Mountains, Wildflowers and Silent Witnesses of War

Since the South Ossetians voted for independence, its borders remain unrecognized. If you manage to cross them, however, you will find amazing nature and hospitable people.

Collapsed defense towers and crumbling death houses stand as silent witnesses in the abandoned village of Verkny Yerman.

Joost Smets

“Are you absolutely sure you are heading this way?” a surprised Russian customs officer asks. “This road doesn’t lead to Georgia, but to South Ossetia! I doubt they will even let you in.” The FSB doesn’t trust things either. An officer takes me aside for an interrogation. “What is the purpose of your trip? What is your profession? Who is waiting for you on the South Ossetian side of the border?” My passport is not stamped. “Now listen, upon entering Russia, you received a certain customs form,” an officer with an extremely large hat reminds me. “Keep that with you. No new documents will be made.” Officially, I have never been here.

The Roka tunnel leads underneath a 3000 meter high ridge that separates North Ossetia from South Ossetia. It’s the only connection to the outside world for this hermetically sealed and unrecognized country. South Ossetia has no airport. Airbnb and Booking.com show a blank wasteland within the outlines of the republic. ATMs are absent. The entire country boasts two mini hotels and one motel. “If we’d have 30 tourists in one day, we would have a problem,” says my guide Georgii, who wants to show me his country. “We can’t accommodate that many at the same time.” It’s a hypothetical problem. “I estimate that 30 to 50 non-Russian tourists visit South Ossetia each year.”

A 3000 meter high ridge separates North Ossetia from South Ossetia. The Roka tunnel is the only connection between the two. Joost Smets

The Ossetian customs officers are equally surprised to see a foreigner. Upon consulting the guest list at their desk, my name turns out to be on it. After a few questions, my South Ossetian migration card is stamped and the barrier opens. The impenetrable mountain wall that constitutes the border with Russia slowly disappears behind me. In Nizhny Rok, we leave the asphalt. In Georgii’s 4WD, we wobble over an atrocious road into the Edys valley, where a soldier does not let us past a checkpoint. Georgii however is determined to show the village where he was born. On the condition that we return that very afternoon, we are allowed to continue. Even higher mountain peaks rise in front of us, en route to the crumbling defense towers of Sredny Yerman. The few hardened villagers who live here year round welcome me. In winter, one and a half meters of snow cuts them off from civilization for months.

We continue on foot to Verkhny Yerman, at an altitude of 2600 meters above sea level. The mountain village is completely abandoned. Collapsed defense towers and crumbling death houses filled with skeletons stand as silent witnesses in the vast mountain landscape. Magnificent Lake Keli must lie somewhere high above this village, but barring a special permit, venturing any closer to the unrecognized border with Georgia is not a smart idea.

By the end of the day, I do manage to get somewhat closer to the tightly guarded buffer zone. Tskhinval, the capital of South Ossetia, is located right on the border. From my balcony I can see the fences, a bare strip of land and behind that the fields of Shida Kartli. As long as Russia maintains its military presence in South Ossetia, the situation here will remain unchanged—although the border is recognized by just five countries worldwide: Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru and Syria. And the curious assembly of Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic and the Donetsk and Luhansk Peope’s Republics—other unrecognized countries you won’t find on any world map.

How many Ossetians would still be alive without these Russian forces? In 1989, the South Ossetian Supreme Soviet asks for the status of the region to be upgraded to that of an autonomous republic. Within a week, the Georgian army responds by attacking Tskhinval. South Ossetia declares independence in 1990, after which Georgia abolishes the autonomous status of the region. Nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who becomes newly independent Georgia’s first president with the slogan “Georgia for the Georgians”, abolishes Ossetian (a Northeast Iranian language related to Scythian and Sogdian) as an official language, with Georgian becoming the only official language in all of Georgia. Buses with protesters from Tbilisi are brought to intimidate separatists in Tskhinval.

In 1991, war breaks out. The Georgian army destroys three-quarters of Tskhinval and burns almost a hundred Ossetian villages to the ground. The Ossetians respond with a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Georgians in South Ossetia. Houses and shops are pillaged and burned. With support from former Soviet troops and volunteers from North Ossetia, the Ossetians stand their ground, but when a ceasefire is signed in 1992, the war has claimed over 2,000 casualties. More than 100,000 Ossetians have fled; 23,000 Georgians leave their homes in South Ossetia, never to return.

Candles are lit in front of portraits of fallen soldiers and civilians at the annual memorial meeting in Tskhinval. Joost Smets

From 1992, South Ossetia is de facto independent. Georgia has bigger worries: war in Abkhazia, an armed coup of ‘Zviadists’ trying to help by now deposed Gamsakhurdia regain power, and autonomous Adjara closing its borders. Both Ossetian and Georgian authorities benefit from the frozen conflict and the shady political situation it creates. Arms and drug trafficking flourishes.

Apart from a brief flare-up in 2004, things remain relatively quiet in South Ossetia—large parts of which are still controlled by Georgia. Tensions rise in 2008, when many countries acknowledge the result of the referendum held in Kosovo, while previous referenda in South Ossetia and Abkhazia are dismissed as invalid by the international community. At the beginning of August, Ossetian separatists attack a police truck. Georgian snipers retaliate, after which the Ossetians shell Georgian villages. It’s the last straw for Georgia’s new president Mikheil Saakashvili, for whom reunification of Georgia is a priority. In the night of 7 to 8 August 2008, 12,000 Georgian soldiers invade South Ossetia.

