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Field Notes

Jun 18, 2016 | 13:40 GMT

A Look Inside Georgia's Moving Border

Georgian villagers are under massive pressure as Russian and Ossetian troops gradually advance the South Ossetia border fence. (VANO SHLAMOV/AFP/Getty Images)

By Emil Avdaliani

As you drive along the major east-west highways about 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Tbilisi connecting Georgia with Azerbaijani ports on the Black Sea, it is possible — if just barely — to see a demarcation line a couple of kilometers away. Ordinary Georgians call it the "moving border," and it is managed jointly by Russian troops and separatists from the breakaway region of South Ossetia. As you leave the highway and head north toward this line, the rural roads peter out. Ribbons of asphalt devolve into parking lots for rusty tractors, kids' soccer fields or drying yards for crops of beans. They are a sure sign that somewhere up ahead, makeshift fences or concrete barriers block the way.

From here, you can only walk. Old front lines snake through abandoned farms that have reverted to bush. Even for me, someone unfamiliar with the territory, it was quite easy to spot the surveillance cameras installed by separatists and Russian troops hidden in trees or houses near the demarcation line. Here and there, I noticed roofless houses abandoned by residents following the 2008 war or during more recent actions by Russian and South Ossetian forces.

Reports surface time and again that Russian forces are moving the makeshift border south, eating up Georgian territory. In spite of this, much of the boundary is entirely unfenced. The border's creeping advance seems haphazard. The border posts moved are often thousands of meters apart and anchored to random landmarks: a tiny hill, by the side of a creek or in an open valley. I was left with the sneaking suspicion that even these resting places were provisional, a guess corroborated by the fact that no military infrastructure is around them and no Russian or South Ossetian soldiers can be seen patrolling nearby. The goal of the steady movement seems singular: Move south and get ever closer to the main east-west highway. In some villages, Russians and South Ossetians made an effort to occupy the heights and control water sources. But these were rare exceptions.

Loops of razor wire along Georgia's de facto border with the breakaway region of South Ossetia near Khurvaleti. (VANO SHLAMOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Few of the local Georgian villagers would give their real names, and even fewer would talk to a stranger. Some said the Russian and Ossetian troops are usually active at night, moving the posts without resistance. The line typically shifts only a couple of hundred meters. At times, however, it can leap thousands of meters, as it did in July 2015.

In some cases, families have awoken in the morning to find their yards divided by a new fence, with cows and sheep stranded on the Ossetian side. Tragically, people have been stranded as well. Villagers spoke of a Georgian couple who, after receiving warnings from Russian and South Ossetian border guards, refused to evacuate their house. The property was forcefully divided by the advancing troops, leaving the woman trapped on the South Ossetian side of the newly fenced territory. Others spoke of a map from the 1980s that Russian and South Ossetian forces used as a reference to mark the new border. To enforce the demarcation, the separatists, with Russia's help, detain those who cross it — whether purposefully or accidentally. Up to 800 Georgian citizens were detained after the 2008 war. Detaining locals also provides income to the separatists, who set ransoms around 5,000 rubles (about $76). The locals say at times the South Ossetian border guards cross into a village and forcefully drag a local to their checkpoints to demand a ransom.

Other locals say that the real changes are happening on the other side of the fence. According to rumors, the South Ossetian leaders cordoned off villages near the Georgia-controlled territory and allow only those with a special permit from the separatist region's security services to enter. In the village of Khurvaleti, locals even joked that by the time I return, the entire village will have been swallowed up by the advancing South Ossetian border.

And they might be right. Only a couple of hours after I left the area, separatist and Russian forces moved their fences south in Avlevi village by 100 to 150 meters, and the silent advance continued.

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