Tuesday, July 18, 2000
Tbilisi - the road here was a thrill. It started with the amusing sight of Dov trying to explain
to an airport security agent why he had a rocket-propelled-grenade shell-casing in his carry-on luggage
("Sir I didn't know what it was"). Then a beautiful day walking through the streets of Istanbul and a late
arrival in Tbilisi.
First impressions - from the balcony of our hotel room, Tbilisi has the charm of a mountain city. Low houses
scattered on both sides of a valley with a denser center in the middle. Unlike Chisnau, Tbilisi seems to
have been relatively spared during the Second World War. Large Soviet era buildings made of ochre stone
and older colorfuly painted facades line Rustavelli street, the main artery. Today we walked around.
The streets are filled with people. Cafes. Terraces. Stores. After ten days in Tiraspol, I had forgotten
what it is like not to stick out like a sore thumb in empty streets. They say that in Georgia a man is
not measured by his wealth but by the number of his friends. Food and wine are a central part of life.
I like it here.
We leave for Abkhazia with the UN this Thursday, but we will try to stay in Tbilisi for a short week
when we come back. With some luck we will organize a brief excursion to South Ossetia, another de facto
state in Northern Georgia. This region is a mosaic of nationalities - a cultural blessing and a political
posted by Eric Baudelaire at 8:11 PM
We arrived in Tbilisi at four in the morning. Two men were waiting for us at the airport in an
old black Volga. Our ride through the dark streets was one of glimpsed faces in the dark and shouted
conversation over the din of the engine. We awoke this morning to a stunning heat and wandered through
the town for a couple of hours. Chekhov, I think, said once that Chisnau in Moldova was a 'town of mud
and barking dogs.' When we arrived at dusk two weeks ago, the blotted shapes of sleeping dogs were
scattered across the runways. Dogs were constantly with us. In Istanbul yesterday, cats controlled
the streets; kittens scrounging and dirty, grey toms prostrate in the sun. Chisnau - the city of dogs.
Istanbul - the city of cats. Tbilisi so far has yet to reveal its essence to me. The main street is
named after the 12th century writer Shota Rustavelli. His epic work is called 'The Knight in the
Panther's Skin.' In coming to Tbilisi, have we moved to some higher order of beasts?
Yesterday, in Istanbul, We sat dipping our feet in the Bosphurus looking across towards the Black Sea.
There lay Georgia; there lay Abkhazia. I remain faithful and curious.
posted by Dov Lynch at 8:34 PM
Wednesday, July 19, 2000
Today, briefings on Abkhazia from the OSCE and local journalists. Then dinner on a
terrace with a view on the river, the hills, and the Soviet statue of a woman with a chalice of wine in
one hand and a sword in the other (the former for her friends, the latter for her enemies, which pretty
much sums up Georgian history). Above the city, the foothills of the Caucasus mountains.
Early tomorow we take a UN plane to Western Georgia then cross the border to Abkhazia in a convoy. The
feeling is different than on the eve of our journey to Transdniestria. I expect things to be both striking
and frightful there. Sukhumi, the capital, was a resort town before the war. Sanitoria and hotels for
Soviet writers, film makers and painters unions lined the waterfront. When the war ended, the ethnic
Georgians - up to seventy percent of the population - had either fled or been driven out. The OSCE uses
the word ethnic cleansing; the Abkhaz prefer to say the Georgians left of their own will. Burnt-out
buildings have not been rebuilt. There is no money, no economy to speak of save the gas and citrus fruit
that is smuggled out through the port or the porous border with Russia.
A journalist from The Economist recently asked the Abkhaze president how it felt to rule the only country
with no Internet access... We won't be able to update this journal while there, but we will post daily
entries on August 4th upon our return to Tbilisi.
I am trying to make different pictures than I was in the first weeks of this journey. I think less.
Intellectualize the frames less. I am starting to feel more. Sometimes I feel frail . I am becoming more
sensitive, less afraid. I feel as alive as I have ever felt.
posted by Eric Baudelaire at 10:16 PM
We leave for Abkhazia tomorrow morning. We fly to the Georgian city of Senaki and then cross
through the Security Zone which lies along the Inguri River. This zone is the main area of contention
and danger, as most Georgians lived here before the war. Now, Georgian paramilitary groups, called the White
Legion and the Forest Brothers, have sprung up in the area. We will be staying in the protected CIS
peacekeeping forces compund in Sukhumi, which is really a former resort sanatorium.
