Soviet Union ’s Fall Unraveled Enclave in Georgia
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Sun Sep 7 16:54:10 UTC 2008
Soviet Union's Fall Unraveled Enclave in Georgia - NYTimes.com Soviet
Union's Fall Unraveled Enclave in Georgia By ELLEN BARRY
It is not easy for Ireya Alborova to root through the events that
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.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
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
he were standing in front of her. A family friend, who greeted Ms.
Alborova affectionately on Karl
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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