On the Edge

Photographer: Svetlana Bulatova
Topic: Conflict

In late April, flowers begin to bloom throughout South Ossetia, a tiny breakaway region of the South Caucasus.

The photos that we often see of South Ossetia in the international media are usually of armed soldiers. You rarely hear about its scenic landscapes or unhurried daily life. Visiting South Ossetia from Russia, I could not forget its mountain air and the noise of rocks washed by the river.

When you leave the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali, the road climbs up the mountains and the greatness of nature is on full display. The mountain road is deserted, cattle roam freely all over and poppies grow on rapeseed in the same fields. While it is not visible on the surface, this natural beauty hides the violence of modern warfare. The abandoned and ruined houses on the side of the road are a silent reminder of the five-day war involving Ossetian, Russian and Georgian forces in August 2008.

In Tskhinvali, an old bus departs from the central bus station twice a week, on Mondays and Fridays, for Akhalgori (Leningor). Thanks to its shape—which resembles a loaf of bread—the bus became known as bukhanka (loaf in Russian). The fare for one of the scenic mountain routes is 250 rubles.

On the windshield is a sun-bleached sign Tskhinval – Leningor, but the original historical name of this settlement is Akhalgori. The name of a small town in the mountain of the Ksani River derives from the Georgian words akhali (new) and gora (hill or mountain). Before the Sovietization of Georgia in 1921, Akhalgori was the residence of the Eristavi noble family. During the Soviet era, it was part of the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast and renamed Leningori after Vladimir Lenin. The Georgian name was restored at the end of 1990. It came under the control of South Ossetian authorities after the 2008 war and was renamed Leningor. In Georgian-controlled territory, it is still known as Akhalgori.

After the August 2008 war, most Georgians were forced to leave their homes, but residents of this region became an exception. Today, it is the only region of South Ossetia where the majority of the population is ethnic Georgians: the 2015 census found that out of 4209 people, 2,337 identify as Georgian and 2,320 consider Georgian their native language.

While the area was controlled by South Ossetia, there were no direct forms of transportation connecting it to Tskhinvali and, until September 2019, residents were able to travel freely to Georgian-controlled territory. That changed, however, when the South Ossetian authorities began closing crossing points in 2019. The policy put the region at the verge of crisis, according to a 2022 report by Teona Piranishvili, Double Exclusion Places: Human Rights and Social Challenges in Gali and Akhalgori.

Residents received a slight reprieve in August 2022, when South Ossetia allowed them to cross into Georgian-controlled territory twice a month, on the 20th and 30th.

This essay explores how people’s lives have changed since the administrative line that separates South Ossetia from Georgian-controlled territory reopened. For many, it offered the first time to see their families in years. “For three years we have not seen our children. Now we can go to them, and they to us. Everyone who was born here can get passes. My daughter got married there, she has two daughters. I see them only by video link. Finally, I will hug them,” says Marina.

A young schoolgirl returns home after classes. There are eight students in her class. Akhalgori (Leningor), June 2023

Museum curator Eteri poses on the veranda of the museum. The museum is at the palace of the Ksani Eristavi. Eteri was born in a small village on the border, her mother is an ethnic Georgian. However, only Eteri has a pass and she can cross into Georgian-controlled territory to visit relatives in the neighboring village, three kilometers away. Akhalgori (Leningor), June 2023

The mountain road Leningor-Tskhinvali. The new highway was opened in 2015. South Ossetia, June 2023

Palace of Prince Eristov in Akhalgori (Leningor), archive picture

Old sycamore. There is a blue postbox for anonymous notes near the central park. This box was installed at the request of families whose relatives went missing in the area during the armed conflicts of the 1990s and 2008. On the shield there are inscriptions about the search for missing persons in three languages: Russian, Ossetian, and Georgian. Akhalgori (Leningor), June 2023

The ruins of a former bathhouse on the territory of the palace of the Ksani Eristavi. The palace is the area’s main attraction. Akhalgori (Leningor) June 2023

Local bakery. Akhalgori (Leningor), June 2023

Preparation of traditional cuisine for a funeral. All residents come to the family of the deceased to express their condolences and donate money. The funeral includes a feast. Due to the fact that everyone knows each other, every death is traumatic. Akhalgori (Leningor), June 2023

Nunnery, Ikoty, June 2023

Cemetery in the nunnery, Ikoty, June 2023

Lily is an ethnic Ossetian, her husband was an ethnic Georgian. She is a widow now. Before the 1990s Georgian and Ossetian had a high level of interaction and high rates of intermarriage. She, as a representative of the older generation in South Ossetia speaks three languages: Ossetian, Georgian and Russian. Akhalgori (Leningor)

Sunset in the mountains, South Ossetia, June 2023

An ethnically Georgian girl collects a bouquet of daisies. Many families have an opportunity to come back, but many are not. One of the widows of Ikot village shares how she buried her husband alone, without children because they couldn’t cross into South Ossetian-controlled territory. Ikot, South Ossetia, June 2023

Etery poses for a photograph in the courtyard at the palace of the Ksani Eristavi. Akhalgori (Leningor), June 2023


This photo story was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) South Caucasus Regional Office. All opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of FES. 

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