Zugdidi, Georgia – Sukhumi, Abkhazia

Ștefan Cândea
We received the necessary documents in Abkhazia when promised, not one day earlier. Last week, in Zugdidi, any person who learned of our intention to pass through Abkhazia made a point of telling us we were out of our minds as the region is a highly dangerous one. In the Gali District we were informed that, after crossing the Inguri River, there are scattered troops who collect customs taxes from passing tourists. Right before our departure, this piece of news in the Georgian press somewhat worried us: several members of the Georgian police were assaulted at dawn near the boundary line by some shooters hidden in the woods.

We left at the break of dawn thinking that any dignified villain acts during the night and rests at dawn. We were briefed by the Georgian officials on the risks we would be running: villains, organized crime, gunshots, lack of any control whatsoever. Ten minutes later, on the other side of the road, the same soldiers who rejected us five days before seemed pretty impressed with our perseverance. The papers were all in order; in a few minutes all the ‘red tape’ we had to cut through (writing down our names and the car tag numbers in a maths notebook) was over. Leaning against a fence, an officer was just finishing his cigarette; he threw the stub on the ground, on a layer of stones and empty cartridges, some rusty, some brand new. Vlad informed him of what the Georgians had told us about this region and asked if everything was alright. A smile on his face, the officer assured us there was nothing to worry about. He paused in order to exhale the smoke, swayed back and forth and finally expressed his opinion on Georgians: nothing more than a bunch of faggots.

The road from the border passes by the outskirts of Gali and reaches the bank side somewhere around Ochamchira. 30 kilometres of decaying road, huge holes and deserted villages. Still, Gali is an inhabited ghost town. It’s an utterly dismal region; the houses haven’t been totally destroyed, but everything is crumbling down. After the war ended, most of its inhabitants took refuge in Georgia. Any fence or sign post has been turned into a target and/or a sieve. This would be a perfect area to ambush goods transporters, but, except for local smugglers, nobody transports any goods in this region. Those who cross the border are locals of both sides who travel by bus. Otherwise, we came across army patrols, the police, many Spetstroi (the construction company of the Russian army) trucks and SUVs belonging to various international organizations. Abkhazi sources told us the area had seen quite a few armed fights between smugglers with one policeman killed and several people kidnapped.

An unceasing informational war between Georgia and Abkhazia has been going on for a long time. The Internet has provided us with all kind of information putting both sides in a very bad light. Misinformation campaigns and the lack of local in-field journalists for both parties are taking their toll. Our trip through Zugdidi causes a lot of stir amongst the receptionists of the hotel in Sukhumi – everybody in Abkhazia knows that the Georgian side of the Inguri River is a dangerous zone for both Abkhazi and Russians.

Abkhazia stretches between the Psou River in the north and the Inguri River in the south and historical documents attest to its having been inhabited by Abkhazi for over 2.000 years. In the past century, the Muslim Abkhazi emigrated to Turkey and the Greeks (who were a minority) were deported. In the times of the Soviet Union, a great part of the Georgian population (mostly Mingrelians) was made to settle in the area, so the Abkhazi population became a minority (20%) in its own country. The conflict between the Abkhazi and the Georgians violently broke out around mid-August in 1992. After breaking away from Georgia’s Soviet Union, the Abkhazi population wanted to declare its independence, but the Georgians showed little tolerance for minorities.

The Georgian troops led by Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs, quickly besieged Sukhumi and bombed the beaches from the helicopters. The Abkhazian government retreated in Gudauta, the centre of the separatist resistance. Backed up by Russia – Abkhazia was provided with massive logistic support – the Abkhazi troops succeeded in repelling the Georgian army to the other side of the Inguri River. The war lasted one year, most of the battle being done in Sukhumi which was severely damaged by intense daily air strikes. Around 8.000 people died and 200.000 Georgians left their homes to take refuge in Georgia. A squad of Muslims from Caucasus led by Shamil Basayev, the Chechen militant, and several squads of Armenians joined the Abkhazi troops supported by Russian army. Less than a year later, the same forces found themselves on rival sides in Karabakh – Armenians and Russians against the Chechens who had come to support the Azeri. Abkhazia also had its share of atrocities committed by both parties. The Georgian army saw to the systematic and complete destruction of the History Museum and the Central Library, especially anything that bore witness to historical Abkhazi attestation.

We exited the Gali District taking the coast road in Ochamchira. On the outskirts, we stopped and talked to Nina, a pensioner who fishes alongside her daughter; nevertheless, the fishing they do isn’t for fun. Although Russia does pay the pensions of the Abkhazi who worked in the days of the Soviet Union, Nina’s papers aren’t in order, and, therefore, she doesn’t receive her pension (about 50 Euros). Nina complains the war destroyed any functional factory and there are no employment opportunities in the region. She advises Petruț not to waste any roll film on her and tells him to go to Sukhumi and take pictures of young female tourists.

The Abkhazi managed to conquer a territory which has functioned independently from Georgia for almost twenty years now. However, half the country is nothing more than wilderness and the rest has been turned into a cheap resort for the only tourists that do come in these parts – the Russians.