This is Part 1 of my trip to the disputed territory of Abkhazia, a breakaway region of Georgia that has declared itself an independent state. The less alarming Part 2 can be found here.
Abkhazia is a land of ghosts and sunshine and horror.
Beachfront war zone. Bullet-riddled seaside resort. Russia’s newest, most exotic fun-in-the-sun destination; Georgia’s greatest tragedy, land of 20,000 graves and 250,000 refugees. A place where terrible things have happened, and a place with a disturbing capacity to forget. Tiny, proud, independent and subservient both at once, Abkhazia is a land riven by contradictions.
Once, Abkhazia was called the Soviet Riviera, a region of porches strung with grapevines, of breezy seaside promenades, of bustling beach resorts backed by lush green mountains that tumbled into the sea. That was before the war. In 1992, years of tamped-down ethnic tensions between the Georgian and Abkhaz populations exploded into an orgy of murder and violence and ethnic cleansing that left its villagers dead and its cities devastated by rocket fire.
Today, life goes on: goes on, in fact, with disturbing ease. Russian tourists flock to Abkhazia’s beaches. New buildings rise next door to fire-scorched shells. The capital, Sukhumi, is cloven in two, half holiday destination, half bombed-out war zone – a place of haunting pain and of blithe ignorance of all those who suffered. How can a place so rent by doublethink survive?
That’s what I am here to find out.
The Abkhaz War, like so many others, began in the dying days of the Soviet Union. As the Communists in Moscow were hemorrhaging political power and losing control over their citizens, ethnic and regional conflicts all over the USSR – conflicts that had for 70 years been kept in a chokehold in the name of “Soviet brotherhood” – began to flare once more.
Abkhazia’s war did not begin so differently from Transdniester’s. In 1989, in the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, nationalist factions were gaining power and demanding full independence from the Soviet Union: a free Georgian state for the Georgians, with Georgian language and culture reigning supreme. This left Georgia’s Abkhaz minority predictably uneasy, and a collection of Abkhaz political and social leaders requested that Moscow allow their home region to secede from Georgia and become its own political entity. This move sparked dueling Georgian and Abkhaz student protests which, god knows how, managed within three years to start a war. It’s a story of unchecked brinkmanship, furious intransigence, and leaders blinded by an ideology of blood: the sort that recurs again and again all over the world and loses none of its tragedy in the telling.
Yet the Abkhaz War stands out, thanks to that most awful of 1990s phenomena: ethnic cleansing. The Georgians went first: in August 1992, they recaptured the Abkhazian capital Sukhumi and rampaged through the streets with automatic weapons, destroying Abkhaz cultural monuments and perpetrating violence against Abkhaz civilians as they went. But it was the Abkhaz who raised ethnic cleansing to a horrific art. Aided by brutal paramilitaries from Chechnya, Abkhaz soldiers began to systematically sweep into ethnically Georgian villages, mow down their defenders, and round up every Georgian civilian who remained for an assembly line of torture, rape, and murder. (Read the Wikipedia article if you feel like throwing up a little in the back of your mouth.) By the end, between 13,000 and 20,000 Georgians had been killed and a further 250,000 were forced to flee their homes.
Today, Abkhazia is trapped in a gray area between illegitimacy and sovereignty. It has declared itself an independent nation, but only a handful of countries recognize its claim; most of the world considers it part of Georgia, but Georgia has effectively given up trying to get it back. Its situation was further muddled in 2008, when Russia used it as a willing pawn in its five-day war against Georgia in exchange for expanded occupation by Russian peacekeepers and de facto annexation by the Kremlin. Now, squeezed between a hostile Georgia, a suspiciously friendly Russia, and its own fading claims to self-determination, the region huddles uncomfortably between peace and war.
Getting from Georgia to Abkhazia is an arduous four-part process. Step one, a marshrutka from the small city of Zugdidi, Georgia to the Abkhazian border; step two, a kilometer-long hike across the no-man’s land that divides Georgia from Abkhazia; step three, another marshrutka from the far side of the border to the Abkhazian town of Gali; and step four, a bus from Gali to the capital Sukhumi, through which all foreigners must pass upon arrival. Minus the sometimes long waits for the next bus to depart, the border-crossing process takes four and a half to five hours all told.
If everything goes well.
Which it did not.
You’d think that, if I were planning on having a problem, I’d try to have it at the border, where there is a ready supply of both Kalashnikov-toting soldiers and cops itching for bribes. But no, the border crossing is strangely smooth. I first stop at the Georgian police hut to register my exit from the country and inform them of my exact travel plans. They rudely shunt aside a man with an Abkhaz passport to shower me with friendliness and chat me up about America. (“What state are you from?” they ask me. “Pennsylvania,” I say. “From the city of Philadelphia.” “ROCKY!!!” explodes a hitherto silent man in the back.)
