Hatchet in hand, 82-year-old Dato Vanishvili paces back and forth in the patchy snow; he says he’s a prisoner in his own front yard.
Trapped behind a barbed wire fence, the white-haired, elderly farmer hacks at the bare branches of his fruit trees, scavenging much needed fuel to ward off the biting cold of the Georgian winter.
“They don’t let me go,” he says, plaintively. “I’m stuck here. Where should I go? I don’t have food, bread, I don’t have anything. What should I do? Kill myself?”
To Georgians, Vanishvili is the desperate face of a frozen conflict, a victim of what some call the “creeping border” — and Georgia calls the “line of occupation.”
His home straddles the disputed line that divides Georgia and South Ossetia.
House in ‘different country’
Five years ago, Vanishvili says he left the house to run some errands in the local village, only to find his house fenced off, effectively in a different country, when he returned.
“They said: ‘This is Russian territory, so if you don’t want to be in Russia leave from here,'” he says. “I’m from South Ossetia, in Georgia. I’m Vanishvili, a Georgian citizen!”
He says he faced an impossible choice: Abandon his home, or lose contact with the country he loves.
Now razor wire slices through his garden, penning Vanishvili, his grandson and ailing wife into their home.
A knowledgeable source indicated to CNN on a map where boundary movements had occurred.
“I’m stuck here,” Vanishvili says. “If I cross they will arrest me and I will have to pay money, like penalty. They are watching me.”
The only time he sees his neighbors is when they come to mourn lost relatives buried in the cemetery on the other side of his property: Barred from entering it, they ask him to lay flowers on the graves on their behalf, sometimes bringing care packages by way of thanks.
The Vanishvilis are cut off not only from friends and family, but also, they say, from essentials such as gas and electricity, leaving them reliant on firewood for heating.
“My life became worse and worse. Help me if you can,” he pleads from the other side of the fence. But there is little anyone in Georgia can do.
Life in no-man’s-land
Vanishvili is just one victim of what European Union monitors call Russian “borderization” — they say Russia is steadily creating a new border inside the former Soviet state.
Merab Mekarishvili’s home near the small farming village of Dvani was bombed during the 2008 conflict between Georgia and Russia, but he was determined to keep living there.
Then the Russians came and fenced off the road, leaving the house his father had built on one side of the wire, the family’s land on the other. He says they gave him a choice: Become a citizen of South Ossetia, or move.
He gave up his home and lives nearby on what remains of the property, where he is building a new house — within sight of the off-limits old one — using any materials he can gather.
Tamara Qoreli lives in no man’s land with her husband and two grandchildren, their cozy home sandwiched between a Georgian border post and a Russian checkpoint and overlooked by a Russian border guard base.
She says life here has been more difficult since the war.
“Earlier it was good,” she says. “I was making my life by having cows, but after the war I have only one cow, which I am taking here and there by rope … because there are minefields.”
“I used to have income and now I am left without,” she says. “We have no pension, no social aid, we have absolutely nothing.”
Frontier creeping forward
An EU monitoring mission patrols what is officially known as the Administrative Boundary Line between Georgia and the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
In recent years, monitors say, the line has crept forward, swallowing farmland.
“Many people don’t know in many places where the line is,” Kestutis Jankauskas, head of the EU monitoring mission, tells CNN. “It [the border] is being established by practice but it is nothing official. It is [a] very fluid notion of a line.”
Sometimes the Russian troops use razor wire fencing to mark what they see as the border; at others they post green signs saying “passage forbidden” in Georgian and English.
These signs often stand alone, creating confusion for locals, who complain they’ve been detained and fined for unwittingly crossing the line.
This year, the Russians dug two trenches through prime orchard land, claiming the move was for fire protection purposes, but Georgians who traversed the ditches say they were detained.
“We don’t know where and how far that line can move because it was never recognized; it was never negotiated,” explains Jankauskas, adding that it is most likely based on old Soviet General Staff maps from the 1980s.
International law violation
Monitors say each encroachment is a violation of international law.
Only Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.
Russia says its military is there by invitation; the monitors say a total of 18 Russian border guard bases and four Russian military bases now rest on land considered part of Georgia by the international community.
John Durnin, spokesman for the EU monitoring mission, says the Russian border guard bases, which began appearing in South Ossetia in 2009, are part of Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB.
Built so that they can be quickly reinforced when necessary, each is home to between 30 and 50 soldiers. They also include quarters for married couples and families and even playgrounds for children.
Local residents say they believe the bases are a sign that the Russians are here to stay.
CNN’s trip to the area highlighted the tension and suspicion on both sides of the line; our visits were only allowed in the company of Georgian security forces or EU monitors, and on several occasions we were watched closely by men in green on the other side.
An EU monitoring mission hotline, usually reserved for messages about movements along the boundary, was activated by Russian border guards demanding to know why we were there.
CNN has reached out to officials in South Ossetia and the Kremlin regarding allegations that people are losing their land but has yet to receive a response.
Referendum on accession
It is 25 years since Georgia gained its independence from the Soviet Union; the breakaway state has had a contentious relationship with its Russian neighbor ever since.
In 2008, it spiraled into full-blown conflict, after South Ossetian separatists attacked Georgian peacekeepers. Georgia sent troops into South Ossetia, and Russia responded with a military incursion into Georgia itself.
When the fighting ended, Russia’s military pulled back only as far as South Ossetia, which they see as an independent state.
And in 2017, things could get yet more complicated: In a move that invites comparisons to the annexation of Crimea, South Ossetia is to hold a referendum on accession to Russia.
The Kremlin remains silent on the vote, neither ruling it out nor welcoming it. Russia’s state news agency TASS reports Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov saying: “I will not comment on this issue, this is not our matter.”
But tacit support from Russia is clear: in April 2016, the Russian Duma ratified a treaty on the demarcation of the state border of South Ossetia.
As tensions ratchet up, both Russia and Georgia have conducted military training exercises, posturing at each other across the border.
Haunted by past, fearing future
Georgia is fighting an uphill battle to maintain its territorial integrity.
“The old past is probably still haunting some of us,” says Jankauskas.
Merab Mekarishvili fears that, someday soon, the Russians will close in again.
“All the time we are waiting and we are afraid they will extend that border. We know what war means. It’s better to be like this than in war.”
Tamara Qoreli and her family, too, live in constant terror that the war will return.
“Every time a plane is flying over us, my small grandson is shouting, ‘Grandma, start the [car] engine quickly, the Russians are coming!”
“We live here under fear, we are scared and our nerves are breaking,” she says. “Nobody knows what will happen today or tomorrow.”