I have studied this conflict on and off for years now. I remember when I first read about it in my
attic room on Walton Crescent in Oxford. It is funny but I even recall the nightinggale that would
sing every evening at dusk perched on the roof of the house across the way. This is also the only
conflict that I have to visit personally. I have felt for the past few days as if I were in waiting.
posted by Dov Lynch at 10:52 PM
Thursday, July 20, 2000
We experience the conflicts from both sides in each leg of this journey. Every impression we record and
every term we use is loaded with partiality - like the name of this city: Sukhumi for Georgians; Sukhum
for the Abkhaz who have dropped the "i" tacked on by the Georgians.
The Abkhaz have a legend: when God divided up the Earth between nations, the Abkhaz were not present and
were left without land. When the Abkhaz finally arrived, God asked them why they were late, and the Abkhaz
replied: "Because we had guests and could not leave them to join you." God was touched by Abkhaz
hospitality and decided to give them the land he had planned to keep for himself. Georgians have an
almost identical tale about Georgia - even mythological plagiarism divides these people.
Today we flew on a UN plane from Tbilisi to Senaki, and then hitched a ride on a UN helicopter to
Abkhazia. As we approached the airstrip in Sukhum we saw the carcass of an Aeroflot civilian aircraft
shot down during the war. A UN security officer warned me to hide my cameras in Abkhazia. At the
checkpoint driving into town, a border guard laughed at my picture in my passport. Nobody in the jeep
had ever seen an Abkhaz soldier laugh before.
Along the road most buildings are riddled with bullet holes. Gutted houses are overtaken by sub-tropical
vegetation. Cows sit still in the middle of the road - we could be in India. As we pass a heap of rubbles
by the beach, the UN security officer says, "Welcome to paradise." Beyond the immediate sadness of the devastation in this city, there is something glorious about our
The foreign ministry has blessed our project and I have an official accreditation to take
pictures. Few people have been here to bring back a chronicle of Abkhazia and I feel a solemnity in what
we are doing.
posted by Eric Baudelaire at 11:25 PM
We arrived in the capital of Abkhazia very early. The UN helicopter took us out over the Black
Sea and along the coast towards the Sukhum airport. The Inguri River, which marks the border between
Georgia and Abkhazia since the war ended in 1993, throws itself into the sea. A great crescent of mud
colored water spreads out from its mouth. On the shore, I saw a land covered with forests; a little
further rose the Caucasus mountains. Over the land hung a low mist. In the helicopter, the air was close,
and the heat of the coming day could already be felt. Across from me in the helicopter, two UN officers
sat with head-phones over their ears to close out the sound of the engine. One of them was reading a book
called "Difficult Conversations, and How to Do Them Well". The second officer was trying to read it over
There are two ways to understand the strength of a state. You can look at its institutions. Can it
raise taxes? Does it have adequate health care? Do the structures of state work? Or you can look
at the idea that holds the state together. Is there a consensus on who is a member of the state, and who is
not? Do people understand the reason for the state's existence and agree with it?
The PMR seemed to have strong state structures: its institutions have impact on the individual. The idea
behind it, however, left me puzzled. In Abkhazia, the state is extremely weak: the streets of the capital
are lined with burnt houses and destroyed buildings. Its weaknesses are palpable and terrible in ways.
But the idea behind this state has no ambiguity. It is clear and fixed, and all seem to pay allegiance
to it. The horrors of the war have left an indelible mark on this people. The Abkhaz are the Abkhaz
because they are not Georgian, because they are North Caucasian.
Late this afternoon, we were invited to the Jubilee concert of the Abkhaz Folk Dancing Ensemble.
All that is the idea behind Abkhazia was captured in that dancing. The men were slim and powerful
with thick up-turned moustaches. They wore daggers and tight belts; they were aristocratic. The women
were mountain princesses; graceful and assured, their large almond shaped brown eyes striking. The Abkhaz
idea can only grow stronger completely cut off from the rest of the world. Yet isolation is not
posted by Dov Lynch at 11:31 PM
Friday, July 21, 2000
Today I got very drunk with the Minister of Education and was late and incoherent for our interview
with the Minister of Health. The first meeting was all men and we drank a bottle of cognac, wine and vodka,
listening to toasts that brought tears to my eyes (aided by the vodka).
The task of the Minister of Education is to reinvent Abkhazia as a state, with a language and a culture,
through education. In Soviet times the lingua franca was Russian, then Georgian. Today schools teach
in Abkhaz, even though many adults don't speak it fluently. Seven years after the war that defined
Abkhazia as a state, there is a real sense of a nation building itself. There is no money to rebuild
the city, but there is a will to forge a new generation of Abkhaz in schools and through the arts.
Because we were late for our meeting at the Ministry of Health, the Minister of Education started working
the phone, buying time for a few more toasts. We eventually made it out into the street under a smothering
midday sun, and across to our second meeting. All women this time. Coffee and fruit but no smoking. We
heard about the difficulties in importing medicine because of non-recognition and the "Georgian blockade"
- a notion that remains to be investigated.
In the street, a tank rolls by. Just beyond, Russian peacekeepers patrol on the beachside boardwalk.
Magnolia and eucalyptus trees scent the humid air. Every other building is only a fašade and looking up through
the windows you can see the sky. The statues and murals on the waterfront are still pockmarked, seven
years after the fighting has ended - I have never seen so many bullet holes before. Not even street signs
have been replaced. In Transdniestria we visited a museum meant to remind people of the destruction they
suffered. War is an essential part of these states' creation myths. Here there is no need for a museum or
monument. The entire city of Sukhum is both those things at once.
posted by Eric Baudelaire at 12:39 AM
Saturday, July 22nd, 2000
Today we visited the town of Novy Afon. Novy Afon has three remarkable features.
In 1965, a young shepherd boy of 16 lost a sheep to a hole in the mountain (why do these stories always
start the same way?). The boy climbed into the hole, and continued climbing for eight hours. He discovered
some of the largest caves in the world. We joined a group of Russian tourists and followed an excursion
through the damp chill. I wanted to have the lights turned off to feel what that young boy had. The
stunning darkness, the wetness of stone in formation. I imagined sightless bats. A man told me later that
these caves contain a unique species of blind beetle.
Later in the afternoon, Dima (our driver) and Max (our interpreter) took us to the Novy Afon Monastery. The
monastery stands on a hill overlooking the Black Sea. It was founded by Russian monks in 1875
from land given to them by Alexander III. The Apostle Simon the Canaanite lived here, and was drowned in
the river outside the town. He is buried here. At its height, the monastery was one of the richest in
Russia; a symbol of Russian power on the Black Sea coast, housing 700 monks.
The seminary building and the two churches are enclosed in thick walls. All of the buildings are painted
in yellow and orange. We entered through a stairway; at different levels as we rose we met beggars, old
men and women, their hands held out, their faces so weathered that their eyes could not be seen.
I sat down in a corner of the principal church. In the back, a nun carefully folded the head-dresses that
must be worn by all women entering the church. There are no pews in Russian churches. The emptiness of the
space has something of a stage. Outside I could hear the crickets' song. I could feel the day settling
around me; its pace slowing to something sleep-like. The windows of the church were clear glass,
allowing the sunlight to stream in. The church contained no icons; every inch of its walls was covered with
paintings and images from the Bible. Something about the clothes that the people were wearing and the shape
of their faces seemed close to the origins of Christianity. How far we were now from the Nordic Christ,
stern and blond. Here was a Black Sea figure, draped in white; a Greek man, an Abkhaz man from the early
days. And Mary was such a woman, dark and sweet with almond eyes and a voice that never spoke.
In one corner, the images were of a Christ dreaming; he seemed to be kneeling; around him the night was
blue and filled with stars. Faintly in that night, his eyes rose to a chalice, barely visible. The nun came over
to me, still folding her lot; "How are you?" she asked. "God Bless you for coming." "Go to the back," she
said, "Leon will tell you all you need to know". I went to find Leon, a young man working on a good beard
already. He was kind and asked me many questions. He told me that the monastery did not work anymore;
that its grounds were empty. "Ah no - there is one more monk."
As we left the monastery, I saw the monk. He was standing on a balcony looking down at us. He wore black
robes whitened by the sun, and his beard had long not been cut. His hair was animal-like. He
looked mad. I imagined him pacing through the empty corridors of the monastery, his eyes glazed over by the
sun, his mind resounding with his each step. Where was his Mediterranean God? Had he lost his way in the
drone of crickets? As we drove away, I was left confused by this image for Abkhazia. I kept returning to
the lonely monk reliving some silent dream of the past in a sun-bleached land.
Stalin kept four country houses in Abkhazia; he never told his associates which one he would be visiting
when he came to rest. One of them is in Novy Afon. Dima knew the Director and we were shown around Stalin's
house, his bedroom, a study, his bathroom. All was made of wood inside the house, three or four different
types, light wood and redolent still of some Baltic forest. As we walked through the house and around the
grounds, I thought of that paranoid little man as some great insect - cold and senseless, completely blind.
posted by Dov Lynch at 10:55 AM
Monday, July 24, 2000
You could say a state is defined by three things: the will of its people to be a state; its institutions;
and its recognition by other states.
The will of the Abkhaz people to build a state was made clear seven years ago in the way it defeated the
Georgian army and persevered in broken cities and burnt land. Still today every other toast is raised in
the memory of those who have died or to the land for which they fell.
