TThe border between Georgia and Abkhazia is strangely deserted. A long, wide bridge crosses a narrow river that has almost dried up.
There is almost more water on the bridge than under it. And since the bridge is in no-man’s-land between the metropolis and the breakaway republic, no one takes responsibility for maintaining it. With each passing year, the holes in the asphalt get deeper.
A group of women dressed in black followed behind me, all loaded with bags loaded with Georgian goods. Every once in a while, a car bearing the logo of an international aid organization would crawl across the bridge. Three skinny horses passed us pulling a cart full of people who paid for not having to cross anyone’s land on foot.
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I arrived at the three or four shacks that made up passport control and waited in line. It is not particularly difficult for foreigners to obtain an entry visa to Akbhazia, you just need to remember to register on the official government website a few weeks in advance. But something went wrong with my online registration, as I didn’t receive confirmation until my entry visa was almost expired. As a result, I only had two days to visit the breakaway republic.
“As soon as you arrive in Sukhumi, you must go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and obtain an exit visa,” the passport officer told me. “Otherwise, we will not be able to let you out again
I promised to do what he said, put my passport back in the bag and entered Akbhazia. The first time I was there was with my mother, five years earlier. At that time, the border seemed threatening and frightening. Polished cars stopped side by side, the windows rolled down and the money was changed. In general, people seemed hostile, almost hostile, but we finally found a driver who could take us to Sukhumi, the capital. The bumpy and bumpy road took us to bombed ghost towns; swollen cattle corpses lay in the ditches. The warning from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Norway kept ringing in my head: “The Ministry advises against all trips to the separatist republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.” I imagined the worst, but I did not dare say anything to my mother, for it was I, after all, who had suggested the unorthodox holiday destination.
To what extent can we trust our memory? Once again I asked myself this question when I got out of passport control and went to the parking lot. The area that had seemed so bleak the previous time seemed very common now, almost inconsequential, in the February sun. I went to the minibus line, found one that was going to Sukhumi and sat down. The driver did not say that he intended to stop for half an hour in the nearest town, but he bought me a coffee. After all, I was a foreigner and a guest.
The view from the window was exactly as I remembered it, however. We passed burned-out buildings, abandoned villages and factories that hadn’t worked since the Soviet era. Everything was overgrown and untidy, and the roads were in a terrible state – they had been badly mended and filled with holes.
In terms of area, Abkhazia is twice the size of South Ossetia and almost the same size as Lebanon, which is not the only thing the two countries have in common. As in Lebanon, people of many different ethnicities lived side by side in peace before the killing started and war became the norm. The landscape is also similar; the coast is green and fertile, with beaches and hotels, but the snow-capped mountains with their slopes and ski resorts are just a short drive away. Before the war, about half a million people lived in Abkhazia, twice as much as there are now.
“Abkhazia was a paradise,” said Giorgi Jakhaia, when I met the blogger in Tbilisi before going to Abkhazia. He escaped when he was eighteen, in the last weeks of the war in 1993. “Everyone was happy, everyone had a home and a job and no one had to worry about tomorrow,” said Georgi. “All the wealthy people in the Soviet Union lived in Abkhazia. They led a life of luxury and drove their Suzukis, although no one in the Soviet Union should own such expensive cars. If it weren’t for the war, Abkhazia would be like Monaco or Monte Carlo today! “
Ethnic Abkhazians are related to Cabardians and Cherkessians in the North Caucasus, but have lived alongside Georgians for over a thousand years. During the war of independence in the early 1990s, the Russians gave them military support, and Russia is now the closest ally and partner of the separatist republic. But it was not always so. In the 19th century, Abkhazians were much more opposed to Russians than Georgians. Abkhazians allied themselves with the Cherkessians north of the mountains, and many took part in the fight against the Russian army. In 1864, when after decades of war the Russians crushed any resistance in the Caucasus, the collective punishment for the Cherkessians was exile to the Ottoman Empire. Several hundred thousand Cherkessians and Abkhazians were squeezed into crowded boats and sent across the Black Sea, and hundreds of thousands more were forced to flee. Many of them died and the Black Sea coast was left empty and abandoned.
