Page last updated at 12:43 GMT, Thursday, 20 May 2010 13:43 UK

South Ossetians still haunted by memories of war

Two years after Georgia and Russia went to war over the disputed territory of South Ossetia, the BBC's Tom Esslemont finds that South Ossetians remain on edge, and are reluctant to put down their weapons.

damaged building in Gori, South Ossetia
Damaged building in South Ossetia during the armed conflict

We were standing in an overgrown churchyard when we heard the explosion. Then came another noise.

"Whoosh!" went the rocket, about 300m (1000ft) away, before detonating in a hillside.

After a few seconds of steely silence there came a crackle of gunfire - a brief "Pah-pah-pah-pah" reverberated around the valley.

Initially I suggested we move away, though it seemed we were at a safe distance, but when I looked at my taxi driver, Nodar, he did not seem to be alarmed. In fact he had hardly even noticed the explosion.

"Huh, what? Oh that - that was just a training exercise," he said. "Nothing to worry about."

Utter destruction

This was my introduction to South Ossetia - a landlocked, disputed territory, home to around 30,000 people and cut off from Georgia proper by a volatile boundary line.

I had just driven down the territory's only entry/exit point - the highway from Russia, South Ossetia's umbilical chord - snaking its way through a deep, wooded valley past peaceful cottages.

Map of Georgia and Russia

Then, by contrast, I passed the scene of utter destruction. Thousands of ruined houses destroyed by the conflict in 2008 between Georgians - and Russians and Ossetians.

Now I could see a fast-flowing river cut a photogenic gorge through the town of Tskhinvali against the backdrop of grey, pockmarked, Soviet buildings.

Everywhere, it seems, the gaping scars of war remain unhealed and society remains paralysed in a state of readiness for another conflict.

On our way into Tskhinvali we were stopped by another vehicle, a grey Lada with dark windows and no number plate.

Two men got out. A tall, mean-looking man in jeans, the other a friendlier, more jovial-looking, rounder guy. The tall one seemed to be in charge. He flashed a tatty, pink identity card at us, claiming he was from the local KGB.

Piercing glare

He was not in the mood for hearing about who we were so there was no time to tell him we were fully accredited with the de facto authorities. And with a quick piercing, glare he jumped in our car and escorted us to his compound.

I was expecting the usual three-hour interrogation, but it appeared they had actually made a mistake

On countless occasions while travelling in the former Soviet Union I have been stopped by the employees of the local security department - the local KGB apparatchiks - either for filming something they did not want me to shoot - or simply for just being there.

This time I was expecting the usual three-hour interrogation, but it appeared they had actually made a mistake.

"Wait a minute," said the tall KGB official, as we arrived at the compound. "Is this Esslemont?"

At that point another, more garrulous man approached us, arms aloft. He must have been the tall man's boss. The official received a short, sharp rebuke and we were released. No interrogation. And, for the first time in my life, I received an apology from a security agent.

This hold-up, I was later informed, is part of the "war mentality" South Ossetia is beset by.

'Lost generation'

I was discussing it with Nodar, now in his late thirties. He used to be a soldier.

Nodar in military fatigues
Nodar and his generation have grown up with war

Nodar, like most men over 30, wears military fatigues every day. He is part of South Ossetia's lost generation, who spent their most formative years fighting against the Georgians in the 1990s and who have never really known any different.

Now Nodar and his friends spend the evenings sitting around campfires, reminiscing about the "wartime days".

"I'm always ready to fight," he says.

Then he proudly shows me the video on his mobile phone of the moment South Ossetian militia had fired at a Georgian tank during the war.

The post-war period in South Ossetia has brought an uneasy peace. The authorities recently started a weapons amnesty, confiscating the guns which are not properly registered.

This has not gone down well with Nodar and his friends - people who have owned a gun for their whole lives and feel happier taking the law into their own hands than leaving it to the authorities.

Cycle of conflict

Grecia, a former gunmaker - does not approve of the South Ossetian authorities. Sitting on an upturned box, his pale complexion warmed by the orange glow of the fire, he tells me the authorities are scared.

"They are worried about unrest coming from within South Ossetia and so that's why they're rounding up the guns," he says.

Grecia, Nodar and other out-of-work militia put this all down to a paranoia in South Ossetia, a situation they have got used to. Its roots lie in the cyclical nature of conflict, that has struck the region since the collapse of the USSR.

As they roast juicy legs of chicken and fatty lamb on the open fire, they tell jokes - good old Russian "anecdotes" - poking fun at members of other ethnic groups in the Caucasus and beyond - the Chechens, the Circassians, the Armenians, the Turks.

As I sat listening to their conversation, it struck me that what is happening in South Ossetia is nothing new. The Caucasus has been fought over for centuries, the Ottomans, the Persians and the Russians have long squabbled over this fertile, mountainous land.

And the people - now and through the centuries - have always been stuck in the middle.

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Regions and territories: South Ossetia
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