Georgians from the would-be state of Abkhazia have spent decades trying to rebuild their lives after conflict forced them from their homes. But today, the wounds of war still feel fresh.
- By Paul Brian<p> Paul Brian is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi, Georgia. You can follow him on Twitter: @paulrbrian. </p>
TBILISI, Georgia — In an apartment near the city of Zugdidi, in western Georgia, middle-aged Salome* sits with her grown children and relatives talking about the time when they were running for their lives. In 1992, Abkhazia, a region of Georgia, was making an armed bid for statehood, and as Mingrelians, linguistically distinct ethnic Georgians who lived there, Salome’s family faced prison or even death if they stayed. With tears in her eyes, Salome recalls how her late husband, a civilian, was held by Abkhazian soldiers for nine months in a prisoner-of-war camp for trying to smuggle food across the new border to his family. On the mantel behind Salome is a photograph from before the bullets started to fly of her husband swinging their daughter in the air.
It’s hard to be caught between two worlds, especially when those worlds are Abkhazia and Georgia.
Refugees like Salome and her family still consider the disputed state of Abkhazia their real home and part of Georgia. That position is shared by many other countries, including the United States and many NATO nations, and is offset by only four — most seminally Russia, which recognized Abkhazia as an independent nation in 2008 after Moscow’s war with Georgia.
The situation in the breakaway region is in many ways less tense for Georgians now than it was in the past. Yet the resignation of Abkhazian President Alexander Ankvab in June amid popular protests in the disputed state’s capital, Sukhumi, could foreshadow a strengthened position of Abkhazia’s most powerful backer, Russia. That leaves internal relations between Abkhazia and its Georgian residents uncertain.
Marina, Salome’s 17-year-old niece, says there is a lingering sense of not being wanted. "We have no problem with the Abkhazian people; our problem is the political situation," she adds — though that might be exactly the point.
Simmering ethnic tensions and frustrated Abkhazian separatist aspirations in the wake of the Soviet Union’s fall exploded into civil war in August 1992. The conflict lasted 16 months, during which Marina’s parents fled Abkhazia’s Gali region to seek a new life in Georgia. The memories of fleeing their homes are still very much alive: The two remember seeing friends and relatives shot down as they fled on foot in September 1993, killed and wounded by Abkhazian forces and Russian volunteers. "Many people died. Our neighbors. It was very bad. There was so much fear," recalls Salome. "Ra dro iqo [What a time it was]," she adds wryly.
War crimes committed by both sides during the war have been documented by Human Rights Watch, including the use of rape to terrorize people, hostage-taking, and the killing of civilians. Yet there were never prosecutions. According to the Red Cross, the fighting claimed between 10,000 and 15,000 lives and left 8,000 wounded, while other sources cite as many as 25,000 to 30,000 fatalities. Some 200,000 displaced Georgians fled the conflict zone, many never to return for fear of discrimination and violence. Nevertheless, an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 ethnic Georgians have returned to Gali. (Fighting flared up there again in 1998, when Georgian fighters tried to retake the region.)
The war completely changed Abkhazia’s demographic makeup. In 1989, ethnic Abkhazians accounted for only 17 percent of the population, Georgians for 45 percent. The remainder of the population was made up of ethnic Armenians, Greeks, and Russians. In a 2011 census, by contrast, Georgians made up only 19.3 percent of Abkhazia’s population. Abkhazians are now in the majority.
The record of what happened during the war is still a matter of dispute, and one that carries clear political weight. In an interview at his office on Aug. 1, Abkhazian Minister of Foreign Affairs Viacheslav Chirikba disputed claims that there was ethnic cleansing of Georgians during the war, calling it a Georgian political fiction. "It’s a very long period since Abkhazia won this war and Georgian people fled," he says. "The majority of them fled, and it’s a great deception as to what has happened, that they were expelled."
What is indisputable is that Abkhazia remains one of the few places in the world that has not allowed refugees to return based on ethnicity. Although some Georgians have returned, the majority remain barred solely because their ethnicity and identity are Georgian, though Chirikba claims Georgia is the side that stalled a fledgling process by Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in the 1990s. Furthermore, deplorable conditions and human rights violations, such as a general lack of voting rights for the Georgians who do return, are disturbing to many international observers and analysts. Even in the latest election, held this month, an estimated 22,000 ethnic Georgians were barred from voting after Abkhazia declared their passports to have been illegally obtained.
Salome, like so many of the war’s refugees, has carved out a new life in Georgia bit by bit, with help from the government. When she and her young children crossed over the new border in September 1993, they moved into a subsidized apartment block without windows or proper facilities. With winter fast approaching, they bundled up and hunkered down. Her daughter cried for her doll left behind, her son for his abandoned red bicycle. Both cried for their father who had stayed behind in Abkhazia.