In the years that followed, the remaining Abkhazians rebelled several times against the Russians, which in turn led to new deportations and the introduction of a new law that prohibited Abkhazians from living on the coast or in the largest cities and towns. This law remained in effect until 1907. Georgians, Greeks and Armenians moved to the desert villages of Abkhazia. Then, in the early 1930s, the feared Lavrenty Beria was put in charge of the southern Caucasus region. Beria, himself a Mingrelian, a minority Georgian people, was born in Abkhazia and made it possible for even more Georgians to move there. In 1939, the number of Abkhazia inhabitants reached eighteen percent of the total population, and that number remained stable until the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Almost half of the population, that is, forty-five percent, was Georgian.
Under Gorbachev, the divide between the Abkhazians and the Georgians has grown. While Georgians fantasized about independence, the Abkhazians wanted to remain part of the Soviet Union, preferably as a separate Soviet republic and not as part of Georgia. In the spring of 1989, several thousand Abkhazians signed a declaration demanding the establishment of a separate Soviet Socialist Republic of Abkhazia. This provoked the Georgians, and thousands spoke out against the proposals. Tensions rose and on April 9 the Soviet army invaded Tbilisi to calm things down. Twenty-one people died and several hundred were injured. Nine months later, Soviet soldiers marched in Baku and only made things worse there too.
In April 1991, Georgia declared independence from the Soviet Union. Abkhazians, on the other hand, worked to maintain the union. By giving the Abkhazians a generous proportion of seats in the Abkhazian parliament, at the expense of the Armenians and Georgians, the politicians in Tbilisi have managed to calm things down, at least for a while. In February 1992, the Georgian parliament decided to reintroduce the 1921 constitution, which makes no mention of an autonomous, Ossetian or Adjarian Abkhazia. In response, the Abkhazia reintroduced the 1925 constitution in July of that year, which recognized Akbhazia as a unionized republic. In other words, the Abkhazia parliament has declared its independence from Georgia. The answer was not long in coming: on August 14, Georgian tanks invaded Sukhumi. The Georgian army, made up in part of recently released prisoners, had no discipline and the soldiers raged, raped and looted. The Abkhazians were supported by the Confederation of the Caucasus Mountain People, who dreamed of a free Caucasus, and they eventually also received arms from Russia.
Georgia had a lot to lose. A quarter of a million ethnic Georgians lived in Abkhazia and the region covered about half of the country’s coast on the Black Sea. The war, which barely made headlines in the West, was a succession of terrible incidents on both sides, and rocked by leaps and bounds, punctuated by fleeting ceasefires that were repeatedly interrupted. When Abkhazia forces took control of Sukhumi in September 1993, the remaining Georgians fled the city in a panic to avoid chaos.
“We left Sukhumi on a Ukrainian warship on September 27,” Giorgi Jakhaia told me. “We learned afterwards that Sukhumi had fallen. It happened that same day. Not everyone was lucky for us, and many had to flee through the mountains. The snow came early that year and hundreds of refugees died frozen on the way through the mountain pass. We were accommodated in a hotel in Tbilisi, which today is the Holiday Inn. Almost all hotels in Tbilisi have been converted into temporary accommodation for refugees from Abkhazia. We lived in that hotel room for ten years. “
At least eight thousand people lost their lives. With the exception of a few thousand who lived in the district of Gali, near the border with Georgia, all Georgians left Abkhazia. Since then, some 50,000 Georgians from Gali have returned to their homes, but more than 200,000 Georgian refugees still live elsewhere. Many of them are in temporary refugee centers and their lives remain on hold. “I have a dream to go back to Sukhumi one day,” says Giorgi, who often posts pictures of ancient Abkhazia on his blog. “It is the most beautiful place on earth.”
Taken with permission from The Border: A Journey Around Russia Through North Korea, China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Norway and the northeast passage through Erika Fatland. Courtesy of Pegasus Books.