Ten Years After 'Last Look' At Her Burning Village, Healing Eludes Displaced Georgian Doctor

Nunu Chovelidze at a former casino in Tbilisi that has been her home for the last nine years.

TBILISI -- Nunu Chovelidze still remembers the day she fled her ethnic Georgian village of Dzartsemi in South Ossetia in August 2008, shortly after the Russian-Georgian war began.​

Having sent their children and grandchildren to Tbilisi in their car before fighting intensified, Chovelidze had stayed behind for her work as a doctor in the nearby village of Kurta.

Her husband had also stayed at their eight-room house a few kilometers north of the breakaway Georgian region’s capital, Tskhinvali. He wanted to tend to the family’s cows and pigs, two dozen chickens, six rabbits, a ripening plot of vegetables, and a walnut orchard.

But with the arrival of Russian tanks and soldiers in the area, Chovelidze said, she and her husband could see smoke rising from other ethnic-Georgian villages that were being torched by Ossetian militia and armed looters.

They decided to escape when word came that Russian forces were rapidly approaching Kurta and their home in Dzartsemi.

Georgian soldiers at a checkpoint in South Ossetia at the start of the Russia-Georgia war in August 2008.

Fighting and military checkpoints made it impossible to travel directly south on the main road through Tskhinvali to reach safety in Georgian government-controlled territory.

As the last ethnic Georgian residents to leave Dzartsemi, they hiked eastward over a mountain. Then they turned south to the village of Eredvi before crossing South Ossetia’s administrative border into undisputed Georgian government territory. Chovelidze was nearly 55 years old at the time.

"I ran along the mountain pass," Chovelidze recalled in an interview with RFE/RL 10 years later. "We stopped at the highest point and my husband told me to look back because I wouldn't be able to see our place ever again. I gazed down upon my village. Everything was burning."

Evidence Of 'Ethnic Cleaning'

Nestled between two mountains in the Didi Liakhvi Gorge, Kurta and Dzartsemi were among 17 predominantly ethnic Georgian villages in the area that had been controlled by Tbilisi before the war.

Observers from Human Rights Watch (HRW) witnessed the obliteration of those villages in the days and weeks after the arrival of Russian forces. Based on "observations on the ground" and interviews with "members of Ossetian militias and the Russian military," HRW concluded that "South Ossetian forces sought to ethnically cleanse these villages."

"The destruction of these homes in these villages was deliberate, systematic, and carried out on the basis of the ethnic and imputed political affiliations of the residents of these villages with the express purpose of forcing those who remained to leave and ensuring that no former residents would return," HRW said.

The Tserovani IDP settlement near Tbilisi houses some 7,000 ethnic Georgians displaced from South Ossetia by the August 2008 Russia-Georgia war.

HRW observers said: "Russian forces did not participate directly in the destruction of villages and attacks on civilians but, aside from a brief period in mid-August, did not interfere to stop them" as required by international law under the responsibilities of an "occupying power."

Today, all that remains of Kurta and Dzartsemi are disused dirt roads and scattered foundations of demolished buildings. The only new structures are defensive earthworks where Russian tanks are positioned and a few houses for Russian soldiers and their families.​

Other ethnic Georgian villages nearby suffered similar fates.

Lifetime Consequences

Of more than 17,500 ethnic Georgians who lived in and around the Didi Liakhvi Gorge before the war, most are now scattered across Georgia in 38 "settlements" for internally displaced persons (IDPs) built by Tbilisi using international aid. Some IPDs have moved in with relatives in Georgian cities and towns or into idle state-owned buildings that Tbilisi has allocated for IDPs.

Chovelidze and her family spent the first year after the war living at a publishing house in the Georgian capital.

Nunu Chovelidze at the “Kurta Hospital” in the Tserovani IDP settlement near Tbilisi in August 2018.

The government then assigned them accommodation at a two-story former hotel near the city center. The large, first-floor room where they’ve lived for the past nine years used to be the hotel’s casino.

Chovelidze's husband died there of a heart attack in 2015. But she continues to live in the state-owned building with her children and grandchildren while other displaced persons from South Ossetia live above them.

For years, they had assumed they would be relocated to a permanent, proper apartment. But those hopes have faded.

In fact, more than 200,000 ethnic Georgian IDPs from Georgia's breakaway Abkhazia region also have been languishing in impoverished housing conditions since the early 1990s, when they were forcibly expelled from their homes by Russia-backed separatists.

Although Chovelidze's family has had no word from the government about whether they will be given legal title to their current home, they decided this year to invest their savings and build internal walls to transform the former casino into a place where three generations can live together more comfortably.

With her doctor's salary, Chovelidze considers herself fortunate compared to other displaced people who lost their main source of income when they fled from their agricultural land in South Ossetia.​

Before the war, the vegetables and walnuts that Chovelidze’s family sold from their land in Dzartsemi brought them about $7,000 a year in extra income.

Other ethnic Georgian villagers in South Ossetia had relied on similar earnings before the war. But they are only able to grow food for their own consumption on the small garden plots in the IDP settlements.

With Georgia's official unemployment rate hovering around 14 percent for years, many have little prospect of earning money from other work. With each unemployed IDP relying on a monthly support payment of about $20 from the government, poverty is the norm.

As a doctor, however, Chovelidze was able to find employment more easily than the thousands of residents in Georgia’s "IDP villages" or other allotted housing.

Life at the Tserovani IDP settlement, some 25 kilometers from Tbilisi, in August 2018

Chovelidze works twice a week at a hospital in Tbilisi and the rest of the week at a medical clinic in the Tserovani IDP settlement about 25 kilometers away.

That clinic is still in a temporary building. But the 7,000 residents of the Tserovani IDP settlement -- including some of Chovelildze’s former colleagues and neighbors -- have named it "Kurta Hospital" in remembrance of the village that was destroyed in the war.

"For me, it’s very important that I still work in a place that carries the name of Kurta Hospital and work with the friends and people I used to know," Chovelidze told RFE/RL. "I’m happy to take care of the people from the place where I used to live."

Hope vs. 'Creeping Annexation'

Moscow recognized the independence of the Russian-backed separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in August 2008, shortly after the brief war. But the vast majority of the international community rejects the de facto government's legitimacy and supports Tbilisi’s insistence that the regions are Russian-occupied territory firmly within Georgia’s borders.

Nunu Chovelidze, her children, and her grandchildren have lived in this former casino in Tbilisi for the last nine years.

Russian soldiers have attempted on numerous occasions over the past decade to seize more Georgian territory by moving the markers of South Ossetia’s administrative boundary, erecting a barbed-wire fence hundreds of meters beyond the de facto border and later moving portions of that fence even deeper into Georgian territory.

The European Union continues to express "full support of Georgia’s territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders," referring to the Russian policy of "borderization" as a "creeping form of territorial annexation."

But lawsuits against Russia at the European Court of Human Rights, seeking compensation for Chovelidze and other displaced ethnic Georgians who lost all their property in South Ossetia, remain unresolved.

Legal proceedings at the International Criminal Court also are in the preliminary stages.

All of that notwithstanding, Chovelidze and other ethnic Georgia IDPs say that 10 years on they still have not lost hope that they will one day be able to return to where their homes once stood in South Ossetia.

Written by Ron Synovitz with reporting from Tbilisi and the Tserovani IDP settlement by Eka Kevanishvili