After that, I take off walking across no-man’s land, passing farm fields, a jointly run Georgian-Russian peacekeepers’ post, and finally the broad Inguri River that marks the southern boundary of Abkhazia. I once again present my passport and Abkhazian entry permit to a bevy of camo-clad soldiers with absurdly large firearms on their backs. They take down my details, keep the permit and hand the passport back. “That’s all.” Bam. I’m in. I hop on a Gali-bound marshrutka that, after an hour of clattering and cow-dodging through Abkhazia’s lush flatlands, deposits me on Gali’s main square.
I step out of the marshrutka.
I cross the street.
“Young man! Stop right there!” bark three Abkhaz police officers. Instantly, they have me surrounded.
This, I sigh to myself, is not how I thought my first thirty seconds in Abkhazia would go.
“Show us your documents,” they snap. I hand them my passport. Inside, it occurs to me, are an absurd number of entry stamps proving my many trips to hostile Georgia – probably enough to qualify me as a collaborator with the enemy. And no Abkhazian visa. “Where is your visa?” they demand.
“I was just going to Sukhumi right now to pick it up. I’ve been here for only two minutes. You just saw me arrive.”
“Empty your pockets,” one of them orders.
Oh, you’ve got to be fucking kidding me. So the cops are just back-alley muggers here? Can’t you at least try to be subtle? Yet the cop zeroes in not on my wallet, but on a ragged slip of paper I am carrying with me. “What’s this?”
I unfold it. It is a rough map of Zugdidi, Georgia that the owner of my hostel drew for me, showing how to get from the hostel to the point where the marshrutka to the border departs.
The cops don’t like this at all. At all. “This is Sukhumi!” they keep saying. “Where in Sukhumi is this?” It is clear to them that I am a spy, a spy sent by Georgia in the guise of a bumbling American to sabotage their whatever-it-is that-needs-sabotaging. My treasonous intent becomes still clearer when they search my bag and discover my giant Nikon D40 with the 200-millimeter lens.
“Turn it on,” they order. “What are you taking pictures of?”
Three hundred things. That is my answer. Three hundred photos currently on my memory card – everything from Moldova onward. And standing there in the park, they make me go through every single one, with running commentary, to find out exactly what sensitive things I’ve been photographing in Gali. YOU JUST WATCHED ME GET OFF THE BUS, I consider reminding them, but think better of it.
“Stand right here,” they say. “We are taking you to the police station.”
Five minutes later, I am in the back of a camouflage-painted police jeep clattering through the broken back streets of Gali. Somehow, I am not freaking out. I am cool as a cucumber, in fact, thanks to a peculiar blend of confidence, naivete, jaded familiarity with the cops in the post-Soviet world, and a touch of temporary insanity.
You are being detained on suspicion of espionage, I remind myself, in a disputed territory under the jurisdiction of no recognized state, outside the reach of any U.S. embassy or anyone who can help. Does this mean nothing to you?
Nope. Still calm. Still completely insane. All I can think is, I wonder how this story ends?
An officer herds me through a heavy steel door that swings shut behind me with a tremendous shriek and clang, then marches me to the farthest office at the end of the longest, dankest corridor. I am brought face-to-face with the Gali police supervisor. Words are exchanged in Abkhaz. The officer leaves. The supervisor stares flatly at me across his desk, then returns silently to his paperwork.
A minute passes. Two. Five. The rifle-toting soldier at his side is likely being paid good money to intimidate me into submission, judging by his convincing performance and clear commitment to his work.
Finally, the supervisor looks up.
“Show me your photographs,” he orders.
I sigh – and I cannot decide whether my sigh is one of relief or of irritation. Okay. One more time. Out comes the camera. Out come the three hundred pictures. And once again, I am called upon to explain every single move I’ve made since Moldova as the police supervisor analyzes each word. On balance, it’s probably good I hadn’t cleared out my memory card the night before; my dozens of tourist snapshots establish me as human, as a not-a-spy, as just some traveling fool who, given all the choice in the world, decided to go on vacation in effing Abkhazia instead of somewhere nice and sane like Tehran.
They’d said this would be the end of it. I should have known that wasn’t true – because now comes the bureaucracy. The soldier takes my passport and meticulously notes every personal detail therein, questioning me in depth on every Georgian entry stamp I have and my exact movements within Georgia since I arrived. My bag is searched yet again. I am called upon to re-explain the map I’m carrying. The soldier painstakingly writes down every word.
And then he disappears for an hour and a half.
There is no explanation. There is no one else in the room, no one in the adjacent offices, no clues to be found. I have been left alone in a back office of a police station with bars on the windows, in a disputed territory outside the reach of any embassy, waiting for the authorities to decide my fate. And I am getting really bored. Somehow, I feel it would be in poor form to pull out a book and start reading; I decide instead to pace.
Finally, he comes back and presents me with my passport. “That’s all. You’re free to go.” The steel door shrieks closed behind me.
The three policemen who detained me are eating lunch on a bench in front of the station. They recognize me instantly, and their faces light up. “Happy travels!” one of them calls out. It is clear they’ve entirely forgotten that I am an international spy.
I raise my hand, hesitantly, and wave. And then I set a new land speed record power-walking back to the square where the marshrutkas wait. Forget exploring. Forget everything but my ride out of here. I am so done with this goddamn town.