Last week at work there was a NATO conference on the Black Sea Region, and I was able to participate! One of the coolest parts of the conference was a trip we took to the administrative border line with South Ossetia. The region is an occupied piece of Georgian territory, which broke away/was invaded by Russia in the 2008 August war. It is currently accessible only through Russia in the north, separated by a barbed wire fence, Russian peace keeping troops, and hi-tech cameras. NATO organized our visit so we were able to enter the 'grey zone' in between the two officially monitored border lines. We were escorted by a heavily armed special forces police unit of about 10 men with assault rifles, and a small media team. The whole area is under video surveillance, but apart from our tour group it was very quiet. We drew the attention of some locals living in the village of Khurvaleti who came to speak to the cameras about their very difficult living situations. One of the more interesting features of the border was a Georgian man in his late 80's who, as far as I understand, found himself on the Ossetian side when the barbed wire was unexpectedly raised. It's difficult, but not impossible to cross the border back into Georgia proper, but this man cannot leave because his wife is too sick to travel and he would not be able to cross back into South Ossetia to see her once he leaves. So, he lives in the grey zone- too old to work, but unable to receive his Georgian pension because, for political reasons, Georgia refuses to pay pensions in currency other than Lari and Lari are useless in South Ossetia (not sure about possibilities for currency exchange...). He survives by getting food and water literally thrown over the barbed wire fence to him by his neighbors in Georgia. This unbelievably sad situation is caused by many factors, including a) Russia's refusal to broker a real peaceful solution along the lines of international law, b) Georgia's refusal to compromise in any way with South Ossetian/Russia occupying forces, c) the Georgian man's refusal to accept the Russian passport offered to everyone in South Ossetia (affording them Russian social support, although it isn't much). Basically, no one is 100% innocent or correct in this conflict, but a lot of the suffering has been caused and/or is exacerbated by peoples' and countries' stubbornness and unyielding binds to the past and cultural/historical traditions that often impede progress and peace rather than imbuing people with a reasonable amount of respect and reverence while informing decisions in order to avoid past mistakes...the role of the past in politics was a prevalent theme in the NATO conference as well.
After about 20 minutes of listening to a carefully prepared speech by our lovely 'tour guide' from the Ministry of the Interior, our guards started tensing up and pointing over the hill across the wire, where a man had appeared. He walked toward us, but kept just shy of shouting distance, and had his shirt pulled up over his head to shield his face. He was using binoculars to watch us, and it looked as though he was wearing a Kevlar vest, but I'm not totally sure. They told us that he's either a Russian military officer or a local person paid to watch the grey zone and report back to the occupying forces. People started getting a bit skittish after that and we left pretty quickly.
Overall, the visit was fascinating, and pretty depressing. Such a beautiful, serene landscape marred by the barbed wire and fearful tension marking one of the "frozen conflicts" of the former Soviet Union.
The ride home, however, was a bit more adventurous...our bus crashed. The road from the border back to the highway is terrible- full of potholes, only semi-paved, and flanked on one side by farm land and the other by a watery swamp ditch. Guess which side the bus fell in...in the end, it was okay. The 2 seconds right after we crashed, when the bus was rocking and we weren't sure if it was going to flip or not was terrifying, but otherwise it was just kind of exciting. While we carefully evacuated the bus, our police officers stood on the up-side of the bus to hold it down. Thankfully, our police escort was able to call some buddies to bring a big anti-infantry truck to tow the bus out. While we were waiting I chatted with some awesome Georgians, and took in the lovely agricultural landscape. The whole thing took about half an hour, and I was very impressed with how efficiently the issue was handled. They decided our bus was still drivable, so we loaded back in and returned to Tbilisi without further incident!
Pictures from the ABL: