Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Georgian Gloom in Abkhazia

Inhabitants of the only remaining Georgian enclave in Abkhazia feel they are living on borrowed time.
By ZaZa Chitanava

The old man lives in enemy territory. He has refused to join the other Georgian refugees who settled across the Enguri River. He prefers to remain in the Abkhazian village of Gali where he was born - despite constant harassment from local Abkhaz.


"Once they stopped us on the road when we were moving from one village to another," said the old man, who asked not to be named. "An Abkhaz with a machine-gun opened a door and forced me to look at three corpses lying in the corridor. 'You and your friends will be lying next to them soon,' he said. It's a miracle that they didn't kill us."


The old man survives by selling the tangerines and nuts he grows in his allotment. He sends what he can to his family living on the opposite bank of the river.


Gali is the last Georgian enclave in Abkhazia. In the aftermath of the war, it was the scene of random killings and arson attacks. People lived in their cellars. Now conditions have improved marginally but ethnic Georgians are still obliged to stay indoors after dark and they are discouraged from speaking their mother tongue.


The town centre of Gali is devastated: bullet-holes still pockmark the hulks of burned out buildings while cows and pigs have the run of the municipal park. A statue of a lion, erected in memory of the 21 Georgians who died in the Tbilisi riot of 1989, is scarred with shrapnel.


Today, around 2,000 Georgians live in the Gali region, moving between deserted villages, buying their way out of trouble. Young men constantly run the risk of being kidnapped or forcibly drafted into the Abkhazian army. The elderly suffer constantly from ill health aggravated by substandard living conditions.


The city hospital is only capable of providing primitive first aid. Georgians in need of medical treatment are generally taken by ambulance to the Enguri bridge before crossing by foot to Zugdidi. Abkhazian residents make the long trek to the capital at Sukhumi.


The market is open three days a week, selling locally made and imported products for Russian rubles. Here the old man hopes to sell 11 tons of tangerines that lie rotting in his yard - but the Abkhazian traders discriminate against Georgian sellers and his prospects are uncertain.


"As soon as I sell them, my wife and I will cross the river," he explains.


"This is the most bitter part of my long life. Both the Georgians and Abkhazians should share the blame for what has happened. Time is the best healer and reconciliation is the only solution. More killing will only spark another tragedy," he says.


War came to Gali at 1 AM on September 29, 1993. Abkhazian forces had taken Sukhumi two days previously but no one thought they would cross the Ghalidzga River into what was then neutral territory sandwiched between the two warring states. However, as separatist troops occupied the town, refugees streamed along the road to Zugdidi, leaving behind anything they could not carry.


In Georgia, they joined the 300,000 refugees crowded into boarding houses, hostels, hospitals and derelict buildings. Humanitarian aid quickly ran out, whilst the government monthly allowance of seven lari ($3.50) per person was barely enough to survive on.


As the fighting subsided, many of Gali's Georgian residents returned to the town to harvest the nuts, corn and tangerines. However, attempts to sell the produce in Zugdidi were thwarted by gangs of Abkhazian brigands who robbed the farmers on the main highway.


Unexpected intervention came from armed Georgian irregulars, stubbornly waging a partisan war against the occupying troops. The fighters forced local Abkhazians to buy the Georgian produce at rock-bottom prices.


However, the Abkhazian separatists were quick to retaliate, burning houses and villages, which had accepted help from the partisans. There were numerous reports of random arrests and killings among the civilian population until May 1998 when Abkhazian forces, supported by Russian volunteers, launched a concerted sweep through Gali, forcing locals to flee their homes for a second time.


Seven-year-old Khatuna, who watched her father being beaten to death two years ago, remembers, "As we left the town, a Russian border-guard said, 'You'll never come back.'"


But time passed and, once again, Gali's Georgians trickled back to their small holdings. Badly in need of a workforce, their Abkhazian neighbours made no attempt to turn them away. Government rulings demanding they change their citizenship were generally circumvented by bribes.


Just before New Year, a Georgian who had returned to Gali for the first time in seven years celebrated the new millennium in his neighbour's house because his own cottage had been burned to the ground. There were two Abkhazians at the table. They had come to buy tangerines. One asked why he had come back. "He came to have a look at his house," the host told them.


"You don't have to go back to Georgia," said one of the men. "We won't harm you. My house was burned down too but there are plenty of empty houses around. This is your land. You should defend it. Come and join us!"


"Both Georgia and Abkhazia are my countries," the Georgian said. "Which should I defend from which?"


The men got angry at that. The host tried to diffuse the situation. "Don't pay him any attention. He's only a kid." The Abkhazians smiled, "Too young to know . . ."


Then he realised that he was eating and drinking with people who were responsible for the deaths of many fellow Georgians, while those who survive behave like strangers in their own land.


ZaZa Chitanava is a correspondent for the EcoDigest newspaper in Tbilisi.