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Lana Bliadze – double exposure

Activists Fight Against Russian Borderization in Georgia

In the shadows of Russia’s occupation, a thriving nursing home becomes a symbol of hope.

Words: Manon Fuchs
Pictures: Lana Bliadze and Khatuna Lapachi
Date:

The separation line between Georgia and South Ossetia is visible from the patio of the Khurvaleti “Home Without Borders,” one of just ten nursing homes in Georgia. During warm summer afternoons, the senior residents enjoy the sunshine peeking through the lush garden. They gaze straight ahead to the grim realities of the occupation unfolding just 200 meters ahead

On the left-hand side of the opposing mountain range is a cemetery controlled by the village’s most prolific agent of death — the Russian occupying forces. On the right-hand side is a green plaque that reads “The Republic of South Ossetia” in Cyrillic lettering.  

The August 2008 war ended in a matter of five days, but the continued presence of Russian soldiers casts gloom over villages like Khurvaleti. 

“You won’t see anyone who lives near the occupation line smiling,” says Luda Salia, the founder of Home Without Borders. “Everyone has a broken, pitiful face.” 

Salia’s hatred for Russia runs deep. The Kremlin’s meddling in the 1992 Abkhazia civil war led to a drastic escalation in human rights abuses that destabilized the region and forced Salia to leave Sokhumi behind. While in exile, Salia married her husband in Khurvaleti, a village located just outside South Ossetia in the Tskhinvali region.  

Luda Salia talking about Abkhazia. Khurvaleti. Georgia. 2023
Luda Salia is a refugee originally from Abkhazia and the founder of Khurvaleti’s nursing home, Home without Borders. Photo by Lana Bliadze.

Some years later, Russian tanks returned to Georgia. The August 2008 war followed a script reminiscent of President Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric on Ukraine — the Kremlin accused the Georgian government of committing genocide to justify a military intervention in support of South Ossetian separatists. Roughly 150,000 refugees were displaced in the immediate aftermath of the August war, and that number has since more than doubled

Places like the vibrant Home Without Borders are crucial in preventing Russian forces from further encroaching on Georgian territory.

The dangerous presence of Russian soldiers forced those living along the periphery of the newly occupied territory, like Salia, to flee Khurvaleti. After the initial years of chaos subsided in the Tskhinvali region, Salia returned to Khurvaleti in 2015. With the financial support of the US government, she transformed the abandoned property into one of Georgia’s most well-regarded nursing homes. Today, 17 elderly residents grace the home with their presence.  

It can take several months for residents, many of whom are survivors of sexual and physical violence with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, to begin to heal from prior traumas. Natia, Salia’s daughter and a resident surgeon based in Tbilisi recalls one such transformation. “In the beginning, she only knew how to laugh or cry,” she remarks of a sprightly woman clad head to toe in a bright green tracksuit.  

Luda Salia hugs one of the member of shelter. Khurvaleti. Georgia. 2023
Salia is a maternal figure to many of the home’s residents. These tender and affectionate moments highlight the joy that Home without Borders has rekindled for residents who suffered years of abuse. Photo by Lana Bliadze.
“Expressing Protest is Our Extreme Measure” 

Although joy is scarce in Khurvaleti, its abundance is felt in every corner of the nursing home. But Salia makes no secret of her contempt for the nearby Russian soldiers. “We cannot take up arms again.” 

The 2008 war is seared in the minds of many Georgians, including Salia. “Expressing protest is our extreme measure.” When she’s not taunting the “pigs” to “dig Putin a grave,” Salia’s marching up to the barbed wire fence with a pair of scissors in hand. Thanks to her bravery, a piece of the fence was displayed at an exhibition in the European Parliament. 

Since 2009, Russian border guards have stolen an estimated 53 square kilometers of territory by maneuvering the barbed wire fence further into villages surrounding South Ossetia. Due to the unpredictable expansion of the fence, families frequently wake up to find their farmland or gardens on the other side of the separation line.  

Occupational barbed wire. Khurvaleti. Georgia. 2023
A jagged barbed wire fence demarcates the division between Georgia and the occupied region of South Ossetia. During waves of borderization, Russian forces forcibly relocate the fence by several meters into Georgian land, cleaving through gardens and farmland indispensable for the survival of families. Photo by Khatuna Lapachi.

In 2011, the process of covert territorial theft known as borderization incorporated the installation of cameras, motion sensors, watch towers, and far-reaching lights that mimic conditions in a prison camp. The surveillance technology adds to an atmosphere of terror and paranoia causing villages to empty out over time.  

Places like the vibrant Home Without Borders are crucial in preventing Russian forces from further encroaching on Georgian territory. By employing members of the local community, many of whom are refugees, the home keeps several of the remaining families rooted in the village. But this doesn’t mean living in Khurvaleti comes without risk. 

