As you walk down the palm boulevard in Anaklia, Georgia, you will eventually reach a forbidding wall blocking your way. “ENTRY DENIED” you will see written in white on blue and that is how you know that you have reached the border with Abkhazia.
Often described as the gem of the Black Sea, Abkhazia sought its independence from Georgia after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Bloody clashes erupted in the beginning of the 90’s resulting in a 13-month-long war that saw thousands of Georgians displaced and Abkhazians almost fully dependent on Russian support. After emerging victorious in 1993, Abkhazian Independence was declared in 1999 and it is now officially recognized by Russia, Nauru, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Syria, while Georgia and the majority of UN members describe it as a breakaway state.
Georgian refugees leaving the town of Ochamchire. (Mike Goldwater)
A flourishing tourist destination in the Soviet times, Abkhazia still seems like a paradise lost to me - Georgians are restricted from traveling there, relationships are still marred by mutual trauma and mistrust and all I have got are pictures frozen in time, memories of my elders and the dreamy look in their eyes.
Still intrigued with what lays on the other side of the wall with the denied entry, I decided to talk to those non-Georgians who have actually traveled to Abkhazia and seen it with their own eyes. Their names have been changed, as a tradeoff for honesty.
Knowing full well my reasons for curiosity, I wanted to know what drove outsiders to the disputed areas.
“I wrote about the history of Abkhazia during the early Soviet era for my master’s degree. I was drawn to the topic especially after hearing it described as the “Soviet Riviera”, Louis told me. “It took me a couple of years to visit the region, but it certainly lived up to the description”.
“Curiosity. My intention was to explore Georgia and its surroundings to the fullest. I wanted to see with my own eyes what is really happening there.” Lucy said. It took some convincing on my part to get her interview. Her words might have upset many Georgians, she reasoned. “Whenever I mentioned my travel plan to Georgians, I got unpleasant looks and disapproval. Many were discouraging us but we were highly determined to continue.”
To satisfy the curiosity, one has to cross both Georgian and Abkhazian checkpoints.
“The border itself was bleak,” Bill said, “It was the middle of the night and we crossed the bridge in a horse cart.”
“The Abkhazian border guards (who are actually Russian) took each of us for 30 minutes of questions,” Louis recalled. Usually, the conversations are held in Russian and mistrust is expressed towards journalists.
“They asked me about my profession: “Ты журналист?” (“Are you a journalist?”) Fortunately, I’m not.” Jonathan said, “But more questions followed.”
The tense interrogation took an unexpected turn when Jonathan confessed he had studied music as his major.
“The tone of the conversation changed, and I was even offered a piece of Khachapuri by the border guard asking me questions.”
If you are 'on the list' of people allowed to enter and the people in Sokhumi decide to let you in (as it happened to Harry), you end up in Abkhazia.
“Abkhazia is certainly very naturally beautiful, there's no question about that,” Harry claimed and everyone seemed to agree.
“It is definitely intriguing. I have to admit that, as many Georgians say, this is the most beautiful part of the coast because of its climate and mountains on the view. It is also a heaven of abandoned buildings which I really enjoy to visit.”
Infrastructure, however, is in quite a sorry state. Despite more or less modern roads and quality 3G connection, even cities frequented by tourists show “wear from the war and the lack of money to clean them up.”
“Gali is probably the worst off, at least from what I saw, in Abkhazia. Houses that were destroyed are left as they were and you can see their ruins.”
“In the Abkhaz media at that time it seemed to me that there was a lot more portrayal of the conflict period than there was in Georgia, that it was more relevant for people.” Jim confided.
Reminders of war encounter you wherever you go. One of the fondest memories Louis recalls is of a taxi driver who managed to dodge the speed ticket two times during a single ride by showing his war veteran credentials to the police.
What was no less notable for him is the abundance of billboards about the war: photos of veterans, presidential speeches, military slogans everywhere you look.
“There are big posters about the war and the people who died everywhere—it’s like the war was yesterday, they talked a lot about it to me.”
“What about Georgia?”, I inquired. That was the burning question, probably the key one that made me take up this article at all. The answers would not please Georgians, I was warned.
“They refuse to have anything to do with Georgia unless Georgia recognizes Abkhaz independence.” Harry thought.