The Ossetian forces are heavily outnumbered. Including Russian peacekeepers that have been present since the first war, South Ossetia relies on roughly 1,000 soldiers, supported by another 2,500 volunteers. Georgia tries to block the Roka tunnel to prevent the Russian army from interfering with the conflict. Their goal is to capture Tskhinval as quickly as possible and to install a Tbilisi-approved government. The Ossetian troops are no match for the professional Georgian army. Georgia conquers numerous Ossetian villages within hours, but the Russians manage to successfully defend the Roka tunnel. On the fourth day of the war, Tskhinval is almost completely under Georgian control, but thanks to the increasing support of Russian regiments, the balance gradually shifts towards South Ossetia. Meanwhile, Russia is bombing military targets in Georgia. Without air support or other reinforcements, Saakashvili is forced to withdraw all Georgian troops.

“Let us never stop thanking Russia for their support,” reminds president Anatoly Bibilov. At the staircase of Tskhinval’s parliament building, candles are lit in front of portraits of fallen soldiers and civilians at the annual memorial meeting. “How many of us would stand here today if the Russians had not halted the bombing and shelling? If the Georgians would have been able to continue their Operation Clean Earth?” Reconciliation seems far away still. “But Georgia is no longer the enemy,” Georgii tries. “They are more like a neighbor that we don’t get along with.” It seems quite an understatement. “One day, everything will be normal again. Perhaps in thirty or forty years”, Georgii hopes.

The clear waters of Lake Ertso, set amid gently rolling hills in the western part of South Ossetia. Joost Smets

For centuries, Georgians and Ossetians lived peacefully together in this part of the Caucasus. Vadim, a colleague of Georgii, joins me to drive around Znaurskiy rayon in the southwest of the country. Georgian churches and dilapidated forts sit in lush wooded areas. Just like in Gori, on the other side of the border, Stalin still proudly stands on a pedestal. “But Stalin was an Ossetian, not a Georgian,” Vadim says. The Caucasus remains a wasp nest of various ethnicities where it’s rare to find everybody on the same page. Peaceful Tir Monastery, hidden behind large oak trees and Armenian rather than Georgian in its appearance, is a welcome final stop before I return to the bullet-ridden buildings of Tskhinval.

In the National Museum of South Ossetia, Sascha educates me about ancient Ossetian traditions. “Blood feud used to be common in Ossetia,” she tells. “Murder had to be avenged by a blood relative of the victim. That family member would become the next target, and so on, in an endless cycle of violence. There was one way to end a blood feud, however.” Sascha points at a painting, where a group of men kneels submissively in front of an old woman. “To pay tribute to the murder victim, all men in the perpetrator’s family had their heads shaved. Then, they all drank milk from the breast of the oldest woman in the victim’s family. That way, they became each other’s milk brothers.”

I walk past a display of state gifts from Russia and a couple of unrecognized countries: an artistic miner’s helmet from Donetsk People’s Republic, elaborate wood-carving from Transnistria. But Sascha’s stories leave a bigger impression. A final painting shows a man, throwing someone from a mountaintop. A crowd watches. “In Ossetia, the death penalty was carried out by throwing the convicted person into a ravine. A relative of the convicted had to execute the sentence,” Sascha explains. “The death penalty was uncommon. It was only imposed on the worst offenders, such as murderers and those who insulted their guests.”

That night, I am hosted by Georgii’s friend Zhanna. Georgii reluctantly tells Tskhinval has but one restaurant he considers passable. But who minds when everywhere you go, as a guest, you’re placed at the head of the table? Zhanna serves Ossetian cheese pie, a spicy bean salad, fresh bread and home-made wine. Just as her countrymen, she is burdened by the sorrow of war. “Children died. Elderly people died. Dead bodies lay on the streets,” my hostess laments. In the videos she shows on her phone, Tskhinval looks a lot like present-day Syria. Young men with wretched looks in their eyes take guns that are pushed into their hands. “Guns—at least they had those! In 1991 it was sticks, knives and home-made weapons.” How many of the boys I see in these clips are still alive?

With its single restaurant, helicopter monument with paint peeling off and characterless new buildings, Tskhinval is of limited interest. One does not go to South Ossetia to see impressive cities or castles – the reason to travel to South Ossetia is its beautiful nature and hospitable people. Georgii takes me back into the mountains, this time in the western part of the country. He points to the sheer rocks high above us: “That’s where we’re going.” Around us, there’s nothing but unspoilt mountain slopes and thousands of wildflowers, as far as the eye can see. My last night in South Ossetia, Georgii and I camp on the shore of Lake Ertso, with its clear waters amid gently rolling, green hills.

The next morning we make a final stop in a tiny hamlet. Gennady and Dmitri are pleased to see a stranger and promptly open a bottle of arak. Not that actor Dmitri needs a drink to show off his acting skills. “They always cast me as the bad guy, the Chechen terrorist.” With gusto, he swings a rather large kitchen knife.

Guests are sacred to Ossetians, yet they hardly get any. Everywhere I go, people want to have a chat and ask me to stay for a cup of tea or lunch. Even the customs officers are no exception. One last time, a cup of tea is poured. The only thing I do not receive is a stamp in my passport. My South Ossetian migration card is taken. Officially, I have never been here.

Joost Smets has always been fascinated by countries that do not appear on regular maps. He enjoys exploring the alternate reality of countries that officialy do not exist. With his travel agency Tot hier en verder, he organizes tours to Abkhazia, Transnistria and other unrecognized states.