Conflict ruins Ossetians' rebuilding efforts

The Georgian was proud to point out that her hometown was ethnically mixed. Georgians married Ossetians and celebrated their children's rites of passage together.

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Sasha Dvalishvili was selling apricots and peaches, tomatoes and cucumbers from cardboard boxes set atop spindly-legged card tables in Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia. The Georgian was proud to point out that her hometown was ethnically mixed. Georgians married Ossetians and celebrated their children's rites of passage together. "Even during the war, we went to weddings [together]," she said. "This is not a natural conflict between the two peoples; it is sophisticated. Love has no borders. The people are not fighting; it is the politicians who are fighting."

That was July 1998, during a time of rebuilding after the first war for South Ossetian independence, one of many repercussions of the break-up of the Soviet Union seven years earlier. In the intervening years, Georgians and ethnic Ossetians again lived side by side, trying to rebuild their little part of a Caucasian country that is culturally diverse and agriculturally rich but whose glory has faded. Yet, the dream of independence to which South Ossetia aspired - as the giant bear to the north, the imperium, was falling to its knees - never died.

In fact, prodded by Russia, which was concerned that its sphere of influence was shrinking, South Ossetia's dream remained alive. I visited the area in 1998 and found some residents who had not given up on that dream - in fact they had voted in a referendum and elections in 1996 - but more importantly, 10 years ago I found residents were more concerned with rebuilding their houses than building a country.

Isolde Dzmukhadze showed me her tiny garden. There were hot green pepper plants, basil and chives. There was a lime tree; the fruit when ripe would be used in kindzis satsebela, a cilantro sauce for fish, or in a rice salad with aubergine and sour cherries. Ms Dzmukhadze was two months pregnant in May 1992 when the fighting began. The house burned. "The dog was saved. Only my husband was home." With about US$8,000 (Dh29,000) from the United Nations Development Programme, she and her husband were rebuilding the house.

Another fruit vendor, a former laboratory analyst named Lamara Kakhniashvili, said: "I'm not interested very much in politics; our problem is that we have no houses." When it was reported on Saturday that Tskhinvali was in ruins, my first thought was: it already was. Tskhinvali, a small city of about 70,000, is the only city in the region and the last main stop before Russia. Around it are a series of windy roads connecting dusty mountain villages of one and two-storey buildings. Tskhinvali is nominally the capital of those parts of South Ossetia that have been run as a quasi-independent state for the past several years.

But Mrs Dvalishvili's words echoed again this past weekend. Ten years after I saw signs of attempts at co-operative rebuilding, people, civilians, were again at the victim's end of political turmoil. On Thursday, after two years of independence noises from South Ossetia, Georgia tried to reassert its authority over its north-central region and preserve the integrity of its national and natural borders.

Russia, which has actively backed South Ossetia for 17 years as a way to maintain control over the former Soviet republics and which has resented the cosy relationship Georgia has had with the United States and Europe, responded with the first military intervention by Moscow into a foreign country since the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In 1998, I met the president of the non-recognised South Ossetian republic, Ludvig Chibirov. He described a meeting he had with Eduard Shevardnadze, the quick-eyed, then-president of Georgia. "There are still lots of problems to be solved. Nevertheless, there is mutual understanding that ? there is no alternative to peaceful negotiation and settlement."

In an interview two days later, Mr Shevardnadze said the repatriation of Georgians and South Ossetians was one of his priorities. But by then he had been saying that for four years. Between 1990 and 2008, neither side has budged from its opening argument. Georgia, under Mr Shevardnadze, and then his successor, the current president, Mikheil Saakashvili, will preserve its borders - naturally defined by the Caucasus mountains - and the Ossetians, pushed out of the Don River valley of Russia back in the mid-1700s, and who speak a different language than Georgian and use a different alphabet - insist on independence.

Soslan Bagiaev was a state adviser to Mr Chibirov in 1998. At the fruit market that day, with the temperature in the mid-30s, he embodied what the women were saying about the difference between politicians and the people. He claimed it was cultural differences between South Ossetians and Georgians that had led to conflict in 1990 (even before the Soviet Union had broken up). After the meeting with his president, Mr Chibirov, Mr Bagiaev pulled me aside. With the help of a translator, he told me South Ossetians desired "guarantees to save our language, save our culture; we want respect for our cultural, historical, Ossetian mentality".

The answer is easy, he said. What that answer was he did not say, to my frustration. What that answer is, now that war and death have returned, is not any more obvious.