By Brian Whitmore
ERGNETI, Georgia -- Shota Jokhadze could only look on helplessly when Russian-backed South Ossetian militias looted and destroyed his home 10 months ago. Today, he and his neighbors still live in a constant state of fear, anxiety, and deprivation.
Relaxing under a tree across from the rubble that was once his house, Jokhadze, an 82-year-old with dark, tired eyes and a short white beard, describes how Russian forces, followed by Ossetian irregulars, raided his hometown last August.
"They came and they burned our houses down. What else can I say? The Russian Army was standing over there," Jokhadze says, pointing across the street where a row of bombed out homes.
"As soon as they left, the Ossetians came in wearing military uniforms. They looted our homes. Then they shot flare guns at our houses, and 15-20 minutes later they caught fire."
Nearly a year after the formal end of armed conflict between Russia and Georgia, Ergneti -- a tiny hamlet in Georgia's Gori region near the de facto border with breakaway South Ossetia -- remains a village on the edge, in every sense of the word.
As Russia carries out its Caucasus-2009 military exercises on Georgia's doorstep from June 29-July 6, worries are mounting that Moscow is gearing up for a new conflict with Georgia -- with this tiny village once again on the front lines.
The exercises, Russia's largest since the Soviet breakup, will include 8,500 troops, 200 tanks, 450 armored vehicles, and 250 pieces of artillery. Russia conducted similar exercises just prior to the conflict with Georgia last August.
More than two-thirds of the Ergneti's 180 homes were burned down by Ossetian militias, and more than half of its 600 prewar residents have either fled or were killed in the fighting. Throughout the region, hundreds lost their homes and scores were killed.
Locals say gunmen still occasionally cross over from South Ossetia at night, firing their weapons and intimidating villagers.
"All the young people have left," Jokhadze said. "Sometimes they come in the daytime to tend to their gardens, but they leave before night. What should they do? Should they stay and let the Ossetians kill them? The Ossetians will not leave us alone. There is only one Georgian guard post, but how can you defend a village from just one place?"
It isn't just physical insecurity that plagues Ergneti. With no jobs and a devastated local economy, locals must live off the land and rely on humanitarian aid to make ends meet.
The Georgian government has given those who lost their homes a one-time cash payment of 15,000 laris (about $9,000) and regularly provides food staples to help them get by. International aid from the European Union has also financed the construction of small one-room annexes, which locals call "cottages," for people to use as accommodations until their homes are rebuilt.
Kasradze adds that while he is grateful for the help from his government and the international community, what he receives is barely enough to survive. "My cottage is meant for six people, but you can't fit six beds in here," he says.
In addition to destroying hundreds of homes in the region, the war also deprived Gori residents, albeit temporarily, of its main cash crop.
Before the war with Russia, the Gori region's apples -- which locals proudly say were known throughout the former Soviet Union for their quality -- were one of the main sources of income for Ergneti and nearby villages.
'Our Apples Are Spoiled'
Until last August, those apples were sold at an open-air market right on the de facto border with South Ossetia. Today that market is gone, replaced by Georgian and Russian troops facing each other down over sandbags as they enforce an uneasy truce.
The apples are gone as well.
In Tkviavi, a village just a short drive from Ergneti that suffered heavy bombardment during the war, residents describe how Russian forces systematically drove their tanks right through the orchards, destroying most of the year's harvest and stealing whatever remained.
"Our apples are spoiled. We can't take care of them," says Tamaz Kareli, an energetic pensioner who lost his home in a Russian areal bombardment in the first days of the war.
"The Russians drove through our orchards with their tanks and ruined the harvest. We can't water them. We can't spray them. The Russians were actually standing right in the middle of my orchard."
The suffering and deprivation is not limited to those living on the Georgian side of the de facto border. Some 50,000 Georgians from South Ossetia are currently displaced as a result of the fighting there.
Elena Kelekhsashvili, an ethnic Ossetian, and her husband Givi Chovelidze, an ethnic Georgian, have twice fled fighting in South Ossetia.
The couple was living in the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, when they were forced to flee in 1992 after separatist forces took over the city.
They moved to Chovelidze's home village of Dzartsemi, a village inside South Ossetia which remained under Georgian control and remained there until armed hostilities resumed last August -- forcing them to run once again.
"First we went to Gori, but then they started bombing Gori as well so we went to Tbilisi. They dropped a few bombs on Tbilisi, too. Where could we go from there? We decided to place ourselves in God's hands. Whatever will be will be. We stayed in Tbilisi," Kelekhsashvili says.
Dreams Of Home
In January, Georgian authorities relocated the couple to an internally displaced persons (IDP) settlement near Gori, where they have lived ever since. The couple says that although they would like to return home someday, they are happy with the settlement, a series of small, neat, one-story dwellings lined along a highway.
"The authorities helped us a lot and we are happy with this," Kelekhsashvili says. "They did everything they could for us. They gave us accommodations and medical help. Whatever we needed, we got. What could they do? They had to take care of so many of us."
Thousands of Ossetians also fled the fighting in August, heading north and crossing into Russia. The vast majority of them, however, were able to return after the fighting stopped.
The Georgians, on the other hand, are no longer welcome and many of their homes have since been burned down by Ossetian militias.
But despite the ongoing tension and deep animosity, Kelekhsashvili says she is sure Georgians and Ossetians can live together in peace -- much as she, an ethnic Ossetian, and her ethnic Georgian husband have done.
"We hope that Ossetians and Georgians will live together again. It was a third party, Russia, who interfered," she says. "We had good relations with each other. We visited each other. We think the old times could come back."
Chovelidze agrees with his wife, adding: "If they said we could return tomorrow, we would go, even if we didn't have a home to go to."
Goga Aptsiauri of RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report
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