Covering South Ossetia Is Practically Impossible
- By Matthew Collin
- Oct. 27 2008 00:00
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The Russian soldiers at the checkpoint on the road to the disputed South Ossetian town of Akhalgori were casually waving through cars and buses full of locals. Journalists, however, weren't being allowed to pass.
"You need permission from South Ossetia," one soldier said.
Foreign reporters who want to get into South Ossetia these days need accreditation from Moscow, unless they sneak in. Obtaining such accreditation in Georgia is not possible. The Russians at the Akhalgori checkpoint weren't impressed by our pleas.
"You need permission from South Ossetia," the soldier repeated, this time with the hint of a smile.
Akhalgori was under Georgian administration before the war in August, but now the South Ossetian authorities are claiming it as theirs. The Russian forces are backing their claims by policing the approach road, despite the cease-fire agreement that requires them to pull back to their pre-war positions. Many of the Georgians who used to live in Akhalgori have left.
The Russian commander approached us. He was stocky, taciturn man with a livid scar running down his face, giving him a rather fearsome expression.
"What's the security situation like over there in Akhalgori?" we asked.
"Normal," he replied.
Our little interview seemed to have come to an end, so we drove back to Odzisi, the nearest village.
At the village shop, we met Tariel, a middle-aged engineer who lived in Akhalgori before the war. Gesturing in the direction of the Russians at their fortified post down the road, he accused them of protecting the militias who had seized what was previously Georgian-controlled territory. "This is Georgia," he declared, "but this no longer our life, it's life under their control."
The Western media has been accused of focusing too much on the war's impact on Georgia -- telling stories like this one, in other words -- while largely ignoring the destruction caused by the fighting inside South Ossetia. But most Western reporters are now only permitted to enter South Ossetia via the Russian border on Moscow-sponsored press trips, during which their freedom of movement is restricted. They travel in Russian armored vehicles -- for their protection, of course -- but the windows are so small that they can't really see how badly ethnic Georgian villages in the region were hit.
Foreign correspondents based in Georgia are still hoping that they will be allowed to return to South Ossetia to hear and see how ordinary people are surviving after the war. But for now at least, that seems unlikely to happen.
Matthew Collin is a journalist in Tbilisi.