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The Human Toll in South Ossetia

house081409.JPGSo many people use conflict and its victims as political instruments, with little thought given to how these decisions, words, and rhetoric powerful impact the personal lives and families of thousands.  This has certainly been true in the Russia-Georgian war over South Ossetia, where ethnically diverse villages were scattered and intermingled like salt and pepper, rather than the clean division of borders we are often shown on the news maps.  This article in Time Magazine is commendable in that they take a look at the enormous human toll paid by families who had the misfortune to be located on the dividing line.

Izolde Bagayeva, 55, sits on a bench next to Fatima and talks about her family in Tbilisi. “When we talk on the phone, all we talk about is family. We never talk about politics because we don’t want to argue,” she says. “Just a few days ago I spoke to my aunt and she told me, ‘You know, we’re never going to see each other again.'” Bagayeva’s eyes well up with tears, but, like so many in South Ossetia, she feels the sacrifice is one worth making: “We want a better situation at the border, but we also want our own country. For us, there is no road back. We want our independence.” 

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), one of the fewNGOs still working in South Ossetia, has been trying to find a paththrough the minefield of identity politics to reunite families thathave been split by the war. “Right after the conflict there were lotsof requests from people seeking to be reunited with their families,”says Marina Tedeti, spokeswoman for the ICRC operating in SouthOssetia. Since the end of the war — and with the support of both theGeorgian and the South Ossetian governments — the organization hasbrought 320 people back together with their families through whatTedeti calls “a small but quite delicate” process. 

But the reunifications can be wrenching affairs in such a confusedatmosphere, as people come to realize that choosing between familymembers means having to choose whether to be Georgian or South Ossetian– in some cases, children find themselves forced to decide between oneparent or another. “We repeatedly and clearly explain that thisdecision is final — now and forever,” says Tedeti. “If they changetheir mind, they cannot come back.”