Abkhazia-Georgia Residents Living on the Edge

Life in southern Abkhazia was already precarious, but now residents fear they will be caught at the centre of renewed conflict.

Abkhazia-Georgia Residents Living on the Edge

Life in southern Abkhazia was already precarious, but now residents fear they will be caught at the centre of renewed conflict.

Sixty-two-year-old Tsiala has a red-brick house with a large porch and shuttered windows in town of Gali in southern Abkhazia, where she lives with her husband and daughter-in-law. Outside, a green patch of grass is planted with rose-bushes and an oleander tree.

Tsiala (not her real name) is fiercely proud of her home, and has just painted the windows and railings, using money sent by her son who is away working in Russia.

Like many people here, she makes a living from Gali’s rich soil, in particular the lucrative hazelnut industry.

“Try some of our hazelnuts – we’ve got more than a tonne of them in the village and that’s what we mainly live off,” she said.

But now Tsiala is worried that her way of life is under threat, as both the Russian and Georgian governments talk of a possible war over the breakaway territory of Abkhazia.

Last week Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili said his country was “very close” to conflict, although in more recent days politicians in Tbilisi have said the imminent threat is receding.

“Best not to give my name,” said Tsiala. “Maybe war will break out here today or tomorrow.”

Gali is the only part of Abkhazia with a majority Georgian population. As many as 50,000 live a precarious existence here, under Abkhaz rule but frequently travelling across the front line on the River Inguri into the western Georgian region of Samegrelo and the rest of the country.

Tensions have increased dramatically in recent weeks after several Georgian pilotless reconnaissance aircraft were shot down over Abkhazia, and Russia unilaterally sent in 500 extra soldiers to join its peacekeeping contingent in Abkhazia, in defiance of Georgian and western objections.

Georgians like Tsiala are caught right in the middle of this confrontation.

“I don’t know what’s happening,” she went on. “Everyone is threatening each other. There are rumours that the Georgians will start a war any day and launch a strike from the Kodori valley, the Abkhaz will attack the Georgians living in Gali, and we won’t be able to escape.”

The Kodori gorge, in the mountains of Abkhazia, is currently the only part of the region under Georgian control.

Local people here recall the resurgence of fighting in 1998 which placed Gali residents at the epicentre, and resulted in the flight of thousands of Georgians from the district.

These days, almost all the Georgian television channels are available here. Even children are watching the news broadcasts to find out what is going on.

“We are drowning in a whirlpool of information and we don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Ruslan, Tsiala’s neighbour.

No one knows how many of the extra Russian peacekeepers have been deployed in Gali, but the troop presence is visible.

“That’s their headquarters,” said Ruslan, pointing in the direction of the town’s school building, the walls of which are adorned with chalk drawings of suns, houses and stick figures.

Several Russian soldiers could be seen standing outside the school premises.

“They say that the main Russian forces are in Ochamchira [a district north of Gali] and that they’ve beefed up their checkpoints towards the Kodori valley,” continued Ruslan. “The Gali Georgians are basically not leaving the region, so the only news we get is from television or from rumours.”

The Georgians here are unwilling to talk to journalists, and if they agree to do so, they decline to give their names.

They have good reason to be wary.

“A few weeks ago, Georgian media reported that in one of the villages here, Chechens and Russians had raped a young girl and had broken into local people’s homes and stolen their food and their hazelnut crop,” said Leila, who lives in the village of Otobaya.

“My heart almost burst, because my sister and her husband live in that village. I phoned her up at once, and it turned out that no one in her family had heard anything about it, and that nothing had happened in the village.”

Leila explained how damaging the after-effects of such reports could be, “When incidents like this happen, the Abkhaz get more aggressive and make problems for us when we cross over to Zugdidi [Georgian town on the other side of the front line]. In the end, we are the ones who suffer. They think the local population is giving this false information to journalists.”

The forthcoming Georgian parliamentary election on May 21 is almost the last thing on their minds, although Georgians in Gali have the right to vote in Zugdidi.

“It’s dangerous to go and vote in this situation,” said Liana, who lives in Gali town. “They will elect a parliament without us and that’s the least of our worries.”

The increased security presence is especially visible in the villages of Gali district. All checkpoints have been strengthened and the Abkhaz have brought in extra armed personnel to villages on the border. Any Georgians wanting to cross over are being subjected to many more checks than usual.

The Russian soldiers have almost no contact with the local population, mostly staying inside their bases and only occasionally venturing out to buy food and other items in the local market.

“I saw them come in on TV and I saw the equipment they brought in,” said a Gali villager, who declined to give her name. “You know what impression I had? These people won’t be leaving here. I don’t know what power our [Georgian] government has at its disposal, but the Russians won’t be leaving Abkhazia.”

Local Georgians do have some contact with the Abkhaz security forces. Twenty-eight-year-old Levan, who lives in Otobaya, said he sometimes sits down and talks to the border guards deployed there.

“I last spoke to the Abkhaz a few days ago,” he said. “Almost all of them believe that Georgia has lost all chances of regaining Abkhazia and that the Russians will never leave their territory. It’s hard for us to hear that, but there’s nothing we can do.”

Another local could not conceal his aggression as he blamed the Georgian government for putting people in Gali in danger.

“When the authorities brought in extra forces in the so-called border villages [of Samegrelo region] and increased the numbers in Kodori, did they think about the Georgians living in Abkhazia? Did we get anything out of this? Did we get back even a centimetre of land?

“And then the Abkhaz boast for days on end that they shot down a plane here, and yesterday they shot down one there, and look how strong we are in comparison. We gave the Russians an excuse to send in extra troops. Is that really a good policy and a plan for regaining Abkhazia?”

This man’s neighbour, who like him did not want to be named, disagreed and said he backed the Georgian authorities.

“What else can the government do; how much longer can we allow the Russians and Abkhaz to treat us like this?” he asked. “In the end, we have to show everyone we’re able to do something. If the government has a clear plan, we are ready to stand behind it.”

After six in the evening, life in Gali – never a noisy place even in the daytime – slows to a halt. In the twilight, the only thing moving is the cows coming home from pasture.

After putting away their cows for the night and closing the shutters on the windows, Tsiala and her family settle down to watch the latest TV news from Tbilisi.

“It’s very hard to live in fear like this, but what will be will be,” she said. “I’m not going to leave. When we came back after the war [of 1992-93], our house had been burned down. My husband and I had built this house with our own hands, and we rebuilt it brick by brick. Now I will never leave my home again.”

Irakly Lagvilava is a correspondent with IWPR’s cross-Caucasus newspaper Panorama.

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