The institutions of statehood in Abkhazia are as manufactured, blatant and shallow as sets on a theater
stage. There seems to be a ministry for just about everything. I believe we have met the entire staff
of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in just five days. Sergei Shamba, the Minister, his two deputies, and
a dozen former language students conduct the foreign policy of a state that has no foreign representation
or official ties with any other nation. They occupy five offices in a building that houses a handful of
other ministries. The television is on all day in one room. The staff makes coffee, mills around, and
completes translation assignments from the minister, a former academic. It feels like a classroom during
Each minister occupies the largest office, amid a constant hum of air conditioning...usually a few files on
the desk, always the green, white and red miniature Abkhaz flag next to the penholder. On the walls, the same
generic calendars. Strong Turkish coffee is brought in mid-meeting. Each question straddles a history
lesson meant to provide the interviewer with the absolute certainty that there is no going back -
Abkhazia's destiny lies in statehood regardless of the political and economic vacuum in which it stands.
These artifacts of statehood persist in a city where there is no apparent rule of law. Cars drive on
sidewalks. There are no traffic rules and no police to enforce them. Men sometimes carry pistols tucked
in their belts. The streets are vacant except for a few seaside cafes that recall the days when this city
was the Cannes of the Black Sea coast. Institutions of statehood exist in Abkhazia, but they lack the means
for coherence and efficiency. They have been hoisted like a flag, as symbols emanating from a will for
statehood regardless of its realism.
The only leg of Abkhaz statehood that is missing completely is the one they cannot achieve by themselves:
recognition. And so the Abkhaz live without valid passports and the possibility to travel, without legal
external economic relations and the cash they would bring in, and without foreign visitors to witness their
will for self-determination.
I think it is clear today that this land has soaked up too much blood for either Georgians or Abkhaz to
seek conciliation, and I cannot foresee any degree of hardship that would compel the Abkhaz to yield
enough for reunification to be possible. And so I think this state of limbo will continue, and life will
go on as is in this tiny bit of paradise lost.
posted by Eric Baudelaire at 4:35 PM
Thursday, July 27, 2000
Before coming here, someone told me that the Abkhaz are 10% Muslim, 90% Christian and 100% pagan. Nature
reigns supreme. The climate is hot and humid; plants grow from everything; animals and insects are
everywhere. Land is key to this conflict; the Abkhaz claim that the Georgians were resettled here from
other parts of Georgia by those Georgian 'Soviet Men' Stalin and Beria. The Georgians claim that the land
is theirs and that the Abkhaz are in fact a Georgian ethnic group. As a result of the war, 240,000
Georgians have fled Abkhazia. A core issue in the negotiations is the return of these peoples. But how
can they return? The new Abkhazia has been built on their absence.
The Abkhaz say that they rise up every ten years against their foreign rulers - Turkish, Russian, and
Georgian. Every time, this uprising occurs in the same place, in a town in the mountains called Lykhny.
There, around a great oak tree, declarations are made and leaders elected. What is this tree?
I met the Head of the State Committee for Ecology on Monday. Many people in the government had spoken
about this man with great respect, and told me to look forward to meeting him. I came at four in the
afternoon. On the ground floor, the office was quite dark. We sat down at a table. His back was
to the window; I could see only the contours of his face in the shadow. This man was tall and strong, but
he moved very slowly. He folded his long hands over each other, and, I think, sat looking at me.
His voice, when he finally spoke, was soft and calm. At first I thought that he was sad. It dawned on me
then that this man was a priest. Some pagan druid. This is why he is so respected. He talked to me at
length of the unique nature of Abkhazia; its species, its sea and its lakes. As time passed, I could see
even less of his face, only his bones, darkened jaw and sunken eyes. This is a believer, I thought. He holds
some ancient faith, older even than Christianity.
Last night Eric and I were invited to a pagan celebration held in honor of our friend Max. He had not
been celebrated this way since he returned to Abkhazia after the war. A rooster was chosen; Max's
neighbor came over, spoke to the rooster, thanked it and wished Max all the best for the future. The
neighbor walked around the rooster three times; Max turned around the rooster three times; the rooster was
killed. We ate him in the same room for dinner. The Foreign Minister was with us.
I am left confused by all of this. I can understand these rites and their strength. These beliefs are the
color of this land and its spirit. But they are also remnants of some red-clouded past where people lived
their lives in one village; where the 'other' lived in the valley across the mountain. I am afraid of these
images. They evoke that intoxicating mixture of blood and earth, red mud. They say: 'This land is ours'.
No 'other' is to inhabit it. In this religion, the son is held responsible for the crimes of the father;
there can be no progress. The horizon of these beliefs fixes this land in uncertainty and speechlessness.
