Location or Chapter title
Abkhazia “After God had created the Earth, he convened a great gathering of all the races that were to inhabit it. There, God and his angels would divide the Earth between all the races. Each country that I give, said God, is a reflection of the national character. God knew his people and it quickly became evident where the English, Russians, Peruvians and other races would live. Satisfied, they concluded the gathering; the Earth was finished. But as they were preparing to return to heaven, their gaze fell on the Abkhazians, who had just arrived in great haste. ‘Why are you late?’ asked God’s angels. ‘We had to attend to our guests,’ said the Abkhazians. ‘We are sorry that we are late.’
Location or Chapter title
‘We were getting ready to go to God’s gathering when we met a poor man who was dressed in ragged clothing and hungry. We cooked for him, fed and clothed him and lost track of time.’ The other races laughed at the Abkhazians: ‘What kind of country do you think that you will get now?’ But the angels were instantly won over by the Abkhazians and told God their story. God was implacable and sent the Abkhazians to a barren and desolate land. As punishment, they had to lay the table every Friday for God’s emissaries.
Location or Chapter title
And so it came about. Every Friday, the Abkhazians prepared the most delicious foods for God’s emissaries. But the angels stayed away. The Abkhazians continued to cook and every Friday they received, in a landscape of snow and rocks, hungry travellers. Until one day, perhaps centuries later, the sun broke through the clouds and spring began. As the snow slowly thawed, God’s emissaries finally visited the Abkhazians. And just like every Friday, the table was richly laden with food and drink. Then God arrived and spoke, ‘If only everyone could be like the Abkhazians.’
‘All the countries have already been given away, except the one beautiful piece of land I kept for myself. I will bestow that on you.’ God gave his land and language to the grateful Abkhazians who had proved to be so hospitable and courteous. When he left, God issued one more warning. ‘Everyone will desire your country like a beautiful young woman. It will be difficult to protect. If your descendants cannot protect it, they will melt away like snow in the spring. But if they do, the country will remain theirs. Then it will be a beautiful country.” As told by Anzor Mukba, Sukhumi 2010
[ 5 ] Sukhumi, Abkhazia View of Sukhumiâ€™s eastern suburbs. In 1989 Abkhazia had 525,061 inhabitants. After the war in 1992-1993 that number dropped to below 200,000. The official population differs depending on the source. Russia, Abkhazia and Georgia each have an interest in a lower or higher official population.
[ 3 ] Sukhumi, Abkhazia
View of the northern suburbs of Sukhumi, Abkhaziaâ€™s capital. The worst fighting took place here during the Georgian-Abkhazian war in 1992-1993.
[ 6 ] Sukhumi, Abkhazia Block of flats near the centre of Sukhumi. In order to counter the population shortage, a repatriation programme has been set up.
Empty land Promised land Forbidden land Rob Hornstra
Arnold van Bruggen
The Sochi Project
[ 8 ] Sukhumi, Abkhazia The small building housing the State Committee of Repatriation in the centre of Sukhumi looks like an Abkhazian embassy. Beautiful murals depict pretty mountain streams, with behind them the steep mountains of the Caucasus.
I Introduction [ 19 ]
VI Georgiaâ€™s liver [ 117 ]
XI The impossible Caucasus [ 213 ]
II To Sukhumi [ 25 ]
VII Sochi 2014 [ 141 ]
XII A new motherland [ 221 ]
III Colliding histories [ 53 ]
VIII Kodori Gorge [ 147 ]
XIII All hope has gone [ 239 ]
IV Stalin, Novi Afon & the UN
IX The Abkhazian renaissance
V Borrowed by Abkhazians
X Promised land
[ 85 ]
[ 173 ]
XIV Epilogue [ 261 ]
[ 201 ]
[ 93 ]
Table of Contents
View of a residential area in Sukhumi. Two-thirds of Abkhaziaâ€™s pre-war population was driven out of the country and as a result a comparable percentage of buildings and farmland is uninhabited.
[ 12 ] Sukhumi, Abkhazia
Sukhumiâ€™s train station was an important stop on the Moscow-Tbilisi-Baku line. The connection with Tbilisi has been totally destroyed; the one with Moscow has been resumed.
[ 14 ] Sukhumi, Abkhazia
[ 16 ] Kuabchara, Abkhazia
Brothers Zashrikwa (17) and Edrese (14) pose proudly with a Kalashnikov on the sofa in their aunt and uncleâ€™s house. They live in the Kodori Gorge, a remote mountainous region on the border between Abkhazia and Georgia.
Introduction In which we discover the mandarin republic Abkhazia
We knew almost nothing about Abkhazia when we visited for the first time in 2006. During our virtual travels through the country across maps on the internet we discovered a fascinating landscape of mountains and rivers, with the majority of the towns spread out along the Black Sea. We read about snowy mountains of dizzying height that rise straight out of the sea, about endless beaches and lush gardens full of palms, tea bushes and citrus trees. We put the place names Sukhumi and Gagra in our mouths and savoured them like exotic morsels. This coastal strip on the Black Sea was once the Riviera of the Soviet Union. Stalin had two dachas there. His successor, Khrushchev, swam in Pitsunda’s warm waters when the Communist Party in Moscow ousted him to make way for the party mastodon Brezhnev. Anyone in the Soviet Union who said they had received a voucher to go on holiday in Gagra, Pitsunda or Sukhumi had obviously done something to please the local party leadership. In the literature and Soviet guidebooks Abkhazia sounds like a dream, a subtropical oasis on the Black Sea, a promised land. The more we read about it, the more it enticed us, like a fairy tale; but a fairy tale tinged with black. On the flip side are the ruins, the pot-holed roads along which only the overgrown, concrete stairs of houses still stand, the rusted gates and car wrecks, the twisted remains of the horrific civil war that erupted here in the early ’90s. It reminded us of areas such as Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia and Kosovo, all small, violent and unviable provinces of artificially created countries. Abkhazia had been destroyed by civil war and forced into isolation, but had kept itself going for 15 years despite an international boycott and a tourism-based economys in a region without tourists. Rob and I had travelled through troubled areas several times before, Rob as a photographer through remote regions of Russia, I as a journalist through Eastern Europe and the Middle East. In the Caucasus all this seemed to come together. The first trip to Abkhazia felt like a wild New Year’s Eve adventure. Recklessly, we travelled around this virgin country, but through the people we met, the memories of the war, the loneliness, devastation and isolation, it grabbed us by the throat and wouldn’t let go. Back in Georgia, we spoke to many refugees from Abkhazia who yearned for the country where they grew up. The fact that both Abkhazians and Georgians regard this same piece of land as the lost paradise makes the situation particularly bitter. The Abkhazians live in a devastated and impoverished country. During the war they deported 200,000 Georgians and in so doing went from being a vacation paradise to a totally isolated country. The 200,000 refugees live in equally impoverished conditions and are filled with nostalgia for their lost paradise. This cynical parallel was the reason for us to make four trips to Abkhazia and to record this obscure and painful conflict. The book in your hands is not an encyclopaedic history or analysis of the conflict or the geopolitics in the region. Rather, it is an ode to the Caucasus and its proud inhabitants. The Caucasus is an impenetrable maze of interests,
Â onflicts and opinions. Their multiplicity can be confusing and repeatedly misc leading, but in that schizophrenia lies the essence of the Caucasus. The Caucasus is a region where every race has a creation story, as described by an Abkhazian several pages earlier. Thatâ€™s why in this book we take you with us on our travels as we experienced them ourselves, struggling through layer upon layer of an increasingly irreconcilable conflict.
Arnold van Bruggen & Rob Hornstra The Sochi Project
To Sukhumi How to enter a country that does not officially exist
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In 2006, getting into Abkhazia is not easy. After a long search, it seems the best way is to contact the United Nations. They provide transportation several times a week between Tbilisi and Sukhumi, by helicopter or by convoy on the Zugdidi - Gali - Sukhumi road. For $10 we can join the convoy, $280 gets us a seat in the helicopter. Before we can enter Abkhazia with the United Nations, however, we first need permission from the Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution, reachable via email address firstname.lastname@example.org, and from the Abkhazian authorities in Sukhumi, via email mfaabkhazia@gmail. com. After waiting several weeks to receive this, we find out that we still have to write a detailed letter to the United Nations representative. Only then can transportation be requested through the UN Department of Movement Control in Sukhumi. The bureaucracy does not diminish our desire; the harder it is to get there, the more Abkhazia entices us, like forbidden fruit. The helicopter is full, so we travel from the Georgian capital Tbilisi to the border town of Zugdidi, a journey of six hours through the snowy foothills of the Caucasus. Since the civil war of â€™92-â€™93 the population has more than doubled, and refugees now outnumber the original inhabitants. At street level this is most evident in the incredible number of animals on the roadside. Pigs of all sizes and colours, spotted, pink, black, on long legs or with big hanging bellies, forage in the ditches and verges, on plots of land and between the houses. Between them roam goats and brown, long-haired calves. Occasionally an animal crosses the road. If it runs at top speed, it is a pig; if it ambles across, then it is a cow. The countryside has been brought to the city. At the end of the muddy town the UN compound lies hidden behind high fences covered in barbed wire, blue UN flags and warning signs. Since 1993 the UN has been observing the ceasefire between the Georgians and the Abkhazians. Russian peacekeepers do so armed, the UN unarmed. At the UN base, just as in Abkhazia, they operate on Moscow time. So suddenly we are much too early. The mood on the base is the same as military bases around the world: listless, bored employees hang around, waiting for things to do. More than 20 nationalities work here, from Germans to Ghanaians, from Bangladeshis to Jordanians and Indonesians. A German nurse, who works in the medical department, tells us that she always has to be present, although hardly anything ever happens. After waiting for two hours in a canteen with a depressed French UN official who sees no reason for him to be in Georgia, the UN bus leaves the compound in the direction of the border. Swerving around the old women who cross the border en masse, with loads of fruit and vegetables on their shoulders or on carts, we pass the Georgian and Russian checkpoint without any difficulty. A large portrait of the Georgian President Saakashvili waves us off. On the bridge over the Inguri river, the old border posts are still standing: white obelisks with iron tips. We cross the bridge, a 200-metre strip over one of the many mountain rivers on this side of the Caucasus which flow towards the sea. Several donkey carts transport the old women and their wares. The green and
white striped Abkhazian flag with the big flat hand flutters proudly in the wind, the flag of an unrecognised and thus non-existent country. It is reminiscent of the border between Turkey and Kurdish Iraq, where the Kurdish flag, which is banned in Turkey, flies ahead of you even while you can still feel Atatürk’s piercing gaze in your back. After everything we have read about Abkhazia for this visit we still do not know what to expect: whether it is violent or infinitely corrupt, whether they are expecting our visit or not; and whether a paradise of food, drink and the most beautiful women in the former Soviet Union indeed awaits us, as the many newspaper articles and publications from recent decades promise. Our hearts are in our mouths. In the first Abkhazian town, Gali, we get out of the UN bus and into large jeeps. The town centre already gives away much of the dramatic landscape we will pass in the coming weeks. On the main square the Russian and UN bases stand side by side. The post office still looks as it did in the ’70s, although now plundered and partly destroyed. The blank wall of an apartment building pays tribute to the wonders of Soviet aviation, and in front of the ruins of a restaurant only the legs of what was once a lion still stand on a pedestal. From Gali to Sukhumi the jeeps pass through a fairy tale but at the same time dismal landscape. Abkhazia was once a populous and wealthy country. That is evident in the fertile red soil, the hot springs next to the road and the vast estates full of fruit and mandarin trees. We see the ever-present mountains towering above beautiful houses encircled by verandas. But the window frames are often blackened and the outlines of flames are visible on the walls above the windows. Halfway through the journey we pass a town that is most reminiscent of Grozny, so completely destroyed, so expertly shot to pieces are the rows of apartment buildings. In the garden of an old hospital A the stump of a large sculpture is still standing. Everything else is in ruins, tall trees and shrubs grow out through the collapsed roofs. Only the animals that forage freely betray the fact that people still live around here. Fifteen years ago around half a million people lived in Abkhazia, but today the population is less than a third of that. Estimates range between 100,000 and 250,000 inhabitants.
Only when we approach the capital Sukhumi is the world inhabited again. Tiny shops appear, palaces rise up in the hills and the apartment blocks along the road suddenly show signs of life. We pass small train stations in Stalin’s Empire style, where hordes of tourists may once have been able to alight right next to their hotel. Tunnels run under the road to the sea, where cafés and restaurants jut out into the water on piers. The UN car turns off the road and drives through the barriers at the Sukhumi base, housed in the former Hotel Aitar, one of the many unsightly hotels along the coast. Light blue fences encircle the area, and several armoured vehicles are parked under olive green nets. At the reception we are given a set of bed linen and towels. We are installed in one of the elongated tower blocks in the field. We buy books of coupons for $25 which we can exchange for food and drink in the local Military Staff Club restaurant. Then we hurry into the city. We have to pick up our visa at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as quickly as possible. In the centre of Sukhumi, the entire government holds office in an area the size of a football field. In the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, little more than a corridor in an office building, our names are carefully translated into Russian script. In the next room we pay and are given a green piece of paper worth $20. Meanwhile the minister, deputy ministers and officials talk loudly as they walk through the corridors. A small party seems to be taking place in the deputy minister’s office. Singing, shouting and laughter echoes through the corridor. Two girls in high heels totter out of the room, staggering from the alcohol. A red-faced man drifts after them. ‘None of that, you come back! The party’s not over yet!’ The girls are able to shake him off and flee out the door. ‘A birthday,’ explains the young man who brings our visas. It is a few days before New Year’s Eve and Abkhazia has more or less ground to a halt. We don’t have many appointments during those first days, so we wander the streets and explore the city by bus and taxi, from the Mayak neighbourhood in the west near the port, to the sanatorium in the east. We prowl through the abandoned train station and talk to everyone we encounter. This is how we meet Alfred and Zinaida B, an elderly couple. They live in a desolate part of Novi Raion, Sukhumi’s ‘new’ neighbourhood, a vast expanse of apartment buildings which were largely destroyed by fighter jets and bombers in the war of ’92-’93. From the street we could already see a few signs of life in the leaking rubble of the five-storey building. Then Zinaida comes outside waving and invites us in. She is greatly disappointed when we introduce ourselves. She had hoped that we were the people from the council who had finally come to do something about the leaking roof and broken pipes. Even so, she welcomes us with tea and biscuits. She works for the Red Army Sanatorium. Her husband Alfred is seriously ill in bed. ‘Abkhazia’s a nice place to live,’ says Zinaida. ‘But when things go wrong, it’s hell. We have no medicines and the doctor is expensive. This house is basically uninhabitable.’ She points to the damp on the ceiling, the makeshift balcony and the scorch marks around her
electric stove. She uses this when the gas doesnâ€™t work and the electricity does, but it often causes a short circuit. Despite the impoverished living conditions, it turns out to be very pleasant, something we will experience on many occasions. Although perhaps intimate is a better word in this context. Zinaida follows the tea and biscuits with strong drink. We are unaccustomed to the hospitality and look sideways at Alfred groaning in the next room.
The old parliament buildingâ€‰C is the most prominent building in Sukhumi. The burned hulk towers some 20 storeys above the town. From here a boulevard runs to the beach, and a few hundred metres away is the square with the war memorial and shopping street Prospekt Mira. Next to the parliament are Sukhumiâ€™s famous botanical gardens, which in Soviet times attracted hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. The parliament itself is now in ruins. In 1993, in a final act of aggression, the retreating Georgian troops shot it to pieces, along with the valuable National Archives. Two boys who are hanging around the pedestal where Lenin still stood before the war play here regularly, they tell us, and offer to show us around the building. We first take the remainder of the spiral staircase that once crawled up from the central hall, in those days an overwhelming room furnished with the busts of communist heroes, twinkling lights and carpets which led awed visitors to the plenary hall. The corridors are immense, with cramped work cubicles on both sides of barely 2.5 by 4 metres. Glass and debris lie everywhere. Some of the window frames still swing open
and closed, but most have been reduced to charred skeletons. We duck into a few rooms and to our surprise find the traces of a bureaucracy in which the computer played no part. The carcasses of typewriters still lie around, hard-working machines that probably lasted decades. For 15 years the paper remnants of the Abkhazian administration have drifted around here, and fed the small fires lit in the building by homeless people. Not only that, they have even wiped their butts with it, we see. They must enjoy that. There are complete cashbooks with papers on which kwitantshias and lisentshias are stapled. Somewhat despairingly we stand with a couple of books in our hands. Do we take them as relics of a bygone era? We eventually leave them in this open-air museum of Soviet bureaucracy created by Georgian gunfire.
From the roof you look out over the Black Sea D, with the beautiful and less beautiful resorts that stretch along the coast. Inland, the snowy mountains of the Caucasus reach kilometres into the sky. To the north is a typical Brezhnev neighbourhood, densely packed with towering Soviet apartment buildings. At our feet lies the grand parade ground in front of the parliament. At dusk we leave the building and we walk back to the coast. Most of the houses in the city are empty. Through holes in the fences we are just able to discern the tropical gardens, filled with palms, ferns, mandarin and lemon trees. There is hardly a shop in sight along the deserted roads. Only the facade of Hotel Abkhazia is still standing. Inside is a crane with a wrecking ball, which is just as rusty and unused as the hotel. Now and then a car screeches past. There is no middle ground between luxury Mercedes and BMWs, and the most dilapidated Ladas, Volgas and trolley buses. Next to the streets small canalised streams run alongside us to the sea. When we join the boulevard we walk straight into a huge ship lying diagonally on the beach. E Bar Mars is written on it. The inside of the ship still contains bar stools and tables, but otherwise everything is covered in rust. A group of boys is hanging around an old Lada. [ 72 ] Loud music emanates from the sound system. ‘We don’t have much else to do,’ they say. ‘Sukhumi is deadly boring.’
It’s New Year Eve. In the Military Staff Club at the UN base, the Jordanian officer Nabil announces that dinner is served. Slowly everyone shuffles into the room where a buffet of soup kitchen food is laid out. The heater is broken and it is freezing. Everyone is wearing thick coats and hats. A motley collection of nationalities sits around the table: a Sri Lankan, Jordanians, a Scot, a Jamaican, French, Poles, Germans, Bulgarians and Macedonians. The Pakistani general Khattak enters the room in full uniform, salutes and heaps food onto his plate. He goes and sits in a corner with Kofi Annan’s special deputy representative, the Bulgarian Petrov. It is quiet at the table. The gathering feels like a business dinner where the staff, with a great deal of reluctance, is required to get along with each other after five o’clock. After the hasty dinner without speeches or toasts, the Jamaican soldier Clive connects the karaoke set. ‘Please release me and let me love again’ is the first song he sings with conviction. The Scot Andrew sits at the bar nursing a glass of Russian beer. For decades, he has roamed the world, going from trouble spot to trouble spot. ‘It’s impossible to maintain a relationship if you work for the UN,’ he confides to us. He divorced his wife several years ago, and only sees his four children sporadically. At midnight the bottles of local champagne are uncorked. The sky above Sukhumi is ablaze. Flak and bullets from Kalashnikovs and pistols turn the sky red and yellow. The ominous sound gives the impression that the war has broken out again. ‘I told you so!’ calls a Sri Lankan with a pear-shaped face enthusiastically. ‘It’s easier to get bullets and ammunition here than fireworks.’ The UN personnel look on disapprovingly, then most of them hurry to their rooms to call their families. An hour later the UN headquarters is plunged into a deep sleep, occasionally interrupted by a stray Kalashnikov bullet. We look for our salvation elsewhere. Opposite Hotel Aitar a small restaurant stands over the Black Sea. When we arrive, we are warmly welcomed by a large group of young people who are overindulging at an incredible buffet. Three long tables are laden with meat, fish and vegetable dishes in the shape of geese and fish, large wine coolers with bottles of vodka and wine, bowls filled with khachapuri and aubergine snacks with walnuts and pomegranate seeds. Our arrival is a pleasant extra for the sons and daughters of the Abkhazian elite and we are
urged to tuck in. The vodka and wine taste good, the dishes are excellent. Slowly the guests at the various tables mix with each other, the music is switched on and the vodka clouds our minds. I sit at one of the long tables, if I remember correctly on the lap of a sweet girl who had introduced herself to me as the princess of Abkhazia. We talk extensively in a mishmash of Russian, English and German. In the middle of our brilliant discussion about God knows what, a young man suddenly comes up to me. ‘Your friend, your friend!’ he warns. Another foreign journalist who has been celebrating the evening with us lies bleeding on the floor. He had been dancing with one of the guests’ girlfriends, and that’s something you shouldn’t do here. We take him back to the UN base. A German doctor, whom we have woken up, examines him grumpily - the alcohol fumes are still hanging around his beard - but despite the blood and blackening eye, he can’t diagnose anything except that ‘this man is drunk.’ Clive the Jamaican - who had also been woken up - looks on helplessly. We go to sleep. Several days later, when the Abkhazians have slept off the drink, we can finally get to work. In good spirits we step over the holes in Sukhumi’s streets, on our way to arrange interviews with some bigwigs. The nice woman from the State Protocol Department listens patiently to our request, in which we give an explanation of the issues that we would like to discuss with some ministers and - maybe, if at all possible - the president? Miss State Protocol picks up her mobile phone, talks briefly with someone on the other end of the line and hangs up. ‘You have an interview with President Bagapsh F in 15 minutes.’ We look at each other bewildered. We hadn’t counted on this. Our smart tailored suits are still hanging in the hotel and I just happen to be wearing my jeans with a ripped crotch - a travel incident. You don’t make a president wait, with or without a hole in your crotch. Quarter of an hour later we enter his office and shake his hand. For an Abkhazian he is a remarkably tall man, with the air of a true statesman; grey hair, an equally grey suit and a serious, self-confident gaze. His office is modestly furnished. There are five telephones on his desk, none of which rings during the whole time that we are there.
It is a bizarre interview. After just five minutes, the president tries to cut the conversation short, even though he has only told us a little about Abkhazia’s early history. With difficulty, we are able to stretch it to half an hour. We ask the president to what extent he is actually president of this country. Nobody in the world recognises him and he can only do any kind of business with Russia. For 15 years this border has been the only way in and out for Abkhazians. Wouldn’t it be easy for Russia to dominate the country? we ask the president. ‘The Abkhazians are largely dependent on this friendship,’ says President Bagapsh. ‘We have no choice; no other country in the world wants to help us.’ He then tells us about his own election. In 2004, Russia supported the candidacy of Khajimba, his rival. After a long electoral battle that almost ended in civil war, Bagapsh won. He made up with Khajimba, who became prime minister in the first Bagapsh government. ‘That makes our country the only former Soviet republic where the opposition came to power without a revolution,’ he says. ‘Look at Georgia. All three post-Soviet leaders came to power violently or as a result of a revolution. Now it’s a matter of waiting for Saakashvili to clear the field.’ The president looks at his watch again and scrutinises us, with my torn trouser. ‘Travel through our country and talk to the inhabitants,’ he says by way of farewell. ‘Tell the people in Europe that the majority of our country voted for independence in 1999. Tell them that the right to self-determination outweighs Georgia’s attempts to keep us together artificially. Realities change.’ The security guard shows us out. Time to explore Abkhazia, time for a shot of vodka and a tailor. We raise our glasses and make one more New Year’s resolution for 2007: always be prepared, because you can meet a president at any time of day.
[ 36 ] Sukhumi, Abkhazia
View from an apartment in Novi Raion of the Black Sea. By 1989, Sukhumi had 110,000 inhabitants and was one of Georgiaâ€™s most prosperous cities.
[ 40 ] Sukhumi, Abkhazia The many empty houses are offered for free to ethnic Abkhazians in the diaspora who are prepared to move back to Abkhazia. The government hopes in this way to fill the population gap.
[ 38 ] Tkvarcheli, Abkhazia
Former theatre auditorium in Tkvarcheli. As a consequence of the chronic population decline few public buildings still function.
The only mine in Tkvarcheli still in operation is run by a Turkish company, with mainly Turkish employees. The coal is transported by ship to Turkey.
[ 41 ] Tkuarchal, Abkhazia
[ 42 ] Eshera, Abkhazia
Mikhail Yefremovich Zetunyan (89) during our second meeting in 2010. During the war with Georgia, he risked his life to sabotage the Georgian electricity supply. See also page [ 115 ]
Seventeen years on, empty houses are still filled with the relics of the former inhabitants.
[ 44 ] Sukhumi, Abkhazia
[ 48 ] Tkvarcheli, Abkhazia Construction of a new cement plant in Tkvarcheli has been planned, its output to be used for the Olympic construction projects in Sochi. Georgia regards all this investment as illegal.
