‘The Most Beautiful Place on Earth’ You Might Not Be Allowed to Leave
A formerly glamorous corner of the world has been cut off by conflict—but it still retains its beauty.
The border between Georgia and Abkhazia is oddly desolate. A long, wide bridge crosses a narrow river that has almost run dry.
There is nearly more water on the bridge than under it. And as the bridge is in the no-man’s-land that lies between the mother country and the breakaway republic, no-one takes responsibility for its upkeep. With every year that passes, the gaping potholes in the asphalt get deeper.
A clutch of women clothed in black followed behind me, all weighed down with carrier bags laden with Georgian goods. Every now and then, a car emblazoned with the logo of some international aid organization crept across the bridge. Three thin horses passed us pulling a cartload of people who had paid so as not to have to cross the no-man’s-land on foot.
I reached the three or four shacks that made up passport control, and waited in the queue. It is not particularly difficult for foreigners to get an entry visa to Akbhazia, you just have 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 had almost expired. As a result, I had only two days to visit the breakaway republic.
“As soon as you get to Sukhumi, you must go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and get an exit visa,” the passport officer told me. “Otherwise we cannot let you out again.”
I promised to do as he said, popped my passport back in my bag, and walked into Akbhazia. The first time I had been there was with my mother, five years earlier. Back then, the border had felt ominous and frightening. Highly polished cars had stopped alongside each other, windows had rolled down and money had exchanged hands. In general, people had seemed unfriendly, almost hostile, but we eventually found a driver who could take us to Sukhumi, the capital. The bumpy, potholed road took us past bombed ghost towns; the bloated cadavers of cattle lay in the ditches. The warning from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs kept playing 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 say anything to my mother, as it was I, after all, who had suggested the rather unorthodox holiday destination.
To what extent can we rely on our memory? Once again I asked myself that question when I left passport control and walked over to the car park. The area which had seemed so dismal the previous time felt very ordinary now, almost inconsequential, in the February sunshine. I walked over to the row of minibuses, found one that was going to Sukhumi, and got myself a seat. The driver neglected to say that he intended to stop for half an hour in the nearest town, but he did buy me a coffee. After all, I was a foreigner and a guest.
The view from the window was just as I remembered it, however. We drove past burnt-out buildings, abandoned villages and factories that had not been in operation since the Soviet era. Everything was overgrown and uncared for, and the roads were in a terrible state–they had been patched together badly and were full of potholes.
In terms of area, Abkhazia is twice as big as South Ossetia, and about 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; by the coast it is green and fertile, with beaches and hotels, but the snow-capped mountains with their slopes and ski resorts are no more than a short drive away. Before the war, about half a million people lived in Abkhazia, twice as many as there are now.
“Abkhazia was a paradise,” Giorgi Jakhaia said, when I met the blogger in Tbilisi before I went to Abkhazia. He had escaped when he was eighteen, in the final weeks of the war in 1993. “Everyone was happy, everyone had a house and job, and no-one needed to worry about tomorrow,” Georgi claimed. “All the rich people in the Soviet Union lived in Abkhazia. They lived the high life and drove around in their Suzukis, even though no-one in the Soviet Union was supposed to own such expensive cars. If it had not been for the war, Abkhazia would be like Monaco or Monte Carlo today!”
The ethnic Abkhazians are related to the Kabardians and the Cherkessians of North Caucasus, but have lived alongside the Georgians for more than a thousand years. During the war of independence in the early Nineties, the Russians gave them military support, and Russia is now the breakaway republic’s closest ally and partner. But that was not always the case. In the nineteenth century, the Abkhazians put up far more opposition to the Russians than the Georgians did. The Abkhazians sided with the Cherkessians to the north of the mountains, and many took part 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 Cherkessians was exile to the Ottoman Empire. Several hundred thousand Cherkessians and Abkhazians were squeezed onto overfull boats and sent across the Black Sea, and another couple of hundred thousand were forced to flee. Many of them died, and the Black Sea coast was left empty and abandoned.
In the years that followed, the Abkhazians who were left rebelled on several occasions against the Russians, which in turn led to new deportations and the introduction of a new law that banned Abkhazians from living on the coast or in the largest cities and towns. This law remained in place until 1907. Georgians, Greeks and Armenians moved into the deserted Abkhazian villages. Then, at the start of the 1930s, the feared 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 he made it possible for even more Georgians to move there. In 1939, the number of Abkhazian inhabitants was as low as eighteen per cent of the total population, and this figure remained stable until the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Close to half the population, that is to say, forty-five per cent, was Georgian.
Under Gorbachev, the divide between the Abkhazians and the Georgians grew. While the 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 spring 1989, several thousand Abkhazians signed a declaration demanding the establishment of a separate Abkhazian Soviet Socialist Republic. This provoked the Georgians, and thousands demonstrated against the proposals. Tensions grew and on April 9 the Soviet army rolled into Tbilisi to calm things down. Twenty-one people were killed and several hundred injured. Nine months later, Soviet soldiers marched into Baku, and only made things worse there, too.
In April 1991, Georgia declared independence from the Soviet Union. The Abkhazians, on the other hand, worked to maintain the union. By granting the Abkhazians a generous proportion of seats in the Abkhazian parliament, at the expense of the Armenians and Georgians, the politicians in Tbilisi managed to quieten things down, for a while at least. In February 1992, the Georgian parliament decided to reintroduce the constitution from 1921, which makes no mention of an autonomous Abkhazia, Ossetia or Adjara. In response, the Abkhazians reintroduced in July that year the 1925 constitution, which did recognise Akbhazia as a union republic. In other words, the Abkhazian parliament declared its independence from Georgia. The response was not long in coming: on August 14, Georgian tanks moved into Sukhumi. The Georgian army, which was made up in part of newly released prisoners, had no discipline, and the soldiers rampaged, raped and plundered. The Abkhazians were supported by the Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus, which dreamed of a free Caucasus, and they eventually also got weapons from Russia.
Georgia stood to lose a lot. A quarter of a million ethnic Georgians lived in Abkhazia and the region covered about half of the country’s coastline on the Black Sea. The war, which barely made the headlines in the West, was a succession of appalling incidents on both sides, and it lurched in fits and starts, punctuated by fleeting ceasefires that were broken time and again. When the Abkhazian forces took control of Sukhumi in September 1993, the remaining Georgians fled the city in panic, in order to avoid the mayhem.
“We left Sukhumi on a Ukrainian warship on September 27,” Giorgi Jakhaia told me. “We heard later that Sukhumi had fallen. It happened that very day. Not everyone was as lucky as we were, and many had to flee over the mountains. The snow came early that year, and hundreds of refugees froze to death on their way through the mountain pass. We were put up in a hotel in Tbilisi, the one which is now the Holiday Inn. Nearly all the hotels in Tbilisi were made 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, close to the Georgian border, all the Georgians left Abkhazia. About 50,000 Georgians from Gali have since 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 dream of moving back to Sukhumi one day,” says Giorgi, who often posts photographs of the old Abkhazia in his blog. “It is the most beautiful place on earth.”
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.