Georgian villagers irate as fence goes up on South Ossetia boundary

SOURCE: www.rferl.org

Members of Georgia's Special Forces Police secure an area near wire barricades erected by Russia in the village of Dvani.

Members of Georgia’s Special Forces Police secure an area near wire barricades erected by Russia in the village of Dvani.

With its gently rolling hills and sun-drenched orchards, the small Georgian village of Dvani could easily be described as picturesque, were it not for a barbed-wire fence that runs through it.

Dvani, home to around 1,000 inhabitants, straddles the demarcation line that separates the breakaway region of South Ossetia from the rest of Georgia.

The village’s unfortunate location has placed it on the front line of a territorial dispute that has pitted Tbilisi against South Ossetia’s Russia-backed separatists since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In 2008 — almost two decades after an armed conflict between Georgian government forces and South Ossetian rebels — Dvani was shelled and looted during the brief Russia-Georgia war over the divisive region.

And when Russia subsequently recognized South Ossetia as a sovereign state, Dvani found itself, in Moscow’s eyes, sitting on a fully fledged national border — one that Georgians say is creeping deeper into their lands.

Last month, Russian troops began unfurling barbed wire along the boundary line, effectively separating people in Dvani from their farmland, ancestral homes, and cemeteries.

“Russia should leave our territories to us. We will solve our own problems, be it with Ossetians, Armenians, or Azeris, and we will live alongside each other as we always have,” said Leila Januashvili, a resident of Dvani. “Russians should not interfere and must stop setting people against each other.”

Russian Border Patrols

After the 2008 war, South Ossetia delegated the protection of its borders to Russia on the grounds that it does not have its own border patrol.

Metal barriers went up two years later on portions of the 400-kilometer boundary line, but the project was quickly abandoned and Dvani was spared.

Tensions have been simmering, however.

When news came that a fence was being built in some neighboring villages, Januashvili and her husband, Teimuraz Kopadze, wasted no time harvesting apples from their orchard, which lies on the other side of the boundary.

Like many local residents, the family relies heavily on apples as a source of income.

They returned to inspect the boundary line last week with a heavy heart and little hope of ever setting foot in their orchard again.

To their surprise, the border guards had disappeared.

Gone, too, were the fence poles and rolls of barbed wire that had been strewn on the grass waiting to be assembled.

“Everything was removed, including the poles, which made us very happy,” Kopadze said. “They removed the pillars along one-and-a-half kilometer. Even the [poles] that were planted but not permanently fixed have been pulled out and taken away.”

Although the fence remains incomplete, much of what has already been built is still in place. Likewise, in the neighboring village of Ditsi, work on fences has also abruptly ended.

Russian authorities have remained tight-lipped about the developments, declaring only that South Ossetia was marking out its true territorial boundaries in line with maps from the Soviet-era, when the province was an autonomous region within the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic.

The Russian Foreign Ministry also dismissed Tbilisi’s claim that the boundary line was being shifted further into Georgia proper and warned of “serious consequences” if Tbilisi continued what it described as “political speculation.”

A view of a newly constructed fence along Georgia's de-facto border with its breakaway region of South Ossetia.

A view of a newly constructed fence along Georgia’s de-facto border with its breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Western Criticism

The apparent decision to halt the fencing came amid a mounting barrage of criticism from the West.

The United States, the European Union and NATO all voiced concern last week over Russian-backed efforts to seal South Ossetia off from the rest of Georgia.

The U.S. State Department said the initiative was “inconsistent with Russia’s international commitments and Georgia’s territorial integrity” and created “hardship” for local residents.

A spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton warned that such activities “seriously challenge” stability and security in these regions.

All reiterated their call on Russia to rescind its recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Georgia’s other pro-Russian separatist region.

Whatever the reason, the departure of Russian troops, however temporary, has met with a deep sense of relief in Dvani.

Some villagers hope the incident and the international attention it has attracted will breathe new life into efforts to find a negotiated solution to the dispute.

“Nothing can ever compensate for our losses, but we started hoping again that there will be new negotiations,” said Ano Makhachashvili, a Dvani resident. “I think this could be a sign that the Russians are retreating. Hope dies last. We are not going anywhere.”

In Tbilisi, authorities remain more skeptical.