“Almost everyone I spoke to had no desire to see Abkhazia as a part of Georgia and wanted it to be independent.”
Descriptions of Georgians varied from “fascist wanting to kill locals” to “arrogant ones wanting their small empire back and not understanding the Abkhaz perspective”.
Signs of hostility to Georgia are evident as street names in Georgian are painted over and Georgian surnames changed. In their place come Russian and Abkhazian alternatives.
“Even very liberal locals hate Georgians,” Anthony told me after I asked him to be honest with me. “ Twice I accidentally said ‘madloba’ (thank you in Georgian) in a restaurant and it was very awkward.”
“I must say that I haven’t heard even one positive word about Georgians and as difficult as it can be to hear, locals clearly do not want to reconnect with Georgia again,” Lucy concluded to add up to my despair.
“They also hate the Russians, but they see them as the lesser of two evils,” I was told. It appears younger people are frustrated with the current state of affairs and seek closer relations to Europe.
Despite them not being thrilled with a strong Russian presence in the state, Abkhazia is still very much dependent on the generosity of Russian tourists. Russian is the language you will hear everywhere, while Abkhazian is spoken rarely, I figured. Chains of billboards bearing war propaganda are occasionally interrupted by Russian presidential candidates smiling down from them - many Abkhazians hold Russian passports and are able to vote.
One member of a group of guys who had been drinking came over to us and started going on about, “You tell Bush that this is Putin’s territory, this land is Putin’s.
Jim recalls the occasion as one of his worst memories from the journey. Bitterly, I have to agree.
Fascinating for me were the characters described by all six respondents of mine. While Harry did feel “all the still burning hatred and the absence of peace” in the region, other people managed to give me a glimpse into the familiar hospitality - a uniting trait for all the Caucasus.
My fondest memory was probably the simple hospitality I was showed, even though everyone knew I lived in Georgia and was not on their side politically.
Louis would have loved to spend more time with the chatty driver and Jonathan was shown generosity by a local woman willing to accommodate him for free in her guesthouse. Tasty feasts in local patskhas (wooden huts covered with hay) with Adjika (the famous spicy dip) and Chacha (Georgian brandy) make up the fondest memories of Abkhazia.
“This old woman showed amazing hospitality and I sat at the table with her family for breakfast and dinner. If I ever make it back to Abkhazia I will be sure to visit her again.” Jonathan said and I do hope he makes it back.
Though reluctant and doubtful at first, people I got to talk to trusted me with their impressions. What they managed to show me is the long, long way Georgians have to go to reach Abkhazians.
Jim described his whole experience as the sense of being on the other side of the looking glass, something I, as a Georgian, do need to do.
“I understood as I stepped on the Abkhazian soil, that I was not in Georgia anymore,” Jonathan added.
The Abkhazian language, despite being silenced by Russian ever so often, still remains a thing that fascinated travelers.
“If anyone thought Georgian features quite harsh consonant sounds, they are in for a surprise. Georgian is soft-sounding in comparison to Abkhazian.”
But as proud as Abkhazians are of their culture, traditions of language, most of them, I was informed, are wary of the future.
Most think that they will eventually become more independent, but people are not sure. It seems that most people are quite despondent about the situation and see little potential for real change or development in Abkhazia. Decent future is not in sight.”
Lucy’s comment was probably the one that struck me the most: “Unfortunately we were mainly discussing the past events - to me, it appeared to be a place without future.”
She echoed the pictures of abandoned buildings covered in vegetation and deserted beaches I have seen too often for my taste. Part of Abkhazian nostalgia is indeed about it being stuck in the Soviet times. “Soviet Riviera”, wasn’t it?
But then Louis came to my rescue:
I am cautiously optimistic about Abkhazia. With their small population, I do think they have to be part of someone, either Russia or Georgia. I think they could unite with Georgia, but before they could do so the issues of autonomy and the displaced people would have to be solved.
Easy as that. But would that be possible? Once more, it was Lucy who hit me like a bucket of cold water:
“I expected to feel more connection with Georgia, however, once I entered I found myself feeling like in the Russian empire.”
We hope to make the Abkhazian stories into a series involving foreigners, locals, and Georgians. Stay tuned for more to come and feel free to share any experience you may have.
*For the visuals used in the article, all credits go to:
Jonas Bendiksen | Magnum Photos