Ossetia is an autonomous republic in Georgia that declared independence in August 2008, after the Russo-Georgian war. Georgia and a significant part of the international community regard South Ossetia as “occupied by the Russian military”.

The Administrative Boundary Line, shortly ABL, which is separating the de facto state of South Ossetia from the rest of Georgia, has a huge impact on the daily lives of local people. According to Amnesty International, it causes restrictions on freedom of movement and other human rights violations, families separated by the barbed wire fence, cutting off of their livelihoods and risk of arbitrary detention if they try to cross.

It is not always obvious where the ABL is, because Russian border guards keep relocating the barbed wire fence. A process referred to by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia as ‘borderization’, mostly carried out during night time with occasional displacements of the fence that increase the South Ossetian territory by 2 to 3 metres at a time. 

Georgians living near the barbed wire fence continue to protest, but it takes its toll. Not only during the day, but through the night as well. How do the circumstances affect the sleep of the people of Khurvaleti?

Valia Vanishvili and the barbed wire fence

Since her husband Davit passed away last March, the 87-year-old Valia Vanishvili falls asleep alone on the South Ossetian side of the village Khurvaleti. In 2011, she and her partner were cut off from their family, friends and beloved country Georgia by a barbed wire fence, installed by Russian border guards. 

Instead of moving to the other side of the fence to Georgian territory, Davit and Valia Vanishvili chose to stay in the family home on their own land, meaning they were forced to live the rest of their lives displaced. Miss Vanishvili nowadays survives with the help of family and neighbours who pass her necessities such as food and medicine through the fence.  

The Vanishvili’s are a well-known couple for their activities along the ABL. They alway stood up against injustice and were not afraid of the Russian forces.

Luda Salia and the Shelter for the elderly

Every day, Luda Salia wakes up with a mission: protesting the “creeping occupation”. After the war in 2008, she opened a shelter for the elderly next to the barbed wire fence. The shelter ensures all the necessary conditions for the people living there, all of whom are not from Khurvaleti. Salia and her team support the socially vulnerable local population individually. 

Salia said that by running the shelter, she “has caused discomfort to the Russian occupiers”. There are Georgian flags all over the shelter, two of which are proudly waving inevitably high in the sky towards the de facto zone. You thought that was enough protest? Think again. Every year on Georgian Independence Day, Salia places a Georgian flag on the barbed wire fence near a Russian control post.

Salia grew up in Abkhazia, Georgia’s other breakaway region, but left in 1993 after the fall of Sokhumi. When asked if she is never afraid of protesting, she answers that the thing she was most afraid of has already occurred: “I lost Abkhazia.”

Tornike and the IDP-Setllement

Tornike (23) was only 10 years old when he first found his bed in the IDP-Settlement. 13 years later, he still lives there, among the tens of thousands who had to abandon their homes in South Ossetia and escape the war between Russia and Georgia in August 2008. Altogether, around 26.000 people from South Ossetia were classified as IDPs after the war.

IDP is short for Internally Displaced Persons and are according to the United Nations “persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized state border.”

The IDP-settlement where Tornike lives is called ‘Akhali Khurvaleti’. It was built in 2009 by the Georgian government and counts 139 houses for those who didn’t have anywhere else to go.

4 December 2021, final assignment for the course Conflict and War Reporting at GIPA – Georgian Institute for Public Affairs. Special thanks to Sophiko Megrelidze and Liza Prangishvili.

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