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Despite repeated complaints, Georgia is still preventing Ossetians now based in Russia from visiting the villages where they once lived not so long ago. From JAMnews.by Zhanna Tarkhanova 31 August 2018
The last Sunday in July marks the religious festival celebrating Atinag, the Ossetian god of agriculture and the harvest. Yet for decades now, Ossetians who were born and raised in the villages of Georgia's Kazbegi region, but who left for North Ossetia in Russia during the conflicts of the 1990s, have been unable to visit their ancestral homes for the holiday. And, after years of Georgia enforcing an entrance ban, nobody even tried to go this year.
It was not always like this. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Kazbegi region of Georgia saw plenty of coming and going. The population was partially integrated into the border region of North Ossetia, where both Ossetians and Georgians from Kazbegi and the villages preferred to spend their winters, given that this was the nearest municipal zone for residents of these mountain districts.
Then this peaceful and traditional way of life came to an end, thanks to politics. In the mid-2000s, Georgian-Russian relations took a turn for the worse, diplomatic relations were broken off, and a short war broke out into 2008. The only crossing point on the Georgian-Russian border – Verkhni Lars – was closed.
Ground connections between the two countries were reinstated only in 2010, when Georgia abolished visa requirements for Russians. In July 2010, former residents of Ossetian villages – now located in Georgia – travelled toward the border crossing in hope of being allowed to pass.
More than anything, they wanted (and continue to want) to visit their old homes in the villages of the Truso Gorge. There are also ancient Ossetian holy sites in the region, including one of the most important – Taranjelos – which many Ossetian pilgrims have tried to visit, only to be disappointed.
The Georgian authorities drew up a no-entry list and began refusing thousands of people access to their native Ossetian villages. Some were allowed in, for a short period of time, but only up to the Ketrisis (Ossetian: Chetyrs) and Kobi (Kob) villages.
People who were not allowed entry to their native villages for the festival of Atinag told JAMnews that border guards had told them the Georgian special services suspected the travellers of having connections to the leader of the Daryal non-governmental organization – Gairbek Salbiev – who has publicly demanded the transfer of these villages and of the Truso Gorge to North Ossetia-Alania, meaning to Russia.
The travellers categorically denied that accusation.
In July 2017, a number of travellers – more than 50, according to local rights advocates – tried to spend Atinag in their native villages, but were refused at the border.
Seventy-year-old Galina Tuaeva told JAMnews that she went to Georgia in July 2017 for the first time in 12 years. She was born, grew up, married, and bore children in the Bur Maesig village in the Truso Gorge.
“We set out by car on 23 July with our relatives. I couldn’t even have imagined that they wouldn’t allow me to enter,” she said. “I lived my entire life in Georgia. But the Georgian border guards stopped me at the border crossing point. They asked me where I was born, where I live now, where I’m going, and why. I answered that I was going to celebrate Atinag in Kob. They asked me to wait.
“Two hours later, the man in uniform who had been questioning me came out, gave me my passport and said: ‘You are not allowed to enter Georgia.’ They put a black stamp in my passport. I may never return home now.
“Apart from me, several other people, who had been traveling in the same bus as me, were not able to get to Kob; they, too, were denied entrance.
“[All my life,] Atinag was the biggest holiday. And now I can’t even catch a glimpse of my home from afar; they won’t allow it. We didn’t fight against the Georgians. Why are they taking our homes and land away?”
No Evident Progress
In 2018, not a single former resident of the Truso Gorge even set out to visit the region for Atinag, locals say, as the Georgian authorities did not permit access to the main holy site, which is located in the settlement of Desh.
Salbiev, the leader of the Daryal organisation, was also refused entry. “Tbilisi is artificially creating problems for Ossetians on the border, and is trying to force Ossetians to give up their homeland,” he told journalists. “Tbilisi is violating the rights of the Ossetian population – their right of access to their homes, a right voiced by the UN in the [Universal] Declaration of Human Rights.”
Salbiev said that Russian and South Ossetian diplomats had brought up the issues of the Ossetian population of the Kazbegi region during negotiations with Georgia that took place in Geneva and Prague.
Sergo Tuati, another public figure, disagreed with Salbiev. Tuati – who heads Kazbek, an Ossetian-Georgian friendship organization – believes that Salbiev’s statements are provocative in nature, and he called the Daryal organization illegal, claiming it was not registered anywhere.
“First off, the anti-Georgian statements of Gairbek Salbiev affect the Ossetian natives of the Kazbegi region, whom the Georgian authorities really did ban from entering their villages,” Tuati told RFE/RL’s Ekho Kavkaza, in an interview in February 2015.
Tuati himself is also on a “blacklist.” His entire family is from the village of Kob[i] in the Kazbegi region. His father’s home is there, as well as a large garden, but he has been unable to visit the place since 2015.
Tuati has tried on several occasions to go through official channels, and appealed to the Georgian ombudsman for an explanation. The correspondence was long, and the final answer was that the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs had the right to ban entrance to individuals it deemed may present a threat to security and the territorial integrity of Georgia.
“Then, same as now, all members of Kazbek were law-abiding citizens, supporters of a sovereign Georgia and an indivisible Georgian state,” Tuati told Ekho Kavkaza.
“[We were always clear] about the illegality of all forms of separatism on the territory of Georgia. And thus, the behavior of the Georgian side is insulting to us, because it is undeserved and unfounded. We would like for the official departments of Georgia to somehow acknowledge this, to act, and to resolve this problem.”