"We ate in the morning and then not in the afternoon. There were no lights," Salome says.
They scraped together the money to buy windows to install in the unfinished walls and seeds to grow food next to the apartment complex, and now they have a community in the apartment complex. There are a volleyball net and makeshift basketball court set up outside, a few pleasant seats under an arbor of grape vines, a soccer pitch, and fields of corn whose crops are used to make Mingrelian ghomi porridge.
It’s no paradise, but it’s a kind of home.
For those who have returned to Abkhazia, the tension of two dueling identities can be complicated. Marina’s parents returned in 1995, but still keep their apartment in Georgia — the family often travels back and forth between the two sides. Her father holds an Abkhazian passport, while her mother must cross the border secretly because Abkhazia’s obscure administrative barriers have blocked her application.
When Marina graduated from her Georgian-language school in Gali in June, she and some classmates wanted to celebrate openly with Georgian music, toasting to Apkhazeti (the Georgian word for Abkhazia), and dancing traditional dances, but such open declarations of Georgian culture could have made them targets for persecution. Some of her classmates crossed the border into Georgia for a graduation party and to take Georgian exams that would make them eligible for Georgian universities.
"In Abkhazia, there is a university, but students there can’t learn in Georgian," Marina, who doesn’t speak Abkhazian or fluent Russian, explains. Many Georgian Abkhazians are wary of attending university in Sukhumi, even if they could meet the language requirements, because the degree would be worth little outside the region.
A lack of Georgian-language education in Abkhazia is a legitimate — and long-running — problem and a proxy for the cultural tensions that eventually led to the 1992-1993 war. In March 1989, protests in Sukhumi by Georgian students demanding that the Georgian sector of Abkhazian State University be made into a branch of Tbilisi State University (located in the Georgian capital) ended in clashes between the students and local ethnic Abkhazians. A decision was later made in favor of the students’ demands, and that was seen by Abkhazians as an expansion of Georgian influence and nationalism. It resulted in even worse violence that left 17 dead and more than 440 wounded.
Since the war, Abkhazia has moved much further away not only from Georgia, but also from the Georgian language. Fear of linguistic and cultural assimilation were some of the roots of the 1992-1993 separatist actions of Abkhazians, and in 2007, Abkhazia passed a law that established Abkhazian as the only official language of the territory.
Somewhat ironically, however, there is a growing prevalence of Russian language and culture in Abkhazian society. Russia has grown closer to the region, in particular through a series of bilateral treaties signed after it backed Abkhazia’s purported independence in 2008. Many Abkhazians now hold Russian passports, and some pensioners with these passports collect money from the Russian government.
The history of Abkhazia is complicated and diverse, with various ethnic groups having their own unique (and, especially in the case of Georgians, disputed) claims to it. Even Russia fought against Abkhazia in the Caucasian War of the 19th century. But now Abkhazia has Russia securing its borders and cooperating on military matters, something Chirikba, the minister of foreign affairs, insists is purely defensive. "We have maybe 5,000 Russians here, smaller than the American base in Kosovo, which is around 7,000 [troops]," he says. "We are very happy to have a Russian military presence here where they reduce any eventuality of war with Georgia."
Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili wants Abkhazia to return to Georgia of its own accord. He hopes to make such an offer increasingly attractive by opening up Georgia to Europe. The June 27 signing of the EU-Georgia Association Agreement to open trade and relations is one carrot that Garibashvili hopes will prove tempting to Abkhazians: While Georgia is made a point of access to the West, Russian-backed Abkhazia becomes, by implication, increasingly isolated.
Abkhazia’s government, however, remains deeply suspicious of Georgia. "Georgia wants to use NATO facilities as tools against Abkhazia, and probably against Russia, because Georgia independently is not able to keep Abkhazia," Chirikba says. "It can attack us, it can kill a lot of people, but it cannot keep it [without Western support]. They want the facilities to attack us, not to be protected from us."
Watching some of her young cousins play with dolls on the floor while another one taps out a song on his small electronic keyboard, Marina smiles. Perhaps young children who have grown up after the end of the war could bring a new perspective to a tense, at times violent political situation. "If the children will be friends in the future, I think it will be better," Marina says.
Yet her family does not believe a reunion between Georgia and Abkhazia is now on the horizon — and Abkhazian sentiment is decidedly similar. Despite Marina’s hopes, friendship or even just cooperation between Abkhazia and Georgia seems a long way off.
*The names of some individuals in this article have been changed to protect their identities. (Return to reading.)