The war with Georgia has left this land soiled with the blood of both sides. How can this red earth be
returned after such acts? A great hellish rite has occurred. The 'other' has been chased off the land.
This land cannot be returned to them.
There may be another way of looking at this. In that darkening office on Monday afternoon, the Chairman
for Ecology explained to me the Abkhaz view of the relationship between God, Humanity and Nature. "Here,"
he said, "let me draw you a picture." On a sheet of paper, he drew two diagrams. The first depicted the
traditional Christian relationship between the three: God placed at the top of the hierarchy,
followed by Humanity; Nature was last. Humanity's link with God occurred directly, the channel running
from the individual to God. Nature was a tool to be used with impunity; it had no impact on Man's relationship
with God. In the second diagram, God also stood at the top, but was followed this time by Nature and then Humanity.
"Here," he said. "Humanity communicates to God through Nature and Nature is also the greatest mirror of God.
Can you see the difference?"
It occurred to me then that these two diagrams also lay at the heart of the dreamers that built
America. First, those stern pilgrims of protestant retribution, standing gaunt and alone before God, their
own minds their greatest challenge. Second, those poet transcendentalists, dreaming dreams of wasps on
wooden tables and Walden ponds. As I am reading "Moby Dick," how could I not think of that fiery hunt for
the White Whale; a search to destroy the evil in Humanity and the pursuit of God's apogee in Nature. I
could not help thinking on that late afternoon, was this man Ahab sitting in front of me? Hobbes had
compared the state to a great leviathan. What was this Abkhaz dream of statehood?
But there is also something great in this Abkhaz dream of God, Man and Nature. It is not only about blood
and mud. It is about beauty and the spirit. The Chairman for Ecology told me that I had to visit Lake
Ritsa high up in the Caucasus mountain range. On Saturday, Dima, Max and other friends that we have
made in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs took Eric and me up to the lake. When we swam in the mountain water,
I suddenly grasped the Abkhaz diagram; I never felt more alive than in that freezing water and in that clear
mountain air. Later we ate watermelon while fly fishermen passed us working their way downstream.
posted by Dov Lynch at 4:37 PM
I have started to work differently. I leave early in the morning with Assida, a social worker who travels
from village to village visiting the homes of what she calls "vulnerable" people - Russian pensioners, war
invalids and refugees. She brings them food and medicine, and enrolls them into Red Cross and Medecins Sans
Frontieres programs. In the afternoon I meet up with Dov and we share impressions. We are finding our own
rhythms, following our instincts and multiplying our experiences. Over dinner, each night, our thoughts
about the future of this place evolve. Assida tells me that when foreigners visit the Caucasus, at first
they understand this place a little better, and then they start to feel that they no longer understand
anything at all.
Yesterday I drove up to the village of Vladimirovka where Chechen refugees have recently settled. They
have fled the camps in Ingushetia, crossed the Caucasus Mountains, and moved into the homes vacated by
Georgian families who fled Abkhazia during the war. It is like a great game of refugee musical chairs
between Abkhazia, Georgia and Chechnya. The families we visited had left Grozny during the winter siege.
Each one had lost a father, a mother or a brother to the first or second Chechen war. The children had
deep brown eyes and a severe gaze. I made friends with a little one who stood upright and perked up his
shaved head for a portrait. A helicopter flew high above and suddenly the little boy picked up a stone
and threw it into the air, aiming for the black dot in the sky. At six or seven he has known only war.
During the ride back to Sukhum, I thought about these families. They are city people learning a new life
in the Abkhaz countryside. The mothers try to grow food in overgrown vegetable patches. If they stay here,
their sons may avoid the "filtration camps" in Russia and will probably not join the Chechen fighters in a
war that has no end. But they are living on borrowed land, in houses that have been abandoned but may one
day be reclaimed if the Georgian refugees return. I think of this Caucasian vicious circle of mixed
populations, war and forced migration - le malheur des uns fait le bonheur des autres, et ca recommence.
posted by Eric Baudelaire at 4:39 PM
Sunday, July 30, 2000
What is Abkhazia? I ask this question to all sorts of people ten times a day. How does it work? What is
its legitimacy? How does it sustain itself? Last week, the Foreign Minister had said: "Abkhazia is a state.
Non-recognition by the international community does not matter. We have had a referendum on independence
and this has been enshrined in the Constitution." He is a former academic, a historian, and he looked at
me and smiled.
On Friday morning, I sat in the living room of the leader of a local NGO. She had black hair, and a face
of quiet and certain intelligence. In the back room, her daughter kept putting on and taking off music
records as if she could not remember where the song was that she wanted to listen to. We sat on the sofa,
and drank coffee and ate apples. This woman had no doubts as to her allegiances; she was Abkhaz and
determined to struggle to build a new Abkhazia. After some time, I asked her whether Abkhazia was a state.