[ 46 ] Sukhumi, Abkhazia The Turkish-Abkhazian Faruk was offered a house by the Abkhazian repatriation programme. He doesn’t have any money to renovate it.
[ 49 ] Sukhumi, Abkhazia Pictures of Sener Gogua, a Turkish-Abkhazian member of the Abkhazian parliament and chairman of the Abkhazian Chamber of Commerce in Turkey: ‘I was on my summer holiday in Gagra when the war broke out. That’s when I joined the Abkhazian army.’
[ 50 ] Sukhumi, Abkhazia The house of the Turkish-Abkhazian Faruk: ‘It’s absolutely nothing, don’t you agree? It’s a mess and at least 25 minutes walk from the centre.’
Colliding histories In which we get lost in Abkhaziaâ€™s troubled past
Black Sea 8Wjkc_
Wherever we are in Abkhazia and whoever we meet, the war in ’92-’93 is always the absolute point of reference. For the inhabitants, but also for us as travellers, the war is inescapable. Two-thirds of Abkhazia’s pre-war population was driven out of the country and as a result a comparable percentage of buildings and farmland is empty. There are ruins everywhere. Strangely enough, the inhabitants do not seem to see them anymore. When we ask about them they point right through them, to indicate the magnificent magnolia or tea plantation behind them. The Abkhazian conflict cannot be comprehended without taking a brief tour of history. Geopolitically, the Caucasus can be compared to the Balkans. Just as the Balkans were a plaything for Russia, the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, and during the Cold Wall were on the border between West and East, the history of the Caucasus is a series of conflicts, purely and simply as a result of its position between the Russians, the Persians and the Ottomans and later the Turks. Like the Balkans, the Caucasus is a mix of Christianity and Islam. Perhaps the most important difference is the high mountains, which form an even greater wall and line of defence than the wooded hills of the Balkans. When God created the Earth and man in his image, begins one of the many creation myths in the Caucasus, he took a large sack full of languages and flew over the Earth to distribute them. England was given its language as were France, Russia, China and so on. At the end of his journey, God still had many unused languages in his sack which he didn’t know what to do with. In desperation, he quickly shook out the remainder over the Caucasus. Anyone who looks at old ethnic maps of the Caucasus will see that almost every valley has its own language. Some are related to Persian or Turkish, like Armenian and Azeri, but some, like Abkhazian and Georgian, form tiny, independent language families. In Arabic the mountains are called jabal al-alsun, the mountains of languages. Persians, Arabs, Russians, Mongolians; all these major races have tried to seize the Caucasus or use it to their advantage, but no one has ever succeeded completely. The innumerable peoples of the Caucasus did, however, lend themselves to divide and rule politics. Nowhere is that better described than in the many Russian classics about the Caucasus, such as Leo Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat. This politico-historical but predominantly romantic tale about Imam Shamil, who in the 19th century created previously unknown political unity in the Caucasus, describes how the mountain peoples ultimately crumbled in the face of Russia’s advance and bribery tactics. Pushkin and Lermontov, Russian greats from the 19th century, also travelled through the Caucasus and described the spectacular entanglements between the Russian imperialists and the ‘noble savages’ from the Caucasus. And spectacular they were. The Caucasian War (1816-1864), which cost tens of thousands of people their life, changed the Caucasus irrevocably. During the war the anti-Russian fighters discovered Islam as a unifying and political tool. Georgia, in its turn, earned the reputation among the smaller peoples of ‘small Russia’, thanks to its voluntary alliance with Russia
out of fear for the advancing Turks. Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, became one of the capitals in the Caucasus from where a Russified Georgian elite ruled the Caucasus in cooperation with the Russians. Finally, the Caucasian War created a gigantic diaspora of predominantly Islamic Caucasians, who fled to the Ottoman Empire from the murderous, Christian Russians. Joseph Stalin A is by far Georgia’s most famous inhabitant. He was acquainted with the Caucasus’ different nationalities like no other at the top of the Bolshevik party apparatus. After the Communists seized power, Stalin as party commissar (1917-1924) was charged with the minority issue. In a speech to the Supreme Soviet he declared that the Caucasian mountain peoples had suffered enough under the tsars and should be helped instead of suppressed. But no regime would have more radical consequences for the Caucasus than that of the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin. Under Lenin’s command, the North Caucasus and the Black Sea coast were designated as holiday destinations for the proletariat. With great difficulty the inhospitable coast and mountains were paved and filled with hotels and sanatoria. The mass tourism went hand in hand with the mass immigration of Russians. Stalin altered the population composition even more drastically by transporting whole ethnic groups to Central Asia. In addition to the Cherkessians, Chechens, Balkarians and Ingushetians, Abkhazia’s Greek, Bulgarian and Armenian minorities were deported. Russian and Georgian colonisers took their place in the Caucasus. They had often also been forced to move. This is the background of the widespread hatred of Georgians in Abkhazia and the North Caucasus.
Just as Chechnya, for example, was an autonomous republic (ASSR) within the Russian Federation, so Abkhazia was within the Georgian Republic. It had not always been. For a few years - between 1921 and 1931 - Abkhazia had had the status of republic, in a federation with Georgia, within the Soviet Union. During the Soviet era there were regular uprisings against the central regime in the Caucasus, in particular in Georgia and Chechnya. On 18 March 1989 - perhaps they foresaw the collapse of the Soviet Union - thousands of Abkhazians in Sukhumi demanded the independence of their
autonomous republic, although still within the Soviet Union structure. At the beginning of April 1989, five months before the first protests in the East German Leipzig broke out - after which the Wall fell, heralding the fall of Communism - hundreds of thousands of Georgians in Tbilisi demonstrated in turn against the claims of the Abkhazians and for Georgian independence outside the Soviet Union. The Georgians got too far ahead of themselves. The demonstration was crushed, with dozens dead and thousands wounded as a result. Opposing the separatist regime in Abkhazia, led by the historian Vladislav Ardzinba, was the almost revolutionary regime of the Soviet dissident and poet Zviad Gamsakhurdia. The latter had, in response to Russian attempts to Russify Georgia since 1955, developed into a Georgian nationalist. In his rhetoric, Georgia was, as a religious national state, superior to the small federal states and minorities such as the Ossetians, Ajarians, Armenians and Abkhazians. In the first democratic elections Gamsakhurdia won with 64 percent of the vote. Georgia for Georgians, he proclaimed, thereby setting in motion a series of events that gained speed as they hurtled towards horrific inter-ethnic violence. Under his short leadership Georgia became embroiled in civil war, in which countless rival militias conspired with each other to take over the government and the country. Through a troika of anti-Ghamsakhurdia militias, Eduard Shevernadze was brought in from Moscow where, since 1985, he had been the face of the perestroika abroad. Prior to that, he had spent nearly three decades in the highest echelons of the Communist Party in Georgia. In that capacity he had already arrested the dissident Gamsakhurdia and sent him to a labour camp in Dagestan. However, Shevernadze did not seek peace with the separatists in Abkhazia either. The conflict derailed. The war in Abkhazia played out against the complete disintegration of government and society in the Soviet Union. The economy was at a standstill, the army had to be divided between the new countries and sitting leaders and dissidents fought for power in new state systems. The new geopolitical relations in a world after the collapse of the Soviet Union, without the self-evident leadership role of Moscow, still had to crystallise. Besides the Georgian army, several militias with their own agendas were also active in Georgia and Abkhazia, all responsible for the most grievous violation of human rights. The war in Abkhazia against the Georgians was fought by an unlikely coalition. Islamic fighters from Chechnya, Cossacks from South Russia, troops and agents from the Kremlin, the Abkhazian diaspora and volunteers fought side by side with the Abkhazians. Russian aeroplanes bombed Georgian positions, in response to which Georgians carried out reprisals with weapons obtained via Russia. The Moloch Soviet Union may have disappeared overnight, but everyone still had contacts everywhere with civil servants, Kremlin officials, army officers, inspectors at munitions depots and KGB staff. In the informal circuit - and in those chaotic days of the former Soviet Union what wasnâ€™t informal? - anything could be arranged.
In reports from that period a cycle of increasingly horrific crimes becomes apparent. In this dirty war men like Basayev – the future Chechen guerrilla leader behind the Beslan school and Moscow Nord-Ost theatre hostage crises, among others - learned their grim handiwork. In its brutality, the war in Abkhazia is comparable to Bosnia. Here too brothers and neighbours attacked each other; here too a market was bombed, killing dozens. But here there was no international UN force which eventually intervened. This was a nothingto-do-with-me show, collateral damage that was part and parcel of the fall of the Cold War enemy. Gagra is in western Abkhazia, near the Russian border. The surroundings are spectacular, nestled in a sort of basin of the Black Sea, with lush green hills which climb quickly upwards to the Caucasus Mountains. The western part of the city is old, with some remnants from the 19th century; the newer part B was built after the Second World War and is dominated by high-rise hotel apartments and sprawling parks.
Gagra is a postcard icon. The hotels, the colonnade, the famous restaurant on the hill with a Swiss clock on its façade: whoever displayed this postcard on their mantelpiece showed that they rubbed shoulders with the Soviet elite; because Gagra, even more so than Sochi, Pitsunda or Sukhumi, was a reward not given to everyone. On the main road is a sanatorium which was still brand new when the war broke out. The staff had barely settled in. In Gagra the war, the actual fighting, only lasted two and a half months. Prior to that, the sanatorium had been the local headquarters of the Georgian armed forces. After the two-and-ahalf-month war, it became the sanatorium for Abkhazians wounded in the war. And it still is. It is now called RRC, Republic Rehabilitation Centre. We walk through the building. In a skilfully decorated wooden cabinet in the canteen the bullet holes are still visible. Abkhazian snipers in the flat opposite aimed at the Georgians here. By a bizarre coincidence, a real bullet hit the cabinet precisely at the place where the hunter carved into the wood was aiming. C
We speak to Tina D, Viacheslav and Leonid E, who are 57, 60 and 68 respectively. The men both wear acrylic Adidas tracksuits. When we ask about them, they joke that their wives were shopping together at the market and both liked the same tracksuit. Tina tells us that she is actually Russian, from Krasnodar. As a nurse, she felt compelled to help the Abkhazians in their losing battle. ‘A Georgian general said that they’d destroy Abkhazia in 25 minutes. Then those volunteers arrived. They came from all over the world, I even saw black people.’ On the Gumista front, just north of the capital Sukhumi, she was wounded in her stomach and ribs. Her stomach still gives her a lot of trouble. She is severely disabled. ‘War’s war, that’s the way it goes,’ she says. ‘I’ve made my peace with it.’ She spends five months of the year in the rehabilitation centre. ‘Otherwise she’d die,’ says one of the doctors who is listening to our conversation. Viacheslav was a tankist. ‘On 24 August my tank caught on fire in Nizhny Eshera,’ he says. ‘It was hellish. I and two others survived, seven people didn’t make it.’ Viacheslav sustained eye and brain damage. He still hears ringing in his ears. Even so, after he was discharged from hospital he fought on all the way to Gali, on the Georgian border. He proudly shows us his medal of valour.
Leonid, the oldest of the three, still can’t believe it. ‘I studied in Georgia. When I was young I couldn’t even speak Abkhazian. I subsequently, and with much difficulty, taught it to my myself.’ Leonid was a teacher and head of the school in Gudauta. His Georgian students called him Joseph because they thought he
looked like Stalin. Many of them later fought against him on the front. Twentyeight of his students died. He starts to cry softly as he talks about it. Tina puts her arm around his shoulders. ‘War isn’t good,’ she says, ‘neither for the winner, nor the loser. Peace would have been better, but everyone who took part in the war on our side would say that it was worth the pain and effort. For the motherland.’ In the summer of 1993 the war in Abkhazia came to an end. While the Russians oversaw a fragile ceasefire, the Abkhazians unexpectedly broke through the lines and caught the Georgians off guard. The entire former ASSR, with the exception of the elevated Kodori Gorge, was conquered. Russian troops from the CIS and the UN mission UNOMIG were deployed to guard the borders. Abkhazia was free, but had paid a high price. It had driven out two-thirds of its citizens and the country was in ruins. It was recognised by no one, and smuggling, corruption and illegality were the only means to get hold of raw materials and products. Every peace process failed. Abkhazia had been amputated from Georgia and faced difficult years ahead in complete isolation. That is was happened in reality, but as is always the case in conflict zones the views of the conflicting parties are as different as night and day. In Tbilisi we talk to historian Zurab Papaskiri who, in 1993, fled from Sukhumi to Tbilisi. According to him, there was no room for doubt; the Russians were the root of all evil. ‘The Abkhazians originally come from the mountains and didn’t know anything about agriculture and industry. So the Bolsheviks from Russia gave the Abkhazians jobs in politics, in schools and in the police force. They became the country’s elite,’ he tells us resentfully. ‘The Georgians were the workhorses. During the perestroika the Abkhazians were worried about privatisation. They wanted to keep their elite power and independence was a way to ensure that.’ Until the war Papaskiri was a historian in Sukhumi’s university, where the disagreement about history raised its head with increasing frequency. ‘Since 1977 there had been historiographical confrontations between us and the Abkhazian professors. About who was in the country first, for example, us or the Abkhazians. After the protests in 1989, the university was in effect made up of two halves. The Abkhazians said that they wanted to be independent, but in reality they wanted to be part of Russia,’ he says. With a sardonic grin he adds: ‘One day they’ll find out what that means. The Abkhazians should look at Dagestan, Chechnya and all the other regions in Russia. Russia’s destroying them.’ As long as the Russians continue to meddle in Abkhazia, the relationship between Abkhazians and Georgians will never improve, Papaskiri is convinced. ‘Furthermore, Abkhazians have a zoological hatred of the Georgians. They think of us as their overlords.’ Sergei Shamba, the Abkhazian Minister of Foreign Affairs, takes a very different view of matters. He receives us in his office in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Sukhumi. His business card intrigues us. What would possess a
Minister of Foreign Affairs to put Doctor of Historic Science in the most prominent position on his card? We soon find out. ‘We’re independent, always have been,’ he begins the conversation assertively. ‘In the Middle Ages the Abkhazians had already developed a codex which stated that the country had been given to us by God. According to this codex the Abkhazians’ main task is to defend the country, it’s a code of honour. That’s why we’ve never been expansionist; we’re eternally joined to this country.’ Interviews here nearly always begin with an extended lecture on Georgian or Abkhazian History, in which the historical justification for the Georgian claim to Abkhazia or vice verse is explained. This can take hours. Neither is it confined to recent history, or the Soviet era. These historical explanations go much further back, sometimes to the eighth century, or even biblical times if these are more favourable. But history is a discussion without end. Winston Churchill once wrote about the Balkans: ‘they produce more history than they can bear’. The same could be said of the Caucasus. A jumble of stories, battles, migrations and historical figures such as Giorgi the Great from Georgia and kings from Abkhazia become entangled in my notebooks. The common thread that you can extract from them - after laboriously having disentangled the histories - is of two proud civilisations on the one hand and oppression on the other. ‘In the Soviet era, Abkhazia was the only region that revolted at least every ten years,’ Minister Shamba tells us proudly. ‘The Soviet Union’s reaction was to destroy the intelligentsia. Georgia introduced its alphabet, people and falsified history here. Cultural genocide was committed. Georgia didn’t even exist before Stalin; we did. The time that we were part of Georgia was a historical discontinuity. We fought for our independence, and were able to fend off the Georgians twice. We have the historical right to be an independent state.’ To lend strength to his words Shamba bangs his fist on the table. ‘This is your first time in Abkhazia, and you see a poor country,’ he continues without pausing. ‘But if you keep coming back you’ll see development. The blockade and international sanctions in the ’90s destroyed a lot. The naval and air blockade is still in force. But we’re working hard to boost the budget, we have a highly educated population and a good location as a transit country in the region. We have beautiful sanatoria. The only thing we need is peace and stability.’ In the room opposite Minister Shamba is the young Maxim Gvinjia F. As Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs with fluent English he is a model ambassador for his country. He travels around the world drumming up recognition for his country. He visits the United Nations and the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, he goes to Turkey to persuade it to establish trade relations with Abkhazia and receives journalists of different stripes, like us. And like all Abkhazians we meet, he is only too happy to tell us his personal history in relation to that of the country. ‘You know that Stalin and his head of the NKVD, Beria, were both Georgian, don’t you?’ he begins his argument. ‘They joined Georgia and Abkhazia together again. My grandfather died in Stalin’s
Gulag, my father in the war in ’92-’93, a war which only took place because Beria populated our country with Georgians. Under Stalin, trains carrying Georgians arrived in Abkhazia to fill the Abkhazian’s empty houses.’
Gvinjia jumps easily to the present; ‘I don’t believe in Saakashvili’s new democratic Georgia. The whole world is taken with him, but from our perspective Georgia is still an aggressive state. That war ruined my life, I can’t trust them anymore. Our salaries are low and our personal lives are really tough, but I’ll keep fighting for my country’s independence, even if it’s hard.’ None of the Abkhazians we meet disagrees with Gvinjia. Everyone aspires to independence; no one wants to go back to the Georgians. ‘The first Georgian soldier who sets foot on Abkhazian soil will be shot,’ says Gvinjia, before reciting the mantra we will hear time and time again. ‘I believe in reconciliation, but I don’t know about my neighbour. Until 1999 we tried to reach an agreement with Georgia. We proposed federalism, the common state, but they refused everything. Only in 1999 did we definitively declare independence. The train has left the station; I don’t know what Georgia still has to offer us. There’s no way back.’
Tribute to war casualties in Sukhumiâ€™s cultural centre. You see these kinds of notice boards in every school and public building.
[ 64 ] Sukhumi, Abkhazia
Milana Vozba is a student at the university in Sukhumi and works as a freelance translator. She learned her American English during an Americansponsored college year.
[ 66 ] Sukhumi, Abkhazia
[ 69 ] Cakallik, Turkey Ayyund Sendogan was the only Abkhazian person from the Turkish village Cakallik who wanted to fight in the war against the Georgians. After the war his brother took a photo of him in the place where he was riddled with bullets.
[ 70 ] Sukhumi, Abkhazia
Sports lessons at the university in Sukhumi. The willingness - particularly among young people to take up arms again remains undiminished.
[ 72 ] Sukhumi, Abkhazia
Young people at sunset on the Black Sea coast in the centre of Sukhumi.
[ 74 ] Tbilisi, Georgia
Photos of artist Papuna Papaskiri from his childhood in Abkhazia. As an ethnic Georgian he had to flee Abkhazia with his family in 1993.
[ 76 ] Tbilisi, Georgia Papuna Papaskiri lived for a long time with his parents in a refugee flat, until he realised that he was the only one who could change his situation.
[ 79 ] Sukhumi, Abkhazia Tribute to war casualties at the university in Sukhumi.
[ 80 ] Tkuarchal, Abkhazia
Tribute to war casualties in Tkvarcheliâ€™s cultural centre.
[ 82 ] Ochemchira, Abkhazia
Driver and member of the youth movement ‘Molodaya Abkhazia’ (Young Abkhazia) Ardash (19) in front of his car.
Stalin, Novi Afon & the UN Where the rulers of the Soviet Union once spent their holidays, the UN and Russian peacekeepers now keep watch
Abkhazia Black Sea
Stalin, Novi Afon & the UN
After the war, Abkhazia was devastated. That is always catastrophic, especially for a country largely dependent on tourism, but Abkhazians are still incredibly proud of their country’s attractions. We follow local advice and take a taxi to tourist attraction number one, Novi Afon, a coastal town just west of Sukhumi. The car stops at one of Abkhazia’s brilliant but bizarre bus stations, monstrous creations designed to look like shells, sea monsters, octopuses and waves. The bus stations often seem to have been restored, which is even stranger. After all, the rest of the country is in ruins and we have scarcely seen any buses. From the bus stop and up into the hills, everything is geared towards tourism. Old women stand next to the path with honey and strings of nuts in congealed grape juice, and a restaurant offers the option to cross the lake in a pedal boat shaped like a swan. On top of the hill the domes of the Novi Afon - New Athens - monastery gleam. The Orthodox faith never vanished completely. During the Soviet era the monastery was incorporated into the local kolchoz, but continued to attract hordes of tourists. Monks now live here again and the complex is gradually being restored. Between the wooden scaffolding tourists and visitors burn candles and murmur their prayers. The monastery has great value due to Simon the Zealot, one of Christ’s 12 Apostles, who lived nearby in a cave. Behind the monastery is a medieval-looking village of primitive houses, pigs, chickens and a 20th-century car wreck. Further up in the mountains are Europe’s deepest cakes, we read in our old travel guide. This is one of the most beautiful places in Abkhazia. It is no wonder, then, that the most notorious Soviet tyrant built one of his dachas here. A priest shows us the way. Through a rusty gate next to the monastery we find ourselves on a path winding between the mandarin trees. We pass citrus orchards full of fruit, navigate around a couple of stray cows and knock on the door of the dacha. When a woman answers we ask in our clumsy Russian whether this is Stalin’s house. She nods stiffly and lets us in. In the front room we wait until the group in front of us finishes the tour. To kill time we use the jet-black, Bakelite telephone through which the small Georgian who ruled the Soviet Union for so long with a rod of iron - no steel - must have barked the most horrific orders. The tourists who come back from the tour appear to be Russians who introduce themselves as ‘friends of Stalin’. This admiration for Stalin is remarkable. In recent years the extreme rightwing Russian politician Zhirinovsky - one of Stalin’s biggest fan - also visited the dacha, they tell us. Russian television showed him and a group of friends in the house as they indulged in a bout of heavy drinking. Zhirinovsky called on every Russian to follow his example and to come and breathe some good, clean air on the Abkhazian coast. And voila, here they are. We walk through rooms with light wooden panelling up to the ceiling. The whole place feels like a low-budget James Bond film. As the tour is in Russian and we don’t have an interpreter with us, many stories go over our heads. But one thing is clear. Every object – be it a wall, a table, an out-of-tune piano or a
Stalin, Novi Afon & the UN
toilet seat - belonged to Stalin, as evidenced by the guide’s gestures towards the objects and the simultaneous proclamation of Stalin’s name. The highlight of the tour is an enormous table at which Stalin gave his infamous banquets. From the head of the table you still look out at a beautiful landscape painting of Siberia. A When Stalin had one of his notorious paranoia attacks during dinner and the vodka had began to flow - we imagine - he must have regularly pointed to the painting with his short arm and shouted: ‘Beware! Otherwise I’ll send you there!’
Abkhazia was once known as the private property of the KGB, the Soviet security services. The entire country was filled with sanatoria and dachas for the leaders and senior officers. This was also the strategy of local party boss Lakoba B, who wielded power from 1921. By building dachas and holiday houses everywhere and lavishly wining and dining the Moscow leadership, Lakoba was able to protect Abkhazia to a certain degree from the widespread collectivisation of the ’20s and ’30s.
That changed when Stalin’s protégé and later head of the dreaded NKVD, Lavrenti Beria, was appointed head of Georgia. In 1931 Beria put an end to the autonomy within Georgia that Abkhazia had enjoyed until then. In 1936, during a sumptuous dinner in Tbilisi, he poisoned Lakoba and launched his policy of moving Georgian farmers to Abkhazia.
