Behind barbed wire: Human rights toll of “borderization” in Georgia reveals the devastating impact of efforts by Russian forces and the de facto authorities to set up an “international border” along the disputed boundary by installing barbed wire, fences, ditches and other physical barriers that have divided communities and cut villagers off from farmland, water sources, places of worship and even family burial sites.
“Lives are being strangled by these arbitrary measures. Hundreds of people face arbitrary detention every year trying to cross the line for no other reason than to see relatives, tend to their crops or access healthcare. Whole communities are being cut off from vital sources of income and other important aspects of their lives — punished solely because of where they happen to live,” said Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
“Russia exercises effective control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia/Tskhinvali Region, and as such must respect its obligations under international humanitarian law and uphold human rights in these territories.”
Separating communities, devastating livelihoods
Russian forces have been stationed in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia/Tskhinvali Region without the consent of Georgia since the August 2008 conflict.
In 2011, Russian forces started the so-called “borderization” process to turn the Administrative Boundary Line (ABL) — what was often just dotted lines on a map — into a physical barrier separating Abkhazia and South Ossetia/Tskhnivali Region on the one hand, and Georgian-controlled territory on the other.
Davit Vanishvili, an 85 year-old man from the village of Khurvaleti which was divided during the “borderization” process, told Amnesty International how members of Russian forces gave him a stark choice in 2013 — to stay in his home on the South Ossetian/Tskhinvali Region side of the line or to move and live the rest of his life displaced on the Tbilisi-controlled side.
He chose to stay but is now separated from the rest of his family and friends. He and his relatives risk detention every time they try to cross through the fence under cover of darkness to get his pension, medicine and other goods on the Georgian side.
“Russian servicemen came to my house and told me it is no longer Georgia. The same day they started installing fences around my yard. I can no longer access the rest of the village, or the rest of the country,” he told Amnesty International. The “borderization” of the ABL has affected communities of all ethnic backgrounds on both sides of the divide.
According to the Georgian authorities, as of late 2018, at least 34 villages have been divided by fences installed by the Russian forces. An estimated 800 to 1,000 families in total have lost access to their agricultural lands.
Amiran Gugutishvili, a 71-year-old-farmer in the village of Gugutiankari near the South Ossetian/Tskhinvali Region ABL, has had to depend on social benefits since 2017 when he lost access to his apple orchard.
“Every year I used to harvest more than a hundred boxes of apples from my orchard and sell them. The profit was enough for my family to survive. Since 2017 I cannot access my garden. Russian servicemen installed a state border sign there. I still pass by sometimes to take a look at my apple trees through the fence,” he told Amnesty International.
Closure of crossing points hits trade
The “borderization” has resulted in the closure of several official crossing points between South Ossetia/Tskhinvali Region and Abkhazia.
“The ‘borderization’ has had a pernicious impact on what was once active cross-boundary trade. It has seriously eroded the social and economic situation in communities straddling the divide, as local producers have lost access to the nearest markets,” said Marie Struthers.
The village of Khurcha on the Abkhazian side of the river Enguri separating the breakaway region from the rest of the Georgian territory was once a local trade hub, thanks to its crossing point. But the crossing point was closed in March 2017, prompting some residents to move elsewhere in Tbilisi-controlled territory.
“Our village has become a dead end – like our lives,” said an 85-year-old resident from Khurcha.
Crossings that are not made at designated crossing points, and without proper documents which are often hard to secure, are considered illegal by the Russian and local de-facto authorities. This results in hundreds of people being arbitrarily detained every year, some of whom have allegedly been beaten and subjected to other ill-treatment in detention.
“The Russian authorities and the de-facto authorities of the breakaway territories must reopen previously closed crossing points and relax movement and related restrictions for locals who live next to the administrative line. When restrictions on freedom of movement are applied, they must be strictly necessary, dictated by genuine security and military considerations, and proportionate,” said Marie Struthers.
In addition, Amnesty International calls on Georgia to provide relevant support to the families whose economic, social and cultural rights have been negatively impacted because of the “borderization”, including those who have lost access to their livelihoods.
The broad political issues underlying the hostilities between Georgia, Russia, and the two breakaway regions in 1990s and 2000s are important and ongoing but lay beyond the scope of our research.
The briefing is based on some 150 testimonies collected during field trips to Georgia in March and July 2018, and June 2019. Amnesty International wrote to the Russian government, the de-facto authorities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia/Tskhinvali Region, and the government of Georgia with a summary of our findings and human rights concerns, presenting them with an opportunity to respond and to have their input reflected in the report. Amnesty International only received a response from Georgia.