Out of sight, out of mind: Ossetians living in Georgia

Journalist: Sophio Sharadze, , Photographer: Basa Metreveli
03.11.22
Edition: Future

Tucked away in a forested valley at the end of a pitted and pot-holed dirt road 260 kilometers from the Georgian capital lies Chvebari, one of the few Ossetian villages that remain in Georgian-controlled territory. 

Thirty years—and two wars—ago, Georgians and Ossetians lived together in Chvebari and dozens of other communities, intermarrying and sharing centuries-old traditions. Today however, following conflicts over the status of Tskhinvali region (also known as South Ossetia or Samachablo) most moved to neighboring Russia or Tskhinvali region, legally part of Georgia but de-facto outside of Georgian control. 

Beso recalls how they used to work every piece of available land around their village. He and his relatives posed for this picture while clearing the land.
Chvebari. 1975.
From Beso Gagishvili's photo archive.

An excursion to Oni for school children from Gadamshi and Chvebari. May 9, 1987

“When I was born here in 1940, I think there were somewhere between 80 to 120 households living in Chvebari,” recalls Beso Gagishvili, 82, an ethnic Ossetian resident of the village.

Beso lives alone since his wife died two years ago. When the household work is too much for him, his youngest son or daughter visit him from Rustavi for help. But mostly he is alone.

The village’s wooden, crumbled houses speak of abandonment: Beso is one of a handful of residents, who remain. His sisters, brothers and two of his sons now live in Vladikavkaz, the capital of Russia’s North Ossetia region. Beso stayed on even after his wife died two years ago because he believes “one must die where one was born.”

“We, Ossetians, have been here already for over 300 years.” Today, however, barely a handful remain—the rest driven to migrate to Russia and elsewhere by politics and poverty. 

Paata Zakareishvili, a specialist on conflict resolution and a former Minister of Georgia for Reconciliation and Civic Equality, says the mass emigration of ethnic Ossetians from Georgian proper is the result of short-sighted government policy—one that focuses on conflict instead of rebuilding relations.

“Those Ossetians were Georgian by identity-their language was Georgian, their literature was Georgian, they went to Georgian schools, they considered themselves Georgians and they were proud of it,” he says. “Even though the majority of Ossetians went to Vladikavkaz, then they all returned to Georgia, because this is their land, they have guardianship here, they grew up. Therefore, they want to be buried here.”

But little has been done to help or encourage them to stay in Georgia, Zakareishvili argues. He notes that historically there were close relations between the two peoples. “Historically, there were close relations between the two peoples. We can even say that more [ethnic] Ossetians lived in the rest of Georgia than in the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast. Out of approximately 160, 000 ethnic Ossetians, 60,000 lived in South Ossetia, and 100,000 in other parts of Georgia: Kaspi, Gori, Dusheti…they were in a lot of places,” he said.

“In 2008 we tore these people out with our own hands and demolished the retaining wall.”

The current ruling party, the Georgian Dream, published a strategy to rebuild ties with the Ossetian people after it came to power in 2012. Ten years later, however, there are few signs of the party’s plan to speak directly with Georgia’s “Ossetian brothers” in action. 

“After the war of 2008, we didn't have the opportunity to talk honestly with each other, repent and overcome this conflict together,” noted Eliko Bendeliani, a member of the Tbilisi-based Institute for the Study of Nationalism and Conflicts.

“We do not know anything about each other's worries and pain. Even worse, most Georgian young people do not even know that the Ossetians had to emigrate years ago.”

Over the years, the silence has added to Ossetians’ resentment toward ethnic Georgians, notes Bendeliani.

“I think today we should cherish and provide harmonious relationships with the Ossetians who still live on Georgian-controlled territory and show them that we do really care,” she says, adding that the government should take the initiative to ensure they have good living conditions. 

There is scant evidence that the government is acting on that suggestion in Chvebari, one of the few Ossetian villages left in Georgia’s Racha region. Racha, a rugged mountainous region far from the capital Tbilisi, neighbors Russia and separatist-held South Ossetia. 