Stalin, Novi Afon & the UN
Reportedly, Beria drove through the streets in his limousine at night looking for attractive females. He picked out girls, raped them and meticulously added their names to his list of accomplishments. According to historian Simon SebagMontefiore, Stalin himself once rang his house in shock when he heard that his daughter Svetlana was having dinner there. She was immediately ordered to leave her notorious companion. That probably all took place here, in armoured cars on the winding, overgrown path behind the sky-blue UN buildings around Hotel Aitar. In a strange twist of history, Beria’s old villa is now occupied by the head of the United Nations, which is monitoring the ceasefire between Georgia and Abkhazia. As we walk up the sloping path towards the compound no soldier or security guard notices us. Only once we are in the villa are we approached by a young man who introduces himself as Hailu. He comes from Ethiopia and is the political adviser to Ivo Petrov, the Bulgarian leading the UN mission in Abkhazia. He leaves us waiting for a moment and walks up the grand staircase to inform Petrov of our arrival. Slowly, perhaps it has something to do with the Ethiopian, a feeling creeps over us of the last emperor, who sits alone in his palace awaiting the downfall of his empire, or in this case his mission. Petrov makes a weary impression. It can be no easy task working in this country and this political environment. Petrov is charged with observing the ‘ceasefire’ of 1994 and safeguarding the return of refugees. At the same time the UN troops observe the CIS troops, who have been upholding the ceasefire since 1994. But observation alone makes the UN a toothless tiger. ‘On both sides of the border groups are always ready to fight again,’ says Petrov. ‘The Cherkessians from the North Caucasus will step in to help the Abkhazians at a moment’s notice, and the Georgians are also easy to mobilise. ‘Frozen conflicts like this one,’ continues Petrov, ‘are always better than hot conflicts. At least there are few casualties now. Even if this situation lasts another hundred years. But the situation here remains so fragile.’ He tells us about the recent death of a Georgian woman from Gali. Her son works at the UN as an interpreter, so Petrov has heard the story firsthand. ‘She was going to a hospital in the Georgian Zugdidi,’ he says. ‘She was standing in the queue at the Russian checkpoint. It was clear she was sick and the Russians took her across the river in a military vehicle. There, her son took over again, but she died on the way to the hospital. A terrible story, but these things happen. The next day, the Georgian television channel Rustaveli II picked up the story. In their report the Russians had picked the woman out of the queue, shoved her into a car and beaten her to death. Subsequently, they didn’t give her to her son, no, they threw her in the ditch. And so millions of Georgian viewers were once again whipped into a frenzy about the Russians, about the situation in Abkhazia, and Saakashvili could have mobilised a massive army of enraged Georgians within an hour.’ Petrov shakes his head. Under the leadership of the UN and others, the Abkhazians together with
Stalin, Novi Afon & the UN
the Georgians visit other multi-ethnic regions, to learn what coexisting can be like. These include South Tyrol, Cyprus and even Switzerland. When we put this to the Abkhazian Minister of Foreign Affairs Shamba, he laughs and quickly waves the notion away. ‘Of course not, where did you get that from? Yes, we were in South Tyrol, but that was for a holiday!’ Petrov sighs again wearily. ‘Holiday. It’s his supporters. Everyone in Abkhazia is a champion of the independence struggle. If you admit to it you’re lost. He’ll never confirm it publicly, even though all our talks and conferences are aimed at bringing Georgia and Abkhazia together, or at least tackling the refugee problem. ‘Abkhazians are naturally stubborn,’ says Petrov. Then he thinks for a moment. ‘But who isn’t? Tell a Bulgarian that Macedonians aren’t Bulgarians, and they’ll laugh out loud.’ To illustrate his point he makes a long, hoarse ‘haa’. ‘Russia won’t follow the example of Kosovo by declaring Abkhazia independent. Every country has its own Abkhazia. Russia certainly does. As a Bulgarian,’ he confides in us, ‘I definitely oppose granting Kosovo independence. Do that and the whole region will fall apart.’ That evening we find ourselves in the bar at the Red Army Sanatorium in Sukhumi, for years the permanent residence of the Russian Peace Mission. They were also here during the war, protecting the sanatorium from destruction. Apart from the new sound system, we could be back in the Soviet Union as we dance the night away with the Red Army men and women in a sort of circus tent. The vodka and cheap cigarettes are brought in. A soldier hangs half under a table. ‘I love Abkhazia,’ he stammers. Apart from the incidental shootings in the Gali region on the Georgian border, their mission feels almost like a holiday. Vladimir Lenin, the founder of this holiday paradise, rendered in a mosaic of red tiles, watches us as we turn onto the long road back to our UN hotel.
Stalin, Novi Afon & the UN
Borrowed by Abkhazians In which we exchange desolate Abkhazia for metropolitan Tbilisi
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Borrowed by Abkhazians
In the Gali region, on the eastern border with Georgia, the Cold War between Abkhazia and its former motherland is most tangible. ‘Welcome to Georgia,’ says the barmaid when we stop for lunch at a small restaurant. Responding with the Russian spassieba doesn’t go down well here; thank you is the Georgian madlobt. This area is home to around 30,000 Mingrelians, one of the Georgian tribes who returned relatively soon after the war. Large numbers of Abkhazians have never lived here, which made it easier. The area is demilitarised, which means that no soldiers are allowed within 12 kilometres of either side of the border, and no heavy artillery may be deployed within 40 kilometres of either side of the border. The only armies permitted to come here are those of the United Nations and Russia. Their barracks dominate Gali’s main square, the centre of the region. In the middle of the town is the Centre for Humanitarian Studies. It sounds pompous, but it is chiefly a lovely house with comfortably furnished living rooms and a kitchen where a cook seems to spend all day catering for the staff and guards. We are served coffee and chocolates round the Christmas tree. ‘We act as an unofficial peace mediation body,’ says Nadia. ‘In Abkhazia no objective information about Georgia is available, so we try to provide it. We organise informal contact between Abkhazians and Georgians and point to the achievements of our democracy and legal system. But it’s hard work. The people here are very introverted, they’re suspicious. In Georgia they’re considered traitors because they’ve gone to live in Abkhazia. Abkhazia demands loyalty from them. They’re pulled in two directions. ‘Abkhazia’s isolation hurts us a lot. Russia invests a little, but it’s very cynical that Europe sends Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross, but otherwise leaves us to fend for ourselves. That’s also why we want more contact with Georgia. Not to join the country - Abkhazians reproach us for meeting our families’ murderers – but to help our country move on. We aren’t selling our country. We want peace.’ That evening we eat in one of the guesthouses where the United Nations’ soldiers are accommodated. The houses are often enormous, built for large families with a big piece of attached land. On sites like Google Maps these are clearly visible; a pattern of white blocks - those are the houses - between the farmlands, winding uphill and through valleys. This house sleeps the United Nations’ Nordic contingent, consisting of two Swedes and one Dane. Our Georgian hostess Tamar cooks a tasty combination of local delicacies - tangy cheese biscuits, walnut-aubergine snacks and Western dishes such as pasta and fish. While she tries to tempt us to consume three times our body weight in food and drink, the Dane explains his work situation. ‘The economic situation is disastrous; unemployment is between 80 and 90 percent. Everyone lives self-sufficiently and exchanges a few things with each other; that’s it. That leads to a high crime rate. People here are happy if they’re only robbed three times a year. Last year eight people died as a result of armed violence, probably all politically motivated.
Borrowed by Abkhazians
We found and dismantled two arms depots. It’s like the Wild West here.’ Our hostess does her best to turn the conversation to food, drink and life. In this region, this kind of festive meal is not the place for discussions. There should be toasting and drinking, but with only sober Western Europeans at the table that’s difficult. ‘All the ceasefire agreements look good on paper,’ says the UN soldier, ‘but in practice our monitoring function is hardly feasible. For example, one agreement states that no Abkhazian or Georgian soldiers are allowed here. However, it says nothing about the predominantly Abkhazian municipal officials who are allowed, armed and everything, because weapons aren’t banned. We can stop tanks and artillery, or at least indicate their presence, but we’re powerless when it comes to attempted murder, returning fire and provocations. Still, life here for the Georgian returnees is better than in Georgia. This is where they come from, this is where they have fertile land and a large house. Almost all returnees find their own house empty. If you look at the conditions of the refugees in Zugdidi, just over the Georgian border, you understand why people come back. Even though they’re not allowed to have a Georgian passport here, they have little legal protection and no education of their own.’ To please our hostess, we quickly pour another drink and make a toast to the dead. ‘Although the whole situation is the result of cynical politics,’ says the soldier, ‘remarkably few people take politics seriously. According to Abkhazia, a border with Georgia is a few kilometres away. Georgia insists that it isn’t a border but a demarcation line. Ordinary people couldn’t care less. They trade with Sukhumi or Zugdidi, wherever the prices are highest. Abkhazia has a handful of official border crossings; the locals know of more than 50. They try to stay out of trouble as much as possible, but that’s difficult with Georgian militia wandering around here and demanding loyalty, suspicious, armed Abkhazian government envoys and a legal system in which a Georgian has never won a lawsuit.’ Before we cross back over the border, or demarcation line, with Georgia we visit Ochemchira, the port just outside the demilitarised zone. Ochemchira has always been more of a Georgian-inhabited port town than a tourist destination. Of the 25,000 pre-war inhabitants, only 5,000 still live there. Almost everything is empty, the streets are as riddled with holes as Swiss cheese, the main train station is in ruins. [ 92 ] On a dump a pig and a rat fight over the rubbish. On the boulevard are small sculptures made from the same kind of mosaic tiles as the sea monster bus stops mentioned earlier, but here they are in ruins. We climb into empty houses and find traces of life; an old wardrobe, a desk, broken cutlery. Under the plaster and wallpaper are old newspapers with reports on the country’s progress in 1962. A It is strange to think that the original owners were killed or expelled in the war. Perhaps they now live just ten kilometres to the south, in the Georgian town of Zugdidi.
Borrowed by Abkhazians
The current residents have painted Borrowed by Abkhazians in large letters on a block of flats on Lenin Street. The residents are astounded by our arrival. There are few foreigners in Sukhumi, let alone in this godforsaken place. Masik B, carrying a fishing pole and a bag full of fish, invites us to his flat. ‘I’ve got no idea who lived here before me,’ he says. We climb the stairs to his apartment. On the whole floor, he and his neighbour are the only inhabitants; the rest of the apartments are empty. The corridors and walkways are filthy, the square in front of the building looks, well, as if it has been through a war. Masik shrugs. ‘It was much worse.’ He doesn’t find it strange that all these flats are empty. ‘That’s the way it goes. In my opinion, people who didn’t fight against us should be allowed to come back.’ But not to his apartment, which he has single-handedly renovated.
We meet Nina C, a young girl eager to practise her English with us. She invites us to her house for lunch. ‘What are Georgians like?’ she asks, curious about our adventures in the Georgian capital. When we say that the Georgians we have met so far have been nice people, she looks at us in disbelief. Nina was very young during the war. She has never met a Georgian and only knows them as bloodthirsty monsters from the history lessons at school. Her parents can talk to us about Tbilisi and Georgia, but evidently never do so with their children.
Borrowed by Abkhazians
We move on to Tbilisi, the vibrant capital of jazz bars, discos and swaying Georgians on broad boulevards. But after having spent a few weeks in Abkhazia, the image has changed. Subconsciously – that’s how the human psyche works - the aggressive, brutal Tbilisi with which we are permanently presented has taken hold in our minds. High time, thus, to investigate the Georgian side of the story. Once in Georgia, we are immediately asked to report back to the Georgian Ministry of Conflict Resolution. The Georgian regime is young and ambitious and wants the best possible international press it can get. Saakashvili has repeatedly said during his time in office that he wants to unite Georgia again. Whether a visit by the Western press to Abkhazia will help him achieve this is something of which they are still not entirely convinced in Tbilisi. So to visit Abkhazia you first need permission from the Georgians. In the inconspicuous building next to the Georgian parliament, opposite the rambling Marriott hotel, Deputy Minister of Conflict Resolution Ruslan Abashidze welcomes us with outstretched hands. ‘How was your trip to Abkhazia, what is your opinion on this whole issue? You’re journalists, aren’t you? You have to write an article about this shortly, so you must already have an opinion?’ Completely taken by surprise that we are the ones being interviewed, we try to construct a diplomatic answer. We reply that it has already been a generation since Abkhazians have lived with Georgians and that the few refugees we spoke to in Tbilisi have given up hope of returning. Here he interrupts us. ‘I’m a refugee and I want to return! In fact, if you visit Gagra in the future, I’ll be the city’s democratically elected mayor!’ Abashidze was 21 when he was forced to flee the war in Abkhazia. Through friends that he still has in Abkhazia, he knows that his family home was burned. ‘I’m a pacifist. During the Soviet Union, I refused military service. The last thing I wanted was to fight in my own country.’ Gradually we are able to turn the interrogation into an interview. ‘The story of Abkhazia is the story of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, like the story of Nakorno-Karabakh and Transnistria. And both the Abkhazians and the Georgians are the victims of it. I’m very sad about that. And the group behind it? The Russians, of course. ‘The Abkhazians have to choose. They’ll never be independent with Russia
Borrowed by Abkhazians
as a neighbour. The Russian influence in Abkhazia is significant. This ranges from Abkhazian political appointments to military and economic influence. Many people in Abkhazia are addicted to Russian support. Abkhazia has to choose, either to become an autonomous unit within small Georgia or a small and silly part of large Russia. What we’re going to do now is to build mutual trust. We want to renovate schools, and rebuild hospitals and infrastructure in the affected regions of Abkhazia.’ Are the Georgians pleased that you are investing in Abkhazia rather than in your own impoverished territory? we ask. Abashidze’s face hardens. ‘Abkhazia is our territory. We’re going to invest in Georgia, it’s our country. We’re not doing it for the de facto government, we’re doing it for the people.’ To show just how good relations are with the Abkhazian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Abashidze suggests calling his peer in Sukhumi on the spot. An animated but meaningless conversation follows, which ends with both wishing each other a happy new year. Then he turns back to us. ‘Of course we’ve made mistakes. It was a cruel war, but ultimately we were all victims of the system. The situation is so complicated, but we’re looking for a good solution. Look outside, see how Georgia is changing! We’re offering Abkhazia contact with the West. The choice is theirs: join us or follow in Russia’s footsteps.’ When Abashidze shows us out after the interview, we meet the second deputy minister in the corridor. ‘How was the weather in Abkhazia?’ he asks. ‘So-so,’ we answer. ‘A pity,’ he replies, ‘but when Abkhazia is Georgian again the weather there will always be good; the Caribbean of Europe!’ The first deputy minister looks at him reprovingly. ‘It is already Georgia,’ he hisses to his colleague. Georgia is so keen to resolve both conflicts, but history has outrun it. Abkhazia and Georgia are moving apart faster and faster. For many years Russia has been supporting Abkhazia and the nearby autonomous South Ossetia. By doing this Russia has backed Georgia into a corner. They know that Georgia will never be a serious negotiating partner for the EU and NATO as long as they have to deal with rebellious Asterixes and Obelixes within their borders. In 2007, this much is clear: Georgia appears to be on the road to nowhere. That evening our hostess in Tbilisi invites us to a gathering with a few of her friends. Everyone here knows people from Abkhazia, or people who had a holiday house there. They are extremely interested to hear about our meetings with Abkhazians and officials. They are all in their late twenties and early thirties. All share the same melancholy about the lost province. A few of them know Abkhazia as a holiday destination, from their youth, but most of all from the gruesome images that appeared on television and in newspapers in the early ’90s. They look in horror at the photos of ruined houses and listen to our stories. Everyone agrees with the deputy minister, who earlier that day expressed his firm belief in the peace process. We talk about the gaping hole between Georgia and Abkhazia, about the Abkhazian girl who imagined Georgians to
Borrowed by Abkhazians
be bloodthirsty monsters, about the solid conviction in Abkhazia that it will be an independent country. This is Tbilisi’s young, cultural vanguard, but when it comes to history lessons they are just as well versed as the average Abkhazian and Georgian we have met. The only difference is that their sense of reality is greater. ‘Of course Abkhazia belongs to Georgia, but it’s so unlikely that the two will ever be united again,’ says Sophia. For us, the transition from Abkhazia to Tbilisi feels like a journey through time. Here you feel just how rustic, small and old-fashioned Abkhazia is. We marvel at ATMs and new roads. Modern architecture fills the skyline, often showcases for Saakashvili’s new regime. Tbilisi is home to a major cultural vanguard, something you don’t find in Abkhazia. Unlike in Abkhazia, the Soviet Union here feels further and further away. ‘Abkhazia in 2006 seems hardly to have changed since the day after the war, except perhaps for a few more weeds,’ says Sophia and points to the photo of burned-out apartments in Novi Afon. Imagine if Abkhazia was taken in hand as vigorously as Georgia, we say. ‘Oh, Georgia,’ says Sophia. ‘We have a visual effects government. It may look much nicer, but behind the scenes it’s probably just as bad here as in Abkhazia.’
Borrowed by Abkhazians
Mayla Tushba (19) during a rehearsal in Gulripshâ€™s cultural centre. Since independence was declared, interest in traditional Abkhazian culture among all age groups has increased enormously.
[ 102 ] Gulripsh, Abkhazia
[ 105 ] Tbilisi, Georgia Posters in the room of a refugee family in Tbilisi. Religion is the only thing that many refugees have to hold on to.
Timur Dziba is the mufti of Abkhazia. ‘All the peoples of the North Caucasus come together in our prayer house,’ he says. ‘We are united in our faith.’
[ 106 ] Sukhumi, Abkhazia
There are no mosques in Abkhazia, only prayer houses. The government prohibits us from building them, say the Muslims.
[ 108 ] Sukhumi, Abkhazia
Georgian refugee apartments are full of self-made altars. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Georgian Orthodox Church quickly regained its important political and social role.
[ 110 ] Tbilisi, Georgia
Abkhazian hospitality in the country. The tamada and Valentina start singing the Soviet song ‘Heart’, from the film ‘Jolly Fellows’ which was shot in Abkhazia. Everyone joins in.
[ 112 ] Vladimirovka, Abkhazia
[ 115 ] Eshera, Abkhazia We meet Mikhail Yefremovich Zetunyan (88) for the first time in 2009. He has already built his coffin and gravestone. ‘I’m waiting to die,’ Mikhail says. ‘I fought in two World Wars. It hasn’t got any better.’ See also page [ 42 ]
Georgiaâ€™s liver In which we visit the refugees from Abkhazia who dream every day about their lost Abkhazian paradise
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Less than a week earlier we had spoken to the Abkhazian president in Sukhumi. We are once again sitting opposite an Abkhazian president, but this one in Tbilisi says he is the real one. The legally recognised president is called de jure, because Abkhazia is still officially part of Georgia. President Bagapsh, with whom we spoke in Sukhumi, is the de facto president, but is of course not recognised by Georgia. According to the Georgians, the real Abkhazian president is Teimuraz Mjavia. The Abkhazian government in exile is based in a shabby building in a suburb in Tbilisi. The self-proclaimed democratically elected chairman of the Abkhazian de jure government sits proudly behind his desk. A Georgian flag is pinned to his lapel. Behind his desk hangs a large Georgian flag and a neatly framed portrait of a fierce-looking President Saakashvili, also posing in front of a large Georgian flag. The desk is adorned with a large writing set with various accessories, which he constantly arranges and rearranges. He promises to write down our questions and then to provide one epic answer. It sounds promising. But all our questions, however concrete or practical, are answered with an extensive exposé of the history of the past ten centuries. He receives our interruptions graciously, before continuing his description of early Georgian history unperturbed. ‘Russia set its imperialist course under Catherine the Great. Russian history is based on this idea,’ he addresses us pedantically. Our interpreter - irritated that her interruptions remain unanswered - tremblingly translates his account. It is minus ten outside and the windows are covered in frost. ‘Georgia, on the other hand, is already 3,000 years old. We already had our first parliament in the 12th century; democracy is still in our genes.’ He continues his story with the highlights of Georgian history, a mirror image of the lectures we had just heard in Sukhumi. ‘In 1906 a Russian historian wrote that Abkhazia is not Georgia. That’s where the policy of divide and rule began. Abkhazia was not a great state, even though they still strongly maintain that they were. Georgia was; between the 11th and 14th centuries we were a united kingdom with more than 20 million people.’ He checks whether we are writing down what he says, and looks at his list on the table. ‘Always remember, the conflict in Abkhazia is not a conflict with Abkhazia,’ he warns. ‘When Georgia, as the first Soviet state, declared independence there was enormous pressure to join the Commonwealth of Independent States, CIS, more or less the successor of the USSR. That turned out to be a dirty trick by the Russians, because it allowed them to put Russian CIS soldiers on the border between Georgia and Abkhazia and slowly pry Abkhazia away from us. Our conflict in Abkhazia is a conflict with Russia.’ The president without a country does not officially have his seat in Tbilisi, but in the Kodori Gorge, a tiny piece of land high in Abkhazia’s mountains (Upper Abkhazia), bordering Georgia proper. It is so high, in fact, that it is not always accessible. ‘You still have to take it seriously though,’ says Mjavia. ‘It’s our stronghold in Abkhazia. From Upper Abkhazia we bombard the rest of Abkhazia with our policies and statements. Thus we recently designated Gali as a region
under international administration.’ It just doesn’t appear that anyone else is aware of this. Even at the Department of Conflict Resolution they implied that it is difficult to negotiate with Abkhazia if you still have a de jure government in your own country. For the time being, the government in exile is only symbolic. Meanwhile, the country’s nationals, tens of thousands of refugees, have been in a tight spot for years. In Abkhazia, the war is visible everywhere. In Georgia the war only lives on in peoples’ minds. ‘We experienced things that we couldn’t imagine,’ says Eka Esebua A, a 39-year-old refugee who now lives in the Georgian port city Batumi, right on the border with Turkey on the Black Sea. Since the war, her life has become a makeshift existence in old factories or schools. ‘Our life was almost perfect,’ she says. She lived in Gagra, Abkhazia’s westernmost coastal resort and everyone’s most beloved town. She had a shop which did good business, especially when the tourists arrived in the summer. ‘Germans, Chechens, we served all sorts of nationalities,’ she says. ‘It looked like things would go well for a long time. Georgians and Abkhazians tried to help each other as much as possible. But I was pregnant and we decided it was safer to give birth in Sochi.’ It was 1992. After the birth, it was impossible to return to Gagra. From Sochi she flew to Batumi but the war was too advanced. She desperately tried to get news of her mother and husband. ‘Because I was older they left me alone,’ says Eteri, Eka’s mother B. ‘On the street pigs ate the bodies which remained after the fights and executions. A famous athlete was arrested in front of our house and burned alive in his car. Following the victory, the remaining Georgian men were executed on the beach.’ Eteri then also fled to Georgia. Eka’s husband didn’t make it as far as Batumi. Already in Georgia, he was caught by the Mkhedrioni militia, the notorious mafia soldiers who fought Gamsakhurdia and helped Shevernadze to power. ‘Maybe they thought he was an Abkhazian or a Gamsakhurdia follower. He never saw his son.’
Of the approximately 200,000 refugees from Abkhazia, tens of thousands still live in impoverished conditions like Eka and Eteri, in the refugee apartment blocks,
old schools and factories in Tbilisi, Kutaisi, Batumi and Zugdidi. However, some people have managed to build a new life in Georgia. A quarter of the taxi drivers will tell you they come from Abkhazia. A dentist I had to visit for treatment was raised and educated in Sukhumi and now heads a thriving practice in central Tbilisi. In the old centre of Tbilisi we meet Papuna Papaskiri C. [ 74, 76 ] He works as a designer for an advertising agency and is trying to launch a career as an artist. ‘I was one of the last people to flee Sukhumi in 1993,’ he says. ‘We first tried to get away via the airport, but an aeroplane that was taking off was shot down before our eyes. It was hell. With thousands of others we fled into the mountains. Through the Kodori Gorge we finally arrived in Svaneti in Georgia.’ Papuna’s canvases, home-made furniture and photos of Abkhazia litter his apartment. ‘I couldn’t take anything with me from our house in Sukhumi. I asked all my family members in Georgia for photos they had been sent, or of holidays they had spent with us. I now have a real picture of my youth again.’
