Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
War Veterans' Peacetime Struggle
When a crisis threatens the republic of Abkhazia, the army calls on its “reservists” – veterans who fought in the war with Georgia of 1992-3.
These former soldiers were mobilised last week after a flare-up of tension in the Kodori Gorge region. In October 2001, they were the unrecognised republic’s frontline defence and withstood a raid by Chechen guerrilla commander Ruslan Gelayev, assisted by the Georgian military, in the same region.
Exactly ten years on from the start of the war with Georgia, Abkhazia’s 12,000 war veterans are honoured in public pronouncements and ceremonies. August 14, a day of mourning and commemoration throughout Abkhazia, is a very special date for them.
However, their private lives are very different, with many of them still plagued by traumatic memories, unemployment and feelings of hopelessness. A recent spate of suicides has highlighted the misery.
The issue of the veterans is high up on the public agenda and was talked up by all candidates in March’s parliamentary elections. The Amtsakhara movement, largely comprised of participants in the war, made the rights of old soldiers a central plank in its programme and won a third of the seats in the assembly.
While former soldiers are eligible for some benefits such as pensions and free medical treatment, and can study at the university on favourable terms, the practical effect of all this on their lives is very small.
It is almost impossible to survive on a pension of ten dollars a month, while the quality of medical treatment leaves a lot to be desired. There is only one neurosurgeon in the republic who is qualified to perform the kind of work veterans need, and as a result, many are forced to borrow money and go to Russia for treatment.
Abkhaz president Vladislav Ardzinba created a new charitable fund named “Kyaraz,” to help the war veterans and their families last year. However, the executive director of the fund, Gennady Margania, admitted that there is only enough money for one-off handouts and occasional support for disabled veterans in need of an expensive operation in Russia.
“The fund’s charter envisages creating new jobs through the financing of various business projects,” said Margania. “But where can we get the money? The only possibility is for the fund to be made into a state institution.”
Perhaps the biggest problem is finding jobs for the former fighters. One factory director, who did not want to give his name but who fought in the war himself, admitted, “If I have two candidates for a vacancy that has cropped up, a good specialist and a war veteran, I will give preference to the specialist.
“I am not just talking about professional competence here. Simply, it is often hard for a veteran to get on with the collective. Most of them look at their colleagues through a prism of ‘He fought, he didn’t fight’ and forge their relationships on those grounds.”
Most state bosses ignore government instructions to give preferential treatment to veterans in the workplace. Most jobs in Abkhazia are still allocated by friends, relations and, occasionally, on professional grounds.
One rare exception is Abkhazia’s customs service, which is dominated by men who fought in the war. “One in ten of my employees is a war invalid,” says Aslan Kobakhia, chairman of the customs service, with a hint of pride.
“I could refuse to employ them on account of their physical condition, which is entirely inappropriate for a semi-military organisation such as customs. But if I did that, how could I look men in the eyes who went to fight for our country without a second thought at a difficult time and sacrificed their health for victory?”
“The lack of work for young men who experienced in wartime what it meant to take a decision on which the life of your friends depended, could turn them into social cripples.”
Unemployment, untreated psychological traumas and neglect by society are leading to some tragic consequences.
On a hot summer day last month, a young man named Astamur waited for the rest of his household left to go about their daily duties and then hanged himself. He did not leave a suicide note, although his act of despair did not come as a surprise to those who knew him.
The psychological stress suffered by Astamur during the war had become an unbearable burden for him. When the fighting broke out on August 14 1992, he was a cameraman at Abkhazia’s state television.
During the recapture of Gagra by Abkhazian forces, he shot some famous images, which travelled round the world and became both the high point and the end of his professional career.
When his colleague and friend Anzor Kvarchelia was killed, Astamur captured the event on camera. After that he didn’t want to carry on filming, gave up work and soon afterwards went to fight himself.
When the conflict ended, he became tormented by his memories and found it impossible to return to normal life.
In the first two months of this summer alone, five veterans have committed suicide. For a small republic that has endured a bloody war and has an official population of just 320,000, every such death causes ripples in society.
Suicide has become a topic of discussion in the press, on television, in parliamentary debates and in the coffee houses on Sukhum’s embankment. Even the theatre is showing Nikolai Erdman’s play, The Suicide.
Most of those who have taken their own lives were 18 to 20 years old at the beginning of the war. Psychologist Arda Inal-ila told IWPR, “The men who went to war at a more mature age had a stable psychological base, founded in their families, strong relationships, jobs and social status.
“As a rule, they took the decision to take part in the war consciously. But the young men, with a fragile and undeveloped psychological base, were sucked into this process by an emotional whirlwind.
“These lads were torn out of their social context. Those years, during which in normal life, a person works for himself, for his future profession, on choosing his partner for life, were erased by the war and filled instead by a stressful situation,” she added.
Inal-ila believes the veterans need more than psychological support; they need a thorough programme of social rehabilitation. However, with the economy in tatters and the danger of further conflict with Georgia still present, that may be impossible.
One ex-soldier, who wants to be known only as Adgur, is a reservist who has been unable to find work since the war ended. In that spare time, he has constructed a formula to define the relationship between the state and its veterans.
“The state’s responsibility to veterans ought to be commensurate with my responsibility to the state,” he said. “Then any kind of discussion about psychological or other kind of rehabilitation will drop away.”
A father of two children, Adgur is constantly struggling to make ends meet and finds it hard not to be bitter at times. “I don’t like the fact that the state remembers me only when it is threatened with danger,” the reservist said on his return from his most recent tour of duty.
Inal Khashig is correspondent with the BBC Caucasus and Central Asia Service in Abkhazia
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