Georgia and Russia still do not have diplomatic relations, and Moscow’s recent statements on the border issue have been less than conciliatory.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili raised his concern at the United Nations General Assembly on September 25, condemning what he described as “the annexation of Georgian lands by Russian troops” and accusing Russian forces of “dividing communities with new barbed wire.”

A Split Within Georgians Too

The fence has also deepened divisions within the Georgian leadership itself, with Saakashvili accusing his rival, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, of failing to visit the affected Georgian villages and of pursuing a policy of appeasement with Moscow.

But memories of the war are still fresh in Ivanishvili’s camp, too.

Reintegration Minister Paata Zakareishvili, who oversees efforts to bring South Ossetia and Abkhazia back into Georgia’s fold, says there is no indication that Russia is backpedaling on the border-fence issue.

Georgians, he said, must still brace for a possible escalation of the dispute.

“We should not have any illusions about improving the situation. We should not expect any positive steps in this direction from Russia,” Zakareishvili said. “If it happens, all the better. But we must be prepared so that our citizens are safe.”

Reports have since emerged that a border fence was going up in the nearby village of Adzvi.

Chechnya’s dead

 

Source: www.rferl.org

*NOTE – Billions of euros are currently being invested in ski resorts throughout the North Caucasus, yet Moscow refuses to invest in a single forensic laboratory in Chechnya to dig up and identify war victims (despite Europe’s offer to cover the expenses and provide all expert needs). In 2008, two mass graves of 800, and 300 victims were found in Grozny, yet no significant measures have been taken regarding this issue*

Chechnya Russia war chechen men prisoners genocide North Caucasus

Detainees under Russian guard in Chechnya in a photo by Adam Borowski that is part of a photo exhibition in Prague called “Chechnya: The Final Solution”

    

  Aslan Chadayev was well-known in his village of Shalazhi, in central Chechnya, for being an avid reader.

He was immersed in a book when Russian soldiers stormed into his house, dragged him out, a shirt pulled over his head, and threw him into their vehicle.

The 19-year-old student was never seen again.

In the 9 years since Aslan’s disappearance, his mother Malika has lost all hope of finding him alive. But she is still desperately searching for his remains.

“As soon as a new mass grave or an unidentified body is discovered, she rushes there. She’s traveled to every corner of the republic,” says Malika’s sister-in-law, Aset. “She’s constantly rummaging in these graves in the hope of finding even just a piece of her son’s clothing. Missing people definitely must be searched for and identified; the truth must be admitted.”

THOUSANDS STILL MISSING

Aslan is one of thousands of Chechen civilians who disappeared without a trace after being picked up by armed fighters.

Rights groups say some 5,000 people are missing from Chechnya’s two wars, which began in 1994 when Russian soldiers marched into that small Caucasus republic to crush an independence drive.

The actual figure could be much higher. Still, there has been no government campaign to find and identify the dead.

Khozha Yakhyaev’s elder brother, Khasin, disappeared during the first war. After a 3 month search for his brother, Khozha learned that Russian soldiers had killed him and a group of civilians with flamethrowers.

He was able to identify Khasin by his teeth and bury him, together with the other, unidentified victims.

Khozha has since laid dozens of anonymous bodies to rest. He carefully numbers each grave, writes a description of the body, takes pictures, and stores the clothes of the deceased in plastic bags.

Chechnya Russia war chechen men prisoners genocide North Caucasus wars

“If only there was an opportunity to identify the bodies of those whom we buried in our village,” he laments. “I think many ordinary Chechens would gladly give up their monthly salary to help build a laboratory. I know people who would give their entire savings for this. That’s how badly this lab is needed in Chechnya.”

Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s powerful Kremlin-backed leader, has himself vowed to help the families of those who have disappeared find out about their loved ones.

These hopes, however, were quashed this month when Russia’s Health and Social Development Ministry rejected Chechnya’s request for a forensic lab, dismissing the project as too expensive.

International rights groups and agencies such as the Council of Europe have repeatedly urged Russia to speed up work on identifying bodies exhumed in its war-battered republic, and have pledged support.

Systematic forensic work could also raise uncomfortable questions for the Kremlin about the Russian Army’s actions in Chechnya.

Unlike some other postwar countries, Russia has yet to prosecute war crimes in Chechnya.

GROZNY BUILT ON BONES

The problem of identifying the dead is becoming all the more pressing as workers regularly stumble upon graves amid an oil-fuelled construction boom in the Chechen capital, Grozny.