It took Papuna and his family seven days to get through the mountains. ‘It was a death march. Many people died on the side of the road. We survived by sleeping close to fires. Even so, every morning my hair was frozen. It was indescribable. There were wild animals, we were robbed by the Svans, the mountain people who live there. When we eventually reached Georgian villages again, Gamsakhurdia had arrived and brought the civil war with him. My mother had, out of a kind of primitive instinct, stuffed all her pockets with mwaba, a sort of candied fruit. That kept us going.’ Papuna also ended up in a refugee apartment with his family. His parents still live there. ‘It is impossible to develop yourself in an apartment like that. With the best will in the world, you can’t study there, you can’t work or think there. It’s crowded, dirty and noisy. Many friends of mine are dead, often as a result of excessive drinking or drugs. I almost went the same way. I had to pull myself up by my boot straps. It was my painting that got me the job at the advertising agency and enabled me to rent this house. That was my salvation.’ We have just eaten an improvised breakfast with him of bread, cheese and
cucumber, and are now sampling his homemade white wine. ‘Night after night I watch films about Abkhazia on YouTube. Facebook is full of series of photographs and discussion groups about Sukhumi and Gagra, for example. Nobody will ever stop missing Abkhazia. It’s a different place, there’s a certain magic attached to it. The way life was lived there doesn’t exist in Georgia anymore.’ At the end of Rustaveli, Tbilisi’s main boulevard, a large hotel is under construction. This is the former Iveria, once Tbilisi’s flagship. In 1992, the hotel - the whole of Tbilisi had by then become a corrupt and violent no-go area - was used to house refugees. For ten years, this place in the city - so centrally located that it is unavoidable - was a permanent reminder of the war and the 200,000 internally displaced people in the country, many of whom live in Tbilisi. The Shevernadze administration is now remembered as a time of almost unrestricted freedom in which anything was possible. The country opened itself to the West, there was press freedom, but politically and economically Georgia was almost a failed state. It was at the bottom of the corruption index. Against that backdrop, the ‘Rose Revolution’ broke out in 2003, which brought the young, ambitious Saakashvili government to power. They wanted to change Georgia radically and put all the practices they had learned in the West into action. They borrowed money, brought Western expertise to Georgia, fired corrupt police personnel and put into action a gigantic cosmetic operation designed to make Tbilisi and other Georgian cities, at least on the outside, more viable. From a failed state, Georgia became a showpiece for the West. Every street in the sprawling centre has an office of a Western NGO; no village or road is not decorated with signs announcing that something was made possible by the EU, NATO, the World Bank or some other NGO. The former Iveria has been transformed into a gleaming high-rise Radisson SAS hotel. For $7,000 per room the refugees were bought out. But buying out the refugees did not mean the end of Tbilisi’s refugee problem, of course. As soon as you travel out to the suburbs you always come across them again, those old hotels and student apartments where the refugees still live. About half of Abkhazia’s pre-war population now lives in Georgia. The majority has not benefited from the developments since the Rose Revolution. In one of the city’s suburbs are two student flats, separated from the university by a deep ravine. The cable cars that once trundled back and forth between the two sides now dangle idly in the middle. The flats’ balconies have been sealed shut with scrap wood and agricultural plastic. This gives the apartments an extra room, much needed space for the large families who live here. The apartments can only be reached via endless concrete stairs. The electricity works four hours per day and low pressure means the upper floors have no water. At the bottom of one of the apartment blocks Nana runs her shop D, the only one in the neighbourhood. She shares an old student apartment with eight people. Her four children are spread out across Russia and Georgia. None of them remembers Ochemchira where they were born. ‘I don’t think I’ll ever go
back to Abkhazia,’ she says. ‘I see no political solution. My children don’t even want to back; they have absolutely no reason to go there.’ Outside, men walk back and forth with rubbish bags. In the parking lot they throw the rubbish onto piles and set it on fire. ‘My daughter recently won a modelling contest,’ says Nana. ‘My hope is that she’ll get us out of poverty.’
The Abkhazian refugees all still live with their heads in the subtropical region on the Black Sea, the country full of palms and mandarin trees, their land of milk and honey. Achekvira lives with her eight-year-old son in a tiny room full of plants. ‘All that green makes me think of Abkhazia,’ she says. She is just able to make ends meet by selling small items such as socks. ‘Other people even collect plastic bottles in order to have a business. President Saakashvili only thinks of his own belly. He should open factories to create jobs.’ Before the war Achekvira lived in Gali, the region in Abkhazia to which many Georgians have now returned. ‘We could go back now, but it’s very dangerous because Georgians have been killed there.’ We tell her that that is where we have just come from, and that returning Georgians say they are happier there than in refugee apartments. ‘They don’t dare to tell the truth,’ she replies curtly. We spend the afternoon in the student apartment in a daze. We are taken from house to house and, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, the procession of curious children behind us keeps growing. In the late afternoon we visit 84year-old Ekaterina Dwaladze E, who shares her small room with her daughter and son-in-law. She sits on her bed, opposite a small shrine F she has decorated. It is the end of a long day. We are crushed by the political stories from this morning and the refugee stories from this afternoon. Our interpreter has gone home. We tell Ekaterina about our experiences in Abkhazia, about how the country looks now and about the people we have met. Ekaterina was a German teacher in Sukhumi, she says. She uncorks a bottle of chacha, the headache-inducing and incredibly potent grape drink which is drunk here to welcome guests. It makes the temperature more bearable - on the sixth floor in wintery Tbilisi the heaters are unable to compete with the cold. Through the windows we see the cold creeping up the hills; the worst is yet to come.
Ekaterina talks in German about her life. Hers are familiar stories. Abkhazia as a small paradise, with all those beautiful plants and trees and the sea within walking distance; the mandarins in the garden, the verandas around the house; the war that they had seen coming, but had never expected to be so devastating; her husband who died of a heart attack the night before she had to flee. She had to leave him behind. Ekaterina continues to refill our glasses as she speaks. Every minute she thinks of another toast: to us, to good health, to the Netherlands, to the dead, to Abkhazia. She manages to ensure that we drain our glasses, while she excuses herself with a small sip for each toast. She still dreams of Abkhazia every night. The last thing she wants is to die in this apartment in Tbilisi. The neighbours join us and several glasses later we are engulfed by the emotional stories of so many lost lives. All the children here under 14, and there are many, were born as refugees. There are few here who succeed in escaping refugee status. A few people work in construction, or find a job in a shop or at a market. The Georgian refugees have only had full Georgian citizenship since 2006. Prior to that, as residents of Abkhazia they were more or less excluded and could only vote for Abkhazia’s de jure government. It is already dark when we leave. We promise everyone we have met that we will come back and see them in a few years, and express the hope that they will be better off when we do. Outside, the piles of rubbish smoulder and the stench of burned plastic stings our noses. Residents have pasted a poster next to the exit of the complex. It reads ‘Auschwitz, building IV’. After the war and far into this century, numerous peace initiatives took place between Abkhazia and Georgia. Sometimes they were instigated by Russia, sometimes by another country, and sometimes Abkhazians and Georgians themselves took the initiative. It led nowhere. In the chic Marriot hotel opposite the parliament - how all these 5-star hotels in Tbilisi survive is a miracle - we speak to the former minister of conflict resolution Gogo Khaindrava G. ‘We can’t give up Abkhazia, just like you can’t give up your liver,’ he says. Khaindrava was one of the most active players in the peace process between Georgia and Abkhazia.
He has now lost his job. He says that he was fired for his opposition to keeping open a military solution for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. ‘Abkhazia hasn’t been an independent state for a long time,’ he says. ‘When are you an independent state? When you have your own currency, your own citizenship, an independent national budget, you lead your own administration and have your own army. Everything in Abkhazia is Russian! They pay in roubles, receive Russian pensions, are protected by the Russian army, have Russian passports.’
What Khaindrava says is largely true. Abkhazia’s Russification was its only chance of survival during the years of isolation and blockade. So you can forget it, we say. The more Abkhazia becomes de facto Russian, the harder it will be ever to make the country part of Georgia again. Khaindrava sighs despondently, and starts talking again about Abkhazia as Georgia’s liver. ‘The EU has to understand that if Russia can defeat Georgia, then the next step could be Azerbaijan, with all its oil. In any event, let the EU cooperate with us to get Abkhazia under international administration as quickly as possible. That’s also in the European interest. The Russians are greedy, they’re power hungry. But the days when Georgia danced to Russia’s tune are over.’ Ghia Nodia is one of the best known employees at the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development, which actively speaks out on the peace process. During the journey there, our interpreter becomes increasingly nervous. ‘He’s well known, from the television,’ she says. ‘He’s one of those talking heads.’ Ghia Nodia turns out to be an unassuming man who welcomes us warmly. ‘There’s no solution,’ he says immediately. ‘There are so few who concern themselves with our problems. In fact only in Russia; there’ll never be political momentum in the West to guarantee Georgia’s claims on Abkhazia and South Ossetia, however hard we try. There’ll also be no pressure on Abkhazia. In addition, Saakashvili is in a quandary. He’s being held hostage by the domestic situation. He calls himself a state builder and emulates Atatürk. A strong army is one of his priorities. He plays the nationalist game on a grand scale. He was sworn in as president at the tomb of David The Builder, a former king under
whose leadership Georgia was at its greatest. But Saakashvili is actually a liberal. He has taken a passionately pro-EU and pro-NATO stance. That gives Russia - paradoxically enough - room to support the nationalist opposition against Saakashvili, because they are anti-Western. It’s that nationalism that in Abkhazia brings back horrific memories of the years of Gamsakhurdia and Shevernadze.’ We smoke cigarettes and drink tea together. Outside the windows, the city lies at our feet. Thick clouds of smoke from the chimneys drift past. Tbilisi is a city that as a foreigner you quickly learn to love, something that people like Nodia are only too happy to promote. ‘We’re working on boosting our image, internationally and also among the Abkhazians. We broadcast radio and television programmes, and organise cultural events. The consistent message has to be: come back, we’re not fascists. If Abkhazia rejoins Georgia, we also promise to uphold the Abkhazian culture.’ We tell Nodia about our visit to Abkhazia, where nobody wants to return to the bosom of mother Georgia. ‘Georgia first has to have the courage to apologise for its crimes, but no one dares to do that,’ he admits. ‘Recognising Abkhazia is always wrong. No cabinet will survive that; you can’t sell that to the Georgians. Neither is it a fair solution for the refugees in Georgia and the Georgians who are still in Abkhazia. Negotiations have also led nowhere; they only ensure that the status quo remains intact. The Abkhazians see negotiations as a confirmation of their independence, while we want unity. So we seal Abkhazia off internationally, which in turn is disastrous for the economy in Abkhazia and for the Georgians there. It’s like a doomed hero story: turn left and you lose your arm, turn right and you lose your leg or go straight on and you lose your head. The last scenario is to go to war again. Firstly, a war is always bad, and secondly, a war with Abkhazia leads to a war with Russia. And that’s a war you’ll lose.’
[ 129 ] Tbilisi, Georgia Refugee accommodation in Tbilisi. In the early 1990s around 250,000 ethnic Georgians fled Abkhazia. They were housed in student flats, hotels and schools across Georgia, with the promise that they would soon be able to return to their homeland.
[ 130 ] Chakva, Georgia
Refugee accommodation in a magnificent, but totally dilapidated and overcrowded old orphanage several kilometres outside the Georgian port city of Batumi.
[ 132 ] Tbilisi, Georgia
Artandik Muladze in the old student room that he has shared with his wife for 17 years. Fortunately his wife has work, because their monthly allowance is â‚Ź22.
[ 134 ] Tbilisi, Georgia
Girl in the corridor of a former campus of the university in Tbilisi. Entire families share the student rooms, whole corridors share the sanitary facilities.
[ 136 ] Shamgona island, Georgia Photo of a deceased husband in a refugee centre on Shamgona island. Many Georgian women who were forced to flee Abkhazia lost their husbands.
[ 138 ] Tbilisi, Georgia
Ketevan (22) with her son Dmitri (1) in 2007. She met her husband Kakhaber (29) in the building. Like all the other refugees, she hopes that the Georgian government will provide better housing in the short term. See also page [ 256 ]
VII Sochi 2014
In which the arrival of the Olympic Games in the region can be the harbinger of bad news
We had been back in the Netherlands for a few months, the stories from Georgia and Abkhazia still fresh in our minds, when the newspapers reported that the southern Russian city of Sochi had won the bid to host the 2014 Winter Olympics. We had not yet been to Sochi, but when we look for it on the map we see how close it is to Abkhazia. They are virtually connected. We only know the city from the stories told to us be refugees from west Abkhazia who, unable to escape back to Georgia, crossed the Russian border to Sochi. ‘Brilliant,’ is our first thought, ‘Olympic Games in Russia.’ Then we think about what Abkhazia looked like and check on the internet to see whether Sochi is any different. No, palms, mandarin trees and magnolias grow there too. It is a curious choice to organise Olympic Winter Games in a subtropical region, and becomes even stranger when we see the map of the Olympic locations. The skating and ceremonial stadiums are only three kilometres from the Abkhazian border. The Games are thus officially being organised on the border of a Georgian province, a conflict zone with a UN peacekeeping force within its borders. A few hundred kilometres away, on the other side of the mountains, are notorious republics such as Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan. These are areas where gross human rights violations are the order of the day, where every journalist and activist fears for their life. If rebels from this region could inflict so much damage in Moscow, why not at an event with the international exposure of the Winter Games? How on earth had Russia landed these Games? we wonder. What was the IOC thinking to choose this location? The committee had just put a round of self-chastisement and dismissals behind it, following the corruption scandals surrounding the Games in Salt Lake City 2002, where IOC members had accepted bribes of trips, money and even plastic surgery. So it seemed unlikely that corruption of the scale seen in Salt Lake City would be a factor here. Russia had, however, invested $27.5 million in promoting Sochi prior to the IOC meeting in Guatemala. But the deciding factor would have been president Putin’s total dedication. Putin presented the Games as his private project. He and his successor Medvedev promised to personally ensure the Games were a success. After 15 years of new Russia under Putin and Medvedev, the Olympic Games were supposed to symbolise Russia’s resurrection. Part of the legitimacy of this regime is based on Russia’s renewed power on the world stage, after the humiliation of the 1990s when Russia was brought to its knees by enormous loans and failed attempts at liberalisation. Whatever Russia’s current state, Putin’s hegemonic democracy brought the humiliation to an end. In Abkhazia and Georgia the Winter Games were, of course, a hot topic of discussion. Our contacts in Abkhazia speculated about the building materials that Abkhazia could provide, Abkhazia’s deep-see harbours which were closer to Sochi than those of the Russian Novorossisk, and the flood of tourists who would certainly come to Abkhazia in the wake of the Games. With Sochi 2014, the Abkhazian Renaissance was assured.
In Georgia the reactions were very different. Murmurs of boycotting the Games were immediately heard. Russia was forbidden from taking building materials out of Abkhazia - Georgian territory after all. Finally, it appeared Krasnaya Polyana, where the skiing sports will take place in 2014, had been the last battlefield in the Caucasian War in 1864, in which thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands were forced to flee across the sea to the Ottoman Empire. Exactly 150 years after that final blow to Russian imperialism, a party was going to be organised on the same spot, was the reaction of the refugeesâ€™ descendants, quickly supported by Georgia. One thing was for sure. In the coming years many things would change dramatically in the Caucasus. The current instable and potentially violent situation could not continue with the Games on the horizon. Russia had to take the North and South Caucasus in hand; and that happened faster than expected.
VIII Kodori Gorge
In which the Georgian outpost in Abkhazia is destroyed and Abkhazia gains its long-awaited independence
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During the Olympic Games in ancient Greece, an Olympic truce was always observed. Yet while the American President Bush and Russian Prime Minister Putin sat amicably side by side at the opening ceremony in Beijing 2008, Russian tanks and army divisions rolled into the Georgian South Ossetia. The images of the bombed Tskhinvali and Gori, of burned soldiers and fleeing civilians were seen around the globe. The conflict between Russia and Georgia over the rebellious provinces had reached its peak. Tensions between Georgia and Russia had been building for years. Russia worried about the various velvet revolutions in its former satellite states. After ally Serbia, new governments had come to power in Georgia and Ukraine following weeks of street protests. The Georgian revolutionary movement played a major role in training the Ukrainian revolutionaries. Russia was afraid that this new phenomenon would spread even further. The former Soviet states Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan also seemed susceptible to democratic uprisings. The new Georgia under Saakashvili was oriented towards the West, made ostentatious overtures to the EU and NATO and in so doing antagonised Russia. Saakashvili made Georgia’s unification one of his top priorities. With various ministers, he played good cop bad cop. While on one occasion menacingly proclaiming his desire to celebrate New Year in the Ossetian capital Tskhinvali and giving fiery speeches in the Abkhazian Kodori Gorge, he simultaneously unfolded the hitherto most far-reaching independence-within-Georgia plans for the two autonomous regions. He fired ministers who voiced war rhetoric towards Abkhazia and he fired ministers who were too moderate. Under former president Shevernadze, the Abkhazian Kodori Gorge had become an increasingly independent entity under Russia’s influence. In 2006, Saakashvili’s government reoccupied the valley with a police force. In retaliation, the Russian Consumer Goods Inspection Agency decided that Georgian wine and mineral water no longer met Russian quality standards. At the end of 2006 Georgia deported four Russian spies, while Russia in its turn rounded up Georgians living in the country illegally and deported them in a cargo plane. In early 2008 a Georgian observation plane was shot down by a MiG fighter. Abkhazia accused Georgia of bomb attacks. Observers foresaw things were going to go wrong. In the end it was not in Abkhazia, but another rebel region where sparks flew. Near the capital Tbilisi and the second city of Gori is South Ossetia, a small area that, unlike Abkhazia, is not so much a geographical entity as a patchwork of Georgian and Ossetian villages. During the turbulent early years of an independent Georgia, after a brief, bloody civil war, it also lost South Ossetia. This area too is guarded by Russian soldiers. In the run up to the war in August 2008, gunfights broke out with increasing frequency between Georgian, Ossetian and sometimes Russian troops. A war seemed inevitable. During the night of 7 August 2008, after months of skirmishes in South
Ossetia and provocations between Georgian and Russian units, Saakashvili suspected a Russian raid in Georgia. With an extremely weak and technically flawed Georgian army, Saakashvili went to war. In a totally disproportionate bombing, the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali was flattened. Russia hit back hard. The August War in 2008 affected Georgia deeply. Russian troops occupied Stalin’s birthplace, Gori. As a result, the central highway and rail links also fell into Russian hands. From Sochi trains filled with goods, tanks and troops travelled to the Abkhazian border with Georgia. The port city of Poti was captured and disabled. In the shadow of the battlefield around South Ossetia, high in the mountains in Abkhazia a small war was still taking place. With Russian air support Abkhazia captured the officially demilitarised Kodori Gorge, the remote mountain region on the border between Abkhazia and Georgia. Since then several hundred more refugees have made their way to Georgia. Under Saakashvili’s leadership, Georgia had gambled and lost. Less than three weeks later, Medvedev signed a presidential decree recognising Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s independence. In spring 2009, half a year after independence had been celebrated on the parade ground in front of the burned-out Abkhazian parliament, we visit the country again. At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs we have to arrange permits to visit the Kodori Gorge. We again run into deputy Minister Maxim Gvinjia. When we congratulate him on what must be the greatest diplomatic triumph in recent history, he responds coolly. ‘I’ve become cynical,’ he says, in his characteristic deep bass voice. ‘The West has simply allowed Georgia to start a war,’ he says angrily. ‘The Western countries must have known beforehand, they have their fingers in every pie in Georgia. For me it’s confirmation of what I have suspected for some time. It’s not about human rights or political idealism for the West at all. Just like in the 19th century, it’s simply a matter of zones of interest. Whatever Georgia does, they’ll support.’ During the August War between Georgia and Russia, Abkhazia quietly occupied the Kodori Gorge. The threat of Russian bombers appeared to be enough for the Georgian army - with the valley’s inhabitants in its wake - to take to its heels. According to Gvinjia, however, the Abkhazians single-handedly prevented a war. ‘We tried to warn all our diplomatic contacts in advance, and were able to avoid an attack on Abkhazia because we asked Russia to increase the number of peacekeepers in time.’ ‘After the war in Ossetia had already begun we phoned the Georgians to tell them that we would enter the Kodori Gorge, and the Georgians left. There was little struggle. In Kodori we found Georgian plans to attack Abkhazia and piles of munitions.’ Immediately after the war in 2008, Abkhazia and South Ossetia sent an appeal for recognition to the Russian parliament. ‘I had to learn from the
television that Medvedev had recognised us as a country,’ says Gvinjia. ‘We weren’t expecting it and threw a fantastic party. The most important thing followed immediately afterwards, the military and economic cooperation agreement we signed with Russia.’ Gvinjia gives us an address where we can get permits for the Kodori Gorge and promises to put diplomatic pressure on the security forces so that we can cross the Georgian border. The Kodori Governor Sergei Dzhonya [ 158 ] resides just outside the small centre of the capital Sukhumi. Anyone who wants to enter Kodori needs his permission. A Hummer is parked outside on the pavement. ‘Do you want an armed escort?’ asks the governor, an imposing figure with a large grey moustache. ‘It’s spring, and we expect Georgians to cross the border.’ We don’t want an armed escort, but ask rather for unrestricted freedom in the valley. There weren’t any problems, the Abkhazian Foreign Ministry had assured us. The governor agrees, but insists on showing us the way personally. The next day it is not the Hummer that pulls up but a UAZ, the robust, allterrain jeep from the Soviet era which is still more trusted here than a modern car. In a small column we crawl towards the Kodori Gorge. It takes us three hours to cover 40 kilometres. The road passes breathtaking rivers and deep ravines, remote villages with collapsed cultural centres and schools, beehives and the occasional goat. The higher we go in the Kodori Gorge, the more minefields, foxholes, military emergency bridges and other remnants [ 146 ] of the frontline define the landscape. An old United Nations’ post, now an Abkhazian army post, marks the Abkhazian border. So far the infrastructure has seemed improvised, the huts look unstable and shoddy, the military solutions are Russian-made and the villages - just as in Abkhazia - are largely in ruins or abandoned. On the Georgian side of the border that changes completely. Along the narrow mountain road all manner of ingenious barricades and trenches have been built. We stop at a larger construction. The general jumps out of his UAZ and invites us to look at the Georgian defences with him. We wander through fresh trenches. The retreat must have been hasty; a soggy Georgian instruction booklet lies in the mud. Next to it are bags of kosher army rations, of Israeli origin. On an abandoned military bulletproof vest, the washing instructions read: do not dry or bleach, wash at 30 degrees. We discuss the bad roads with the governor. ‘Fast buses will soon drive along here,’ he boasts. ‘And we want to build a tunnel to Dombai, the Russian ski resort on the other side of the mountains, as quickly as possible. Abkhazia is going to bring prosperity to Kodori.’ The first people live a little further on. At the house of the Aschuba family, an enthusiastic old man lets us in. ‘If I’d known you were coming, I would have slaughtered a goat,’ he says and goes to the cellar to fetch wine. ‘I always drink five litres of wine with my guests,’ he warns. The two children sit proudly with a Kalashnikov on their lap. A We have to shoot it, they insist. We randomly fire
a few bullets into the woods opposite the house. With ringing ears we go back inside to sample the vinegary wine.
Over drinks, a joking argument immediately ensues about each other’s origins, which highlights exactly how complex the ethnic situation here is. Our Armenian driver - quite a few Armenians still live in Abkhazia - tells the Aschubas that they are in fact also Armenians. The Aschubas, however, regard themselves as Svans, the tribe that has lived high in the mountains for centuries. ‘The Svans come from Van, in Turkey,’ says the driver, ‘where the Armenians also come from.’ The 65year-old Tariel thinks this is nonsense. ‘In the Soviet Union we were all Georgians, and we weren’t allowed to be anything else. But we’re not Georgians either.’ Tariel lives near Sukhumi. Immediately after the war in 2008 he ensured that his family who had fled could return to Kodori. ‘I know Abkhazia, I know what a good country it is, with heroes like Sergei.’ He gives the governor a friendly slap on the back. ‘I rang my displaced family in Georgia and said: don’t forget your country and your bees.’ His nephew Valera endorses this. Stammering in Russian, he tells us about the flight to the Georgian city of Kutaisi, when the first bombs fell on Kodori. His children are still in Georgia. When he switches to Georgian - speaking Russian is not his strongest suit - the governor turns around with a jerk. ‘Do I hear Georgian?’ he asks menacingly, but somewhat jokingly. ‘In the future, the residents of Kodori will only be allowed to have an Abkhazian passport. It will state their ethnicity, though. Abkhazia must now become their motherland, but that will take some time,’ Sergei lays out the future plans. Abkhazia is seeking to detach the Svans and Mingrelians from Georgia, by pointing to their own ethnicity instead of their Georgian nationality. Valera shrugs his shoulders. ‘We’re mountain people. Borders mean little to us. But if I have to choose between a Georgian or Abkhazian passport, I’ll choose Georgian.’ Azhara is the main village in the Kodori Gorge. In the eyes of Georgia this was the temporary capital of Georgian Abkhazia and the seat of the de jure government in exile. Anyone entering Azhara from Abkhazia enters a different world. There is an international ATM (destroyed) and a brand-new school which was paid for by UNICEF and USAID (destroyed). B The lettering on corporate
and government buildings is no longer in Cyrillic but in Georgian and English (crossed out). Since 2006, Azhara has been President Saakashvili’s showpiece in Abkhazia. This is what the future will look like if Abkhazia returns to Georgia’s maternal embrace, was the point he wanted to make loud and clear.
It is indeed a world away from Abkhazia. The names and logos of international organisations and NGOs in Abkhazia are few and far between. You do not see the European flag anywhere. New schools with computer rooms are something we have not yet come across. For the Abkhazians who came to capture the Kodori Gorge, this village must have been unrecognisable, as their only point of reference was Soviet Georgia before the war in 1992. The only similarity with Abkhazia is that everything here is also in ruins. The bombing has been heavier than the people at the ministry wanted us to believe. The governor sends the Abkhaz soldier Eric C with us to the village. It consists of a small centre and small-scale farms along the arterial roads. We walk through the muddy streets looking for inhabitants. ‘There’s almost nobody,’ says Eric. ‘Everyone’s still in Georgia. When spring comes everyone will come back to work on the land.’ In an out-of-the-way house lives Zoya Mikiani D, a Georgian widow of 55. She takes honey-nut cake out of the cupboard and sits timidly at the table. Following our arrival, the house is immediately transformed into a local meeting place. Men with pistols and a Kalashnikov stomp inside and more or less take over. The small, quiet house suddenly takes on the appearance of a builder’s hut at lunchtime.
