– Be careful, it is very dangerous there! (everybody)
– Abkhazia? Is it somewhere in Russia? (Polish and Russian)
– Abkhazia? I’m very jealous, it’s my dream to go there! (Georgians in plural)
First of all, for the curious but confused ones, I dispel the geographical doubts:
Abkhazia in local language is Apsny – the land of soul. It is not a typical country. Most of the world don’t even consider it as a country. It declared independence in 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union but neighboring Georgia has recognized Abkhazia as part of its republic. This conflict led to a bloody war. As a result, Abkhazia maintained its status, although it was not recognized by any other state. After years of complete isolation, international sanctions, and finally Russian-Georgian war in 2008, Russia recognized Abkhazia’s independence, become its biggest ally and deepen hostile relations with Georgia. The Abkhazian-Georgian conflict has never been formally ended.
The more I delve into the topic, the more difficult it is to understand the history and the current situation of this region. Mix of national, ethnic and religious minorities. Abkhazians, Georgians, Estonians and others (even the Afro-Abkhazians – a minority came most probably in the 17th century as slaves from Africa, who worked here on citrus plantations) Conflicts, alliances and unions. The Soviet Union and its forced resettlement policy. Thus, the origins of the country’s uprising and its conflict with Georgia turn into an extremely colorful dizziness.
Everyone writes their own story, and the truth, as polish activist, professor Bartoszewski said, “lies where it lies”. Unfortunately, due to the very limited communication between Georgia and Abkhazia, dialogue at both official and informal levels is difficult. The result is that Georgians know little about Abkhazians (except for official government narration) and vice versa.
In Sukhum, the capital of Abkhazia I accidentally go to the Museum of War. The renovated tenement house is dominated by emptiness. The huge halls are only partially occupied, it seems that I am the only guest here. Katia greets me at the entrance. She works in the museum and will be happy to guide me. The Museum was opened two years ago, and the employees are still gathering exhibits for exhibitions from the locals. We walk through the spacious, high rooms and I get to know the Abkhazian version of the history of the region and the conflict. Beginning with the Kingdom of Abkhazia, which was established in 780, through various covenants and alliances with neighboring countries, including Georgia, the proclamation of the Socialist Soviet Republic of Abkhazia, which in 1921 became treaty united with Georgia (and saved its independence), the suppression of abkhaz ethnic culture in Soviet times, until the memorable war of 1992. Katia has Georgian roots, she grew up in Russia, and love brought her to Abkhazia. For a longer moment we stand by the case commemorating the war hero. A handsome man, Katia’s husband, looks at us from a black-and-white photography. They met in Russia and came to Abkhazia because of his work. Katia’s husband fell in love with this place and did not want to leave. He died a few years ago, but Katia decided to stay here and work in the museum.
With tears in her eyes, Katia tells me the story of the 1992 war. About volunteers from the North Caucasus countries who supported Abkhazia, about the helicopter with humanitarian aid being shot down by Georgians. She does not mention the 250 000 Georgians who had to flee from Abkhazia because of the war, just like about many other difficult issues.
In Tbilisi, once I was at the screening of a Georgian documentary movie about Abkhazia. In the debate after the film there were voices saying that we should end the mistakenly calling the Georgian-Abkhazian war of 1992, because it was a Georgian-Russian war, and the Abkhazians were only a tool used to achieve Russian goals.
The genesis and history of conflict told from the perspective of Georgia and Abkhazia are actually two different stories, interpreting facts in a different, often contradictory way. This is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to have a dialogue between two sides of the conflict, not mention finding common solutions.
After 2 hours of waiting at the Georgian checkpoint, I cross the border on the Inguri River on foot. Accompanied by a dozen pairs of surprised eyes I walk lively into a 40-degree heat. It’s just one kilometer, and I have enough idleness and waiting for a marshrutka (local public transport) that may once appear and I may fit into it.
Behind the bridge I am welcomed by the Abkhazian border guards. Again, the passport, the permit and again “you have to wait 5 minutes”. I won’t take the camera out, so I sit on a broken sofa “in the waiting room” in front of the checkpoint.
We are already waiting for an hour. I mean me. Georgian man was already here when I came. He is about 60 years old, or at least he looks like that. He works in Zugdidi, but lives on the Abkhazian side, in the Gali region. He cross the border twice a day.
– Well, we are waiting. Every day. They tell us to do so, so what choice do we have?- he is susprisignly calm. I can see a young Russian soldier a few meters away from us. He is listening the conversation attentively.
My waiting companions are smoking cigarette after a cigarette, the Russian soldier has sat closer, we are observing movement on the border. Somebody brings the whole supply for supra (traditional Georgian feast) from the Georgian side, grandmother brings her grandson from school in Zugdidi, women come back from the market, laden with bedclothes and pots. Everyone is waiting. There are no other border crossings, they have closed them “for security reasons” In the past, locals usually crossed the border thru the surrounding forests illegally, saving time and money, but it has been much more difficult since cameras have been installed everywhere. So we are all waiting.
The most important border guard calls me to the checkpoint and after a few routine questions (where? why? for how long?) allows me to go further. The Georgian man stayed, his waiting has not finished yet. I walk along a narrow corridor, bounded on both sides with barbed wire, the cameras keep track of my every move. This is the only moment on the whole border when I feel uncomfortable.
I have one more check ahead of me. I am a little concerned about this one, I read about it a lot on the internet. Careful checks, detailed questions, hourly chats, checking stamps in the passport and money in the wallet. Better no one asks me about my two cameras and the rest of the equipment. I have nothing to hide, but I would prefer not to mention that I am a journalist. I am approaching the checkpoint slowly.
– Oh, and Miss has a big backpack for a week.
(yes, two cameras and other things, it is actually quite big)
– I am a girl, so I have a lot of clothes with me.
– Mhm. Arms in there? Missiles?
– None. (truth!)
– Ok, go.
I will have to play the role of a slightly reckless and lost blonde tourist from the West several times this week. I don’t feel good about it, after all I don’t tell people the truth, often people who talk with me and allow me to take pictures. However, I am aware that the combination of the words “journalist” + “Georgia” can bring me nothing but troubles here. No one will ask me about my good intentions. So I agree to play this game, I have no choice.
…. To be continued soon….
The pictures from the border come from the way back.