In 2022, Russian soldiers arrested 44 individuals for allegedly trespassing the border. The frequently evolving separation line means that on one day, individuals find themselves in Georgian territory, and the next, they have inadvertently trespassed into South Ossetia.  

The state service and other organizations regulating incidences along the separation line use the term detention, but many affected villagers see these encounters as kidnappings. Natia remembers a devastating moment three years ago when a border guard kidnapped the nursing home’s cook. 

“An older man was lying on the ground, and when she came across him to see if he needed help, he jumped up and took her.” Once released from captivity, the cook suffered a severe stroke and left for Europe. 

The shelter of the elderly in  Khurvaleti, Georgia. 2023
At the shelter. Photo by Khatuna Lapachi.

It is hard enough to lead a silent life in Khurvaleti. Salia goes a step further by taking the border guards head on.  

As she recalls some of her most exhilarating run-ins, Salia bursts into laughter. “On August 8, I went directly to the barbed wire and hung a photo of Putin and a flag.” Accompanying the photo was an infamous insult for the war-hungry leader “Putin Khuylo,” which translates to “Putin is a dickhead.” Much to Salia’s glee, the bewildered soldiers left the photo hanging on the fence for fear of returning the sacrilegious slogan to the military base. 

Russian Influence in Georgia 

Those like Salia push the limits of their bravery because there is no other alternative. “We were never encouraged or supported by state structures, as if nothing had happened,” she exclaims. “‘Do you want war?’ That’s what they tell us, ‘shut up!’”  

Although the Georgian State Security Service monitors and reports instances of borderization, Russian border guards have so far pushed the fence into Georgia without facing any tangible repercussions. If Georgian officers were to confront Russian forces, they could provoke an escalation to violence that risks consuming Georgia in yet another devastating war.  

However, this notion of strategic neutrality is undermined by the ruling Georgian Dream party’s recent actions, which demonstrate an alignment with Russian values. This past spring, Georgian Dream proposed two foreign agent bills with striking similarities to the foreign agent law in Russia. Like in Russia, the proposed bills would have alienated and destroyed Georgia’s civil society. Thousands hit the streets of Tbilisi to demonstrate their discontent not just with the bills, but also with Russian influence in their country.  

Georgian people against the Russian law in Georgia. Tbilisi. 2023
Thousands poured into Liberty Square to protest the so-called Russian bills that promised to destroy Georgian civil society. Swarming the parliament, these five days of protest saw an incredible display of violence from Georgian law enforcement who used water cannons to reign in the enraged crowds. Photo by Lana Bliadze.

Whether or not the government seriously intends to avoid another war, the Georgian Dream party’s inconsistent messaging demonstrates an indifference to communities living under the shadow of Russian occupation. With a population of just 3.7 million, the Georgian people face a constant fight against Russian influence; be that the inflow of hundreds of thousands of Russian migrants, or the territorial theft that has upended countless lives along the perilous separation line.  

“The Key to Georgia’s Victory Lies in Ukraine” 

Ahead of the October 2024 parliamentary elections, a change in leadership is unlikely given the absence of a formidable opposition party and a ruling party accused of election malpractice. Yet, roughly 1000 kilometers from Georgia’s shores, a glimmer of hope dances on the horizon.  

Ever since Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine in February 2022, borderization has lulled to a stop.  

Salia rejoices when Russian helicopters touch down on the mountainside to remove equipment from the military base. “Ukraine’s victory is Georgia’s victory! The key to Georgia’s victory lies in Ukraine, and that is why I am waving the Ukrainian flag here to the Russians.” 

Just past the entrance of the nursing home, a Ukrainian, EU, and Georgian flag are hoisted in the garden. At odd moments of the day, Salia stands there and glares at the opposing mountainside through a pair of binoculars.  

A watchful eye looms from beyond the cemetery.  

The future remains uncertain for Home Without Borders and its residents. But the home’s survival is a reminder that they will not heed Russia’s intention to crush their spirits.  

For now, the sanctuary’s protector continues her watch.  

Lana Bliadze – Luda Salia in her new house, which she wants to turn into a second, bigger shelter
A short drive from the nursing home, Salia hopes to transform this second property into a nursing home just for elderly residents with Alzheimer’s. Acquiring the necessary funding and manpower to build the home is a significant challenge, as the Georgian government is quick to send residents Salia’s way without supporting the construction of nursing homes. Photo by Lana Bliadze.

Lana Bliadze and Khatuna Lapachi are photographers with the photo agency Lazika Images. Over the last two years, the agency’s focus has been to document the occupation through the people and places affected by the war and relations with Russia.

Manon Fuchs

Manon Fuchs is a senior at Duke University studying Public Policy and a Junior Research Analyst at the US Institute of Peace’s Center for Russia and Europe.

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