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Farmers from former “buffer zones” still insecure

By Temuri Kiguradze
Monday, June 22
Security is still one of the most important problems for the residents of the Georgian villages close to the administrative border with breakaway South Ossetia. Kidnappings and other crimes take place with distressing frequency. Since the beginning of June, three residents of what were formerly the so-called buffer zones, areas occupied by Russian troops during the August conflict, have returned home with stories to tell after being kidnapped by South Ossetian militia.

“We were just pasturing the cattle in the usual places, near our houses, when three armed Ossetians appeared from nowhere and pointed guns at us,” says 59-year old Zemo Nikozi resident Geronti Mchedlidze, who told The Messenger that he and another farmer, Shio Mchedlidze, were forced to help the armed gang drive the cattle towards Tskhinvali, which is just a couple of kilometres from Zemo Nikozi. “The Ossetians managed to take only six cows as the others refused to follow them,” says the farmer, adding that at the administrative border the attackers, who were dressed in military uniform, released the two men telling them that they “are lucky because Ossetians don’t kill old men.”

This incident took place on June 6; luckily it was resolved the same evening. According to the local residents the cattle were also returned after informal negotiations between the Georgian police and Russian troops. The Russian troops in South Ossetia have announced that the farmers were attacked by South Ossetian “criminals” who have “no connection” with the de facto law enforcers of the breakaway region.

This is not the first time the Mchedlidze family has had to deal with invaders from South Ossetia. During the August war their house was robbed and partly burned by South Ossetian militia. Geronti Mchedlidze states that his motorbike helped him escape from the attackers as he was the last member of the family to leave the house.

However not only South Ossetian “criminals” have managed to penetrate the administrative border. On 1 June 21-year old Davit Bagdavanidze returned to his wife and daughter in Kvemo Khviti after a month in a Tskhinvali jail. “I was just walking in my garden in the village when several armed man attacked me. After beating me for a number of minutes they took me to the other side of the [administrative] border.” Bagdavanidze was arrested by de facto South Ossetian special forces and further beaten and questioned for 12 days in Tskhinvali. Due to his youth the separatist militia accused him of “espionage” and demanded that he admit to having taken part in the military actions last August. “After their questioning brought them no results they just put me in the regular jail. Till the end of May I was there with Ossetian thieves and robbers until our police managed to get me out,” said Bagdavanidze. He said that the Ossetian criminals in the prison showed no aggression to the Georgian newcomer. “We were all in the same conditions,” he said.

Aziz Rahjo, Protection Officer for the UN Refugee Agency’s office in Gori, has stated that the residents of the border villages are in constant fear of provocations from the side controlled by South Ossetian and Russian troops. “Incidents like these [the kidnappings] happen from time to time in that area,” Rahjo told The Messenger on June 17. He also said that Ossetian armed groups stealing cattle is another security problem there. However the residents of the ex-buffer zone villages face many other challenges. “Unemployment is also a serious problem in that area,” said Rahjo. Manana Amonashvili, who manages protection monitoring in the region for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), agreed that the residents of the villages on the South Ossetian border are “almost totally unemployed.” “The only employed people in the villages are the teachers at the local school, the rest have to survive on pensions and humanitarian aid.”

“People don’t have access to the lands they used to work on,” stated Aziz Rahjo, explaining that many lands the farmers were expecting to harvest their crops from are located in areas now controlled by the separatist Government or are right next to them. Not only working but just being on that land may be dangerous. The problem is the land mines which were widely “presented” to the locals by the occupying forces during the August conflict. Despite the labours of international mine clearing organisations, the number of mines and unexploded items of ammunition in the area is still significant. “Now we even have a suspicion that some one from the other [South Ossetian] side crosses the border and plants even more mines here, because they are being found in places that have already been checked by the de-mining groups,” stated Amonashvili.

One of the mined fields in Zemo Nikozi village forms the yard of the local school. The first mine was discovered after the start of term. “We started the school year because we thought that there was no danger in the yard, cattle were walking around there and no explosions had taken place. It’s just a miracle that kids were not harmed by the mines,” said one of the managers of the school Natela Kakhiashvili, who added that after mine cleaning started, almost every day the school had to be evacuated because de-mining teams were exploding discovered devices in the yard.

Aziz Rahjo said that the Incident Prevention Mechanism established by representatives of the Georgian, de facto South Ossetian and Russian sides during the negotiations in Geneva provided a way to reduce tension and improve the security situation in the conflict zone. He noted that this mechanism may be helpful in resolving the difficulties between the sides; He also noted that the disappearance of the UN and OSCE observer missions from the conflict regions played a “negative role” in the process of providing security. Commenting on the remaining EU monitoring mission (EUMM), Rahjo considered that the mandate of the EUMM should be “clearly defined” and the mission should become broader and more efficient.