TThe border between Georgia and Abkhazia is strangely desolate. A long and wide bridge crosses a narrow river that has almost dried up.
There is almost more water on the bridge than underneath. And since the bridge is in the no man’s land between the mother country and the separatist republic, no one is responsible for its maintenance. With each passing year, the big potholes in the asphalt get deeper.
A group of black-clad women followed me, all laden with bags loaded with Georgian items. Every now and then a car emblazoned with the logo of some international aid organization would slide across the bridge. Three slender horses passed by pulling a cart full of people who had paid to avoid having to cross no-man’s-land on foot.
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I got to the three or four huts 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 had gone wrong with my online registration, as I did not receive confirmation until my entry visa almost expired. As a result, I only had two days to visit the separatist republic.
“As soon as you get to Sukhumi, you have to go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and get an exit visa,” the passport officer told me. “Otherwise, we can’t let you out again.”
I promised to do what he told me, put my passport in my bag and entered Akbhazia. The first time I was there it was with my mother, five years before. Back then, the border had felt ominous and terrifying. The highly polished cars had stopped side by side, the windows had been rolled down, and the money had changed hands. In general, the people seemed unfriendly, almost hostile, but we finally found a driver who could take us to Sukhumi, the capital. The bumpy and bumpy road took us past bombed-out ghost towns; the bloated carcasses of cattle lay in the ditches. The Norwegian Foreign Ministry’s warning kept ringing in my head: “The Ministry advises against all travel to the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.” I imagined the worst, but did not dare to say anything to my mother, since, after all, I was the one who suggested the rather unorthodox vacation destination.
To what extent can we trust our memory? Once again I asked myself that question as I exited passport control and walked into the parking lot. The area that looked so gloomy the time before felt very ordinary now, with almost no consequence, in the February sun. I walked to the row of minibuses, found one going to Sukhumi, and got a seat. The driver forgot to say that he intended to stop for half an hour in the nearest city, but he bought me a coffee. After all, I was a foreigner and a guest.
However, the view from the window was just as he remembered it. We passed burning buildings, abandoned villages, and factories that hadn’t been in operation since the Soviet era. Everything was overgrown and unkempt, and the roads were in terrible shape – badly patched and full of potholes.
In terms of area, Abkhazia is twice the size of South Ossetia and roughly the same size as Lebanon, which is not the only thing the two countries have in common. As in Lebanon, people of different ethnicities lived together in peace before the massacres started and war became the norm. The landscape is also similar; along the coast it is green and fertile, with beaches and hotels, but the snow-capped mountains with their slopes and ski resorts are only a short drive away. Before the war, approximately half a million people lived in Abkhazia, twice as many as now.
“Abkhazia was a paradise,” said Giorgi Jakhaia, when I met the blogger in Tbilisi before going to Abkhazia. He had 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,” Georgi said. “All the rich people of the Soviet Union lived in Abkhazia. They lived the good life and drove in their Suzukis, although no one in the Soviet Union was supposed to own such expensive cars. If it hadn’t been for the war, Abkhazia would be like Monaco or Monte Carlo today! “
Ethnic Abkhazians are related to the Kabardians and Cherkesians of 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 separatist republic’s closest ally and partner. But it was not always like this. In the 19th century, the Abkhazians were much more opposed to the Russians than the Georgians. The Abkhaz sided with the Cherkesians north of the mountains and many participated in the fight against the Russian army. In 1864, when after decades of war the Russians had crushed any resistance in the Caucasus, the collective punishment for the Cherkesians was exile to the Ottoman Empire. Several hundred thousand Cherkesians and Abkhazians were crammed into full boats and sent across the Black Sea, and another two hundred thousand were forced to flee. Many of them died and the Black Sea coast was left empty and abandoned.
In the following years, the remaining Abkhazians repeatedly rebelled against the Russians, which in turn led to further deportations and the introduction of a new law prohibiting Abkhazians from living on the coast or in the larger cities and towns. . This law remained in force until 1907. Georgians, Greeks and Armenians moved to the deserted villages of Abkhazia. Then, in the early 1930s, the dreaded Lavrenty Beria was put in charge of the South Caucasus region. Beria, himself a Mingrelian, a minority Georgian people, had been born in Abkhazia and made it possible for even more Georgians to move there. In 1939, the number of inhabitants of Abkhazia was as low as eighteen percent of the total population, and this number remained stable until the dissolution of the Soviet Union. About half of the population, that is, 45 percent, was Georgian.
Under Gorbachev, the division between the Abkhazians and the Georgians grew. While Georgians fantasized about independence, 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 Abkhaz Soviet Socialist Republic. This provoked Georgians and thousands demonstrated against the proposals. Tensions grew and on April 9 the Soviet army entered Tbilisi to calm things down. Twenty-one people died and several hundred were injured. Nine months later, Soviet soldiers entered Baku and made things worse there as well.
In April 1991, Georgia declared its independence from the Soviet Union. The Abkhazians, on the other hand, worked to maintain the union. By granting Abkhazians a generous proportion of seats in the Abkhaz parliament, at the expense of Armenians and Georgians, Tbilisi politicians managed to calm things down, at least for a time. In February 1992, the Georgian parliament decided to reintroduce the constitution of 1921, which does not mention an autonomous Abkhazia, Ossetia or Adjara. In response, the Abkhazians reintroduced the 1925 constitution in July of that year, which recognized Akbhazia as a united republic. In other words, the Abkhaz parliament declared its independence from Georgia. The answer was not long in coming: on August 14, the Georgian tanks moved to Sukhumi. The Georgian army, which was made up in part of recently released prisoners, had no discipline and soldiers rampaged, raped and looted. The Abkhazians were supported by the Confederation of Peoples of the Caucasus Mountains, which dreamed of a free Caucasus, and eventually they also got weapons from Russia.
Georgia could lose a lot. A quarter of a million ethnic Georgians lived in Abkhazia and the region covered roughly half of the country’s coastline on the Black Sea. The war, which barely made headlines in the West, was a succession of gruesome incidents on both sides, and it shook in fits and starts, punctuated by fleeting ceasefires that were broken over and over again. When Abkhaz forces seized control of Sukhumi in September 1993, the remaining Georgians fled the city in panic to avoid chaos.
“We left Sukhumi on a Ukrainian warship on September 27,” Giorgi Jakhaia told me. “We later learned that Sukhumi had fallen. It happened that very day. Not everyone was as lucky as us, and many had to flee through the mountains. The snow came early that year and hundreds of refugees froze to death on their way through the mountain pass. They put us up in a hotel in Tbilisi, which is now the Holiday Inn. Almost all the hotels in Tbilisi were 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 Gali district near the Georgian border, all Georgians left Abkhazia. Since then, around 50,000 Georgians from Gali have returned home, 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 dream of going back to Sukhumi one day,” says Giorgi, who often posts photos of ancient Abkhazia on his blog. “It is the most beautiful place in the world.”
Excerpted 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 by Erika Fatland. Courtesy of Pegasus Books.