‘My whole life my passport has said that I’m Georgian,’ says Zoya. ‘I speak Georgian. My tribe is the Svans. That’s who I am. Leave the Georgian in my passport though; that really doesn’t have to change.’ Three of her children live in Tbilisi. If she chooses Abkhazia, she might never see them again. A normal interview is basically impossible in this situation. Our hostess bustles around providing the guests with food and drink. Her relationship with the armed men is unclear. The composition of the group of armed men is also difficult to understand. Some come from Sukhumi, others have lived here for a long time and some are from the Abkhazian part of the mountains. As we are not getting far with the interview, we talk instead to our interpreter Dina. She comes from South Ossetia and is well acquainted with these kinds of tense post-war situations. ‘Zoya is probably the scout for the refugees in Georgia,’ she says. ‘She’s a bit older, a widow and has little to lose. She lets them know what the situation is like here, with the houses and land. When she gives the green light, the refugees might return. After all, people want nothing more than to come back to their waiting houses, beehives, livestock and land. But nobody trusts Abkhazia.’ Anyone looking around Zoya’s little house and sees the small caravan of armed, obscure men would agree with them. ‘Look how we’ve been travelling today,’ Dina continues. ‘They always ensure that an Abkhazian is nearby, especially when we talk to the residents. It’s a permanent process of intimidation, but also of mutual fear. The Abkhazians don’t know what to make of the people here either. Who knows if a stash of weapons is still lying around somewhere?’ Soldier Eric points impatiently to his watch. We should be out of Kodori before it gets dark. As we walk back to the jeep, we see men on a hill from the British NGO Halo Trust removing mines and ammunition. Large numbers of grenades lie in piles. E ‘Where are the Russians?’ we want to know. Soldier Eric points into the distance. ‘There, towards Georgia. But you can’t go there. They don’t want prying eyes.’
Since the August War it has become even harder to travel from Abkhazia to Georgia. Georgia views the border as illegal and Abkhazia has said it will keep the border closed as long as Georgia does not officially recognise the country.
Now that Abkhazia is independent and unilaterally protected by Russian former peacekeepers, the United Nations has been virtually sidelined. A few months after our trip, Russia vetoes the annual renewal of UNOMIG, the mission in Georgia, in the Security Council. This means no more foreign observers in Abkhazia. In order to be able to cross the border we have to request a special exemption from both the Abkhazian KGB and the Georgian equivalent. Many text messages and phone calls later we are assured that our request has been successful. Without any tangible evidence we walk past the surprised Abkhazian border guards. The bridge between Abkhazia and Georgia seems endless. I drag a broken suitcase behind me and such a disputed border feels somewhat unsettling. From the improvised chaos in Abkhazia to the Georgian border is like stepping into another world. The Georgian ‘border guards’ (no, we are not customs officers - this is not an official border) are also amazed. They receive us in brand-new uniforms, in perfect English. Our details are checked with Tbilisi and we are allowed through. While we wait for a marshrutka minibus to Tbilisi, a small Volkswagen hurtles towards the border. The car has a French number plate and a French flag hangs out the back window. The car is packed with luggage and peace attributes such as rainbow flags and white dove stickers. The word ‘peace’ is written on the bonnet in several languages. ‘What is this?’ the driver asks in German. ‘A border?’ From the car, he waves his passport at the Georgian police officers, who try to make clear to him in English that he will not be let through. We are called over to act as interpreters. When we explain to the man that he is on the border of a conflict zone, he shakes his head in denial. From his car he pulls out a map of Georgia, a free copy that he was given in the seaside resort Batumi. ‘Look,’ he points, ‘the border is near Sochi. I want to drive around the Black Sea in my car.’ On his Georgian tourist map Georgia has indeed been drawn as a proud, intact area stretching from Sochi to Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia, without the traitorous, renegade conflict zones which would only scare tourists. ‘We’re sorry, but you’re not going to get through,’ we say. We try and think of a solution with him, but there is actually no solution. From here to the Caspian Sea the whole of the Caucasus is closed to the German. No border crossings between Russia and Georgia or Azerbaijan are open for tourists. It’s unbelievable really. ‘The only route is via Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan’ we say, ‘or by boat to Ukraine.’ It’s a rare occasion to give someone directions on such a large scale. Disheartened, the man gets back into his car and turns round. A tour of the Black Sea can look so easy on the map. We want to visit the Georgians, or Svans, who fled Kodori in Georgia. In Tbilisi, the former mayor of Kodori, Lash Margiani (35), is our guide this time. In his small car we drive out of Tbilisi, while he questions us. It is not often that he hears such fresh eyewitness accounts from Kodori. ‘No one will return to Kodori, I’m convinced of that,’ he says. We pass the old hotels and student apart-
ments again, still overflowing with refugees. ‘The emergency relief for refugees is luckily better organised now,’ he says. The current refugees from Kodori - there are only a few hundred - have been accommodated in old Greek villages. After the Cold War, the ethnic Greek minority was invited to re-emigrate to Greece. With money from the World Bank, the houses were bought up and renovated. The Georgian government is doing everything in its power to make the refugees feel at home in Georgia. Abkhazia may well make a good impression on the Svans in Kodori, but keeps its borders closed for the hundreds of thousands of Georgian refugees. It is not in Georgia’s strategic interest that the refugees return to Kodori. Not for nothing is the former mayor so certain that no one will return. From the snowy valleys and mountains of the Caucasus to the sweltering steppes of South Georgia, the transition for the refugees from Kodori is significant. The warm air quivers above an endless landscape with few trees. The roads are dusty and water is scarce. It bears no resemblance at all to the lush Caucasus around Kodori. ‘No, we’re not happy here,’ Madona Chkhvimiani F (36) makes clear to us. ‘It’s spring but it’s already too hot. We belong in the mountains.’ In house after house we have to report on the state of the houses and livestock in Kodori. They are curious to hear about the nut trees and the snow. ‘We actually didn’t see any livestock,’ we say. ‘Ah, you see,’ someone says, ‘it’s now in Sukhumi.’ Everyone we speak to wants to go back to Kodori. ‘I’d like to go back now, I hate being a victim,’ says Daeroghan Guyeyiani G, another refugee from Kodori. ‘I don’t know how people can live here without water nearby. But if you go back, you have to hand over half your income to Sukhumi. I’ll only go back if Georgia can guarantee my safety.’
‘We can only return when Russia leaves Abkhazia,’ Madona echoes the government’s position. ‘We don’t blame our government. Saakashvili can’t do anything about it. The Russians are unreliable.’
[ 159 ] Sukhumi, Abkhazia Director of the central cultural centre Lubov Ivanovna Ashuba: ‘I have been fighting to get our building renovated for years.’
[ 158 ] Sukhumi, Abkhazia
Kodori Governor Sergei Dzhonya: ‘Abkhazia is going to bring Kodori prosperity.’ With the help of the Russians, Abkhazia took the Kodori Gorge back from the Georgians in 2008.
[ 160 ] Sukhumi, Abkhazia Post Office Administrator Suzanna Kaldzhan (35). ‘You can’t stick Abkhazian stamps on your card abroad.’
[ 164 ] Sukhumi, Abkhazia Head of Pathology and Physiology at the Institute of Experimental Pathology and Therapy Tatyana Petrovna: ‘We used to train monkeys for space missions. Those facilities have been lost.’
[ 162 ] Sukhumi, Abkhazia Director of National Postal Services, Telephone and Telegraph Eduard Konstantinovich Piliya: ‘We have printed stamps again this year and are convinced that the postal service will start working at any moment.’
[ 165 ] Sukhumi, Abkhazia President of the Republic of Abkhazia Sergei Bagapsh: ‘Europe would do well to talk to us, otherwise we’ll look in another direction - to Iran or further.’
[ 166 ] Sukhumi, Abkhazia Christmas tree in the offices of the National Postal Services, Telephone and Telegraph in Sukhumi.
[ 170 ] Sukhumi, Abkhazia Chief of Police Gennadi Ladaria: ‘I’m so attached to my Soviet switchboard. I just can’t trade it in.’
[ 169 ] Dranda, Abkhazia Director of Abkhazia’s only prison Timur Jikirba: ‘The Red Cross was very positive about our fresh drinking water.’
[ 171 ] Sukhumi, Abkhazia Director of the Institute of Experimental Pathology and Therapy Zurab Mik Vabia: ‘Our greatest achievement was our monkey space programme, but we’ve also carried out very important cancer research.’
The Abkhazian renaissance In which we discover the new achievements of an independent Abkhazia
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The Abkhazian renaissance
Abkhazia was greatly disappointed when, in 2009, clothing chain Benetton scrapped its plans to open a branch in Sukhumi. After the war Abkhazia was recognised by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and the tiny atoll Nauru respectively (the languishing island reportedly received $15 million from Russia for this), but the country is still largely isolated. The only open border is the one with Russia. And that had already been as good as open for several years, particularly since 2001 when Putin handed out Russian passports to Abkhazians, under the pretext that everyone with a USSR passport had the right to Russian nationality. But the fact that Benetton, the large, wealthy Italian chain, was planning to set up shop on the Prospekt Mira shopping street would have been real recognition for Abkhazia. It would have been the beginning of Abkhazian integration into the global economy. In response, all seven Georgian branches of Benetton closed their doors for a week. In the whole of Georgia not a single Benetton T-shirt or pair of trousers was sold. Georgia’s political and economic pressure worked; the company backed down. Abkhazia yearns for recognition and for Western products. Not that they don’t get those now. Everyone in Abkhazia with a bit of money wears designer clothes, has expensive mobile phones and if possible drives a Mercedes, Hummer or some other capitalist status symbol. A bowling alley recently opened in the centre of Sukhumi. It sounds ridiculous, but something like that means a lot in Abkhazia. The latest rage in Abkhazia is IKEA. A Since IKEA opened its doors in South Russia in 2007, Abkhazians have descended on the Swedish furniture shop in droves. As a result, a couple of smart entrepreneurs decided to set up their own version of the franchise. On a short walk along Sukhumi’s high street, the Prospekt Mira, we count no less than three branches of IKEA. For the clientele the thick IKEA catalogue lies within easy reach, complete with a home-made order list. Pay in advance and your entire house can be furnished within a week.
Abkhazia is still a very small country. That is most obvious when you turn on the local television channel. The commercial breaks - apart from the trendy adverts for mobile phone provider Aquaphone – are made up of text adverts
The Abkhazian renaissance
that read ‘XX Ltd has an offer on cement and plaster, now only 30 roubles per bag’, with an accompanying photo of a bag of cement; or ‘The Ped. Collective congratulates colleague X on their anniversary’. The tickertape - although that word conjures up overly grand associations - at the bottom of the screen displays the weddings and funerals of that week. We also discover on TV, however, that there is a pizza delivery service in Sukhumi. That is just as revolutionary as a bowling alley. We ring three evenings in a row, but for the time being no one picks up the phone. Now that the fear of a war with Georgia has disappeared, the country looks freely to the future. The image that they want to present to the outside world has to be that of a real country, a country with all the trimmings. If they didn’t have a NGO, they would immediately set one up; if there wasn’t an opposition newspaper, the government would establish one. However, a country that has been an illegal entity for more than 15 years, by definition harbours many shady goings-on within its borders. The economy is one example. For 15 years all international economic transactions were illegal. The economy appears to be largely in the hands of the Russian and Chechen Mafia. Each year a politician is murdered, and sometimes also cabinet members. Independent journalists are beaten or intimidated if they write about sensitive government matters. Try getting that confirmed in your notebook, though, in a country of less than 200,000 people who, in their villages, cities or through family ties, are all connected. And a secret police that appears to be relatively gigantic. We are told everything in Abkhazia, but those who talk to us ask to remain anonymous or don’t actually know themselves how they came to have the information. Georgia has Abkhazia firmly in its grip, as a result of which Abkhazia is once again driven into Russia’s grip. That is the paradox of the current situation. Georgia is doing everything in its power to enforce a sea blockade. Turkish ships that try to break through this blockade are regularly kidnapped by Georgian customs boats and taken to the Georgian port Poti. Abkhazia is easy prey for Russia, you could say. Now that Russia has recognised Abkhazia and investments in the country are legal, an oligarch could buy up all the hotels and industries. Half of the coastal area already appears to have been sold indirectly to wealthy Russians. That is difficult to verify, because officially only Abkhazians are allowed to buy land and non-commercial real estate. Russians also use Abkhazian middlemen and companies for the investments. Abkhazia is doing everything it can to prevent the sell out. Because, contrary to what the average Georgian politician will tell you, the desire to be truly independent - including from Russia - is extremely strong in Abkhazia. And they want to make that clear in every possible way. That’s why we decide to go along with the Abkhazians’ story, and approach the country as the normal country that they try to project. We visit everything that makes a country a country; schools, healthcare institutions, police stations, a prison; scientists, institutes, journalists and hotels.
The Abkhazian renaissance
Wherever we go and request unrestricted access, we are granted it. In its honeymoon years, Abkhazia’s enthusiasm seems to have surpassed its Soviet reflexes. We poke around Dranda prison [ 190 ] - the only one in Abkhazia -, a sort of mediaeval castle where prisoners serve us fresh plov [ 191 ] in the kitchens and eyes peer out at us from holes in the cell doors. We visit the tuberculosis clinic B outside Sukhumi and schools in small towns. Everything tells the same story; it is thanks to the efforts of the Abkhazians themselves that the country continues to survive. It is the prisoners’ families who bring rice, vegetables and herbs to the prison, it is the teachers and parents who paint and repair the schools.
We visit Abkhazia’s police headquarters. The conditions are still quite Russian: police officers with caps set at an angle on their heads shake hands and appear to be making deals with obscure men. During a short conversation with the chief of police he declares that the Abkhazian police force is among the best in the world. ‘Many of our agents are now employed in Moscow,’ Gennadi Kemalovich Ladaria [ 170 ] assures us. In the Registry Office we are shown the first batch of Abkhazian passports. Complete with watermark and security features, but you can only travel to four countries with it. In celebration, the police officers take a bottle of vodka from the fridge, but we manage to avoid having a drink. In exchange we are given a tour of ‘the most beautiful uniformed women in the police station’. The officer has clearly already sampled the contents of the bottle. For several days my molar has been bothering me. When one morning my whole face seems to have swollen up, I can no longer ignore it; I have to take action. But what should I do? Go to the dentist in Abkhazia? My instinctive answer is a resounding ‘no’. Go to the Russian Sochi? Or continue to bury my head in the sand? No, it’s definitely too late for that. I decide to visit the dentist in Sukhumi, coincidentally the brother of someone we had just met - it’s a small country. It is also an excellent opportunity to discover the healthcare system from inside out, I tell myself. The dentist is located in a dingy building, just one of several municipal clinics in the city’s suburbs. I stand hesitantly in front of the door, but the pain
The Abkhazian renaissance
gets the better of me and I surrender. The dentist himself opens the door with a mask over his mouth. He immediately starts rattling off stories about operations via the gum, removal of the tooth and an arsenal of antibiotics. To start with the latter. A taxi whisks me to the pharmacy in the central hospital and I am given a whole load of Indian medicines, which cost me 75 cents. In a dark little room, an old man takes X-ray photos. He puts the results in a series of murky pots filled with chemical fluids. I trust everything blindly. Back at the hospital, the dentist decides he doesn’t want to operate on me. Perhaps he doesn’t dare to, or doesn’t want to. In any event, he points me in the direction of the wonder doctor in Novi Afon. The wonder doctor only works on Saturday. Another four days of throbbing pain. The antibiotics look spectacular but don’t do anything for me. I spend that evening on the boulevard moping. I don’t enjoy eating; small bites chewed on the right side of my mouth. We walk past Hotel Abkhazia, destroyed in the war, which has been covered in advertising posters to brighten up the view for passing flaneurs. However unlikely it may sound, one of them is of two beaming women who wave to us and promise us the best dental treatment. The clinic is called Vitadent. I don’t believe any of it, the photo has almost certainly been plucked from the internet and how ridiculous, incidentally, that more or less the only advert you see in this city is for a local dental surgery full of beautiful women. Two days later and the antibiotics still aren’t working, I tell the dentist, and no, I don’t want to wait any longer for the wonder doctor in Novi Afon. I go to Vitadent, the heaven filled with Abkhazian beauties. They’ll know what to do with me. Inside the clinically white space one of the beauties strides towards me. She takes off my shoes and helps me into green plastic slippers. The image was not from the internet. I am pushed into a soft chair and three of the girls stand around me asking questions. I press my swollen cheek and say ‘ow’. That’s sufficient. In no time, the operation team is ready and the Abkhazian angels release me from the oppressive pain. It stinks. With a steady hand, the senior doctor extracts what seem to me to be litres of stinking pus out of the cavities under my tooth. I feel my cheek shrinking and the pain subside and I can’t find words to express my thanks. I pay €8 and am waved off by the entire team. Just as I step outside, I am almost run over by a large man – hand on his painful cheek – who gets out a Mercedes SUV and runs inside. Aha, of course. That explains this hyper-modern clinic. Secretly, there’s enough money here. Long live progress! Or, perhaps, long live the Mafia. Feeling reborn after the root canal surgery, we resume our trip through the country. In the corridor opposite the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is the Ministry of Economic Affairs. Kristiana Ozgan C is the young minister of this department. ‘Those expensive cars you see, they could be businessmen who have invested here for a long time,’ she says. She is rather piqued because we are fishing just a little bit too obviously for the shady aspects of the economy. ‘You had to have a lot of nerve in the 1990s to trade with and invest in Abkhazia. Everyone who
The Abkhazian renaissance
did that now has Abkhazian nationality and enjoys several tax breaks. They have first pick of state tenders. I don’t know anything about the Chechen Mafia.’ She prefers to talk about Abkhazia’s future. ‘During the war, 100 of the 150 largest resorts were destroyed. That’s a lot, but it also means that as a tourist destination Abkhazia still has considerable room to grow. Thanks to the isolation our nature has remained pristine. Investing in tourism now, in combination with our nature, could generate a great deal of income. But there’s still a lot to do. The infrastructure has to be repaired; the level of service has to go up.’
We decide to put something to the test. The following day we travel to Pitsunda, one of Abkhazia’s most characteristic picture postcard destinations. D On a surreal peninsular covered with pine trees and surrounded by sandy beaches, seven identical apartment blocks rise up from the beach. Pitsunda is, after Gagra, the crown jewel of the Abkhazian coast. We walk around and enjoy the completely intact 1970s interiors, the Soviet mosaics and artworks. E Each flat is identical, we discover to our amazement, except for the last one, where a lighthouse and larger dining room have been built onto it. This used to be reserved for guests from outside the Soviet Union, we are told. In the woods are paths, places to barbecue and a theatre, completely ravaged by advancing moss [ 18 ] and long overdue maintenance, but still in possession of a large chandelier. We meet Russians on the beach. ‘It’s cheap here,’ they say, ‘and we have good memories of Abkhazia.’ Another Russian says he came here for the adventure. ‘Abkhazia just sounds more exciting than Sochi,’ he says. ‘You should get to know your own country,’ says a final Russian - a backpacker - without fully understanding the implication of his comment. In a café on the road leading onto the peninsula we once again find ourselves in the midst of a ‘table’, as it is euphemistically called here. A drinking session, in other words. Another tradition is that you can’t start a ‘table’ if the table next to you isn’t drinking. A bottle of champagne thus immediately comes in our direction. We stand up and make a solemn toast to the gathered company. They also stand up, nod, raise their glasses to us and continue where they had left off. One man detaches himself from the group. ‘I’m the mayor here,’ he
The Abkhazian renaissance
says and introduces himself as Beslan Ardzinba. We seize the opportunity to talk about the future of his resort. The hotels are still owned by the government. ‘Since independence we’ve had 2,700 guests per day. Every month more Russians come here on holiday.’ Ardzinba drinks a glass with us and dreams out loud about the Olympic Games. ‘Imagine, they’ll soon be arriving 70 kilometres from here. By then we’ll all have modernised. Not many people and countries know us. That’s going to change.’
While the coastal towns are developing rapidly, the countryside attracts less tourism. We travel through small, scattered villages where most of the inhabitants live from the land around them. These are more like autarkic smallholders than serious businesses. The villages are often ageing, and the young people have moved to the cities. Sometimes a family member commutes to the city - distances here are short and buses depart regularly - in order to bring in a little extra income. The new independence since 2008 will be less strongly felt here. In the countryside, public life is primarily played out in the cultural centres, small and sometimes extraordinarily beautiful buildings near the school and village hall. Concerts are held here every now and then and children are given music and dance lessons. Precisely because they are the social heart of the villages, the state of a cultural centre says a lot about the state of a village community. In one of these cultural centres we meet Valentina, a sturdy woman who runs the well-appointed cultural centre in Gulripsh with a rod of iron. Inside, a group of girls is studiously learning folk dances. Valentina beams when we take their photo. We start talking to Valentina about life in the country and before we can get very far a car pulls up outside to take her to family in Vladimirovka, a neighbouring village. ‘I’ll show you what our countryside looks like,’ she says. ‘Life may not be as rich as in the city, but we have everything and we know how to celebrate that.’ After a bumpy ride over Vladimirovka’s sandy roads, we arrive at the house of widower Mikhail Dzadzumiya F, Valentina’s great-uncle, and his totally bewildered family. Here we experience, in its deadliest form, how rural boredom combined with Abkhazian hospitality can get out of hand. While we are given a tour by the man of the house and admire his lands, we see a suspicious amount of activity in the kitchen. Less than a quarter of an hour later we sit drinking
The Abkhazian renaissance
chacha, the grape drink that disinfects the stomach so that we can all eat with our hands. At least, that’s what we’re told. There is always a reason to drink. Things deteriorate completely. The granddaughter of the house doesn’t have to drink; she is the youngest and serves us. The oldest - the widower – is tamada, as the toastmaster is called. He makes toasts to everything that you can possibly toast. His daughter and daughter-in-law keep up the pace by pointing sternly at our glasses if we don’t empty them completely. The granddaughter, dressed in a red tracksuit, refills the glasses in a split second, with a satanically charming laugh. The tamada and Valentina start singing the Soviet song ‘Heart’, from the film ‘Jolly Fellows’ which was shot in Abkhazia. [ 112 ] Everyone joins in. We try to go outside and prepare to leave, but the drinking continues outside. More people arrive and drink with us. We are toasted extensively. We begin to find it embarrassing. In a sober moment I try to count how many litres of chacha, champagne, cognac and wine have already been spent on this afternoon. At least several salaries and pensions worth. It is still light. ‘So this is the countryside,’ calls Valentina euphorically. They get angry with us when we are unable to keep going. ‘You have to stay,’ orders the girl in the red tracksuit, while she pours us another large glass of red wine. Only when grandfather Mikhail, with a grandchild on his shoulder, keels over against a tree does something snap. The party momentarily comes to an end. Long enough for us to say goodbye. We have survived. The following day we are utterly useless.
In another village, Lower Eshera, Mikhail Yefremovich Zetunyan, 88, [ 115 ] pulls the festivities in Vladimirovka to pieces. He has already built his coffin and gravestone. ‘Look around you,’ he indicates. From his house you look down into a small valley that opens to the west to the sea. Everywhere fruit trees and luxurious plants envelop the ruins. In the distance we see the stumps of large hotels. ‘That’s an old Red Army sanatorium,’ Mikhail points. ‘Now there’s nothing. Most people from our village live in Russia or Sukhumi. My children live in Russia. They rarely come here. The villages are dead.’ Like everyone else, he survives on gifts from his children and on the produce from the vegetable plot and fruit trees in his garden. ‘I’m waiting to die,’ Mikhail says. ‘I fought in two World Wars. It hasn’t got any better.’