"No, no," she said, "you cannot expect us to have created a state after only eight years." What is Abkhazia
then? "We are in the process of building a state." How is this being done? "No, no, I know," she answered,
whisking away a strand of hair from her eyes. "The independence of Abkhazia is a myth. It is not realistic.
But we have absolutely no choice. Do you see?" Her bright face was tense, and she held her hair back with
both hands. I could see the tightness in her hands.
As the days pass, I understand the difficulty of this position. The Abkhaz were suppressed by the Russians
in Tsarist times, and by the Soviet authorities and Georgia in the Soviet era. In August 1992, Georgian
paramilitary forces attacked Sukhum, forcing the Abkhaz people and authorities to flee north towards
Gudauta and Sochi. The Georgian military occupation was brutal to all in Abkhazia. When Abkhaz troops
retook the capital in September 1993 and then pushed Georgian troops over the Inguri river, military
vandalism had left the land in ruins. As the Abkhaz forces approached, ethnic Georgians fled across the
river into Georgia proper.
The result seven years later is a state of contradiction. As the Georgians have left, many villages are
empty. This is less true in Sukhum. But, once in the countryside, there is a palpable emptiness to the
land. Before the war, the Abkhaz had represented only 18% of the population in the Abkhaz region. The
Greeks were evacuated to Greece at the height of the war, as were the Jews to Israel. The local Russian
population has been depleted of youth; those who have not left for Russia are the old and vulnerable.
There remains an important Armenian population, mostly farmers and 'biznesmeni.' Abkhazia remains blockaded
by Georgia and by agreement from the Commonwealth of Independent States. Little has changed since the end
of the war. The leaders are the same. No rebuilding has taken place. Thousands of Georgians have returned
to the Gali region in Abkhazia, closest to Georgia, but they live in a state of insecurity on land
poisoned by mines and the pressure from criminal groups and terrorist acts.
The Abkhaz state exists and it does not. It has a basic structure but seemingly little direction. It is
completely isolated from the world. The conditions of life are miserable. In many ways, it survives on
the assistance of international humanitarian organizations. And on the protection of the Russian
peacekeeping forces standing in the buffer zone between Abkhazia and Georgia. There is a genuine belief
in the possibility of a renewed Georgian attack. There has been no peace treaty with Georgia, only a
cease-fire agreement. The prospects for settlement are slim.
Blocked off from all, the Abkhaz exist in a state of conscious anxiety. In this climate, the stress of
the war already seven years ago cannot be relieved. It is there, rising with the heat every morning.
In the afternoon, it curls up like some dog asleep with one eye open. These people live in a state of
constant stress. Yes, Abkhazia is a myth, but there seems to be no other choice for them.
posted by Dov Lynch at 4:41 PM
Monday, July 31, 2000
Almost halfway through our journey I have come to realize that the task I have set out with is
photographically impossible for me. This notion of the 'state' is far too intellectual - visually,
the difference between a country and a piece of land populated by people is summed up by a handful
of symbols. Flags, monuments, currency. The act of building a state in Abkhazia, separate from another
state, took place first in people's minds, then in an act of war that ended seven years ago. Portraits
of people will not express the full strength of their nationalist will. And while I can photograph the
artifacts and detritus of war, without a caption images of war-torn cityscapes do not speak to Abkhazian
statehood - only to the savagery of war and to the difficulty of living in the rubble, cut off from the
rest of the world by an embargo.
This realization along with a change in daily routine, which is now leading me into people's homes, has
been a great relief. I feel free to simply photograph. Perhaps along with the texts that Dov will write,
these images will form a visual diary of this place as I have observed it - a portrait of people and a
state in limbo, caught between a dream and its realization.
I have gone back to following the work of those who are trying to undo the consequences of conflict,
poverty and isolation. I follow mine-clearers, social workers, and tuberculosis doctors. In a way, theirs
is the work of state-creation, insofar as a state can only be built when its people have progressed beyond
The Sukhum TB clinic is just outside the town. Above it lay the burned remains of a magnificent sanatorium,
built by a Tsar for his wife who was recovering from tuberculosis. He ordered it to have 365 rooms so his
wife could see the sea from a different perspective each day of the year.
