The heat and dust had formed a sweat-crusted paste on our skin by the time we reached the asphalt in a valley that gathered in the high Caucasus to our north and splayed into a plain just south of us. The route directed us a few miles north to where we would cross a bridge and then continue south on the other side of the valley.
It didn’t take long to reach the river, plucking a few blackberries from brambles as we went. Although it would be a deluge in spring, the water was only ankle deep so we wheeled our bikes across and found a way up the other bank. A few minutes later we reached the deserted tarmac and began pedalling happily south. Seconds later a car roared up behind us and pulled over. Out jumped an army officer in uniform. It took a few seconds to recognise his fatigues and to spot the Russian flag on his arm. This both worried and confused me as we were a good fifty miles from the Russian border.
The man asked in pidgin English if we had passports and what we were doing. We replied that we were tourists on our way to Gori. He then asked why we had illegally crossed an international border. We protested. We were in Georgia and nowhere near Russia. He pointed at the ground and said two words: ‘South Ossetia’. He then led us two hundred yards further down the road to where a twisted stack of barbed wire coils barred the way and a Cyrillic sign announced the border of Georgia and the “Respublika Yojnaya Ossetia”. My heart sank. We were on the wrong side of it.
Somehow, through an incredible cocktail of ignorance and misfortune, we had missed the fences and guard towers and strayed unchecked into a disputed territory. South Ossetia has claimed independence since the Russian invasion of 2008. We had little choice but to obey the man and cycle away from the fence, deeper into the forbidden land towards a military base. The officer drove a couple of yards behind us while a khaki jeep manned by two heavily armed soldiers lead the way before us. We talked as we rode, getting our story straight, but unlike our previous arrests by Russian authorities, there was really nothing to hide this time. We had made an honest mistake.
We were placed in a room watched over by the pitiless gaze of Putin’s portrait, his fish lips drooping at their edges in a cartoonish frown. We patiently went through the slow process of questioning, fingerprinting, being photographed, displaying all our belongings again, and then being further questioned with a briefcase-sized video camera thrust in our faces. Among the questions was the straightforward ask that must catch out so many: “are you a spy?”
There were long intervals where we were left to wait but we were never without guards. One of the soldiers correctly guessed that we might be hungry after cycling all day and fetched us tea, a cucumber, and a few bits of bread. We ate quickly and gratefully but were still famished. We had to sign in 19 places on lengthy Russian language documents detailing our offence.
During questioning we explained our ignorance of the border. I showed them the Google map on my phone on which (I now noticed) the border was marked as a faint dotted line and not the bold solid line of an international border. We had been picked up less than two hundred yards from the tip of a pointing finger of Ossetian land that jutted inconveniently into Georgia proper. An officer said America didn’t recognise the sovereignty of South Ossetia and that was why Google didn’t mark it as an independent country. I asked which countries did recognise it and they listed Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru. I asked if Burkina Faso was also on board. They shook their heads in confusion. We questioned why they, The Russians, were fifty miles from their own territory policing the border of an apparently independent nation. They said the South Ossetians invited them to help protect their land after the Georgian army began bombing their villages in 2008. I did my best to stifle a scoff.
At midnight we were told we would have to go to the capital, Tskhinvali, to pay a fine. Our pleas to pay on the spot and be put back into Georgia were ignored. With the camera still rolling, we were lead outside and our laden bikes were loaded into a grey soviet minivan. While climbing in, I noticed that the driver and his companion were wearing different uniforms and speaking an unfamiliar language. We had been handed over to the South Ossetians.
It was 2am when we reached the police headquarters in Tskhinvali. Our hunger was outweighed by fatigue and so we were less phased than we might otherwise have been when shown to a cell and locked in. We stretched out on the narrow bed-cum-benches and went to sleep. A guard escorted us to the toilet at 7am but we were not allowed to close the door while using it and were ushered straight back to our cell. The room wasn’t especially unpleasant and had natural light from a large window, albeit heavily barred. There was a single book in the room: a Russian history of the CIA and the KGB.
We really had nothing to hide but knew they would try to be thorough and handing them an unorganised warren of computer files would slow down our processing and delay us getting back into Georgia. It was a Friday and we were already into the afternoon. I guessed correctly that not being processed before the close of business would mean being locked up for the weekend. At 3pm we were driven to the courtroom and stood before a judge. Both he and the translator seemed amused by our appearance. We were still unshowered and wearing sportswear. Their levity seemed to irritate the stern police officer who had been dealing with us.
We were not offered a lawyer and, in fact, hadn’t been offered a phone call since being detained. However, we admitted guilt and explained our ignorance. We were found guilty and issued a $35 fine. When the judge asked if I had anything to say I replied meekly that I was hungry. He turned to the police officer and scolded him for not feeding us. We were driven back to the station by the now ever sterner officer and given some plov (an Uzbek dish of rice, meat and vegetables). The officer then led me on foot to the bank to exchange dollars into rubles, and then to a government office to pay our fine. Then it was back to the cell. We were told we would be driven the two miles to the nearest Georgian border at 6.30pm. We slept again.
The drive was in another Soviet minivan. The border was clearly not open for public passage and a group of six soldiers marched us between sturdy concrete defenses into no man’s land where several signs announced unexploded ordinance. A couple of Georgian soldiers and a plainclothes man approached and nodded perfunctorily at the Ossetians who took a few steps back. The plainclothes man smiled and reached out a hand.
“Welcome back guys. My name’s Giorgi. I’m from the Ministry of the Interior. Are you OK?”
We said we were fine and he led us down the road to a waiting group including representatives from the police, the EU Monitoring Mission, and both the British and U.S. embassies. We were deeply embarrassed but all were the model of professionalism, expressing concern for our wellbeing and explaining that we would be doing them a favour if we accompanied them to the Gori police station for a quick debrief. Naturally we said we’d do whatever they wanted. During the fifteen minute drive Giorgi referred repeatedly to our “illegal detention”.
We made a statement in the police station to a friendly officer and translator who winced with indignation at various points. The Russian occupation of South Ossetia is a still-fresh wound in the Georgian psyche. The Russian officer’s claim to have been invited in to protect against Georgian aggression was the deepest cut.
The five days of war in 2008 didn’t just see the Russians and South Ossetians destroy all ethnic Georgian villages in the territory creating 20,000 refugees, it also saw Russia occupy and bomb sites throughout the rest of Georgia. Although the international community later condemned Russia’s actions and refused to recognise South Ossetia’s independence, during the fighting the world looked away, mostly to Beijing where the 2008 olympics were underway. No punitive action was ever taken towards Russia.
At 11pm we left the police station, checked into a hostel, and hurried to a supermarket. The experience had been interesting in parts, but mostly boring and hunger-filled.