Some five months ago, war looked an even more likely scenario. In August 2004, on-and-off fighting flared up between Georgia and South Ossetia, leading to an explosive situation that pitted South Ossetian militia and Russian mercenaries against Georgian soldiers stationed within both South Ossetia and just over the border in Georgia. Civilian and military casualties were light, but continuous.
The buildup of Georgian non-peacekeeping forces within South Ossetia was the largest since the end of the 1991-1992 civil war. Georgian forces seized the hills above Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, on August 19, but the next day, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, under international pressure, had announced their withdrawal as "a last chance for peace."
This photo essay shows the non-peacekeeping Georgian troops sent in late September 2004 to defend Georgian villages from South Ossetian shelling. It is meant to illustrate the fragility of the situation in South Ossetia, where Georgians and South Ossetians can be neighbors one day, and foes the next.
In response to the firing, the Georgian government deployed its US-trained and equipped 113th battalion, placing one company, or about 150 men, inside the southernmost village of Tamaracheni to defend the Georgians living in the valley. Russian officials described the soldiers' arrival as preparation for an all-out invasion. Georgians saw it as a necessary defense of Georgian civilians.
The hills surrounding the Ossetian valley had been populated by hundreds of Ossetian and mercenary soldiers supported by heavy artillery and tanks. Six Georgian villages beyond the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, with a total of about 10,000 people, were at the very source of the September conflict. The Ossetians wanted them back -- by force if necessary.
Eventually, the conflict simmered down, only to be replaced by fresh clashes kidnappings, reports of firing and more. Though Georgian villagers living near Tskhinvalli maintain they only want peace with their Ossetian neighbors, this is a struggle with no immediate end in sight. Kidnapping begets kidnapping; gunfire follows gunfire. More than four months after the 113th Battalion deployed in Tamaracheni, South Ossetia has rejected Georgia's proposal for peace and relations between the two sides remain deadlocked. Given the record of the past several months, it can come as no surprise.
Jonathan Alpeyrie is a war photographer for Getty Images.