MINELRES: Caucasus Reporting Service No. 403: An Ossetian Island in Eastern Georgia

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Sun Jul 29 07:37:08 2007

Original sender: Institute for War & Peace Reporting <editor@iwpr.net>



territory holds election in defiance of international criticism. By
Dmitry Avaliani, Karine Ohanian and Akhra Smyr in Nagorny Karabakh

IMAGES OF KARABAKH Photo reportage of the election in Nagorny Karabakh
by Anahit Hairapetian available at

KARABAKH DIARIES Three IWPR reporters -- a Karabakh Armenian, a Georgian
and an Abkhaz -- give their first-person impressions of life and
elections in Karabakh over the last week.

belonging to diverse faiths has survived the tribulations of ethnic
conflict. By Natia Kuprashvili in Kitaani, Georgia 

NORTH CAUCASUS WOMEN PLY SECRET TRADE Young women reveal how they go
abroad to earn money fleecing men at nightclubs. By Marina Marshenkulova
in Nalchik 




A small Ossetian community belonging to diverse faiths has survived the
tribulations of ethnic conflict. 

By Natia Kuprashvili in Kitaani, Georgia 

Tina Batsiashvili is making her weekly trek on foot along a road lined
with vineyards towards the village of Kitaani in eastern Georgia, where
she will attend her Christian group's regular meeting. 

"As there's no transport here, I have to walk ten kilometres to Kitaani
every Wednesday," said Batsiashvili, who goes to the village to attend
Baptist Bible readings.

Meanwhile Lela, who lives in Kitaani itself and who like Batsiashvili is
an ethnic Ossetian, sets aside her work and hurries to a Bible reading
session, although in her case it is a meeting of Jehovah's Witnesses. 

Another Kitaani resident, Zuri Khetashvili, has something to pray for,
too. He has heard a television weather forecast predicting hail over
Kakheti, this region of Georgia, and he puts his faith in an ancient
tree named Elia, which is a religious shrine for people in the village. 

"If I go to Elia, light a candle and ask God to spare us from the hail,
then not a single hailstone will fall in Kitaani, even if the rest of
Kakheti is covered in it," said Khetashvili, who will pray at the tree
alongside other Orthodox Christians who have retained some old pagan

The small village of Kitaani, with its 100 households, has two claims to
be different. It is Georgia's most multi-faith village, home to equal
numbers of Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses and followers of Orthodox
Christianity - with a dash of paganism thrown in.

Even more remarkably, the village's population consists entirely of
ethnic Ossetians, although they hold Georgian passports. Around half of
Kitaani's original inhabitants have managed to stay on here despite the
conflict over South Ossetia in 1991-92 which prompted thousands of
Ossetians to flee Georgia. 

"All the villages surrounding it are mostly populated by Georgians,"
said Khetashvili. "Kitaani is the only village where 100 Ossetian
families live."

Among the hundred inhabited houses stands about the same number of
abandoned, derelict buildings whose owners fled during the
Georgian-Ossetian conflict and have never come back.

Ethnic Ossetians have lived in the heart of Kakheti since they moved
down from the mountains a century ago. "Legend has it that our forebears
came here to participate in building an irrigation channel and then
decided to make their homes on its banks," said Khetashvili.

He said previous generations changed their Ossetian surnames to Georgian
ones, and few remember their original names.

When the South Ossetian conflict broke out after the collapse of the
Soviet Union, ethnic tensions surfaced between people in Kitaani and
their Georgian neighbours.  

"More than 15 years have passed, but I still can't forget what we went
through at that time," recalled Khetashvili, who was head of the
village's collective farm during the Georgian-Ossetian conflict. "We
were harassed everywhere and for no reason. They said, 'You are
Ossetians and you have to leave.' 

"They suspected us of being in contact with the Ossetians of Tskhinvali
[capital of South Ossetia]. But all the other Ossetians are so far from
here that I don't reckon Kitaani's residents have ever seen any
Ossetians except for each other."

Sociologist Temuri Kakhishvili said the villagers began to adopt new
faiths in the aftermath of the conflict. 

"After the Georgian-Ossetian conflict, this village was left to the
mercy of fate," he said. "They just allowed everything - education,
agriculture, healthcare and religion - develop any which way. That's why
there's such a great diversity of religions in Kitaani."

Georgians from neighbouring villages are reluctant to talk about the

"Those were difficult times," said Natela Gavashelashvili from the
nearby village of Chumlaki, who sells fruit on the road to Kitaani.
"Everyone felt bad. That absurd war caused problems for everyone. I have
never had anything against the Kitaani Ossetians; we get on with each
other perfectly well."

Khetashvili still represents his village but only within the
administration of Chumlaki. Kitaani has no local government structure of
its own, and day-to-day business is discussed at informal meetings held
in the open air. The villagers seat themselves around a bust of a Soviet
soldier, who looks such a natural part of the group that one cannot help
thinking that he will join in with the conversation at any moment.

There is agitated discussion of the rising tensions between the
government in Tbilisi and the de facto authorities in South Ossetia, who
have been living outside Georgian jurisdiction for a decade and a half. 

"The way they [the Georgian authorities] are behaving makes you think
they are going to start a war," said one of the villagers.

"You are wrong!" said another. "If that were the case, they wouldn't be
making all these efforts to support [Georgian-backed Ossetian leader
Dmitry] Sanakoyev - they would just attack Tskhinvali." 

The villagers said they feel "relatively safe" under Georgian president
Mikheil Saakashvili, but they worried that if conflict flares up, their
ethnicity will become an issue again.

"This is Misha's tractor, but I'm driving it now," said Koba
Dzepisashvili, talking about one of the farm vehicles the Georgian
president - to whom he referred by the familiar form Misha - has gifted
to villages across Kakheti.

"We twice wrested the tractor from the lion's jaws," said Dzepisashvili,
referring to attempts by local government in Gurjaani to take the
vehicle away from him.

However, the villagers insisted the attempt to take away their tractor
had nothing to do with their being Ossetian. "Misha's tractor" is mainly
used to plough peach orchards, which have replaced vineyards as the main
source of livelihoods here.

Over time, the villagers are losing their native language. 

"Georgian is the language we know best, since we speak Ossetian only at
home," said Khetashvili. "We've never studied in Ossetian in school. No
one has ever suggested that we do so, and somehow it's never occurred on
us to demand it, and we've always been taught in Georgian."

>From September, the village children will have to go to school in
Chumlaki, as the Kitaani school has been closed as part of a
rationalisation programme by the Georgian education ministry. 

Khetashvili is unhappy with the decision. "Other schools in Kakheti have
been closed too, which is why I don't think that our rights have been
particularly violated," he said. "I'm just afraid that we will have no
money to pay for the school bus, and our children will have to make a
journey of several kilometres on foot. 

"It's true that there are now only 20 schoolchildren in Kitaani, but
there are many more of them at kindergarten. This year alone, seven
children have been born in the village. Will they reopen our school when
the number of pupils increases?"

At the end of the day, the village assembly noted that the threat of a
hailstorm had passed, and there was general agreement that they had been
spared thanks to prayers said at the Elia tree. 

Natia Kuprashvili is Georgian editor of IWPR's newspaper, Panorama.


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