Below, in today's less extravagant TB clinic, I sit in rooms with patients. They are mostly men. Former
convicts, released from the TB-infested prison on the verge of death. Their emaciated bodies are covered
in crude tattoos. I know each tattoo means something, but I do not know what. Micha likes to be
photographed. He has developed a partial immunity to the treatment but the doctors think he will
survive. His arms and stomach are criss-crossed with hundreds of scars. I think they are self-inflicted
cuts - a way for Micha to vent his anger. In another room, an old man extends the traditional Abhkaz
hospitality by giving me fruit and khatchapuri, bread baked with cheese. He cuts up the loaf and hands me
the best piece from the center. I try to refuse but can't. And so I sit there with a slice of bread that
I cannot eat. The risk of contagion is too great, and I have a mask on my face. All the windows of the
clinic are open. The sun pours into each room. The men stand around and kill time - it takes months for
the disease to be cured. Some of them will run away in mid-treatment, and the TB bacilli will become
stronger for it, resistant to the medication. More people will be infected. And the doctors work on like
Sisyphus, rolling the stone up the mountain hoping it won't roll down again once he has reached the top.
posted by Eric Baudelaire at 4:44 PM
I was driven to the the Ministry of Defense at 2 pm. The building is near the UN compound.
An officer met me at the gate. As we walked up towards the main building, he told me that before the war
this building had been the House of the Artists. As all Abkhaz do, he asked me whether I had been swimming
yet. Yes, I answered, at least once a day, either in the morning or in the evening. It is too hot to swim
in the afternoon. I told him about the Russian families staying in our compound, who spend the whole day
in the sun. He laughed at them: "Crazy Russians." I told him about mad dogs and Englishmen, and he laughed
The Defense Minister greeted me from his desk, and then slowly rose and walked towards me. He looked me up
and down, and shook my hand. Coming in from the intense heat outside, I found his office almost cold. It was
the most impressive office that I had seen amongst government officials. The walls were adorned with
paintings, decent rugs covered the floors, and his desk was busy with papers and documents. Compared to
the other offices that I had visited, this one spoke of permanence. Its owner had no plans of leaving it
any time soon.
He showed me to a table in front of his desk, and we sat down across from each other. A secretary whisked
in and placed plates in front of us, two sets of glasses, a cup of coffee, a basket of fruit, a huge box
of Russian chocolates, and a bottle of cognac. I glanced at the label. It was 'Bely Aist', the basic grade
cognac from the Kvint factory in Transdniestria that Eric and I had visited two weeks ago.
He sat heavily at the table, his elbows all about, a thick man with silver hair cut short and eyebrows
that seemed to fold over his eyes. During the entire interview, he smiled at me. It was not a nice smile,
but it was not menacing or ironic either. He felt perhaps that he knew the game and that he would be
willing to play along with it as soon as the rules became clear to him.
"I am not a drinking man," he said, "but as a military man, I must greet my guests with a toast." He
raised a toast welcoming me to Abkhazia and wishing me all success in my work. Rather than downing it
in one, he took a sip from his cognac, and I followed his lead. He looked up at me to make sure I
had seen that he was not a drinking man.
My first question. "The Abkhaz represented les than 2% of the population of Georgia in the last census of
the 1980s. How did you win the war against such overwhelming odds?" The interview started with a bang. He
told me that a nation defending itself against external aggression has no choice but to win, that in the
long term the aggressor simply cannot win such a war. "We had nothing, no weapons. We fought with axes. I
remember with my own eyes seeing a twelve year old kid preparing Molotov cocktails for use against tanks."
He spoke about the laws of warfare: "The greatest strength of all lies in the spirit of the nation. This,
the Georgians could never beat." Another toast was raised, this time to Ireland. "This one must be drunk
to the bottom." He threw back the entire glass of cognac. All following toasts were given the same respect.
"Will you win the next war?" I asked. His eyes opened to me. "We have shown already that we can." He spoke
of the 'six day war' that occurred in May 1998 between Abkhaz forces and Georgian groups in the Security
Zone. For years now, the Georgian terrorist groups had sought to secure positions inside the Security Zone
on the Abkhaz side of the Inguri River. In May 1998, Abkhaz forces swept through the region and forced them
back across the river. In the process, some 40 thousand ethnic Georgians once again fled from the region.
"What about the CIS peacekeeping forces that are deployed on the Inguri River, what do you think of their
role?" He looked at me straight now: "These Russian troops act as a deterrent between Georgian and Abkhaz
forces," he continued, "The Georgians keep screaming for them to leave Georgia. But the Georgians would
never let them leave!" I asked "Why not? They have been calling for this for years." "Because if the
Russians left, Abkhaz forces would move through the Security Zone to the Inguri river, all ethnic Georgians
would leave the zone again, and the Georgian terrorists would be destroyed. A war would most certainly
escalate. Georgia cannot afford this. With all the Western investment that it has, it cannot afford
another war. So it must pursue a strategy that undermines Abkhazia through terrorist acts but that does
not undermine Georgia in the wider schema." "But what about five years from now?" I asked, "will you win
a new war then?"