A soldier stands over a mass grave in Chechnya in a photo by Adam Borowski that is part of the "Chechnya: The Final Solution" exhibition.

A soldier stands over a mass grave in Chechnya in a photo by Adam Borowski that is part of the “Chechnya: The Final Solution” exhibition

 

This summer alone, 2 huge mass graves were discovered containing a total of about 1,100 bodies.

Rights groups say there are dozens more known but unopened graves in fields, courtyards, and basements throughout Chechnya.

But Russia so far has focused its efforts on giving the capital a facelift that it can exhibit as a symbol of peace and stability. Grozny this year proudly inaugurated a brand new mosque, the country’s largest, with room for 10,000 worshipers.

To keep up with the frantic reconstruction pace, workers build around and often over graves, or quietly rebury bodies elsewhere.

Muhidin Tabakovic, from the Sarajevo-based International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), says this practice seriously compromises the identification process.

“The bodies in graves may have personal belongings such as wallets, identification cards, family photographs that can help identification,” says Tabakovic, who has directly participated in the exhumation of mass graves in former Yugoslavia. “Digging up bodies and reburying them in other locations causes huge problems because construction workers are not familiar with the whole process of excavation of human remains. The bones get mixed up and it’s then impossible to determine which bones belong to which bodies.”

The organization’s DNA-assisted identification program, the world’s largest, has already helped identify more than 14,000 people who disappeared in the 1990s Balkan wars, regions struck by natural disasters such as the 2004 tsunami in Thailand, the 2005 Katrina hurricane in the United States, or the mass executions in Chile under dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Tabakovic has no doubt the ICMP, which receives funding from almost 20 governments, would be ready to prove technical and financial support in identifying Chechnya’s dead.

“Exhuming bodies from mass graves makes it possible to reveal inhuman treatment. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia is still active and everything we do is directly related to these people sitting in The Hague,” says Tabakovic. “This is why the Russian government is finding excuses, saying it’s too expensive, which is nonsense. It’s not about money. It’s about truth, about what really happened, and who is responsible for it.”

The Kremlin’s European “alibi”

source: Prague watchdog (read full article here)

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Children killed on April 8, 2004 in Vedensky district of Chechnya

The discussion about the building of a forensic laboratory in Chechnya has been continuing for years now without any hint of an early conclusion.

The possibility of creating such a laboratory in Chechnya was first raised in the reports of human rights organizations in 2000. From there, the debate moved to the Council of Europe, where it became one of the key bargaining chips in talks with Russia.

We recently received a letter from some colleagues in a Spanish human rights organization. Expressing a desire to join in the creation of the laboratory, they were of the opinion that “you don’t need any special investigations to determine the cause of death.” The main task, in their view, is to establish the identity of each of the bodies that is found and to return the remains of the deceased to their relatives. “We’ll help to identify the bodies and bury them, but on the subject of who killed these people, how and why, we won’t breathe a word.”

The letter contains references to Alvaro Gil-Robles. As European Commissioner for Human Rights, he frequently visited Chechnya and Russia and conducted negotiations there. Under his chairmanship, the political problems, the problems of war and peace, and most importantly of all, the investigation of crimes and the prosecution of war criminals, vanished from the agenda of talks with the Russian government. In exchange, the Council of Europe obtained permission to conduct humanitarian operations in Chechnya and set up a laboratory there. The funding for this – 3 million euros – was allocated in 2005.

The laboratory has not been created. Not even the meetings of the newly appointed European Commissioner Thomas Hammerberg with Putin and Medvedev in late April last year were able to break the deadlock. After the routine “yeses” and “of courses” there was no response from Russia’s Ministry of Health on the advisability of building a “laboratory for the exhumation and identification of dead civilians”. The reason for the refusal was a lack of skilled manpower, and of financial and material resources.

If anyone believes that the problem is one of money, they are deeply mistaken. This is a purely political matter. Imagine that the remains of a man are found who upon forensic examination turns out to be an abducted resident of the republic, with a specific name, address and stolen life. At once the question arises: who abducted him?

According to the above letter, the post-mortem examinations should be achieved in a limited and truncated version. In other words, the lab should turn a blind eye to the causes of death and concern itself solely with the identification and return of the remains of deceased relatives. Unobtrusively, the Europeans are being invited to participate in the concealment of crimes.

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