In South Ossetia, Families Remain Torn Apart

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Sergey Ponomarev / AP

A man stands near the closed border barrier between the Georgian village of Ergneti and Tskhinvali, regional capital of Georgia's breakaway province of South Ossetia.

The Russian-patrolled border that separates South Ossetia from Georgia snakes its way across sunny fields cut with trenches and through quiet woods spotted with landmines. The only visible signs of the border's presence are where it crosses roads. At these crossings, flags snap in the breeze and opposing soldiers sit just 60 feet from each other behind sandbag walls. But for many South Ossetians and Georgians with family on the other side of the border, the nearly invisible line is as divisive and impregnable as the Berlin Wall once was.

"Georgian and South Ossetian blood is very closely connected," says Fatima, 50, as she hems a pillowcase while sitting in the courtyard of her apartment building in the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali. "South Ossetian girls would marry Georgian boys and South Ossetian boys would marry Georgian girls. But today, today there is no connection — it's all been lost." South Ossetia, in northern Georgia, had been a source of tension long before Russia and Georgia fought their brutal five-day war over the region a year ago. Since then, South Ossetia has declared its independence, but Georgia refuses to recognize the breakaway republic. Amid fears that the region is perched on the edge of another war, the once-porous border between the two is now heavily guarded and almost impossible to cross.

"In July, one of my cousins died in a village near [the Georgian capital of] Tbilisi and I couldn't go to the funeral because the border is still closed," says Fatima, who won't give her last name because she is afraid family she has in Georgia could face consequences if people found out they are related to South Ossetians. "Just yesterday I got an SMS from my aunt asking how the family is doing. We haven't seen them in more than a year. Keeping up family relations through text messages? Is that a way to live?" She adds that half of the 12 families living in her building have family in Georgia.

The war ended on Aug. 12, 2008, but the emotional and political conflict between Georgians and South Ossetians continues, even among members of the same family. In this intensely traditional and clan-oriented corner of the world, people find themselves pulled together by deep family ties but pushed apart by Russian propaganda that stirs hatred and sews misinformation.

Izolde Bagayeva, 55, sits on a bench next to Fatima and talks about her family in Tbilisi. "When we talk on the phone, all we talk about is family. We never talk about politics because we don't want to argue," she says. "Just a few days ago I spoke to my aunt and she told me, 'You know, we're never going to see each other again.'" Bagayeva's eyes well up with tears, but, like so many in South Ossetia, she feels the sacrifice is one worth making: "We want a better situation at the border, but we also want our own country. For us, there is no road back. We want our independence."

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), one of the few NGOs still working in South Ossetia, has been trying to find a path through the minefield of identity politics to reunite families that have been split by the war. "Right after the conflict there were lots of requests from people seeking to be reunited with their families," says Marina Tedeti, spokeswoman for the ICRC operating in South Ossetia. Since the end of the war — and with the support of both the Georgian and the South Ossetian governments — the organization has brought 320 people back together with their families through what Tedeti calls "a small but quite delicate" process.

But the reunifications can be wrenching affairs in such a confused atmosphere, as people come to realize that choosing between family members means having to choose whether to be Georgian or South Ossetian — in some cases, children find themselves forced to decide between one parent or another. "We repeatedly and clearly explain that this decision is final — now and forever," says Tedeti. "If they change their mind, they cannot come back."

Some people have tried to avoid making such decisions and have paid with their lives. There are rumors of people bribing soldiers to get them across the border and though the risks of crossing illegally are high, people still try. On July 31, a Georgian man was killed and his family members wounded when he drove their car over a mine while trying to bypass a checkpoint to get from Georgia into the South Ossetian-controlled village of Akhalgori.

"I am too scared to take one of the secret paths through the woods and across the fields, but I really, really want to see my daughter," says Zoya. Before the war, she was able to visit her daughter in Tbilisi any time by taking one of the local buses that ran from Tskhinvali to Tbilisi several times a day. Now, there is not a single bus running from the bus station. "I know blood has been spilled," Zoya says. "But people need to go on living and forget the past."

Mamuka Zenashvili, an ethnic Georgian who continues to live in Tskhinvali with his South Ossetian wife Nino, says he does not believe the border will be opened soon. But he has seen signs that, one day, people may be able to move on from the war. "People just want to visit family and friends and trade," he says, looking out over a neighborhood that was nearly leveled by the fighting last year. "My neighbors have enough of their own problems to not dwell on my last name. Sometimes they even come over to ask if they can help repair my house." Those are rare moments of accord in a region that will likely be torn apart by ethnic tensions for a long time to come.