As the observance of Orthodox Easter starts today with Palm Sunday, many will be unable to go to cemeteries which are located on the opposite side of the de facto border around the breakaway territory.
Despite the over twenty years of frozen conflict, this problem is relatively new. Before the war in 2008, areas under Tbilisi’s and Tskhinvali’s control were mixed in a checkerboard pattern, and movement was possible between villages controlled by the other side.
After the war, Russia said it would impose the old Soviet border, called the administrative boundary line, but in the first few years, control was lax and it was possible to get across by taxi, which locals did on important occasions like Easter, when it is customary in Eastern Orthodox Christianity to gather on the family grave and feast for hours, either on Easter Sunday or Easter Monday. About a quarter of families were mixed Georgia-Ossetian before the war, which led to the forceful displacement of several tens of thousands.
But about two years after the 2008 war, a South Ossetia resident told DF Watch, control got stricter, and it has now become impossible to get across. The resident also told us that in almost every village which is close to the border, the local cemetery has ended up on the other side of the border. This concerns the villages Khurvaleti, Kirbali, Ergneti, Dvani, Zemo Nikozi, Zardiantkari and others. This is increasingly important because of a process called ‘borderization’, the erection of barbed wire fences that cut through population centers and border patrols by the FSB’s border guards who arrest anyone caught in violation.
David Sanakoyev, spokesperson for the de facto republic, said on Wednesday at a meeting of the Incident Prevention and Response Mechanisms (IPRM) in Ergneti that during Easter, Georgian citizens will have to cross through checkpoints which they have used in the past, using special permits. They cannot cross at any other locations. That will be considered a violation.
About 1,500 permits have been issued for cross-border visit this Easter, DF Watch was told by Dimitry Sanakoyev, who heads the administration of South Ossetia which Georgia maintains in Tbilisi as something akin to a government in exile.
But permits are not given to those who come from Akhalgori, inside South Ossetia, but have left the breakaway territory and moved to Tserovani, a refugee settlement.
“Since 2008, those people have dealt with this problem, for eight years. We always appeal to the Ossetian party to give people the opportunity to at least for one day during Easter to visit their graves, but we have had no success. They reject us,” Sanakoyev said.
The South Ossetia resident DF Watch talked to told us how this affects people.
“A girl from Akhalgori who now lives and works in Tserovani had a father who died in Akhalgori. She was not allowed to attend the funeral or come later. In response to those problems, people opened a new cemetery in the villages beyond the border and now they bury their family members there,” she told us.
According to the State Security Service, there is no statistics about how many people have been detained for illegally crossing the South Ossetia border. There is general statistics of such offenses which shows that from 2009 to 2015, 841 people were detained.163 of them were detained in 2015.
Saturday, Russian soldiers detained 17-year-old Lasha Tvauri for violation of the border near the village Tsitelubani. He was taking care of cattle together with his fellow villagers. Family members claim he didn’t cross the administrative boundary line. He was probably taken to the detention facility in Tskhinvali and is expected to be released after paying a fine.