Land of abandoned villages

Stories from the deserted Truso Gorge, where Ossetians and Georgians once lived together
The Truso gorge is located between the Caucasus and Khokh ranges in the Kazbegi region of Georgia, and borders the Russian autonomous republic of North Ossetia to the north.

According to a 2014 population census of Georgia, 29 people lived in nineteen villages of the valley. Even these remained in the village only seasonally, leaving with the advent of winter.

Winters in Truso are snowy and severe. Snow falls continually until the end of autumn, and the valley is closed for several months. Many villages still lack electricity, gas and roads. Even in summer some villages can be reached only on horseback.

In summer, shepherds from the Kazbegi region come to the valley bringing sheep and cattle to graze on the lush alpine meadows.

The villages were once inhabited mainly by ethnic Ossetians. Truso Gorge is the home of 65 Ossetian families. Ossetian shrines, family towers and graves have been preserved there.

The villages here have two names, in Georgian and Ossetian.

Politics has significantly influenced this place remote from civilisation, where there is not even electricity and communications. It directly touched these communities, putting people at the center of the conflict. The result was the reinforcement of stereotypes in both communities. In the Ossetian community of Truso, which no longer lives in the gorge, they believe that their former countrymen want to destroy their heritage, while in the Georgian community they believe that their former Ossetian neighbors want to appropriate the land.

But those whose roots here go back centuries remember their former life with fondness and can’t remember anything evil about their neighbours. They say that there were no conflicts and all war shared; families were even mixed.

On the map, the location of the Truso Gorge: between the Upper Lars checkpoint on the Russian-Georgian border, the famous Kazbeg peak and the famous Georgian ski resort Gudauri
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s the Georgian-Ossetian ethno-territorial conflict began in Georgia which escalated into armed clashes in 1990-1992. A mass exodus of Ossetians from the valley began with a surge of nationalist sentiment in Georgia.

"The Georgian-Ossetian conflict began in the ‘90s. Ossetians left not only the valley, but all of Georgia ⁠— Kvemo Kartli, the entire Caspian region, the Borjomi Gorge, Bakuriani, Mitarbi, Kakheti. Ossetian families had lived there historically and they were abandoned. It was a reaction to Georgian nationalism. Georgian nationalists, who at that time were called "informals", fought over the homes of ethnic Ossetians. A systematic ethnic cleansing of Ossetians began which then turned against the Georgian when in 2008 in South Ossetia. First the Georgians devastated the Ossetian villages, then the Ossetians devastated the Georgian villages,” Paata Zakareishvili, a Georgian conflict expert, says.

The second wave of migration from the Truso Gorge occurred in 2006 after the aggravation of relations between Georgia and Russia and the closure of the Upper Lars border crossing between the two countries.

Two years later in 2008 a large-scale Russian-Georgian war broke out around South Ossetia. The few Ossetian families that remained finally left the gorge.

After the August 2008 war the Georgian authorities tightened access to the gorge, then considered a border zone. But the Ossetians still did not cut off ties with Truso. They tried to come in the summer, looked after their homes, visited graves and observed religious holidays here. Truso is considered a holy place with many Ossetian shrines.

But over the years crossing the border and entering the gorge has become still more difficult and today you need a special pass to get here. Trusov Ossetians say that Georgia refuses to let many of them in without explanation. They believe that this is Tbilisi's unspoken position: to close the Trusovskoye Gorge from the Ossetians and erase their traces there.

Tbilisi will not confirm this, maintaining that the gorge is a border zone and therefore different rules apply there. Not only ethnic Ossetians with Russian citizenship, but also ethnic Georgians and citizens of Georgia need a pass to enter the gorge.

Tbilisi is also annoyed by Truso being considered Ossetian land which will return to Ossetia at some point. Similar statements have been repeatedly made by officials of North and South Ossetia.

For many Ossetians from Truso, paths to their homes and ancestral graves have been blocked. For years they have not been able to visit their native villages, against which they continue to protest.

Tbilisi and Vladikavkaz journalists from JAMnews worked together on this material. Journalists from Tbilisi went to the Truso Gorge to see these empty villages with their own eyes. Vladikavkaz colleagues found Ossetians from the Truso Gorge who now live on the Russian side in order to hear and record their stories.
It takes less than three hours by car to reach the gorge from Tbilisi.

The length of the road in the gorge itself is 31km. There are captivating landscapes all around ⁠— mountains, abandoned villages, and even the Terek river, the main artery of the North Caucasus which flows between Georgia and Russia, originates here.

Orange-tinted mountains merge with medieval towers and the ruins of stone fences. Ancient basilicas and houses where life once throve ⁠— the effect is one of a precisely-filmed historical drama.
Story one::
In the part of Truso where we were, we met only two residents, and just one lives in the valley permanently. This is 68-year-old Sima Bedikhova, an Ossetian born and raised in Truso. Sima is the only inhabitant of Okrokana village.