The Abkhazian renaissance
Despite the fact that Abkhazia is now recognised by four countries, the president has remained accessible. In no time we are sitting in his office. It is the same president – Bagapsh [ 165 ] - because he was re-elected in 2009. That is also the reason to take a swipe at Georgia, just like last time. ‘In Georgia, not a single president has come to power without a revolution. How long do you think Saakashvili will last? What we are pleased about,’ says Bagapsh, ‘is that in the eyes of the world Georgia is now the aggressor. As a result, everything has become clear. We’re now recognised as an independent country and will proceed to set up our constitutional state. We’re here now, we can’t be avoided. Europe would do well to talk to us, otherwise we’ll look in another direction - to Iran or further,’ he almost threatens. His visa for France was recently revoked. ‘If Europeans don’t let us into their countries,’ he says, ‘we’ll keep Europeans out of our country.’ It’s clear. The tone has changed. This tone has also filtered through to the young generation in Sukhumi. Angela G sometimes travels with us through Abkhazia. She is 22 and studying International Relations. As part of an American exchange programme she was able to study in California and so speaks fluent American English. At the same time, she is one of the more nationalistic Abkhazians we have met. She doesn’t miss an opportunity to point out how beautiful the things are that we see and how much potential they have for the country. As part of the same exchange programme she also went to Tbilisi. ‘Georgians are power hungry and arrogant,’ she saw for herself. She doesn’t believe in any conciliation. ‘Hopefully we can be normal neighbours. They can come here on holiday if they want.’ Angela was young during the war. The thing she remembers most is macaroni with sugar. ‘That came from some emergency rations that were distributed in Gudauta.’ A Russian base was located in Gudauta, so the city was spared heavy fighting, but Angela knows people who died. In the garden of a sanatorium stands a small statue of a man with a video camera. ‘That’s my uncle,’ says Angela. ‘Shot by a Georgian sniper. We now have our independence, but it has come at a price,’ she says. ‘And we - the younger generation and the generations after us - must always remember that.’ Angela and her peers are re-inventing their country. ‘The Soviet Union destroyed so much,’ she says. ‘I want to think, do and dream Abkhazian. But I often think and dream in Russian and many traditions have been lost.’ We sit with Angela in a café in Sukhumi. ‘Sukhum!’ Angela corrects us immediately. ‘Abkhazia is actually Apsny, land of soul, Sukhumi is Sukhum or Akua and Gali is Gal. You only use the Georgian names,’ she reproaches us. So we sit in a café in Sukhum, on trendy IKEA Klippan sofas. Next to us are four Caucasian men with their typical Beatles haircuts, black leather jackets and energy they can’t get rid of. Angela provides them with a new goal in life. She is wearing a loose blouse which she immediately covers with a cushion from the sofa. ‘I hate it when those kinds of guys sit next to us,’ she says. One of them hangs halfway over the sofa and looks us blankly in the eyes. An Abkhazian girl with
The Abkhazian renaissance
two foreign men; there’s something not right about that. He puts his camera on the sofa’s armrest and points his lens in our direction. And then it happens: two, three flashes follow each other agonisingly slowly. In a second Angela stands up, walks round the man, looks at her telephone and runs outside. She makes a call and comes back. ‘Why are you bothering us and taking photos?’ she says to the man. ‘What do you want?’ asks the man. From a position of defence, the man chooses attack. Men are worth more here than women, and a traditional culture of humility, modesty and servitude reigns, Angela tells us later. She comes and sits with us again, quivering with rage and humiliation. ‘I’ve never been this insulted,’ she says. Meanwhile, the flash on the camera continues to go off. For the next five minutes an unpleasant tension hangs in the air. The men continue to pester us, and our conversation is now worthless. The bartenders – two women – look at us pityingly but don’t do anything. We don’t dare to do anything either, not knowing what kind of wasp’s nest we would be sticking our hand into. Angela is clearly on tenterhooks. This insult has to be avenged.
The four men suddenly leap off the sofa as if a shot had been fired. They instantly hurry outside, outside the gate. Four other men stride towards them. The eight of them become a shapeless mass of black jackets, black caps, black hair. Angela pushes through them and hauls her brother out of the group. She quickly explains what has happened. The brother pulls the offending photographer out of the group and confers briefly with him. Then he walks inside with a friend and comes towards us. He does so grandly, with back straight, chin high, and quick but decisive stride. Here comes the macho to take care of everything. He shakes our hands perfunctorily and explains to Angela that peace has been restored. Angela becomes noticeably calmer. ‘Alright, I’m satisfied,’ she says. ‘They’ve offered a sort of apology.’ That evening we have dinner with Angela in Sukhum’s Japanese restaurant, another one of those post-independence acquisitions. It is an unlikely place, with DJs, rich Abkhazians and reasonable food and drink. ‘I hope that one day we will be like Japan,’ Angela sighs. ‘Very modern, but also loyal to our own traditions.’ Her phone rings again. She is called every ten minutes by men,
The Abkhazian renaissance
brothers, but they could also be nephews. ‘Security,’ Angela calls them. They check whether she is still okay, where she is and what she is doing. ‘Abkhazia is sometimes oppressive, but that’s the way it should be. I absolutely want to marry an Abkhazian man and stay here.’ A few days later we are sitting in our rented apartment in the centre of Sukhum. We ring Angela to go over the schedule and complain that the pizza delivery service has failed for the fourth time. We again eat yoghurt and sausages from the late-night shop across the street. Half an hour later Angela calls us back. ‘Is this your house?’ We hear honking. Outside are Angela and her security. They pull a steaming pizza box from the back seat. ‘I told you it works,’ she says proudly.
The Abkhazian renaissance
[ 186 ] Kaldahuara, Abkhazia
Girls in the gym of the boarding school in Kaldahuara. As a result of the war a relatively high number of children have lost one of their parents. The boarding school in Kaldahuara is one of the few places where government investment is clearly visible.
[ 190 ] Dranda, Abkhazia In March 2010, the Dranda prison made the news because a Georgian prisoner died there. According to the Abkhazians he died of natural causes; according to the Georgians he had reportedly been murdered.
[ 188 ] Dranda, Abkhazia
Roman is a cook and prisoner in the Dranda prison. We are allowed to photograph him in the kitchen; the prisoners in the cell block have to stay out of view.
Cook Roman serves us delicious plov with fresh parsley. Provisions, including food, are scarce and are mainly supplied by the prisonerâ€™s relatives.
[ 191 ] Dranda, Abkhazia
Pathology room at the Institute of Experimental Pathology and Therapy. All the research here is done on monkeys. Rumours persist that under Stalin attempts were made to cross people with monkeys.
[ 192 ] Sukhum, Abkhazia
During the war groups of monkeys escaped from the Institute of Experimental Pathology and Therapy. Although they have never been seen, caretakers claim that they are still hiding in the woods around Sukhum.
[ 194 ] Sukhum, Abkhazia
Vladislav Vladimirovich Demyanov (63) in Gulripsh Hospital, the centre of MSFâ€™s tuberculosis programme in Abkhazia. He is suffering from multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, one of the former Soviet countriesâ€™ most frightening health scourges. Treatment for MDR-TB can take more than three years, but a cure cannot be guaranteed.
[ 196 ] Gulripsh, Abkhazia
Security guards Ruslan (25) and Andrey (25) work for the police in Sukhum, but due to high absenteeism have been deployed as security in the Dranda prison. They hope that they will soon be able to go back to their old job.
[ 198 ] Dranda, Abkhazia
Promised land In which the empty land is repopulated by a very different group of refugees than the Georgians
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After our first trip to Abkhazia in 2006 I have often thought back to something Deputy Minister Maxim Gvinjia said. ‘Two million Abkhazians still live in the diaspora. If only a fraction of them come back, our future will be bright.’ We couldn’t believe our ears. To be honest, we had never heard of it. Neither could Gvinjia tell us how many from the Abkhazian diaspora had returned, but he did tell us that the ministry was eagerly trying to persuade its blood brothers abroad to come back to the country of their forefathers. But who in their right mind would voluntarily emigrate, or ‘repatriate’ as the Abkhazians call it, to a country like Abkhazia? With increasing frequency I read in books and publications about the Caucasian diaspora, which in the 19th century was driven by the Russians into the Ottoman Empire during the Caucasian War that lasted until 1864. The internet contains horrifying firsthand accounts of capsizing boats, contagious diseases amongst the refugees and the empty villages that remained in the Caucasus. After Sochi was awarded the Winter Olympics in 2007, the sounds of protest from the Abkhazian and Caucasian diaspora in Turkey and the rest of the world grew louder and louder. The internet and networking sites like Facebook swelled with committees such as NoSochi2014, established by representatives of these diaspora who seized on the Games to draw attention to their ‘forgotten genocide’. All the blogs and sites also appeared to show great solidarity with the Abkhazians, as the first independent mountain people. Month after month more articles surfaced about Abkhazia on the one hand and the Olympic Games on the other, distributed by the Caucasian diaspora who became increasingly vocal. In an attempt to get the Abkhazian diaspora story straight, three years after our first trip we visit the State Committee of Repatriation. The small building housing the State Committee in the centre of Sukhum looks like an embassy. Beautiful murals depict pretty mountain streams with behind them the country’s typically steep mountains. [ 8 ] A board displays the diaspora’s most famous war veterans, men from Turkey and the North Caucasus who gave their lives in Abkhazia for the country’s independence. The most famous Abkhazians of all time hang on the wall in a corridor. A They are imposing photos of one of Atatürk’s adjutants, the Jordanian honour guard and formal portraits of Abkhazia’s 19thcentury nobility. In a place of honour hangs the Abkhazian Miss World 1931, the only time that Abkhazia was able to show the world that the most beautiful women on Earth do indeed live here, something every Abkhazian firmly believes. Anzor Mukba B, the head of the State Committee, is a veteran of the Abkhazian independence struggle. A photo on the wall shows him in camouflage gear with a large gun on his shoulder. He is seated behind a large, heavy oak desk, and his office is filled with Turkish and Abkhazian paraphernalia. After we ask our first question, he knits his brows, rummages in a cupboard, takes out an ash tray and lighter and laboriously lights his first cigarette. For the duration of our conversation he doesn’t stop smoking.
‘You can best compare our situation with Israel. We are also a new, young country that became independent following major events. Just like Israel we hope that a great deal of our diaspora will support us or even repatriate. We just have less money available,’ Mukba laughs. ‘Imagine how strong Abkhazia would be if all those millions of people in the diaspora got behind us. We have influential Abkhazians living in Turkey and Jordan who form a strong lobby for us. It’s just that the Georgian and Western lobby is currently even stronger.
‘We now have 2,000 repatriates in Abkhazia,’ says Mukba. ‘That’s not a lot, and many of them don’t live in Abkhazia permanently. We’re not putting a lot of effort into convincing people about Abkhazia. That’s not in our character. Try and convince an Abkhazian of anything and he’ll do the opposite. We do say that we’re open to Abkhazians from Turkey and the rest of the world. Every summer we train AbkhazianTurks to give lessons in Turkey in the Abkhazian language.’ Mukba shows us the books that Abkhazia distributes in Turkey in order to raise the profile of Abkhazia’s language and history. They are beautiful Turkishlanguage books containing Abkhazian fables and the mythical genesis of this country that God had wanted to keep for himself. ‘If the Abkhazians from Turkey want to make a go of it here, we offer a great deal of support,’ says Mukba. ‘They receive help with childcare, a house, free schooling from kindergarten up to university and we arrange a job. We also invite young men to look for a bride here. We pay for the wedding and ask them to stay in Abkhazia.’
The word repatriation is of course controversial. Mention it in Georgia and they will get angry. The figure of 200,000 is also cynical, because it is almost the same as the number of Georgians who fled the country during the civil war in ’92-’93. For the Georgian refugees in their miserable conditions, the fact that so much money and effort is being invested to repopulate their empty houses with people from the diaspora must be hard to swallow. ‘What I find cynical,’ says Mukba, ‘is that we are internationally obliged to allow Georgians to return, but we are not allowed to let Abkhazians return. It’s strange that tens of thousands of Georgians have already come back to the Gal district, but the same number of Abkhazians causes resistance.’ Despite the small number of repatriates, Mukba is enthusiastic about the results of the repatriation programme. ‘We already have a pilot, a TV personality, two members of parliament and a presidential adviser. They’re integrating very successfully. But there are also substantial differences. They don’t drink alcohol, for example. That can lead to problems, because here we all drink. Not to get drunk,’ he adds defensively. ‘Our ‘table’ is in honour of the guests, and outside of that we don’t drink. Neither do TurkishAbkhazians eat pork. And we bury our dead in coffins, not in sheets. But ultimately many traditions are the same, because we’re Abkhazian first and only then Christian or Muslim.’ One of the most striking Turkish influences is the café-restaurant Ayashiara, Brotherhood, opposite the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The typical Turkish café, with water pipes, rugs and cushions on the chairs, and for the Caucasian element a few prints of old Caucasian warriors, is run by Özlem Kumzu and Faruk Karcaa. C Özlem came to Abkhazia during the war in ’92-’93. Faruk and his family only arrived two and a half years ago. The café is a meeting place for Abkhazians from Turkey. ‘This is a difficult country to integrate into,’ Faruk tells us. ‘We really only mix with other repatriates. The Abkhazians see us as Turks.’
‘Instinctively Abkhazians say “ow” in Russian, we say it in Turkish,’ says Özlem, a sturdy woman with long black hair. ‘Our children will be better integrated here, now that they also study here.’ As a result of her war experiences, Özlem already has more contacts in the country. For Faruk, everything is new. ‘We expected
more help,’ he says. ‘They promised us more. We’ve rented a house ourselves in the centre, because the house we got from the government had been abandoned a long time ago and was completely derelict. But things are now going well. This country has a lot to offer us. We live with our own people. Economically, it can only get better here.’ Where Özlem is a modern Turkish woman, keen to show us photo albums of her time in Istanbul, Faruk and his wife are traditional Turks. ‘I worked in construction in Kayseri, Antalya and Izmir. I never really felt at home in Turkey. The Apsuara, the Abkhazian code of behaviour, was my guiding principle. It includes respect for one’s elders, equality between men and women and much more. My grandfather was born in Abkhazia,’ says Faruk. ‘So that has been passed down from generation to generation. But we’re now discovering that in Abkhazia the Apsuara doesn’t really exist anymore.’ With Faruk and his son Nesren, we visit the house that the state offered them. Squeezed into an old Volga we drive to the city’s suburbs. The atmosphere here is almost rural. Each house is surrounded by a large piece of land where geese, chickens and sometimes a cow or goat stand. We turn into a muddy lane. ‘There,’ Faruk points. ‘That’s it.’ On a slope surrounded by a good piece of land is a lovely old villa. D ‘It’s absolutely nothing, don’t you agree?’ Faruk sighs. ‘Everything is in ruins, it’s a mess and at least 25 minutes walk from the centre.’ Inside everything still recalls the previous inhabitants. We even find photos of a man in a Soviet army uniform who is pulling himself up on a beam and smiling proudly into the camera. [ 44 ] A large wooden box is filled with cobbler’s tools, and a large number of home-made leather Michael Jackson sun visors. They must have been a big hit here in the 1980s. Judging by the handwriting in the notebooks an Armenian lived here. Who knows what happened to him. Maybe he fled before the war or only later, perhaps he now lives in Armenia or elsewhere, or he and his family died in the fighting. Faruk looks around shaking his head. He has absolutely no desire to start on this project. ‘Worthless,’ he says. ‘Luckily, it isn’t the house of a Georgian who fled, because then I really wouldn’t have wanted to have it. Those houses are also being given away.’
Now that we are looking for them there seem to be ‘Turks’, as the repatriates are simply called here, living in every neighbourhood and every town. Many
Turkish repatriates run shops with names like Come back! At one such shop we stop for coffee. The owner’s son still shuttles back and forth between Turkey and Abkhazia. ‘In Turkey the education is better, in Abkhazia I have a much better chance of building a career,’ says 19-year-old Eren. ‘I’m studying tourism in Turkey, which is of a much higher standard there than in Abkhazia. But when I’m finished I want to open a hotel here. Everything’s possible in Abkhazia.’ On the other side of the city, towards Novi Raion, one of the buildings stands out. The walls have been painted a glistening white and all the old windows have been replaced with new plastic frames. Dzhenia Mujaffer has lived here for four years. ‘I worked in Germany, in Stuttgart, my whole life. When I retired I moved to Turkey. But then I thought that my pension would be worth more if I went to the country of my forefathers, Abkhazia. My children moved with me and it suits us quite well.’ Her apartment is bare and empty. Dzhenia spends all day in front of the television, he says. In the corner a mannequin wears a large wedding dress E, which his daughter is working on. ‘It was actually just in time,’ he says. ‘My parents still brought me up a hundred percent Abkhazian. My daughter only speaks Turkish and German. If we hadn’t have had this chance, our language would have been lost in my family.’ He found the adjustment difficult. ‘Everything is stolen in Abkhazia. Even if it’s your brother or your father, everyone steals from everyone,’ he says. ‘The advantage is that when my car was stolen, after three phone calls I had found it again.’
While the Russians primarily invest via their Abkhazian middlemen and keep themselves to themselves, the Turks who have risked the crossing are integrating much more intensively. Sener Gogua is a member of the Abkhazian parliament, chairman of the Abkhazian Chamber of Commerce in Turkey and also runs several businesses. He seems to fear for his life; he works in a space protected by locks and remote-controlled switches. His room is extravagantly decorated with dozens of photos from his time in the Abkhazian army and encounters with famous Abkhazians, Russians and Turks. [ 49 ] ‘I fought at the front in Gagra,’ says Gogua. ‘I later went with the army to the east. I fought with Shamil Basayev.’ He briefly interrupts his story and
examines our reaction to the mention of this notorious terrorist. ‘The Chechens under him were extremely experienced and good fighters. I’m proud that I got to know him. ‘We’ve never forgotten our roots. My family was expelled from the country by the Russians in 1810; 180 years later I fought for this country’s independence. In a country of 77 million people, the motivation is great not to drown in that culture and to hold on to your own culture. That’s what saved us abroad. What’s more, the Abkhazians in Abkhazia were more assimilated during the Soviet Union than we were in Turkey. ‘The repatriation of Abkhazians from Turkey is now the most important challenge for Abkhazia, both to keep Russia and Georgia at arm’s length, and to develop our economy. Our government thinks patriotism is the most important argument, but we need to approach things in a much more businesslike way. The issue is economic opportunities and living conditions. Repatriates want guarantees for good houses and the security situation, because we’re asking a lot of the Abkhazians in Turkey. The Jews in the Soviet Union were asked to move from a bad place to a good place. We’re asking the Turkish-Abkhazians to move from a good place to a bad place. But it will improve quickly here. That’s due to the Russian budget support we receive, our economy profiting from the Olympic Games in Sochi and repatriation.’ Reborn Abkhazia is making a concerted effort to create its own, folkloric identity. Folk dancing is organised in cultural centres, men fight with swords and everyone has something to say about the Abkhazian treatment of women and the respect for one’s elders. However, the 200,000 immigrants that the State Committee of Repatriation eventually wants to attract will, alongside an extra dose of traditions untouched by Communism, also bring Islam with them. To a large extent these are moderate Muslims like the Turks in café Brotherhood, but some of them also identify with the pan-Caucasian Islam of the Chechens and Dagestanis. The question is whether Russia will be happy with such a selfcreated sanctuary for potentially radical Muslim rebel movements. On one of the treelined streets that lead directly to the sea is Sukhum’s prayer house. We expect to find mostly ‘Turks’ and a handful of Abkhazians, but after we are enthusiastically pulled inside, the round of introductions seems to be more like a who’s who of the North Caucasus. We first meet the mufti of Abkhazia, Timur Dziba [ 106 ], who has been decorated with Abkhazia’s highest military order for his contribution to the independence struggle; followed by imam Saleh Kvaratsheliya and Eduard Kazanakov, both from Adygea, Omar Magomaev, a veteran from the Abkhazian independence war from Chechnya, and Khasan Magomedov, from Dagestan. The circle is completed with the Abkhazians Khamza Adleyba and Abdurrahman Jugelia. All the children somersaulting round the prayer room are called Islam or Abdullah. F To my surprise I see Nar Tanya, the dentist from the municipal clinic where I went looking for
help and then ran away from on our previous trip. We embrace each other like old friends. As soon as we are seated in the circle a plate of mutton and plov is brought in.
In the past, the men tell us, Abkhazia was full of mosques. No church was ever destroyed here, but in the Caucasian War in the 19th century no mosques survived. Only in the early 1990s did the role of Islam increase again, thanks to all the fighters from the North Caucasus who came to help. Why are there still no mosques? we ask. There seem to be enough Muslims, and with the influx of Turks that number will only increase. They tentatively look around them. ‘The government doesn’t want it,’ says Kasanakov, the Adygean, eventually. ‘But we’re patient. We keep dreaming of a mosque, and one day that dream will come true.’ ‘Seventy years of the Soviet Union has done a lot of damage,’ explains the imam. ‘All our current leaders have been brought up as atheists. That’s why they don’t want a mosque. Abkhazians also drink a lot. Perhaps Islam frightens them. If they’d only been Christians, they would have had more understanding for our situation.’ We tell them about our conversations about Abkhazian nationality, patriotism and mistrust of Muslims. Are you really first Abkhazian or first Muslim? we put the cat among the pigeons. It falls quiet for a moment. ‘Islam and the Abkhazian code of behaviour, the Apsuara, largely correspond,’ says the dentist. ‘But Islam goes further than the Apsuara. The Apsuara is about life here and now, about respect for women and the elderly. A Muslim lives and prays because he believes in a hereafter and judgment day. But they can be combined. It’s easy for me to be Abkhazian in the broader context of my Islamic identity.’ ‘A religious person,’ says the mufti, ‘is God’s slave ’. Religion is most important, followed by nationality or ethnicity. But as Nar already said, it doesn’t clash here. We do want to re-educate the Muslims who were contaminated by the Soviet Union. Only a small number still practises. When we recently organised a public celebration in our prayer room Anzor Mukba, from the Committee
for Repatriation, came. He smoked non-stop. People like him are a symbol for so many others, with a totally Soviet mentality, in Abkhazia. We want to build Abkhazia in a different way. That’s not a criticism, not an opinion,’ the mufti tries to cover himself, ‘only an objective observation.’ We tell them how obligatory we find the Abkhazian drinking tradition. They must surely have difficulty with that. The Abkhazian Abdurrahman tells us how he refuses a toast. ‘If people want to toast with me, I always ask: why do you drink? You’re better off being who you are than getting drunker and drunker and losing yourself. People accept that. I’m convinced,’ he says, ‘that alcohol isn’t an Abkhazian tradition. We’ve borrowed all our words for drink. Vodka is Russian, chacha is Georgian. For grape and wine varieties we only have Georgian names.’ The men - they are already a little late - go and prepare to pray. The imam goes first and everyone, children included, stand behind him. With our interpreter Angela we withdraw. Angela swears by the newcomers, she says. She is also learning Turkish at the university. ‘I’d also like to become a Muslim,’ she says. ‘The repatriates have a sort of purity about them, with Islam and the old traditions that they bring with them. They are courteous, good-natured people, very different from many Abkhazians.’
