Monday, September 08, 2008

Between Tskhinvali and Tbilisi

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Between Tskhinvali and Tbilisi

TSKHINVALI, Georgia — It is not easy for Ireya Alborova to root through the events that cracked this city in half, but one small bright memory stands out from 1989, when she glanced at the building across the street from her high school and spotted a flag.
Ireya Alborova lived in Tskhinvali, in the South Ossetian enclave in Georgia, until 2001. She returned for a visit last month.

Ms. Alborova, talking with friends, grew up in a family of Georgians and Ossetians. Mixed families were common in Tskhinvali until the Soviet Union collapsed, and nationalism swelled.

It was a small Georgian flag, fixed in an attic window. Ms. Alborova was an unruly 15-year-old, preoccupied with her friends and her classes, and she took it in — a small piece of information — and kept walking. But now she thinks of it as the first signal of what was coming.

Most of the world now knows what happened: South Ossetians and Georgians began a drawn-out war to control this sleepy valley, where the main feature is a road that cuts through the Caucasian ridge into Russia. That flared into a global standoff last month, when Georgia pounded Tskhinvali, the capital of the South Ossetian enclave, with rocket fire and Russian troops poured across the border in response.

But for Ms. Alborova’s family, which is partly Georgian but wound up on the Ossetian side of the conflict, the crucial event took place during the last months of the Soviet Union, when the fabric of a multiethnic society tore apart with breathtaking speed. For the past 18 years, in a city encircled by Georgian positions, the family and its neighbors have been reliving the rifts and betrayals of that period.

Her Aunt Fuza’s neighbor, a Georgian woman, crossed ethnic lines to pass on a warning that an attack on Ossetians was planned — and then disappeared. A checkpoint appeared between Tskhinvali and her mother’s ancestral village, cutting the Alborovas off from their Georgian relatives. Construction suddenly halted on a huge supermarket being built near their apartment 18 years ago, and not a day’s work has been done since then.

Its foundation was eventually picked apart to build trenches. And the citizens of Tskhinvali became a resistance.

“It’s not a question of whether you choose to or not,” said Ms. Alborova, who is now 34 and lives in Toulouse, France. “Sometimes you are obliged. In some situations you don’t choose anything.”

Tskhinvali is a city of low-slung, sand-colored buildings suspended between urban and rural life. Roosters crow in the cool of the morning, and almost every house has its own grape arbor, used to make sweet pink wines that are stored in plastic soda bottles and brought out for the slightest occasion. There were also monumental Stalinist-era apartment buildings where the elite lived, and a grand neoclassical theater.

Ms. Alborova practically grew up in that theater. Her mother, Medeya, was Georgian. (Though her mother’s mother had been Ossetian, children in the Caucasus take their father’s ethnicity.) Medeya met Gelim Alborov in a state folk dancing troupe, and when they married in the 1970s, unions of Georgians and Ossetians were still unremarkable.

To a teenager’s eyes, the two ethnic groups were woven together inextricably. Children in Ms. Alborova’s class were given their choice of language for classroom use, and though most of them were Ossetian, 28 out of 32 opted to study Georgian.

“Our teacher was embarrassed,” Ms. Alborova said. “No one wanted to learn Ossetian.”

In the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, some 50 miles to the southeast, Georgia’s first post-Soviet leader was emerging. Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a longtime anti-Soviet dissident, based his campaign for the presidency on a vaulting Georgian nationalism — an idea powerful enough to fill the vacuum left by Communism’s collapse.

The platform, known as Georgia for the Georgians, cast ethnic Georgians, who made up 70 percent of the population, as the country’s true masters. Mr. Gamsakhurdia derided South Ossetians as newcomers, saying they had arrived only 600 years ago and as tools of the Soviet Union.

On the street in Tskhinvali, small changes began to appear.

Ms. Alborova’s aunt was exasperated to go to the store and see that pasta manufactured in Russia had been put in packages labeled with Georgian script. Her neighbor Emma Gasiyeva kept hearing slogans: “Brush them out with a broom!” and “Who are the guests, and who are the hosts?” a reference to the theory that Ossetians had been brought to the area as agricultural workers.

In 1989, Ms. Alborova was 15, and she saw only shadows. She heard that her Georgian classmates were gathering for some kind of meeting, but she was not invited. “They stopped talking to us,” she said of her Georgian neighbors. “It was done very quickly.”

Over the next three years, Tskhinvali became something like Belfast in Northern Ireland.

The government in Tbilisi established Georgian as the country’s principal language, enraging the Ossetians, whose first two languages were Russian and Ossetian. A few months later, more than 10,000 Georgian demonstrators were transported to Tskhinvali in buses and encircled the city, until they were repelled by Ossetian irregulars and Soviet troops. A true war began in 1991, when thousands of Georgian soldiers entered Tskhinvali. The city was shelled almost nightly from the Georgian-held highlands, and Medeya Alborova recalls holding pillows over her teenage daughters’ heads, as if that could protect them.

When Mrs. Alborova got to Tbilisi to see her relatives, it was like stepping into a parallel universe. She sat with them watching news on Georgian television, as the announcer recited a litany of crimes committed by Ossetians against Georgians. At times, she said, she was not sure she was on the right side of the conflict.

But the years made all of them harder. Even after a cease-fire in 1992, Tskhinvali was isolated from the Georgian territory around it, and accounts of atrocities against Ossetians — rapes and grisly killings — circulated endlessly.

Mothers, who wield enormous power in this society, urged their sons to fight.

But Ms. Alborova found a way to leave, through a scholarship to study in France. She arrived in Toulouse in 2001 and took in the town with amazement; people were so focused on pleasure. She replayed her memories from Tskhinvali, sealed off from the bright world that surrounded her.

“I understood that I had lost 10 years of my life,” she said.

Ms. Alborova returned to Tskhinvali on Aug. 24 with butterflies in her stomach. She had expected physical damage, and it was there: bullet holes pockmarked virtually every building. But what surprised her were the people. Not many of them were left, and those who remained seemed damaged.

Soon after her return, Ms. Alborova was taken aback when a friend asked her if she could kill President Mikheil Saakashvili if he were standing in front of her. A family friend, who greeted Ms. Alborova affectionately on Karl Marx Street, turned icy when asked about Georgians.

“They have poison in their blood,” said the woman, Katya Kharebova, 60.

Many in Tskhinvali say they would welcome the return of their Georgian neighbors. Still, it is difficult to imagine how long it will be before these people will live together again, much less intermarry. When history sets down the consequences of what happened on Aug. 7, the death of a neighborhood will not be recorded.

Indeed, in 20 years, it may be hard to find Georgians and Ossetians in this area who can talk to each other at all. Ms. Alborova’s nieces, who live in Russia with her sister, are the first generation of her family that does not speak Georgian. Her mother shrugged, when asked about it.

“Who’s going to teach them?” she asked.

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