By Daro Sulakauri
KHURVALETI, Georgia (Reuters) - For displaced villagers living near the border of Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia, the war in Ukraine has brought back terrifying memories of Russian bombardments.
"I know what it feels like hiding in the basement while your village is being bombed. I know that horrible feeling of fear," said Mari Otinashvili, whose family fled the shelling of her village when she was a 13-year-old in 2008.
After a ceasefire ended that five-day war, Russia recognised South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia, as independent states and garrisoned troops there.
In the years since, Russian forces and the separatists they back have erected barbed wire fences along the Administrative Boundary Line, the de facto limit of South Ossetia. The previously unmarked line between two regions of Georgia feels increasingly like an international border.
Barbed wire now runs through gardens in the village of Khurvaleti, and others like it, leaving family members unable to reach relatives on the other side, cut off from their crops and livelihoods.
Villagers say they are frequently detained, accused of straying into South Ossetia, which Georgia and most other nations do not consider to be a separate country.
Otinashvili, who lives in a settlement on the edge of Khurvaleti for families displaced from the breakaway region, fears Russia will seek to take more territory or formally annex the breakaway region, following Moscow's moves to incorporate parts of eastern and southern Ukraine into the Russian federation.
A couple of days after Russia's Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow calls a special military operation, soldiers that Otinashvili said were Russians began moving signs forbidding Georgians to cross.
They shone a powerful light towards her settlement, she said.
"I was so scared I could not stop crying and was shaking for two days. I thought again the war started," Otinashvili said.
Authorities in South Ossetia planned to hold a so-called referendum in July on whether to become part of Russia, but later suspended the consultation. Georgia has called any such plan to join Russia unacceptable.
Already, in 2017, an agreement with Russia in effect incorporated the armed forces of South Ossetia into Russia's military command structure. There are also Russian troops stationed in the region. South Ossetia is only recognized as independent from Georgia by a small handful of countries including Russia.
The Kremlin and leadership in South Ossetia did not respond to requests for comment for this story. Georgia's government did not respond to a request for comment.
Like Georgia, Ukraine is a former Soviet state bordering Russia and the Black Sea.
Moscow in September proclaimed its annexation of four partially occupied regions in Ukraine after the staging of what it called referendums. The United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly condemned what it called the "attempted illegal annexation."
Russia previously annexed Ukraine's Crimea region in 2014.
Responsibility for the war in Georgia is disputed. An EU-backed report concluded in 2009 that it was started by Georgia's armed forces but that Moscow's response went beyond reasonable limits and violated international law.
The war was also over Abkhazia - another region internationally recognised as part of Georgia but under the control of Russian-backed separatists. Some 288,000 Georgians remain internally displaced by the war and previous secessionist conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
LIFE AND DEATH ON THE LINE
Life for residents who fled and those who live near the administrative line has been unsettled ever since the war there 14 years ago, with rights groups and the Council of Europe documenting restrictions on freedom of movement, illegal detentions and discrimination against ethnic Georgian citizens among other issues.
Maia Otinashvili, who is unrelated to Mari Otinashvili, says she was walking near Khurvaleti when Russia-backed militants kidnapped her in 2018, pulling her over a barbed-wire fence and into Russia-controlled territory in South Ossetia, where they imprisoned her.
She was then accused of crossing the boundary illegally. She denied the accusation but was sentenced that year by a South Ossetian court to eight months in jail. She was freed after 11 days following an outcry in Georgia.
"They knocked me to the ground and hit me in the back," Otinashvili, 41, told Reuters.
Reports of such detentions are common and tracked by Georgian authorities and rights groups. Earlier in November three residents were detained in Gori municipality, according to Georgia's State Security Service, which says the detentions are intended to scare residents.
Villagers describe the detentions as kidnappings, saying Russian or Russian-backed South Ossetian forces constantly push the dividing line forward, erecting barriers, barbed wire fences and signs to turn it into a hard border.
"Anti-occupation" activist David Katsarava has taken to patrolling parts of the line, accusing the Georgian government as well as a civilian European Union monitoring mission of not doing enough to resist what he sees as Russian encroachment and illegal detentions.
Katsarava, who set up a group called Power is in Unity, hands out GPS trackers to shepherds and other residents to locate them rapidly if they run into trouble on the frontier so they can refute claims they have flouted it.
He says Georgia has already lost tracts of land beyond the territory it initially lost control of.
"The creeping occupation will not stop. It can be stopped only when you resist it and when you are constantly close," he said in an interview. "The Russians must see that we are getting as close as possible to the occupation line."
Russia's foreign ministry and South Ossetia's de facto authorities did not respond to Reuters requests for comment about the allegations of wrongful detentions, or the hardening and movement of the administrative line.
Georgian citizen Genadi Bestaevi was detained in 2019 and held in South Ossetia for two years before he had a stroke in custody and was returned to Georgia, international observers reported. He died three months later aged 53.
South Ossetian authorities said he had illegally crossed the border and accused him of drug smuggling.
His sister, Naira Mestavashvili, 63, said Russian-backed forces took Bestaevi from the bedroom of his house, which was located right next to the barbed wire dividing line. "My brother is the victim of the Russian occupation. I don’t know what happened to him or what they did to him in prison. He was a healthy man," said Mestavashvili. The family denies the accusation of smuggling.
The European Union called Bestaevi's death a "tragic illustration of the devastating consequences of the illegal actions of the de facto regime."
In Khurvaleti, Valia Valishvili, 88, is stranded on the side of the village controlled by the Russian-backed authorities.
"I am all alone. The guards forbid my family members to come into the occupied territory. If they do cross the border, they will be jailed," Valishvili said.
Valishvili said Russian forces had told her to leave her home but she refused, saying she had promised her late husband she would not abandon their home.
"They will take everything when I am gone: all my land that is Georgian," Valishvili said.
(Reporting by Daro Sulakauri; Additional reporting by Jake Cordell; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Daniel Flynn)