During Sima's childhood many Ossetian families lived in the village. But over the years everyone left for the cities, above all Vladikavkaz.
”Previously we had no problems in the village. We planted potatoes, raised chickens, pigs, cows, sheep; everything was like in an ordinary village. We lived together and helped each other. And now everyone's gone. Some have died and I will never see them again. Young people work in the city, so they no longer need the countryside.”
Story two::
The village of Ketrisi, or as the Ossetians call it Chetyrs, is located on the banks of the Terek. According to the Georgian census it was abandoned as early as 2002.

The road to the village of Ketrisi passes through the ruins; on both sides of the road there are dilapidated, abandoned houses. On the site of the old settlement a tower over 14 meters high, built of slabs of various sizes and rough-hewn stone, has been preserved.

Half a kilometer away at the foot of the mountain there are bicarbonate calcium springs, which the locals call “Vedzinsky acidic waters”.

We were in the village at the end of September and the only person we met here was Tamaz Maisuradze. But he too will soon leave the valley.

Tamaz, 67, is a seasonal resident of the Truso Gorge. He lives in Kazbegi, and as soon as it gets warmer and the roads open, he goes up to Truso with his family and cattle. Here he has a small cafe for tourists, who are not uncommon in summer.

Tamaz remembers well the Ossetian families who lived here:
When we highland Georgians came to the village, the Ossetians immediately invited us to their homes. This is how we lived, respecting each other.

Atynaegtae. View from Vladikavkaz

Every year in the last week of July, Ossetians who come from the Truso valley celebrate a big religious holiday - Atynaegtae.

Atynaegtae is an agricultural deity in Ossetian mythology. Traditionally on this day relatives gather together in their ancestral homes in the village. Wherever Ossetians from Truso live, on this day they try to return to their roots in the valley.

Year after year Ossetians who left Truso returned to the valley in July. However, in recent years they have not been able to perform this ritual; owing to the Russian-Georgian and Georgian-Ossetian conflicts, Georgia has significantly restricted movement in the border zone.

For several years Tbilisi banned entry to Truso altogether. Now you can enter the gorge, though, as already mentioned, with special permission. But in Vladikavkaz we were told that the Georgian side only allows the elderly, women and children to enter the gorge. The Georgian government still forbids men from entering the valley.

Georgia also has a "black list" of those forbidden to be in the valley. As they say in Vladikavkaz, most Ossetians from Truso are on this list.

Ossetians from Truso say that in order to get to the valley for the holidays, they make a list in advance and send it to the representative office of the Russian Foreign Ministry in Vladikavkaz. Then the necessary procedures are carried out through the mediation of the Swiss Embassy, ​​after which Tbilisi issues an entry permit.

Dates, times and periods of stay in the valley are strictly defined and agreed upon.

This method was first tested in 2021. At that time, about 20 people were able to reach their homeland.

A group of Ossetians was formed for the trip to Truso this year as well. Permission was obtained, but the trip coincided with such bad weather that the group were forced to turn back.

“This is our homeland, but due to political and economic problems, it is now deserted. The Georgian authorities do not allow us to return there, although we have always had mutual understanding with the local Georgians,” says Tamerlan, an Ossetian who now lives in Vladikavkaz. His name is included in the "black list" by Georgia, and he is banned from entering Georgia. Tamerlan says he has no idea why and in what way he poses a threat to Georgia.

Another problem that the Truto Ossetians living in Vladikavkaz pay attention to is the “erasing of Ossetian culture in villages and shrines”:
Ossetian villages are being renamed. There no one mentions that these are Ossetian villages, no one talks about Ossetians. People take our houses. For example, Georgians are living in Ossetian houses in the village of Chetyr,” another Ossetian from Truso, who also lives now in Vladikavkaz, tells us.
According to him, the Ossetian shrines remaining in the valley are threatened with destruction:
По его словам, оставшимся в долине осетинским святыням грозит уничтожение:

“In recent years, the Georgian Orthodox Church has been building monasteries and churches in these valleys. We fear that our shrines will be destroyed and Ossetian historical and cultural heritage will be forgotten. In the village of Abana (Georgian name Abano, JAMnews) a new monastery is already under construction. Now there are Georgian priests, they are receiving tourists. Georgians know that no one will let Ossetians go there, so they have built a camp for tourists. They make money from tourists. Also, next to Ossetian family burial towers Georgians have built a nunnery without permission.”

In recent years, the issue of Truso has generated a protest movement, "Daryal", whose activists are mainly ethnic Ossetians who left the Truso Gorge. This organization demands the return of "their lands and homes", holds conferences, and works to shape public opinion.

In 2009, Daryal publicly requested that the status of the Kazbegi region be reviewed.

