A colleague once told me that “displacement is the history of the Caucasus”.
Truly delving into this question is a research project for another day. But for the moment, it is reasonable to say that this statement is true at least for the recent history of the South Caucasus: a total of almost
(IDPs and refugees) have been forced from their homes in the region over the past several decades. And what’s more, this is a history that’s still playing out before our eyes. The images shown here were taken while hiking in Truso Gorge. The valley was previously home to ethnic Ossetians. ‘Previously’ because the valley is no longer inhabited by Ossetians: while it has been difficult to find any documentary information providing more details, the consensus I’ve encountered in conversations with both locals and foreign academics in Georgia is that the valley’s former residents were ‘evacuated’ by the Russian army after the Russo-Georgian ‘Five-Day’ War in 2008. But, while abandoned, the valley is by no means uninhabited.
On the one hand, there is a Georgian Orthodox nunnery in the valley – some parts of the buildings are clearly quite old, other parts – quite new, or at the very least renovated. And a much larger monastery is currently being built nearby. All of this has made the valley a site of growing popularity for religious tourism.And it seems possible that this religious development is a geopolitical move meant to counter
territorial claims raised
by former South-Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity on the basis of the valley being ‘native Ossetian land’ – Georgia’s highly-religious population is much less likely to tolerate Ossetian government claims to church land.
But I also met some other new residents of the valley while hiking there: ethnic Azerbaijanis, from the south-east of Georgia. I even had the opportunity to sit down and have tea with some of them – truly a picture-perfectfamily: mother, father, daughter, and son. While our conversation was by no means perfectly clear (imagine, an Azerbaijani and two Americans talking in Georgian), we managed to communicate with the father of the family. He explained that they are from south-eastern Georgia, where they rent a house, but he comes here to pasture livestock in the summer, because here the grass is better. He told how he herds the livestock north in the late spring, on foot, and his wife and children follow later, by car. And while it wasn’t clear whether they were renting the house or squatting, what was clear is that they had, to some extent, made a home here – there were clear signs of upkeep and improvement not visible on the surrounding abandoned homes.
This meeting got me thinking about the Caucasus region’s myriad displacements, many of them the result of ongoing, frozen conflicts, and about the complexities of resolving these issues. Perhaps the most common way of thinking about these issues in the context of the Caucasus is from an ethno-national perspective.
But we can, and we should, also think about these issues from a personal perspective, based on the emotional connection and memory associated with a place. In conversations with friends and acquaintances displaced by the recent wars of the South Caucasus, I have listened to fond memories of childhood homes, seen the longing associated with those places, and seen the pain caused by their current inaccessibility. And it would seem absurd to deny someone’s right to return to the place they truly consider ‘home’ – where they lived their formative years, where they raised families, and where they buried relatives.
But even if the geopolitical conflicts were resolved, even if we got rid of all the arguments about what plots of land ‘belong to’ or are the ‘ancient homeland’ of a particular ethno-national group, would it be possible to resolve land disputes even along this simple principle of returning people home?
In some cases, the answer seems to be ‘yes’ – a simple search on Google Maps shows that many of the villages in South Ossetia that were cleared of their Georgian residents in the 2008 war are still sitting uninhabited. I have no doubt that many of the former residents of these villages would readily go back, even despite the fact that many of their houses are now sitting roofless and overgrown with weeds. (And I have equally little doubt about the inhumanity of not allowing them to do so).
In other cases, things would clearly be much more complex – even on the principle outlined above, of ‘returning people home’, how would you decide who has the right to stay, and who needs to leave? If the original Ossetian residents of Truso Valley were able to return, who would have the ‘right’ to live in the houses they were forced to abandon – the people who built the house, or those who maintained and improved it, who called it ‘home’ in their absence?
Truso is surely not an isolated case. These questions can likely be applied to similar situations throughout the South Caucasus – in Sukhumi, in Tskhinvali, in Khankendi/Stepanakert, and in other villages and towns throughout Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Though exact numbers vary, for multiple reasons, the people still displaced in the South Caucasus today number in the hundreds of thousands –
8,400 in Armenia
(and this number is likely so low only
because of outward emigration and acceptance of the impossibility of return
), at least
564,200 IDPs and 11,000 refugees
in Azerbaijan (the government estimates
), and somewhere around 240,000 IDPs in Georgia (
IDPs within South Ossetia. Many of these people would surely return home if given the chance. And if they did so, how would the questions posed above be resolved?
Of course, one might argue that there’s no pressing need for to answer such questions, because this is a thought experiment – the geopolitical conflicts remain, the administrative boundary lines and borders remain impassable, the claims of whole swaths of land as the rightful home of a single ethnic group remain, and none of the displaced people of the Caucasus are likely to be able to return home anytime soon.
And yet, it is a worthwhile thought experiment, because it forces us to consider: how often this has happened in the history of the Caucasus – how often has a conflict has pushed people from their homes. And how many times has someone else moved into those abandoned homes, not with ill intent, but because of economic necessity, or because of being displaced from their own homes. And how many times has this laid the basis for lasting conflict. In short, how often has even the personal, the intimate history of the Caucasus taken the form of displacement?
If you’re interested in reading some work by someone who studies and writes about refugee crises and the experience of displacement in a professional capacity, please check out the work of
Elizabeth Cullen Dunn
This article reflects the opinion of the author and as such may not coincide with that of Meydan TV.
Ryan Wyeth is a writer and a geographer who has been living in Georgia on and off for the past 5 years while performing academic research. His recently-completed master’s thesis addressed the topic of water resources management in Georgia. Aside from this, he has worked in numerous fields, including translation, social research and grant writing. In his spare time, he has recently been working with his brother to develop a photoblog on their lives overseas,
which you can check out here.