The impossible Caucasus In which another group of people lays claim to the return to Abkhazia and the mighty mountains and geopolitics make our journey impossible
The impossible Caucasus
Planning a trip in the Caucasus is like piecing together a puzzle. On this trip in mid-2010, the last one for this book, we wanted to visit Abkhazia, the North Caucasus, Georgia and Turkey, the country where the new Abkhazians live. But the Caucasus is tightly sealed. Not only the mighty mountains themselves, but the geopolitical situation severely hampers travel through the region. From the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea, the borders are closed to most travellers. The only crossings are illegal, or by boat or plane between two countries that still have diplomatic ties with each other. We first try to repeat the trick of travelling to Georgia via Abkhazia, hopefully with the help of both secret services. Things go wrong straight away. When we cross the border from the Russian Sochi into Abkhazia, the Russian customs officer refuses to give us a Russian exit stamp. ‘New policy,’ he says implacably. We are standing in a row of corrugated metal cubicles, and behind us are queues of Abkhazians jostling to cross the border with all sorts of merchandise. We are pushed and shoved, and look despairingly at our passports. We are in no man’s land, outside Russia, without our passports saying so. It sounds like our worst nightmare. If any country in the world is strict about stamps, visas and procedures, it is Russia. This new procedure does not strike us as very logical, but we decide to take the risk anyway. After us the deluge! With our luggage, we trudge across the long bridge over the border river between the two countries. The Abkhazian border guards do not seem to find it strange either. We find a bus to Sukhum and decide to go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as quickly as possible. We pick our visas up there the next day. We again bump into Maxim Gunjia, the minister. ‘Are we technically still in Russia?’ we ask him. Being annexed by Russia is the Abkhazians’ biggest fear, and the only trump card that Tbilisi still thinks it can play in the peace process. Maxim gives us a vague answer. ‘It has something to do with Abkhazian-Armenians, who can get back into Russia without a double-entry visa and don’t run into any problems if they then want to go to Georgia.’ For us, this means that a shortcut to Georgia will make returning to Russia impossible. We decide to make a virtue of necessity when we discover that in addition to the Abkhazians in Turkey, there is another group of people who would like to repatriate Abkhazia. These are the Abkhazians’ ethnic relatives in the North Caucasus, such as the Abazin, whose language is so similar to Abkhazian that they can communicate with little difficulty. In the Caucasian War they were not driven into Turkey, but over the mountains to South Russia. Today, they live predominantly in the autonomous republic Karachay-Cherkessia, at the foot of Mount Elbrus. We can go there. Professor Janwarbi Ekba is one of the Abazin who has returned to Abkhazia. He teaches ecology and climatology at Sukhum’s university. From the complex we have a magnificent view over the city. The professor receives us in his dark brown, panelled office. ‘I actually fled Russia for economic reasons,’ he tells us, after making us sit through an
The impossible Caucasus
hour-long historical account of Abkhazia and the Caucasus. ‘In the Soviet Union I had a good life in Russia. I was a scientist and there were wonderful institutes where I could work. But then things went wrong. During the major currency crisis in 1998 I had a choice; to become a taxi driver like half the people were doing, or go to the city to sell potatoes from my own garden like the other half were doing. I decided to go to Abkhazia. Not that I earn anything here, but at least I’ve been able to preserve my honour.’ Ekba came to Abkhazia in 1998, but the four Sheremetov brothers have only lived here for a few months. After scouring the whole of South Russia in search of construction work, they decided to seek refuge in Abkhazia. The government gave them a piece of land and some building materials. They now live in a spacious house in the hills near the main train station. ‘It was difficult,’ says the oldest brother Arvid. ‘We crossed the border at Sochi with the contents of our house and everything. The Russian customs officers made scornful comments about us exchanging Russia for Abkhazia, but there was no future for us there anymore. You can keep animals, that’s it. Abkhazians are our brothers. Mountain people understand each other; that’s why we hope we can make a good life here.’ The lady at the travel agency advises us against taking the night train to the North Caucasus. They don’t run often, she says, and the journey takes about a day and a half. Travelling by road is not an option either. There are some horse trails and old roads that you could take with a UAZ jeep, but they are all closed and under military guard. For us, the lady says, flying via Moscow is much faster. We can make the round trip in five hours, and it’s not much more expensive either. So we eventually fly 2,700 kilometres in order to arrive 200 kilometres from our departure point a few hours later, on the other side of the mountains, in Krasny Vostok, a village in the autonomous republic of Karachay-Cherkessia. Like the surrounding republics Adygea, Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia, Chechnya, Dagestan and North Ossetia, Karachay-Cherkessia is part of the Russian Federation. These are the regions which Russia fought during the lengthy Caucasian War - with help from the then Russian Georgia – in which the tribes were pitted against each other in order to confirm Russian supremacy. The Caucasus is the Wild West of Russia and the many peoples who live here are its Indians. Although there is a lot of internal rivalry, fighters from all the republics travelled to Abkhazia to assist their mountain brethren in their fight against the ‘imperialist’ Georgians. The rebel movements that coordinate terrorist attacks in cities such as Moscow are still made up of a cross-section of all the mountain peoples. The mountain peoples seized the war in Abkhazia as the first opportunity after the fall of the Soviet Union to demonstrate their solidarity and fight for independence. A small delegation also departed from the Krasny Vostok. Muhamed Shanov A, the current warden of the local cultural centre, went with
The impossible Caucasus
it. He is still haunted by the war and regularly turns to the bottle to escape his demons, he says. ‘It was unspeakably cruel.’ He still often dreams about the scenes he saw in the hospital, about stories he heard of Georgians who drank the blood of Abkhazian women, in a glass with salt and pepper. He saw children in the hospitals without hands and feet. ‘I saw what was described in the Nuremberg trials,’ he says, ‘but fortunately Abkhazia has now been given justice. Someone who eats his tie,’ he refers to the famous video images of Georgian President Saakashvili who, while waiting for an interview with the BBC, did indeed seem to be eating his tie, ‘will choke on it. At last my beautiful, proud Abkhazia is on the world map.’
Krasny Vostok has absolutely nothing to offer. There is barely gas and water, and the little industry that there was disappeared after the fall of the Soviet Union. Even the large cities in the area offer little work. It is no wonder, then, that Abkhazia seems like an attractive prospect for the inhabitants. Because the Abazin and Abkhazians speak almost the same language, the brotherly ties are strong. Boris Bezhanov B, a German teacher in Krasny Vostok, is crazy about Abkhazia, where he studied German in the ’70s. On the beach at Gagra he met his first love, the East German Renate. C Since then, he has never been anywhere else on holiday. During the war he supported the country from Krasny Vostok, helping with food and medical aid. Women and children from Abkhazia were accommodated in the village. Throughout the war Abkhazians lived in Krasny Vostok. ‘Abkhazia moves me,’ says Boris. ‘For me, the following folk story is symbolic of my Abkhazia, the story of the old man working in his garden,’ he begins. ‘Suddenly the old man is rudely interrupted by a sweating boy who asks for shelter in utter panic. The old man senses that the boy is running away from something and hides him in the attic. They eat and drink together, as is customary with a guest in Abkhazia. A little later, a procession of villagers arrives at the old man’s house. ‘We’re very sorry,’ they say. ‘This afternoon an argument broke out and your son was murdered by a stranger. We’ve scoured the country but he’s vanished.’ The old man falls to the ground. He realises immediately that the stranger whom he had welcomed into his house
The impossible Caucasus
has murdered his son, but now that they have shared bread and salt, he can’t do anything to harm his guest. With a heavy heart, the old man goes up to the attic and asks the boy to leave.’ Boris almost has tears in his eyes. ‘So that old man did nothing to the boy,’ he emphasises. ‘That’s how unconditional Abkhazian hospitality is.’
Bezhanov doesn’t have anything against Georgians, but he has few positive things to say about the Georgian leadership. ‘The Georgians have always had fascist leaders; they can’t help it. Plenty of Georgians live in the North Caucasus. Stalin and Beria once sent them to live here, when some of our mountain peoples were deported to Central Asia. The Georgians were kicked in the teeth during the August War. Maybe they’ll keep quiet for a while.’ The Georgians who live in the North Caucasus have to perform daring feats in order to reach their motherland. From the hills above the village we see Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe, with its two peaks towering above the other mountains. Georgia lies on the other side of Elbrus. From here, two roads run directly into the country, but the borders of course are closed. We drive to the nearest airport in Mineralnye Vody and discover a cheap flight with the dubioussounding Caucasian Mineral Water Airline Company, KMV. That won’t take us to Georgia, because air traffic has also been stopped. We finally fly to Yerevan with a planeload of Armenians and Georgians, and from there travel to Tbilisi with a Georgian lady from the North Ossetian border town of Vladikavkaz who wants to share a taxi with us. For a bargain price, we get into an old Mercedes. The lady and the driver discuss the new situation. She used to take the bus from Vladikavkaz to Tbilisi. You were there in five hours, she says. Now, just getting from Yerevan to the border takes six hours in the car. It’s a breathtaking drive through Armenian canyons and plateaus, past still snow-topped peaks and dusty Armenian towns full of ruined Soviet industry. In the front of the car tongues click and heads shake to indicate disapproval of the current situation. Everyone here grew up in the Soviet Union, perhaps the greatest modern empire that you could cross with one passport. Ever. At the Georgian border, we are greeted enthusiastically. As a Dutch person
The impossible Caucasus
many countries are happy to have you. In Georgia, the popularity of the successful Dutch First Lady Sandra Roelofs helps. Then the smile on the two customs officers’ faces fades. With a knock on the window, their superiors are called over. We laugh innocently, but know exactly the trouble we are in. Our journey across the Georgian-Abkhazian border river Enguri in 2009 has, in Georgian eyes, put an indelible blot in our passports. The Russian exit stamp from 2009 is the culprit. The stamp clearly depicts a car instead of an aeroplane. This means that we left Russia overland, and that can’t have been to anywhere else except Abkhazia. This has to be explained. According to a Georgian law from October 2008, anyone who enters the so-called ‘occupied territories’ or has any dealings with them which takes place without explicit Georgian permission has committed an offence. We do our best to pronounce the tongue-twisting name of our contact at the Georgian security forces who helped us to cross the border between Abkhazia and Georgia. A customs officer dives behind the computer and phones through our names. We are paraded into a small cubicle. Under the watchful eye of two military policemen, we and the customs offices wait anxiously to hear whether we will have to be arrested or respectfully let into the country. The customs officer comes back. ‘Are you a journalist? Do you know that it’s illegal to enter Georgia via Sochi?’ He flips through our passports again. Saakashvili’s familiar face looks down at us from the wall. We are thirsty and want to explore Tbilisi, scrub off the dust in its famous sulphur baths and listen to jazz in the lovely cafés in the old city. We hope that our driver doesn’t decide to make the best of a bad deal. After all, we have already paid. A customs officer tries to strike up a polite conversation with us in English about our travels. Talking animatedly on the phone, another border guard comes in and reads out our details again. Then, out of nowhere, everything seems to be fine and they let us through with the greatest respect. ‘Sorry for the inconvenience. Have a nice stay in Georgia.’ Six men salute our entrance into Georgia. We hurry to our taxi on the other side of the border. We are in Georgia. We have mastered the impossible Caucasus. The driver and our fellow passenger from Vladikavkaz are waiting in the front with a growing sense of dismay. We try to keep our cool. ‘What was that?’ hisses the driver, as the officers wave us off. ‘Abkhazia,’ we hiss back. ‘Aaaa...’ comes the sigh from the front seat. Everything is immediately clear to them; and that one word is enough to fill the next two hours to Tbilisi with nostalgic reflections on everything that was and will never return.
The impossible Caucasus
A new motherland In which the Turkish-Abkhazian diaspora wallows in nostalgia, but has it too good to return to Abkhazia
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A new motherland
In the spring of 1864 the Russians dealt the final blow to the united peoples of the Caucasus. In Krasnaya Polyana’s valley, the location of the snow sports during the 2014 Olympic Games, the Russians won the last battle. Hundreds of thousands of Caucasians were rounded up on the Black Sea coast or opted themselves for emigration over integration in the Russian tsardom. Entire villages gathered on the Black Sea coast and made the sea crossing in rickety boats. In the wonderful book Let our fame be great, author Oliver Bullough describes the hellish journey based on many first-hand accounts. All sources considered, he writes, 1.2 million Caucasians left for Turkey, of which between 300,000 and 400,000 died, at sea or in the epidemic-stricken coastal areas where they arrived. According to an Abkhazian historian we spoke to about it, it was a trade with the Turks. The Ottoman Empire had a shortage of people and soldiers and Russia wanted to suppress the Caucasus. The trade was a win-win situation for the superpowers. Those who survived the journey were spread throughout the Ottoman Empire. Some of them went to the west, towards present-day Istanbul. Others went to the south, to the Arab part of the empire. The Liy family from Abkhazia was the first family the Ottomans sent to the inhospitable Anatolian plateau. As sort of buffer troops between the eastern Kurds and the western cities, they had to settle here and try to survive. A hundred and forty years later we drive from the central industrial city Kayseri eastwards, towards the religious Sivas. We travel through endless rolling plains, where not a single tree or shrub grows. Long, barren slopes only sporadically interrupted by small valleys through which water flows, and trees and vegetation make village life bearable. The winters here are long and cold, the summers dry and hot.
The village of Demirbo˘ ga A is one of the oldest Abkhazian settlements in the highlands. It is little more than 20 or so farms. Zekay Özgur, a descendant of the first Liy family, is our guide. In Atatürk’s modern Turkey, the use of the exotic Abkhazian names was forbidden. Ask any Caucasian in Turkey their name and they will first give their Turkish name, then their original name. ‘My forefathers came here 140 years ago,’ Zekay tells us. ‘They called this area Uzunyayla, far
A new motherland
land. They felt safe, everyone spoke our language. We’ve always been so cut off from the rest of Turkey here that we’ve been able to preserve our traditions.’ But the photo albums he shows us betray smooth integration into modern Turkey. His great-uncles pose proudly next to Atatürk. AskuravaB, is the oldest man in the village. He is the only person who has known someone who was born in Abkhazia. ‘When I was very young an old lady lived here who told me many stories about Abkhazia. The thing I remember most is her descriptions of watermelons, so big and juicy that you could eat right through them. She missed them terribly.’ In the 80 years that Askurava has lived in Demirbo˘ ga, he has seen the village change dramatically. ‘Each year that we live here we become more Turkish,’ he says. ‘I’m the last person who learned Abkhazian, but I don’t know if I can still speak it. My wife speaks another language from the Caucasus, and we speak Turkish to each other. I didn’t teach it to my children either.
‘This used to be a bustling village. Today, we’re the only inhabitants in the winter. Only the shepherds are still here to look after the houses and the sheep. The rest of the village heads to the cities.’ Instead of the usual chacha in Abkhazia we are given sickly sweet tea with Turkish delight. It is a funny experience. The villages talk with ease about the Caucasus, about the problems in Abkhazia and tell us their family histories, but are Turkish through and through. Nothing reminds us of the Caucasus. Aksurava has also never had the desire to return. ‘I’ve been a farmer here my whole life. Perhaps if I was younger, I’d do it.’ We pull up a chair at an elaborate lunch. The table is laden with home-made cheeses, honey, vegetables and Turkish bread. When it comes to hospitality, in any event, the Demirbo˘ ga villagers are in no way inferior to the average village in Abkhazia. ‘We’ve slowly built everything up here,’ says our guide Zekay. ‘We’ve been through hard times, but for the last few years things have been going well for everyone.’ He has a house in Istanbul; others around the table have houses in cities such as Kayseri or Samsun. ‘In Turkey there’s little future in the villages. What are we supposed to live on here? But if we choose to go to Abkhazia we also have to consider the fact that the villages there are also standing empty.
A new motherland
There’s no guarantee that we’ll find a job there.’ Even so, two young men from Demirbo˘ ga emigrated to Abkhazia, and have lived in Sukhum for ten years. ‘Many people visit Abkhazia, by boat via Sochi,’ says Zekay. ‘I am always proud when I see an Abkhazian flag fluttering, for example, but to go and live there, that’s a different matter. Security and crime are badly managed, nothing is produced, a lot of things have been destroyed. I know a farmer who wanted to set up a modern beef farm. But there was no market for it. He came back.’ Maruf Özveri is a farmer in Demirbo˘ ga. ‘We are real Abkhazians,’ he says. ‘We were brought up with the Apsuara. My heart beats Abkhazian, but I don’t want to be an asylum seeker there. The Abkhazians see us as foreigners. And for us the Abkhazians there are foreigners, they’re half Russian. We may not be fully fledged citizens in Turkey, but I feel at home.’ The rest of the table agrees. The traditional Abkhazia that they were brought up with exists in their hearts, but the real Abkhazia is for some of them just as exotic as for anyone else who has never been there. That is not the case with the countless associations that have been set up in Turkey. There are 83 Caucasian associations throughout the country, which in turn are grouped under two large umbrella federations. These associations and organisations lobby Turkey to recognise Abkhazia, and work to strengthen their cultural and economic links with the Caucasus’ mountain peoples. Many of these associations are pan-Caucasian. Necdet Askin (Aşhkot) is the chairman of one such association in Kayseri. C In their cultural centre Abkhazian felt jackets hang amicably next to North Caucasian hats. On a shelf lie wooden daggers and swords to complete the outfits. [ 232 ] People come here to perform folk dances, to sing and learn the languages of the Caucasus. ‘It doesn’t matter whether you are an Abkhazian, an Ossetian or a Balkarian, we look each other up. The Abkhazians say of us that we keep our culture alive better here than in Abkhazia. I think that’s because our traditional culture is closer to the Turkish than the Russian culture. But ultimately we also distinguish ourselves from the Turks. We allow our boys and girls to be friends. They can go to the cinema together, play together. For most Turks that’s unthinkable.’
A new motherland
Askin went to the Caucasus for the first time in 1989. He visited almost all the republics, from Abkhazia to Ingushetia. ‘I got in a taxi and asked the driver if he spoke the mountain language. “Of course,” he answered in my language. I was overwhelmed by nostalgia and sadness. As soon as I mentioned my surname, a family gathering was immediately organised. Hundreds of people with my surname Aşhkot came from far and wide to meet me. They’re now called Ashkotov there. They were astonished that the refugees from Turkey still knew the old customs and language. During the Cold War almost no contact was possible, of course. ‘Abkhazia needs real people,’ sighs Askin. ‘Otherwise the country will be gobbled up by the Russians. More and more Armenians also live there. But the economic situation is so bad, I’d rather live and work in Turkey or Germany. If anything, I’ll live out my retirement there one day.’ From Uzunyayla we drive hundreds of kilometres westwards, over the endless plains of the Central Highlands, past Ankara, towards Istanbul. Slowly the hills become greener until, between Düzce and Adapazari, we find ourselves in an almost subtropical paradise. The landscape reminds us of the mountain forests in Abkhazia. This is another heartland of Abkhazians and Caucasians in Turkey. The houses are large; almost everyone has made their fortune in Western Europe or still has family living there. In the tiny village of Cakallik [ 220 ] we meet 85-year-old Kozapha Nahmuriye (Kayn) D. More than anybody else, Abkhazia has become a reality for her, instead of an identity and a vague notion of the paradisiacal motherland. Her son Ayyund was in his early 40s when he went on holiday to Abkhazia to get to know the country. While he was still on holiday war broke out. ‘Ayyund came back to Turkey to say goodbye. He had seen his motherland and wanted to fight for it, but first he recruited many people in Adapazari to fight with him. Five of them were eventually killed in the war.’ We are sitting in the big front garden, under a fruit tree. The old lady shuffles laboriously back and forth with tea, home-made honey cake and large boxes of photos. She has documented her whole life. A special folder is reserved for her son. He has been photographed in countless places that we know well. On the pier in Sukhumi; on the beach at Gagra. One photo stands out. Ayyund is shown in insignificant surroundings, on a sandy path next to a tumbledown shed. He is pointing with his finger to a spot in the sand and laughs proudly into the camera. [ 69 ] What’s going on here? we ask surprised. ‘That’s where it all happened,’ says Kozapha. ‘I begged him not to go. But he’s a daredevil, an adventurer. The spot he’s pointing to is where he was wounded. He was riddled. The doctors had to remove 49 bullets from his stomach. When he came back from Abkhazia he was skin and bones, a shadow of his former self.’ ‘He was such a cheerful, spirited man,’ muses Kozapha’s daughter, who has joined us. Trembling, Kozapha goes through the photos. ‘It’s a miracle that he survived, but he’s never been the same again. He had terrible nightmares at night. He would
A new motherland
come running outside; he would jump awake at every noise. His character has changed beyond recognition.’
After the war Ayyund stayed in Abkhazia. For those who had stayed behind in Turkey he documented the places he had been to during the war. This was where he had been wounded and that was where he had hidden from the Georgians. In the photos his life took shape. He found a wife and in 1999 had a child. More snapshots followed, from Novi Afon, next to Lake Ritsa high in the Caucasus Mountains. ‘He gave his blood,’ sighs his mother. ‘He has become an Abkhazian. He can’t live in Turkey anymore. It’s different for us. Our graves and our recent forefathers’ graves are here. We’ve worked hard for these houses. This is our motherland now.’
A new motherland
[ 229 ] Kaydalar, Turkey Cakallik is an exclusively Abkhazian village in Turkey. The majority of Turkish-Abkhazians have never been to Abkhazia. None of the inhabitants has any plans to move there.
[ 230 ] Cakallik, Turkey
Many Turkish guest workers who earned their money in Western Europe live in Cakallik. They have built enormous houses with their savings and pension money. The whole village has a Mediterranean feel.
[ 232 ] Kayseri, Turkey The Abkhazian community in Turkey is highly active in preserving the Abkhazian culture. Costumes and weapons are copied from old photos and used in folkloric games.
[ 234 ] Cakallik, Turkey
The Turkish Belgin Ă–zgĂźr (39) grew up in Amsterdam. She has Abkhazian ancestors. Back in Turkey she married a man who also has Abkhazian ancestors. Neither of them has ever been to Abkhazia.
[ 236 ] Cakallik, Turkey Fethi Katen lives in the oldest house in the village. Among Abkhazian-Turks, the oldest man in the group determines when someone can smoke or drink. If he says nothing, you are not allowed to ask him.
All hope has gone In which the Georgian refugees become increasingly aware that their paradisiacal Abkhazia is a forever lost, forbidden country
Abkhazia North Ossetia
AWiX_ Pk]Z_Z_ AkjW_i_ Fej_
All hope has gone
We are on the banks of the Enguri, on Shamgona island. On the other side of the river is Abkhazia. Sviadi and Lexo, two Georgian soldiers, crawl towards the river bank and check that everything is as it should be. It says ‘police’ on their uniforms, but also ‘special forces’ in English. The grenades and automatic rifles suggest that they belong to the latter. At their signal we walk cautiously to a copse where we have a good view of the river. We look out at Abkhazia’s Gali region and smoke a cigarette. Sviadi then gestures that we should be quiet. Very faintly we hear talking and the sound of an engine on the other side of the river. ‘Russians,’ he warns. I look through one of the soldier’s binoculars. On the other bank is a small guardhouse. Perhaps someone inside is looking back at us. It is strange to look at a country so covertly and conspiratorially where a just short time ago we were wandering around. From the island an old bridge crosses the river. A Halfway across, the bridge seems to have sunk to its knees, the arched parts almost touching the water. A little further up an improvised rope bridge has replaced the railway bridge. The railway bridge is often depicted in press photos from the war. ‘In two days 200,000 people crossed the river here,’ exaggerates a refugee who made the crossing himself. Although in reality there were fewer, the images of groups of people being corralled onto the bridge and forced into the water are dramatic.
‘We experienced the strangest things here,’ says soldier Sviadi. ‘Whole families crossed the river, on horseback or via the footbridge. One time we even saw a piano crossing the river.’ In the dry season places like this are passable, and the border between Abkhazia and Georgia becomes almost meaningless. After signing a treaty of cooperation with Abkhazia, Russia has now taken over the border patrol. All along the Georgian border, the Russians are building army camps and shelters. That explains all the hammering and sawing we can hear. With the two soldiers we walk back to their fort, a platform of sandbags, barbed wire and foxholes a little deeper onto the island. They show us an old Russian fortress, a bunker complex at the foot of the embankment. ‘From here they advanced - as so-called peacekeeping troops - in 2008 towards the port city of Poti,’ says Sviadi. ‘Now the Russians aren’t in Georgia itself. Everything has been moved back to the other side of the river.’ A Russian uniform has been
All hope has gone
pinned to a pole. Russian names have been scratched in the old train carriage on the rails; ‘Sergei, Chelyabinsk 2008’. The island is still crowded with refugees. In Georgia it often feels as if, since they made their escape, time has stood still. These are all people who fled in 1993 and turned the first school or hotel that they came to into a shelter. The refugees spread out across the country, first here, then to the cities of Zugdidi, Poti and Kutaisi. ‘We thought it was temporary,’ says Mimoza Khurtsiluva B, 54, who gives us a tour of a blue painted wooden kindergarten from the ’50s. [ 238 ] The building stands on stilts. You can see through the floor to the ground below. ‘We’ve now lived here for 18 years. We get along with each other, but you also hear noises that you don’t want to hear, and if I shake my head, the whole building shakes with me.’ The refugees receive 30 lari, about €15, per month. There is little employment, so they help on the land or run a small shop at the side of the road. In a poor country like Georgia, it is almost impossible to escape your disadvantaged position; you are not the only one.
Not far away is Khurcha, a scattered collection of farms with a tiny centre with a few shops. Khurcha is actually in Abkhazia, but was allocated to Georgia during the Soviet era. To get there you have to cross a long bridge over the Enguri. Once in Khurcha, only a stream separates the village from Abkhazia. We arrive just as an old man calmly crosses the narrow bridge to Abkhazia, with a sack of something over his shoulder. C Nobody stops him. Twenty metres inland is an Abkhazian customs post. Immediately behind it another Russian barracks is being built. Next to the stream live the Kvaratskhelias, a family with two children and a resident grandfather. D They live in a small paradise, in two houses surrounded by an endless walnut orchard. At the front, a field extends down to the stream. The children and some friends run around with toy guns, pretending to kill their foreign guests with them. E In the house’s façade, real bullet holes are visible. ‘We fled in 2008,’ says the mother, Inga. ‘The Russians were posted next to our house as peacekeepers. Then the war broke out and they became occupiers.’ During the conversation with her and the grandfather, she walks to and fro from the kitchen filling the table with pomegranate seeds,
All hope has gone
walnuts, aubergines, cheese, bread, cold chicken, red wine, white wine, chacha and brandy. Grandfather Mirian, 72, prepares himself with a cigarette and a glass. There will be toasting. The family fled to relatives in Tbilisi. Packed together in a broom cupboard, they saw the country collapse. ‘The people in Tbilisi weren’t hospitable. Every day we had to thank them 20 times. Then we thought, we’ve got everything here, even if we are on the frontline. We came back.’
