When Tezo Mchedlitdze was a young man, he built himself a house. It was a fine house on a hillside, with two stories, balconies, and a cinder-block hut in the yard that his bride used as a summer kitchen.
Today, 30 years later, Mr. Mchedlitdze and his wife are living full time in that summer kitchen. It's the only piece of his property that wasn't burned out during the 1991 war that separatist South Ossetians fought against the Georgian Army.
"It's very difficult to build a house, but it's very easy to burn it," he says with a wry smile.
But Mchedlitdze is building again, repairing his house in this mixed Georgian-Ossetian farming village where about half of the original 80 families have come back.
Living without electricity, but grateful for clean water from the village spring, he puts a brave face on his misfortune. This autumn, he harvested pumpkins and red-hot peppers.
Twenty of his neighbors were killed in the fighting, Mchedlitdze recalls. "The main thing is that we are alive," he says. "So long as you are alive, you have a chance to get what you want."
And what he wants is peace and quiet. With a cease-fire in place but no political solution to the conflict, "I'm not sure where we live," he laughs, "In South Ossetia, Georgia, or America. And as long as I live well, I don't care."
A few miles up the road, though, in the Ossetian village of Khelchua, Valer Mayerbek does care.
He wants to see the region break away from Georgia and unite with his ethnic kin in neighboring North Ossetia, which is part of Russia.
Such an outcome seems unlikely, but Mr. Mayerbek is moving back anyway, after six years of living from hand to mouth in a strange town across the mountains.
Mayerbek scraped together enough concrete blocks to build a small house, received 17 bags of cement and a roof kit from UNHCR, and hopes to have a good-enough shelter constructed by winter to bring his wife and two children to join him. With two pigs, two cows, a kitchen garden, and an apple orchard, he thinks he can get by.