Tajik national Husniddin Mashrabov, a 23-year-old migrant laborer, never expected to become a hostage to geopolitics when he crossed from Russia into South Ossetia.
But after two months stranded in the disputed Caucasus territory, that’s exactly what has happened. He is a man far from home, in a country that is not really a country (at least by most accounts), with no place to turn.
The authorities from his native Tajikistan are trying to help, but they don’t have many options.
Mashrabov entered South Ossetia from Russia’s republic of North Ossetia in an effort to get his papers in order. After crossing the border, if all went well, he would get a new stamp in his passport that would allow him to return to Russia and continue working.
All did not go well.
Russian border guards refused to allow him back into Russia, citing previous violations of migration rules, leaving Mahrabov in a territory that can only be entered and exited through Russian territory.
No Man’s Land
The origins of the situation Mashrabov finds himself in can be traced to the brief but bloody conflict between Russian and Georgia in 2008, which was fought over Georgia’s breakaway republics of Akhazia and South Ossetia. After the conflict, Russia — along with a handful of other countries — officially recognized South Ossetia’s statehood and independence from Tbilisi.
But that’s where international recognition of South Ossetia stopped. The vast majority of the world’s countries, including Tajikistan, have not recognized the territory’s claim to statehood. It has no representation in the United Nations. Georgia continues to consider South Ossetia part of its territory.
The Tajik Foreign Ministry, with no official representation in South Ossetia, followed official protocol and contacted Georgia.
“But Georgian officials said they were unable to assist us since Mashrabov is inside South Ossetian territory,” ministry spokesman Davlat Nazri said.
In strange twist, Georgia’s inability to help him might be cause for relief for Mashrabov. This is because, according to the office of the United Nations in Tbilisi, he is technically in violation of a Georgian law that stipulates that entering South Ossetia from Russia is illegal.
The next route for Mashrabov to take was to contact the authorities of South Ossetia on his own. Technically, the territory allows foreign citizens with valid Russian visas to enter the republic, putting him in good standing, since he was within the three-month stay he was allowed in Russia with his Tajik passport. He was told by South Ossetian police that he was free to leave — a solution that gets back to the heart of the problem.
Tajikistan’s Foreign Ministry then sought help from the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has maintained a presence in South Ossetia since the 2008 conflict.
“But they, too, were not able to help me,” Mashrabov says. “They told me they can’t take me out of South Ossetia if Russian border guards don’t let me into Russia.”
“All I want is to go home,” says Mashrabov, who suffers from breathing problems following two years of working in a chemical factory in northern Russia.
“I am unwell and visiting a doctor every day. I want to go back home to get medical treatment there,” he says. “I have no money here because I am not working.”
Mashrabov is the eldest son of a family of six, which like many households in Tajikistan depends on remittances sent from Russia. It was the search for work — something different from his hazardous work at the chemical factory — that led him to the Caucasus region in the first place.
A ‘Fellow Tajik’
Now too ill to work, he is literally left at the mercy of Jobir Karomatov, a Tajik citizen he met by chance in the South Ossetian capital.
A young migrant laborer himself, Karomatov collected his “fellow Tajik” from the streets and has allowed him to stay in his own apartment on Tskhinvali’s outskirts.
From a modest income earned at a private construction site in Tskhinvali, Karomatov pays for his guest’s medical bills, food — even the long-distance calls placed to the authorities in Dushanbe in an effort to get them to help.
“He can’t work because he is very sick,” Karomatov says. “He doesn’t know anyone here. I’m trying to help as much as I can.
“I was going back to Tajikistan, but I can’t leave him here alone, can I? He would be left with nowhere to stay, nothing to eat. It’s a foreign land.”
Mashrabov has, in the meantime, continued to visit the Russian-South Ossetian border in the hope that he would be allowed to cross, but to no avail.
“I don’t know their reason,” Mashrabov says. “They told me I haven’t paid a penalty [for a previous problem with Russian migration services], but I showed them the receipt proving the fine has been paid.”
With the only road home closed, Mashrabov fears he will never escape.