C D E
‘My mother’s Abkhazian,’ says Mirian. ‘Every morning when I wake up a man with a gun is standing on the other side of the river. That’s very painful. Abkhazia is my country, too. Relatives of mine have died in Abkhazia, but I haven’t been able to attend a funeral for years.’ We make a cautious first toast to their beautiful country and eventful life. The man interrupts us. ‘Always toast the guests first, our gift from God,’ he says. ‘Georgian soldiers have been here for three weeks,’ says Inga. ‘Since then, not much else has happened. Before that there were Abkhazian soldiers, too. They wanted food and livestock from us. Sometimes they crossed the stream drunk and shooting their guns. That doesn’t happen any more. Even so they were useful. Abkhazians are easier to bribe than Russians. If we want to cross the border with our old Soviet passport, we always have to wait to see whether the Russians are on patrol. You can be arrested just like that and taken to Gali.’ She points to the other bank, to the new barracks that are being built. ‘Soon the border will be shut tight, the Russians say. For us, Abkhazia will then be a thing of the past.’ If the war in 2008 made anything clear for many Georgians, it was the definitive loss of the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In
All hope has gone
spite of the government’s rhetoric, a scenario in which Abkhazia returns to Georgia’s embrace seems unthinkable. The Russians are building naval and military bases in Abkhazia, the Russian military is guarding the Abkhazian and South Ossetian borders, SS-20 missile launchers have been installed in the new countries and President Medvedev has drunk coffee on Sukhum’s boulevard with the de facto and, for four countries, the de jure President Bagapsh. Russian troops are still only 50 kilometres from the Georgian capital. If Russia is making anything clear to Georgia, it is that this is permanent. In Tbilisi we go back to the refugee apartments, where in 2007 residents told us wonderful stories about their gardens with mandarin trees in Abkhazia. Despite the signs of impending conflict, everyone still had a glimmer of hope. We hurry up the stairs to the sixth floor, where we had had such a lovely time with Ekaterina, little Irakli and Ketevan [ 138, 256 ]. When we knock on the door, Ketevan opens it immediately. She has had a second child, Ana. Together with her mother-in-law, husband and two children she lives in a student room with a small section of hallway, in which they have built a makeshift kitchen. ‘In Abkhazia we could afford a lot,’ says Ketevan. ‘We were very hospitable. We try to keep that up here, but look around you. Which guest would want to be received here?’ Her husband is a driver - which is often a euphemism for unemployed. They both contracted hepatitis at the dentist, she says. We ask how they can survive without work and with such a small allowance from the government. ‘Most people live on bread and tea, or potatoes,’ she says. ‘Since the war, the government has started treating us differently. We now own the apartments. According to the government they’re worth about €3,000, but who would want to buy an apartment like this, a room with a bit of hallway? Even if we manage to sell it, where are we supposed to live for €3,000?’ With Ketevan we go through the list of people we had met and photographed the previous time. First on the list of course is Ekaterina, her neighbour, the German teacher with whom we had shared a bottle of chacha and in a melancholy state philosophised about Abkhazia. ‘She died very peacefully,’ says Ketevan. ‘Her daughter found her in the morning in bed. She was old.’ We think back to the afternoon we spent with her. ‘Whatever happens,’ Ekaterina had said then, ‘please let me die in Abkhazia.’ Her worst nightmare had come true. Irakli F was a little mite when we last met him; he is now a strapping prepubescent. His father works in construction; he wants to be a businessman. His grandparents still live in Abkhazia, in Gal. Irakli dreams about the large houses in Abkhazia. They went there once, but his parents, Inga and Amur, have given up hope of ever returning. ‘I also fought in the war,’ says Amur. ‘Whatever happens, they won’t let me back in.’ ‘Actually,’ says Inga, ‘I don’t know anybody in our building any more who thinks they will go back. We’ve lived in Tbilisi for so long. All hope has gone.’
All hope has gone
Almost everyone we speak to in Georgia says the same thing. Georgia overplayed its hand in 2008. Nobody ever expects to see Abkhazia again, refugee or not. For one man, the war must have been particularly bitter. Abkhazia’s de jure president then lost the last piece of territory over which he had jurisdiction. He is now Gia Baramia G, Teimur Mjavia’s successor as Abkhazia’s de jure president. The atmosphere in the de jure Abkhazian government building in Tbilisi has not improved since the war. It can’t be easy governing a nation of refugees and not even being able to see your own country. The futility of the regime is disproportionately compensated for by the image it projects. In 2007 this was still a modest office, with the president tucked away at the back of the third floor. SUVs and other expensive cars are now lined up outside. Shady-looking men with guns are waiting for us. One of them detaches himself from the group and comes to meet us. He has a jaw line and hollow, sunken eyes like Frankenstein’s monster. We are scanned from head to toe and have to hand in our passports and mobile phones. Gia Baramia responds resentfully when we say we have never been so rigorously checked. ‘That’s standard,’ he says. ‘We have a lot of enemies.’ He lights a big cigar and launches into his story. After everything we have seen and heard we can barely take his argument seriously. ‘My job is to restore Georgian jurisdiction in Abkhazia. Thereafter, Abkhazia can have the greatest form of autonomy within Georgia.’ Abkhazia will never agree to that, we say, and even your own refugees don’t believe in it any more. ‘That’s not what I hear coming out of Abkhazia,’ says Baramia. ‘My friends from Abkhazia say that it’s not safe there, that Russia wants to repopulate the country. Nobody except Russians dare to invest there. All the people I know say that the current government is selling the country to the lowest bidder.’ The government in exile wants to do its best to prove that to us and has set up a complete Abkhazian opposition for that purpose. ‘We’ll pick you up tomorrow,’ says Baramia, ‘and I’ll show you the future.’ The next day we are again at the impoverished refugee apartments. We have agreed with Baramia that they will pick us up here. When we come outside, we get the fright of our lives. A row of gleaming limousines stands waiting for us, with accompanying men in dark suits. ‘KGB,’ whispers the shop owner. Red in the face we climb into the SUV, sink deep into the leather seats and speed off.
All hope has gone
Baramia’s greatest assets are Abkhazians who fled the country in recent years and chose to come to Georgia. From here, Baramia believes, they should form the Abkhazian pro-Georgian opposition. We are proudly paraded past them. We spend a surreal afternoon in the freshly painted refugee housing far outside the capital. ‘Georgia is paradise,’ says one of the refugees to us. ‘It’s safe here. Look at Tbilisi, such a big city and no crime.’ The refugees talk about Abkhazia smuggling uranium, where banks and post offices don’t work and where the Kremlin plays divide and rule. ‘In a referendum, Abkhazia is soon going to vote to join Russia,’ says another. The conversations we had in Abkhazia, the uncompromising tone towards Georgia that we always heard, echo in the back of our minds. These refugees must realise that few Abkhazians in Abkhazia want to become part of Georgia again or join Russia. But we also remember the stories that, as a journalist, it is so hard to uncover, of the human rights violations, the security forces and the social pressure in the tiny country. These people must have been in quite some distress to have chosen this over their motherland. ‘What can you do from Georgia?’ we ask. ‘Saakashvili is good,’ she replies. ‘If he had been president in 1992, there wouldn’t have been a war. Saakashvili has to build up Abkhazia in the same way that he has done Georgia. That’s why we’re here, to make that happen.’ Even so, the atmosphere is tense. Many of the stories are plausible, but it doesn’t feel right. We are in the middle of a strange sort of propaganda display. These Abkhazians’ apartments have been fully furnished by the de jure government, and are more luxurious than what many refugees have. What these people can do for the peace process is a mystery to us. It seems more like the de jure regime’s death spasm. ‘See you again, in Sukhum,’ they say when we leave. It is one of our last days in Georgia. We drive along the Black Sea coast, past Poti’s industries to Kobuleti’s holiday complexes. Somewhere here, in a pine forest within walking distance of the sea, the Georgian-Abkhazian writer Guram Odisharia H is building a wooden dacha with two friends. During the war in ’93, Odisharia also had to escape through the mountains from Sukhum to Georgia.
All hope has gone
He is one of the few Georgians who regularly returns to Abkhazia and is received with the greatest respect. His books ‘Return to Sukhum’ and ‘The President’s Cat’ have been included in Sukhum’s library collection. ‘My love for the city and Abkhazia is apolitical,’ he says. ‘The Abkhazians recognise their own feelings in my words.’ We tell him about the Abkhazian opposition, the refugees who have given up hope and all the stories we heard in Abkhazia. You are one of the few Georgians who still has frequent contact with Abkhazians, we say. You must know these stories inside out. How is the situation ever going to be resolved? ‘Georgians and Abkhazians don’t hate each other,’ he says by way of response. ‘But the effect of politics on both sides is that without a radical position you don’t survive, because independence is better than dependence and getting back your limbs is better than suffering an amputated existence,’ he refers to Abkhazia and Georgia respectively. ‘I’ve said goodbye to political diplomacy. With Abkhazian writers and Georgian citizens we try to organise as many meetings as possible, so that we can at least restore good relations. My Abkhazian friends showed me my old house. That doesn’t interest me that much, I said, as long as you tend my parents’ grave. I’ve seen what a tough time the Abkhazians have had. I know how hard it is for us refugees in Georgia. I hope that our collective experiences keep us together. Abkhazians are marrying refugee women again, from Gali and the surrounding areas. Since independence in 2008, the fear in Abkhazia has gone. That means that the hatred is lessening. Little by little we’ll get there.’ We make a toast to this hope. Then the writer gestures that we should be quiet. We hear the wind blowing round the creaking house. ‘The sea,’ says Odisharia, ‘can you hear the sea? That’s why I built my dacha here. It makes me think of Sukhumi.’
All hope has gone
[ 248 ] Chakva, Georgia
Since the early â€™90s, Nachkebia Venera (72) has lived in a refugee centre a few kilometres outside Batumi. She no longer has any family who can look after her.
[ 250 ] Chakva, Georgia Venera had to flee Abkhazia in a hurry. The only cherished possession she was able to take with her was a portrait of her deceased grandchild.
[ 252 ] Kuta誰si, Georgia
The government gave Abkhazian refugee Zhenia Kopaliani (80) a new apartment a few months ago, after she had lived in a former psychiatric clinic for years. Georgian government employees take us to see her. She cannot emphasise enough how happy she is with the Saakashvili administration.
[ 255 ] Tbilisi, Georgia Most of the refugees who were forced to leave Abkhazia in a hurry in 1993 left behind all their belongings. A few cherish scarce memories such as photos and certificates.
[ 256 ] Tbilisi, Georgia
Three years after our visit in 2007 we go back to see Ketevan. She now has a two-year-old daughter. Even more people in one room. The government offered her the room, but who wants to buy a rundown room in a dilapidated student apartment? See also page [ 138 ]
Photos of deceased family members in a refugee centre on Shamgona. Shamgona is an island located in the middle of the river that separates Abkhazia from Georgia. It was the first place refugees from Ochemchira came to. Seventeen years later they are still there, and a return seems further away than ever.
[ 258 ] Shamgona, Georgia
In which all roads to peace seem improbable
Georgia and Abkhazia are strange countries. They are countries which creep into your soul, which as a traveller you start to love. In both countries people long for the same lost paradise, but are no longer willing or able to share it with each other. The degrading status quo between the two drives you to despair. That’s why we sometimes let our neutrality slip. What if you gave the Kodori Gorge and the Gali region to Georgia? we ask Abkhazians. No Abkhazians live in either region anyway. To Georgians we say: if you recognised the regime on the condition of further negotiations, you would have much more influence in the region than you do now. In Abkhazia the future is built on Russian investment, aid and tourism. Having said this, the Abkhazians’ only real fear is a complete takeover of their country by Russia. As a result of Georgia’s isolation policy, Abkhazia has lost all room to manoeuvre and been driven directly into Russia’s hands. And Abkhazia is small fry for Russia. Act before it’s too late, we say to both of them, and both of them haughtily turn up their noses or laugh at us. Of course we won’t do that, says the Abkhazian. We’ve survived 15 years of isolation, now we have to persevere. The Georgian laughs and asks, what are you suggesting? Abkhazia is only beautiful after Ochemchira! And you want us to give up that beautiful part? What the Caucasus needs is a figure like Richard Holbrooke, the man who singlehandedly forged the Dayton Agreement. At his first meeting with the Bosnian-Serbs and the amateur historians Mladic and Karadzic, he banged his fist on the table and shouted ‘no historical bullshit’. Come on, make compromises! But this conflict in the Caucasus - just like all the other conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Ossetia and the North Caucasus - has never received the diplomatic and political attention it deserved. Hence the desperation in Georgia before the August War in 2008. The deadly sparring match with Russia reached an inevitable climax. All the diplomats knew it would, but nobody intervened. That’s why all the countries and provinces across the Caucasus are crowded with refugees, pawns in the geopolitical games being played in this region. Like chess pieces, they are sacrificed to ensure the king’s survival. They are condemned to a life in a place where they will never be at home. The hope of once again returning to their homeland prevents them from putting down roots in foreign soil. Our peace proposals are much too naive. Thanks to the centuries-old colonial ties with the Caucasus, Russia regards the region as its sphere of influence. Russia has regained its firm grip on the Caucasus and at least until the Games in 2014 will certainly want no messing about in its backyard. Even thereafter, the Caucasus as a source of and transit route for oil and gas is too important to let slip. Meanwhile, the once promising Saakashvili government has deteriorated into an authoritarian and nationalistic regime. The US and EU hope for stability in the region and Georgia’s independence as an alternative transit country for gas from Central Asia, but after the war in 2008 it became clear to everyone that when it comes to Georgia, they have nothing to offer. The appeal that Georgia once had has evaporated - and with it the chance that Abkhazians and Ossetians
can be attracted by the Georgian alternative. In an ultimate attempt to avoid the return of Georgian refugees and the invasion of Russian émigrés, Abkhazia is bringing in its lost sons, the Turks, from the 19th century. It still remains to be seen how their Muslim faith and old-fashioned mores, on the one hand, and their acceptance of Turkish modernity, on the other, will find a place in this former Soviet Abkhazia, with its smoking, drinking and upfront mentality. It seems unlikely, however, that the AbkhazianTurks will flock to this country. Over the past years we have tried to peel Abkhazia layer by layer. We talked to the country’s leaders, officials, scientists and activists; to soldiers and policemen, teachers and the inevitable taxi drivers. We succumbed to the Caucasus’ famous hospitality, slaughtered sheep and narrowly survived the local brews. We toasted the dead but also the young people and the future. We made exactly the same toasts less than ten metres over the border, with Georgian IDPs who look out over their former homeland from their kitchen windows. Abkhazia’s inhabitants and the refugees in Georgia are often cynical. For its entire history this region has been the direct object of regional and global politics. The horrific events they were sucked into, participated in or were the victim of didn’t have to happen, everyone says. Still, many cannot reconcile themselves with the past and with the other. Even so, this book is a tribute to all the people we have met over the past years. Strong people, although none of them can name a generation of their family that has not experienced war. Hopefully the coming years will see their lives improve.
Konstantin Gumba’s farewell letter: ‘...Whatever remained after the war in Abkhazia I divided between my loved ones, and with a clear conscience I find eternal peace.’
[ 266 ] Adzyubzha, Abkhazia
Empty land Promised land Forbidden land is the second annual publication produced as part of The Sochi Project. © The Sochi Project 2010 / www.thesochiproject.org Photography: © Rob Hornstra / INSTITUTE. Courtesy Flatland Gallery NL | Paris. Text: © Arnold van Bruggen / Prospektor Translation: Cecily Layzell Design / Cartography: Kummer & Herrman, Utrecht Printed by: Drukkerij Slinger, Alkmaar Paper: Munken Lynx Rough 150 grs. Munken Lynx Rough, a product by Arctic Paper, FSC certified. Print run: 1,000 A special thanks to: Eefje Blankevoort, Simon Burer, Esther Gaarlandt, Arthur Herrman, Jeroen Kummer, Hans Loos, Robin Sluijs, Jolien Steenman. This production has been made possible with support from The Netherlands Foundation for Visual Arts, Design and Architecture (Fonds BKVB).
Thanks to: Wim Aardenburg, Johannes Abeling, Antoine Achten, David K. Adams, Yulan van Alphen, Roland Angst, Nico Baldauf, Inga Lara Baldvinsdottir, Harry Barkema, Nathalie Belayche, Mark Beunderman, Joost M. Beunderman, Frederiek Biemans, Marc Bierings, Victor Blankevoort, Elgin Blankwater, Niels Blekemolen, Jelle Bloem, Jan Willem Bloemendaal, Maarten Boerma, Boudewijn Bollmann, Kris Borgerink, Chloe Borkett, Jack Bos, Maarten Boswijk, Nicolaas Bot, Gerwin Botterhuis, Enda Bowe, Laura Bras, Karel de Bree, Jacco Brink, Corine van den Broek, Gerard Broersen, Guido Bruggeman, Erik van Bruggen, Anke van Bruggen, Janny en Popke van Bruggen, Irma Bulkens, Heleen Bulthuis, Tessa Bunney, Simon Burer, Stefan Canham, Theo Captein, Nelson Chan, Toon de Clerck, Joerg Colberg, Rutger Colenbrander, Justin Collins, Jeannette Cornelisse, Simon de la Court, L.J.A.D. Creyghton, Alexander van de Cruijs, Agnese Da Col, Adrian Davies, Els Dekker, Julie Del Piero, Laura De Marco, Stichting Doel Zonder Naam, Carola van Dongen de Boer, Ivan Donovan, Louis S. Dowse, Jochem Driest, Derk Duit, Chris Ecclestone, Janus van den Eijnden, Anna Eikelboom, Jan Pieter Ekker, Frank van den Engel, Simone van Engelen, Michael Ensdorf, Leo Erken, Nicole Ex Asselbergs, Federico Ferrari, Olivier Fierens, Richard Fieten, Eva Flendrie, Regina Fluyt, Jan Willem Folkers, FOTODOK, Markus Franke, Francoise Gaarlandt Kist, Thijs Gadiot, Isabel Garces, Coen Geertsema, Bertus Gerssen, Heidi de Gier, Frits Gierstberg, Jasper Gilijamse, Roos Gils, Sebastien Girard, John Gossage, Ingo Gotz, Ian Joanne Graham, Peter Granser, Stefanie Gratz, Simone de Greef, Hans Gremmen, Jasper Groen, Martijn Groeneveld, Inge de Groot, Feyoena Grovestins, Peter Goettler, Anke van Haarlem, Arjan van Hal, Barbara Hanlo, Ingrid Harms, Gregory Harris, Hans Ueli Hasler, Maxim Heijndijk, Chantal Heijnen, Marlene Herkemij, Arthur Herrman, Pauke van den Heuvel, Lorelei Heyligers, Marloes Hiethaar, Richard Higginbottom, Paul ‘t Hoen, Eva Hofman, Joop Hopster, Joost en Joke Hornstra, Luc Hornstra, Tom Hornstra, Laurien ten Houten, Marjan Hoving, Ewout Huibers, Fred Icke, Tarek Issaoui, Mieke Jansen, Tom Janssen, Michael Jellema, Fred Jelsma, Mayke Jongsma, Roy Kahmann, Felix Kalkman, Manja Kamman, Emile Kelly, Dolph Kessler, Vivian Keulards, Robin Klaassen, Erik Klappe, Martijn Kleppe, Freya de Klerk, Anneke Kloostra, Kim Knoppers, Talmon Kochheim, Ria Kock, Olaf Koens, Stefan Kolgen, Suzanne Koopmans, Paul Kouwenberg, Erik Kroes, Lars Krueger, Annelies Kuiper, Sybren Kuiper, Jeroen Kummer, Tom Lagerberg, Raoul de Lange, Matthew Lemon, Beate Lendt, Dick van Lente, Natascha Libbert, Jann Liebert, Baptiste Lignel, Geisje van der Linden, Johan Linssen, Dunja Logozar, Alma Loos, Hans Loos, Marijke Louppen, Menno Luitjes, Celina Lunsford,
Femke M. Lutgerink, Michael van Maanen, Gordon MacDonald, Henrik M. Malmstroem, Paul Malschaert, Rense Mandema, Uwe H. Martin, Michael Mccraw, Harminke Medendorp, Kristin J. Metho, Andrea Meuzelaar, William Mitchell, Jo Mockers, C.F. van der Molen, Vittorio Mortarotti, Fotolab MPP, Gerda Mulder, Andreas Nader, Patricia Nauta, Herbert Nelissen, Dieter Neubert, Jose Luis Neves, Floor Nicolas, Pepijn Nicolas, Pipo Nicolas, Leonie van Nierop, Bram Nijssen, Corinne Noordenbos, Laura Obdeijn, Hilje Oosterbaan Martinius, Jan Oosterman, Henk Otte, Jetteke Ottevanger, Floris van Overveld, Johannes Paar, Lodewijk van Paddenburgh, Emiliano Paoletti, Martin Parr, Vanessa Penn, Douglas Penn, Steve Pepper, Andrew Phelps, Cock Pleijsier, Rik Plomp, Jan Postma, Corey Presha, Tom Price, Jeppe van Pruissen, Mireille de Putter, Rianne Randeraad, Marco Rapaccini, Katrien Raymaekers, Eduard Rekker, Ramon Reverte Masco, Liza de Rijk, Mike Roelofs, Laura van Roessel, Peter Rommens, Johannes Romppanen, Tijmen Rooseboom, Pieter Roozenboom, Rixt Runia, Jacobien Rutgers, Jaap Scheeren, Hannah Schildt, Patrizia Schiozzi, Marike Schipper, Ralph Schmitz, Oliver Schneider, Andreas Schoening, Meindert Scholma, Soeren Schuhmacher, Hendrik Schwantes, Terri Schwartz, Roel Segerink, Fabio Severo, Geert Job Sevink, Jeroen Seydel, Patrick Sijben, Iris Sikking, Teresa Silva, Katja Sinnema, Fransje Sjenitzer, Anna Skladmann, Johan Slager, Bart Sleegers, Robin Sluijs, Rob en Eva Sluys, Monique Smeets, Hans Snellen, Frans Soeterbroek, Baato Soort, Peter Sorantin, Robert Specken, Sander Spek, Marijn Staal, Petra Stavast, Joop Steenman, Conny Steenman, Jolien Steenman, Lorette Steenman, Bonnie Steenman, Truus Stevens, David Strettel, Margreet Strijbosch, Philip Stroomberg, Ton Sweep, Marlies Swinkels, Victor Taylor, Florens Tegelaar, Margriet Teunissen, Bjoern Theye, Mirelle Thijsen, Bas Timmers, Chiara Tocci, Jeroen Toirkens, Reinier Treur, Jan Vandemoortele, Anneke van Veen, Christiaan van Veen, Evelien Vehof, Lucas Verheij, Ralf Verhoef, Kirsten Verpaalen, Marieke Viergever, Dirk-Jan Visser, Henkjan van Vliet, Elise Volker, Jurryt van de Vooren, Zelda de Vries, Bas Vroege, Martijn de Waal, Theo de Waal, Rob Wandelee, Rolf Weijburg, Theijs van Welij, Rob Wetzer, Thomas Wiegand, Mick van de Wiel, Kitty Wigleven, Guido de Wildt, Andrea Wilkinson, Marieke ten Wolde, Stephen Wooldridge, Valentin Wormbs, Raimond Wouda, Steffi Wurster, Natalie Wynants, Antonia Zennaro, Isabell Zipfel.
[ 270 ] Tkvarcheli, Abkhazia At a school in Tkvarcheli we meet Ainar (7). He wants to be the next president of Abkhazia.
[ 268 ] Kodori, Abkhazia
The badly damaged road that leads through the Kodori Gorge. The valley can only be reached in a four-wheel drive in reasonable weather.
Published on Nov 10, 2010
In Empty Land, Promised Land, Forbidden Land photographer Rob Hornstra and writerArnold van Bruggen explore the unknown country Abkhazia on...