Damaged Bridges Separate Georgians, Russians

Suspension bridge remains i i

hide captionThe remains of a suspension foot bridge that was bombed last month. Villagers used it to cross the Ingori River from Georgian-controlled territory to the Russian-backed separatist region of Abkhazia.

Ivan Watson/NPR
Suspension bridge remains

The remains of a suspension foot bridge that was bombed last month. Villagers used it to cross the Ingori River from Georgian-controlled territory to the Russian-backed separatist region of Abkhazia.

Ivan Watson/NPR
Horse-drawn cart crossing the Ingori River. i i

hide captionA cart driver nicknamed "Zver" urges his horse to cross the Ingori River. He's carrying a load of wood and a passenger, Meliko Varadaniya, 78, who waited for hours to hitch a ride to see her relatives in Georgian-controlled territory.

Ivan Watson/NPR
Horse-drawn cart crossing the Ingori River.

A cart driver nicknamed "Zver" urges his horse to cross the Ingori River. He's carrying a load of wood and a passenger, Meliko Varadaniya, 78, who waited for hours to hitch a ride to see her relatives in Georgian-controlled territory.

Ivan Watson/NPR
Georgian woman crossing Ingori River. i i

hide captionA Georgian woman heads barefoot across the Ingori River to her village in the separatist-controlled territory of Abkhazia after visiting her children in Georgian-controlled territory.

Ivan Watson/NPR
Georgian woman crossing Ingori River.

A Georgian woman heads barefoot across the Ingori River to her village in the separatist-controlled territory of Abkhazia after visiting her children in Georgian-controlled territory.

Ivan Watson/NPR

Three months ago, the former Soviet republic of Georgia fought and lost a war against Russia. Soon after, the two Russian-backed breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia declared their independence from Georgia — forcing residents accustomed to traveling between Georgian and Russian-controlled territory to improvise.

Georgian police say at least three of the footbridges that locals use to cross the icy waters of the Inguri River have been sabotaged during the past month.

And in a throwback to times gone by, some residents have resorted to fording the river, using horse-drawn carts.

Battlling The Rapids

On one particular day, a driver beats his horse with a cane as it struggles to pull a wagon through rushing rapids. The cart carries a load of wood and and a 78-year-old woman named Meliko Varadaniya. She waited for hours by the riverbank to hitch a ride on this cart, so that she can visit her relatives in Georgian-controlled territory.

"We had a very good bridge here," she says, pointing at the remains of a pedestrian suspension bridge that was demolished last month. "But they blew it up. Now they tell us there's a border here and we can't cross anymore."

Over the past three months, only Russia has formally recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent republics.

"At the present stage, the Russians want to consolidate their presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia," says Peter Semneby, the top European diplomat to the Caucasus. "Russia probably does want to weaken Georgia as well."

Western diplomats in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, say the disappearance of the bridges fits with Moscow's broader strategy of cutting the region's links to the rest of Georgia.

An Uncertain Situation

Nana Plieva lives in Tbilisi, but her father lives in South Ossetia.

"No, I have not seen him since the war," Plieva says. "We have talked by phone several times, but I think it is not safe to visit South Ossetia now. Lots of military and lots of soldiers — complete uncertain situation."

Over the past year, more then 100 ethnic Ossetian families have packed up their houses and left Georgia for good to be reunited with relatives who left years ago to find work in Russia, says Gulnazi Katchmazova, a local government official in a village in Georgia's Kakheti region.

"Not long ago, we buried a 90-year-old woman here," Katchmazova says. "Her children in Russia weren't allowed to come attend the funeral. That's not the first time this has happened — people can't come and go, and that's the main reason they're leaving."

Back at the Inguri River, within sight of the snowcapped mountains of Abkhazia, a gray-haired woman dressed in black takes off her shoes and socks on the rocky Georgian banks of the river. She's getting ready to go home, after paying a visit to her children.

"Before the war in August, we had a bridge here," she says. "Who knows what they'll do to us next."

With that, she hikes up her skirt and plunges barefoot into the icy water, carrying a straw broom under one arm.

This route may not be open for much longer. Locals and Georgian officials say Abkhaz militiamen have started planting land mines along the banks of the river.

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