This is Part 2 of my trip to the disputed territory of Abkhazia, a breakaway region of Georgia that has declared itself an independent state. If you are currently detained in an Abkhazian police station and are looking for tips on how to wriggle out of your predicament, you should start with Part 1.
I squeeze through a hip-height hole in the wooden wall that encircles the Sukhumi train station. My left boot sinks immediately into two inches of bird droppings spattered on the intricate tiled floor. Empty eggshells, light as feathers, roll across the wide foyer. A pigeon has tumbled dead from the magnificent triple-vaulted ceiling and lies decaying in a corner.
When we die, we speak of our bodies going to the worms. But when a building dies, it is taken over, inevitably, inexorably, by birds. Why is that? Why is it that birds flock to abandonment – to all our dead places – to the monuments of our own absence?
The birds, too, are what I will remember about the former regional government building, a 14-story tan slab that towers over Glory Park. Now it is a burned-out husk, an empty lattice left open to the elements as, some say, a trophy of the Abkhaz victory over Georgia: the equivalent of the enemy commander’s severed head on a pike. Each glassless window yawns blackly, and hundreds of scissor-tailed swallows dart in and out, wheeling, screeching, hurling themselves into the blue. A den of wasps, all ceaseless buzz and roil.
I sneak in through the back. The building is filled with rotting trash; the courtyards have turned into rubble-strewn jungles. In a bathroom of smashed toilets and fallen porcelain tiles, an ironist has scrawled in wry black paint: СКАЖИТЕ, ПОЖАЛУЙСТА, КАК ПРОЕХАТЬ В ЗУГДИДИ? (“Excuse me, please, how do you get to Zugdidi?” – the unreachable Georgian city just beyond Abkhazia’s southern border.)
I am disappointed to find sturdy, newly painted metal gates barring me from each of the stairwells in the government building – gates I know did not exist two years ago. My hopes for Black Sea views, 14-story roof climbs, and the mother of all urban explorations are dashed. The front of the building is open to the view of anyone passing by, and I skulk behind cover and time my prowls with care. My movements are jerky; my neck darts in and out. I am one with the birds that swoop and scream above.
Sweaty and smeared with more bird feces than I’d like, I decide to go swimming. The Black Sea calls to me, draws me hobbling across Sukhumi’s painfully rocky beach and into the water. I slip deeper. My aches float away.
The sun beats down on my upturned face, and I reflect: I am swimming. I am swimming in an internationally unrecognized disputed territory outside the jurisdiction of any state, in a Russian-occupied war zone over which rockets once fell like hail. Holiday-makers spread towels across the round stones as the ghosts of Abkhaz soldiers beat and maim and rape and kill in the streets.
How can both these cities be contained in one? How can Sukhumi still laugh and play? How can an ethnically cleansed city make the disturbing decision to just move on?
The gentle waves circle my neck. I get out of the water. That night, to atone, I listen to Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.
It is dusk on the balcony of the restaurant Nartaa, and everything to my left is beautiful. A green pedestrian boulevard hugs the shore, densely overhung by tall palms and magenta-flowered bushes in full bloom; far out, a sweep of low mountains curls protectively around Sukhumi Bay; between the two, the Black Sea mutters and shimmers and lobs sparks of reflected streetlamps back to my eyes.
But I, forever contrary, am gazing right instead. In the foreground, I look down on a sliver of the Nartaa courtyard, each group of diners lost in its own world. In the middle, an enormous rubble-strewn lot slowly returns to the wild. Look right: cranes tower, and shards of the bombed Hotel Abkhazia pierce the sky. And behind it all, the skeleton of the government building looms over Glory Park, its terracotta facade lamplit against the flat purple mountains and the peach after-sunset glow.
I leave the restaurant to stroll along the boulevard. A line of beautifully restored buildings with intricate brickwork faces the sea. Souvenir sellers and cotton-candy vendors have set up shop next to a homemade carnival game, in which a heavyset woman blows up brightly colored balloons, sticks them into a lattice of cubbyholes, and sells darts to children passing by. Above it all, an enormous Abkhazian flag leers floodlit from the roof of the ferry port. Seven green-and-white stripes, one red canton, seven white stars and a hand upraised (to welcome friends; to ward off enemies; to float uncertainly between the two in a Caucasus filled with shades of gray).
Is it necessary, is it healthy, for life in Sukhumi to go on – for the carnival to continue as it always has? Or is it dishonest to act as though nothing has transpired? At what point does one turn into the other?
The question has followed me down to the waterfront, and it’s plain it won’t let me alone anytime soon.
I sit watching the flag flutter in the wind. Balloons pop like gunshots. I jump every time.
A collapsed house in Gali. As one of the most heavily Georgian areas of Abkhazia, Gali was extremely hard-hit by the Abkhaz ethnic cleansing campaign of 1992. Much of the region remains abandoned, its former inhabitants either dead or unable to return.
The marshrutka sputters to a stop in a brown-dust square in the center of Gali. Ah, Gali. Friendliest little town in Abkhazia – and such a hospitable police force too! An itinerant pig roams the square, snuffling at tufts of weeds that have taken root amid the last shreds of asphalt. Cows wander the town freely – “freely,” in practice, meaning that they plant their hooves in the middle of the road and stare uncomprehending at the soldier convoys that bear down on them at top speed. Not for the first time, I reflect on the stupidity of cows.
The road between Gali and the border is among the worst I’ve ever seen. And this coming from someone who’s been through the Tunnel of Death. Everything north of here is smooth and newly paved – jarring in itself, considering how many bombed-out buildings line the route. The Russians have been assiduously rebuilding Abkhazia’s infrastructure in their battle for hearts and minds. Gali, though, is Abkhazia’s gateway to Georgia, and one of the few towns to have remained majority Georgian after the ethnic cleansing. As such, the fact that the new pavement dead-ends at the city limits seems fraught with subtext. Why bother going further? Why would anyone want a connection to the enemy, when everyone’s best pal Russia is just to the north? Why waste precious reconstruction funds on a town full of Georgians?
In honor of the road, I reason, I should try to hire the worst taxi driver in Abkhazia to get me through it. So that’s what I do. My chauffeur for the evening is a doddering old man of dubious hygiene whose first act is to remove the taxi light from the top of his car and turn it over and over in his hands, bewildered, as if he had forgotten he drove a taxi. He approaches every one of the road’s sixteen thousand potholes with a chelonian delicacy that suggests either his car or his hip will shatter if he moves any faster. Not once do we break 20 kilometers per hour. He speaks to me every so often, grabbing my wrist (while driving) and dribbling a tapioca mush of consonants into his lap through barely parted lips. His mouth does not form a single recognizable word for the duration of the ride. I nod and smile.
Door slams, red line is crossed, passport is inspected by the glowering Kalashnikov soldiers behind the fence – and with an anticlimactic lack of arrest, I am through. Just before the long Inguri River bridge that divides Abkhazia from Georgia, I am picked up by an old man in a horse-drawn cart who insists (insists!) on taking me to the border post. My teeth rattle inside my skull as I watch the slate-blue Inguri slip by below. It’s a milestone: today marks the first time I have crossed the boundary of a disputed territory, a quasi-independent region outside the jurisdiction of any state, by means of horse.
But with the life I lead, I’m sure it won’t be the last.