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Detained in South Ossetia: A reporter’s non-ordeal

By Alexander Ward
Thursday, May 8
Aside from the locals’ reverence of Stalin, one of the first things you notice in Mejvriskhevi—a Georgian village a stone’s throw from separatist-controlled South Ossetia—is the distinct lack of evidence it borders a conflict zone.

Mejvriskhevi villagers speak well of their Ossetian neighbors, many of whom pop over the administrative border to sell their produce at the village’s Sunday market.

The razed Georgian church in the Ossetian village next door was undoubtedly the work of provocateurs from the de facto separatist capital Tskhinvali—“Ossetians and Georgians here are friends,” said our Georgian host for the weekend. “There are never problems.”

The village police station, remarkable only for the weatherworn Stalin statue outside, is probably the least charming part of the village.

It’s also where we ended up after Russian peacekeepers detained us in separatist-controlled territory.

If Rustavi 2 is to be believed, we were interrogated for two hours under suspicion of espionage; if Novosti-Gruziya is a reputable news agency, then our release was thanks to intervention from Georgian peacekeepers.

Tourists for the day, we had strayed across the administrative border in search of a waterfall when we encountered two Russian peacekeepers curious to know why three foreigners were meandering through their stomping ground.

On learning there were Americans among us, one smiley peacekeeper, eagerly clutching an AK-47, whooped “Rambo! Rambo! Rambo!” in what was probably the most aggressive gesture of the affair. We sauntered off with them to report to their superior.

Back at the peacekeeper base we were warmly welcomed by a cheery rotund fellow, the most senior soldier there, who set about subjecting us to Georgian-levels of hospitality.

Instant coffee, sugar and chocolate rations were brought to the small dark room as he established he had only hapless tourists on his hands and made a quick phone call to the OSCE to arrange our guided return.

He discounted the alternative option of informing Georgian peacekeepers, reasoning that they would give us a hard time for being in South Ossetia in the first place.

So as we waited we ate and drank and quizzed our hosts on Georgia’s conflict regions, and when our keenness to try Ossetian beer emerged, out came a plastic bottle of homebrew.

One of my companions refused to partake in the knees-up, revealing an especially nasty hangover, so we were led outside to lounge in the sun, pick sour plums and play dominoes, while she took a dose of mountain air.

We were technically detained, but it wasn’t exactly Midnight Express.

The eventual arrival of two OSCE representatives prompted a pep talk from the Russian peacekeepers on what to do next time—follow the correct procedure for crossing the border and enjoy it at leisure.

And so we naturally thought the bungled jaunt was over when our OSCE handlers deposited us outside Mejvriskhevi police station.

“Why did you go over there? Don’t you know there’s a conflict zone?” one loitering policeman challenged us, just before we were told to step into a Niva and whisked back to the border.

Bemused at why the police had taken us back to the very place they said we shouldn’t be, we again found ourselves waiting.

A small pack of journalists soon came bounding around the corner brandishing microphones and cameras, keen to know if there was a story up for grabs. We did our best to disappoint—we hadn’t been arrested, we told them, and were far from threatened.

Nevertheless, our recounts of a lazy afternoon sipping sweet beer and making camouflaged friends became, in translation, an interrogation session, while the OSCE’s helpful escort was branded a rescue mission spearheaded by the Georgians.