At the Geneva talks in March 2016, the head of the South Ossetian delegation, Murat Dzhioev, raised the topic of Truso. He expressed the need to preserve the remaining cultural monuments on the territory of Georgia. "I invite an international commission to the Truso Gorge, which was illegally assigned to Georgia by the Soviet Union," Dzhioev said at the time. He opined that the issue of the return of the Ossetian territories will always be on the agenda until it is resolved to the satisfaction of Ossetians. Dzhioev said that at present there is no Ossetian population in Truso, and this has happened only because Georgia forced them to leave their homeland.
View from Tbilisi

The Ossetian information campaign about the Truso Gorge in Tbilisi is considered part of Russia’s ideological war, and the activities of the Daryal movement were planned from Moscow.

Tbilisi is confident that Moscow is more interested in the Truso Gorge than North Ossetia, since Truso is located in a strategic location - on the Georgian Military Highway. To control this gorge means to control a strategically important part of Georgia.

Georgian experts also believe that Russia is using this topic to influence Georgia, and the populist statements of Ossetian politicians about “returning” the Truso Gorge and “joining it to a single Ossetia” are Moscow’s message to Tbilisi: we still have leverage against you.

However, according to Paata Zakareishvili, Tbilisi should have a different reaction to Moscow's intimidation:

"The Georgian security service is doing everything possible to prevent people of other nationalities who may have absolutely legitimate claims to return and live in their homeland. This is an immoral policy. If Russia wants to create problems in the Caucasus, it can easily create these problems on the territory of Georgia and without Truso. They can just come up with a problem. For example, the Lugar laboratory can be declared a problem, which they have done. But are we a state or not? Or will we be afraid of a particular family - a man, a woman, a child who comes to Georgia?"

Although today Truso is a deserted and uninhabited place, the gorge has great tourism potential. Ossetians probably also see the potential.

In recent years tourism has been developing well in Truso. Family hotels and other tourist facilities will soon become a cost-effective business. In 2018, near the gorge, in the Almasiani-Kobi section, a new four-kilometer ski run was launched, hinting at revival of nearby villages. The cable car connects with Gudauri, and because the snow on the northern slope melts late, it will be possible to ski on this section even in June.

Story three::

Alla (name changed) is an Ossetian by nationality, who now lives in Vladikavkaz, but comes from the Truso valley. Her parents were born and raised in the village of Resh (Georgian name Resi, JAMnews) in the Truso Gorge. This is where her whole family comes from.

In the Georgian Wikipedia, this village, like Ketrisi and many other villages of the Truso Gorge, is now officially referred to as "nasoplari", that is, the place where the village used to be. Not a single person lives there. The village was once completely Ossetian. Since the Ossetians left, it has been empty. It is located in the border zone and it is impossible to get there without a pass.

Alla's parents are no longer alive, but Alla knows that their house, built by her father's grandfather, still stands at the foot of impregnable rocks. The ancestral tower of her family is also located there.

She spent every summer in her childhood in this village. Alla remembers that every year, as soon as summer came, her parents would leave with their cattle for Truso and stay there until autumn.
I had a very warm childhood. When I close my eyes I remember our yard. As a child I really enjoyed running around our yard. The house was located on the sunny side, and our veranda was flooded with sunlight. Every summer my mother did renovations. She dyed things and whitewashed. She bought silk wallpapers, chose new curtains.
Alla has not been in her home in many years.

According to Alla, the Georgian government carefully controls all Ossetian villages, and Ossetians are no longer comfortable coming there.

“Before, a huge company of people from the gorge gathered here for us, and we went there for the holidays. The last time we went there, a patrol car arrived in the village and monitored us the whole time. They came and asked questions. They took our passports, recorded the information. On the way back, everyone who was in the group had their passport stamped at the checkpoint, prohibiting future entry. This was not explained at all. They didn't explain anything."

In the photo, Ossetians from the Truso Gorge
Vladikavkaz residents say that Ossetians from the Truso Gorge and Kobi (neighboring it) are closely interrogated and watched with suspicion on the border with Georgia.

“In general, all representatives of surnames originating from the Kobi and Truso gorges are under suspicion. If a person entering Georgia has a surname from these regions, then he is necessarily forced to go through the office of a special service officer at the Dariali checkpoint. He interrogates you, but is not rude. And we can't find fault with it, because it's customs. This is another state, and they have the right to interrogate you. They ask you: are you from the Truso Gorge? Do you want to go back there?", Alla says.

“How can I explain to them that when I get there, these are different feelings,” she continues, “this is the beginning of the path to home. Real home. As soon as you cross Basilæn, the turn from Kob to the Truso Gorge is unforgettable.

All residents of the nearby villages came there in early September. They organized mass dances, a feast. It draws you there. Everyone who is no longer there, it feels as if they are there with you. And it's like my dad is in that house. It's all yours, but you can't own it."

Video/Photo: David Pipia

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