1A woman sits in her apartment that was badly damaged during fighting between ethnic Georgians and Ossetians in 1991.
The war has been called the most “pointless” of Georgia’s conflicts that broke out amid the collapse of the Soviet Union, but its consequences still loom large over the Caucasus.
2Young women on the streets of Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, in 1983.
During the communist era, South Ossetia was an autonomous oblast within Soviet Georgia.
3A Ossetian hunter photographed in the 1970s. Ossetians are an Iranian ethnic group who speak a language related to Persian.
In 1989, the South Ossetian population of around 98,500 was two-thirds ethnic Ossetian and about one-third ethnic Georgian. An observer noted both Georgians and Ossetians “are among the Soviet Union’s most sociable people. They like to drag strangers by the arm to the hospitality of good food and impassioned toasts about freedom.”
4Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia (center) takes part in a Tbilisi rally in 1989.
As Georgia pushed for secession from the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, Zviad Gamsakhurdia — an intellectual who pushed a hard-line, ethnic-nationalist message — maneuvered into power. He was elected Georgian president in 1991 with nearly 90 percent of the vote. A philosopher reacted to Gamsakhurdia’s “Georgia for the Georgians” platform by declaring: “if this is the choice of my people, then I’m against my people.”
5Children in Tskhinvali on January 1, 1991, pose with banners that include the declaration: “Ossetia was, is, and always will be Soviet!”
Many Georgians saw ethnic Ossetians as a traitorous fifth column while their country battled for freedom from the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, Ossetians felt sidelined by new laws that made Georgian the only official language of the country and obstructed Ossetian political representation in Tbilisi.
6A burnt-out bus in Tskhinvali after a convoy of vehicles filled with ethnic Georgians attempted to enter the city in November 1990.
After South Ossetia declared further autonomy from Tbilisi, Gamsakhurdia urged “all Georgians capable of bearing arms [to] join the march against Tskhinvali! The storming is to start on the morning of November 23!” A convoy of thousands of Georgian men was met with roadblocks and crowds of Ossetians. In the clashes that followed at least six people were killed.
7A Soviet soldier stands guard in Tskhinvali in December 1990.
Moscow sent a contingent of Interior Ministry troops to South Ossetia to “prevent clashes and bloodshed,” but Tbilisi protested the Soviet “meddling” and sent in their own fighters.
8Ossetian fighters on January 1, 1991, at a barricade set up in Tskhinvali.
A shooting war broke out on January 5 when ethnic Georgian fighters entered Tskhinvali. Urban warfare between the Georgians and Ossetians raged for weeks in the city before the Georgian troops withdrew.
9Ossetians in trenches on the outskirts of Tskhinvali. The men are using antiquated Russian Mosin-Nagant rifles first produced in the 1890s.
Throughout 1991 the patchwork of Georgian and Ossetian villages that made up South Ossetia was riven with interethnic murders and intimidation.
10Men survey a burned-down house in the ethnic Georgian village of Avnevi in South Ossetia in April 1991.
Much of the ethnic violence took place in isolated areas too dangerous for the few journalists who covered the conflict to reach.
11A female Ossetian fighter poses for a portrait.
A Russian woman married to a Georgian told Human Rights Watch she attempted to find help after the couple’s house was robbed but was told “you [cooked] this porridge, now eat it!”
12A masked Ossetian fighter
Kidnappings also became commonplace in the lawless region during the fighting.
13An Ossetian fighter wrapped up against the cold in Tskhinvali in December 1991.
Georgia cut off gas and electricity to the region during the conflict. In Tskhinvali’s hospital, several newborn babies reportedly died from exposure due to the harsh weather. A surgeon in Tskhinvali described the difficulty of working without heating: “When you operate on someone you have to take his clothes off. To keep a patient warm, we have to surround him/her with as many as 12 hot-water bottles.”
14A militant opposing Zviad Gamsakhurdia loads a mortar in downtown Tbilisi during the coup against the Georgian president in December 1991.
In January 1992, the long and bloody coup also known as the Tbilisi War did, indeed, topple Gamsakhurdia.
15Helmets kept in neat rows at a peacekeeping base near Tskhinvali in July 1992.
Gamsakhurdia’s successor, Eduard Shevardnadze, signed a cease-fire agreement with the South Ossetians in June 1992. Soon afterwards, a peacekeeping force made up of Georgian, Ossetian, and Russian troops was deployed inside South Ossetia. The agreement ended the fighting, which is estimated to have killed some 1,000 people, but did not settle the wider issue of South Ossetia’s status.
16The boundary marking South Ossetian territory being patrolled by armed Georgian police in 2016.
Since the conflict ended, the South Ossetia issue has repeatedly flared up, most notably in 2008 when a Georgian attempt to retake the region sparked an all-out war with Russia. Since then, the Kremlin has formally recognized South Ossetian “independence” and Russian and Ossetian troops have gradually pushed fencing and territorial markers deeper into undisputed Georgian territory. Moscow has said the notorious “borderization” taking place is a matter of South Ossetians marking their “true territorial boundaries in line with maps from the Soviet-era.”
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