 

Bichiko and Tsiala, two married ethnic Ossetians from a nearby village, Gadamshi, initially left during the migration wave that started after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the first president after Georgia regained its independence, began a “Georgia for Georgians” policy that led to a campaign against ethnic minorities in the country.

The policy ripped Georgian and Ossetian communities apart. 

“I have three sisters who are married to Georgians. I have Georgian nieces. We have a lot of friends here. There is no single family here that does not have a Georgian son-in-law or daughter-in-law. We are very intertwined,” Bichiko says, adding however that the ties were not strong enough to avoid conflict. 

Tsiala recalls that during that period some Ossetians were even afraid to admit their ethnicity; ethnic Georgians living in the area often insulted them and told them to leave. “But I am an Ossetian and why should I hide it?” she says. “We were born here. We were raised here through the customs and traditions of this place. We are Christians. Everything I have is from this place.”

Bichiko says during that period, Ossetians were refused service in restaurants and not allowed to use public transportation in Racha’s capital, Oni.

Araformalebi (armed soldiers in street clothes that roamed the country in the 1990s) used to come to take our goods away and say that we should have left the place because this was not our land,” Bichiko says. “What would you have done? People started to leave… What did we do wrong to deserve this?”

The family moved to Vladikavkaz, however, they struggled to settle there. "We sold everything on our way, but Tsiala still could not stand it there. ‘The air is not healthy,’ she says. And, I don't want to live there either,” Bichiko says.

Bichiko and Tsiala place table legs inside large glass jars, a traditional method of preventing rodents from climbing on the table.

After years of visiting Gadamshi, the couple finally moved back to their empty house—and empty village—in 2014.

Picturesque Gadamshi lies on the banks of the Sontarula River. At the end of the village, near an unused water mill, sits their wooden house, a barn, a small yard full of chickens, a mongrel dog and lots of beehives.

Bichiko brushes flies off his beloved bull. Besides being very useful, having a bull always was a symbol of strength for Ossetian families in Gadamshi and Chvebari

Bichiko keeps beehives in the yard of his cousin's abandoned house. Producing honey is one of the main sources of income for Bichiko and Tsiala.

Bichiko uses one of the nearby abandoned houses to dry corn.

Unfortunately, they lack most amenities, including stable electricity and heating.

The mayor of Oni Municipality, Sergo Khidesheli, who is responsible for both villages, says there is little his government can do about what happened to the communities in the past. “Unfortunately, I can't talk about this problem since it started 20 years ago and I was not in power at that time. However, I can say that Georgian and Ossetian people have been connected for years and today the barbed wire between us damages these relations,” he says, referring to the separatists’ policy of marking the “border” between the territory they control and Georgia proper with barbed wire. 

But Khidasheli notes that several initiatives are underway to provide basic services for Chvebari and Gadamshi.  “The Oni municipality is implementing infrastructure projects to prevent migration from these places,” he says. “With the help of one of the non-governmental organizations, we installed solar panels for both families, and accordingly, they receive the necessary electricity through these panels.”

The panels were not enough to heat Bichiko and Tsiala’s home last winter, however. They stayed in Gadamshi but they barely survived. They relied on firewood for heating and cooking. 

Bichiko at evenings often sits in front of his water mill which is out of use and waits for his cattle to return home.

“Sometimes people ask me, will people come back to Gadamshi? Yes, when they see me, they will come running,” he said laughing. “Why should they return? Who will come to this forest? If the government wants people to return, they should create good living conditions for people like me.” 


This Feature Article was produced in the framework of Chai Khana Fellowship program - Summer/Autumn 2022.


This feature story was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) South Caucasus Regional Office. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of FES.


The networking event and the mentorship of the fellows was supported by the Federal Foreign Office and the Civil Society Cooperation program, implemented by the Deutsche Gesellschaft e. V. 

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