Sukhum, Abkhazia

Ștefan Cândea
Once we reach Sukhumi, we quickly deal with the visa formalities. After presenting the invitation issued by the Abkhazi authorities and paying the visa fee at a downtown bank, we go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where in ten minutes’ time we are issued a visa printed on a separate sheet of paper, just like in Nagorno-Karabakh. As in the NKR, passing through Abkhazia leaves no trace in one’s passport, but the visa has to be shown when leaving Abkhazia.

Only 200.000 people live in Abkhazia and almost 80.000 in Sukhumi. The latter is an old, Russian town, organized on a regular grid, a former fort which was turned into a touristic resort in the days of Tsarist Russia. There is a very interesting blend of 19th-century buildings, Stalinist constructions and classic Communist apartment blocks in an exuberant scenery of sub-tropical vegetation. The oldest buildings on the bank side have been renovated, but most of the Sukhumi facades have been riddled with bullets. Hills covered by cypresses, palm trees, sycamores and lianas flow right into the sea. The gravelled beach is very narrow and stretches along the entire city, on the left and the right of the harbour.

The modern part of Sukhumi is a neighborhood of tall and crammed buildings; this was the most severely damaged area in the Georgian-Abkhazi conflict. It is situated next to the Gumuri River which marks both the city outskirts in the north and the initial border line between the Abkhazi and the Georgian forces. Many apartments are empty and have no windows; the doors, however, are all locked. Almost every building has a memorial plate bearing the names of the tenants that lost their life in the conflict.

Anaid is a journalist who works for one of the two weekly independent journals of Abkhazia. The journal she works for has four pages, only 1.000 copies are printed and lives of advertising. The editorial team – with the exception of Anaid – includes an occasional collaborator and the editor-in-chief. There are no other newspapers or magazines, mainly because there are only two printing presses. Until last year, all the newspapers of Abkhazia were printed at a single print press. On the eve of the presidential elections, the printing press was shut down. The two independent journals then began to be published on the internet in a PDF format. Not even the post office works in Abkhazia, a thing we learned for ourselves. One can send a postcard only from the post office in Sukhumi; the clerks there told us that all the letters are sent to Sochi, Russia where they are sorted and sent to the respective addresses.

Anaid says there is no subject she can’t tackle, but, at the same time, there is no access to any sort of information. Not even the journalists working for government journals have access to information regarding the shareholders of companies or details regarding certain contracts, despite the legislation which regularizes access to information. Anaid’s paper wanted to investigate the case of the only bank in Gagra, a touristic resort on the border with Russia, which was said to be owned by the son of the governor of the National Bank. They sued the National Bank for not providing the information, they won two trials, they wrote about the case, but it was all in vain. They were, however, sued for slander by the National Bank and lost.

Although Anaid’s general attitude towards the government is rather critical, her opinion on the relations with Georgia runs along the same lines. She doesn’t travel to Georgia because she fears for her life. Moreover, she is a public figure and, therefore, needs a special pass from the government in order to cross the border. She believes she would get into trouble with the secret services and her visit would be perceived as a pact with the enemy and she would suffer great image problems.

Far from being enveloped in a typical war zone atmosphere, Sukhumi is a buoyant and colourful town. A great segment of the beach south of the harbour is part of the Sukhumi Sanatorium, a complex owned by a Moscow army regiment. After paying a fee, one can gain access through a military check point. At the gate, we’re greeted by Lenin’s mosaic portrait, flanked by palm trees. Tens of pavilions and two high-rise buildings are occupied by Russian officers who have come on vacation with their family and are guarded by several tanks covered with the camouflage netting. The terraces on the bank side provide the fun part for the tenants.

As the evening draws on, the atmosphere quickly heats up. On such nights, the original songs have to be dubbed on the microphone by the DJ. As this is still a resting place, music is allowed only until midnight. So everybody gets down to business: the local wine flows in, whiskey bottles (from home) pop up on the tables, the officers invite their wives to dance and everybody is soon boogying on the dance floor. One dedication after the other and the dancers become ecstatic. The climax comes when a heavy military’s wife, dressed in white, emerges from the middle of the crowd, stretching and shaking her arms towards the sky in a long, high-pitched squeak. This resembles a scene from a Baptist church service when, amidst all the Hallelujah cries, the women enter a trance, thrilled by the music-filled pastor. In a short while, the music is turned off and the party breaks up.

On our way home, in one of the open-air discos, we have the privilege to see a symbolic vision of war in full action. A portly woman with a boyish, pitch-black haircut, dressed in a vest reaching her knees, laden with medals and silvery stars who would easily put to the ground the Russian soldiers we have seen earlier, advances to the middle of the terrace. She raises a bunch of youngsters from the table and sits down for a short while. She breaks out in a violent brawl with the waitress who is trying to serve her. She goes to the bodyguard and the manager of the terrace to make a complaint – both men listen to her obediently. All eyes are on her. Then she turns to the DJ and forces him to change the music. Content with the new order of things, she returns to her table to have her drink in peace. Anyway, in twenty minutes the clock will strike midnight and the terrace will be closed. We eventually learned the woman was Esma Arshba, a veteran, the symbol of Abkhazi resistance. She fought in the ‘92 war and local legend has it that she managed to kidnap two Georgian soldiers and a tank, deeds for which she was heavily decorated.