Looking at him, I could see that he was afraid of a new war. How would Abkhazia win a new war against a
Georgia strengthened by Western support? Abkhazia had suffered so much already. Could it suffer more?
How many young men would it have to lose? I looked at this heavy man. Little Abkhazia had never won a war
in its recent past. I saw the pride in this man that Abkhazia had beaten a superior adversary. I saw also
the fear that this victory brought. The Abkhaz are not used to victory. They do not know what to do with
it. They distrust it even.
posted by Dov Lynch at 4:50 PM
Wednesday, August 2, 2000
The leader of the Women's Association of Abkhazia smiled at me and said in a low voice: "You know,
Abkhazia will be a matriarchy." She continued, "I do not mean feminism or anything like that. I mean
that since the war, and because of the war, the men have degraded and women have become stronger. Some
men cannot get away from the war, some drink, many sit around all day doing nothing. Women carry all
the burden now. They have become very strong. It is time that we recognize this."
Later that day, I visited the Youth House in the center of Sukhum. The Youth House has been financed by
USAID and other American NGOs. I was late to the meeting so Max and I rushed up the stairs to the second
floor. All of a sudden a door opened and we were bustled into what turned out to be the staff room. The
room was full of women, all of them young and beautiful. "Where have we arrived?" I whispered to Max
in English. I introduced myself to all of them, then we sat down and talked. The Director of the Youth
House described their activities to me. They take students of all ages for a period of two months
throughout the year and in the summer. The kids come after school and take lessons in English, drama,
and pottery. The students also produce a student paper with their own stories and poems. The House is
devoted to providing support to children who have lived through a war. It has several excellent
psychologists who lead individual and group therapy sessions with the kids.
The whole time, the staff room was full of banter and joking. "And why are you here?" I was asked first.
Then the questions came quickly. "What do you think? Do you have good impressions of Abkhazia? What are
your conclusions so far?" And then, of course, "What do you think of Abkhaz women?" At one point an older
man had entered and sat down. He looked at me now and smiled. I looked around the room. Each one of these
women was dedicated to building a new Abkhazia. The room was overflowing with love. It was like some
fragrance in the air. How they love these children, I thought, and how they love each other. I am
conscious of the sentimentality of these thoughts. But Sukhum outside this small little room was still
destroyed. In its streets, the air is filled with a sense of waiting and anticipation. Life was vibrant
within this House. I could see it in the humor of these women, the quickness of their wit and their shy
beauty. But I could also see the fatigue that showed in their faces. In each it was different: for one,
it was in the eyes, for another, in a heaviness of movement. These women carried the weight of this new
A few days later, Eric took me with him on a visit to follow the work of Medecins sans Frontieres. He
had spoken to me often of Assida, the social worker that he had followed for three days. I must meet her,
he said. Assida is another woman building this new state. She has great presence, and a mind as sharp as
a whip. She is very taken with Eric, and jokes with him all day about the difference between the French
men that exist in books like Dartagnan and the real French men that she has met. Like him. She told me at
one point that she normally does not talk to people; only to those with whom she felt something. She
talked non-stop all day with us, explaining everything about her work.
We visited some vulnerable people with her in the town called Gagra, further up the coast towards Russia.
It was raining very heavily. We drove in a jeep to a house hidden under trees near the rail tracks. We got
out and ran over to the gate. Trees hung very low over the gate and in the garden forcing us to crouch.
The house was really a shack. Assida knocked at the door, looked into the window and called out "Grandma
Maria! Are you there?" The door opened to a wizened little woman: "Come in out of the rain." We had to
bend over to enter the house, the front entrance was dripping with water through a make-shift roof and
the floor consisted of wood pieces of different shapes barely covering the ground. We entered into the
main room in which Maria lived. In the corner there was a bed. She turned a switch, and the room emerged
from the shadows into a bare yellow light. The naked poverty of this room could be smelled. The walls were
completely stained. At the single table, two old photographs stood. One of Maria and her husband when
they were young. Another of her husband taken later during the Second World War.
Maria. Her face was soft and entirely wrinkled. She smiled and talked the whole time we were there.
She was Russian, born in Volgograd in 1918. She fought in the Great War. Her husband fought in the Great
War. No, she had no children. She is alone. Whom does she talk to? Does she talk to these photos? It was
raining hard outside, so we waited with little Maria. She gave Eric and I a package full of nuts. "Take it,"
Assida said, "She will be offended if not."
As we drove away in the car, Assida turned to me and said: "You see, she lives like this, but she has not
become a dog. You see?" Assida arranged a doctor's visit for Maria the next day. Assida is a strong woman.
Both of her parents were famous Abkhaz poets. Her language is full of metaphor. But still, I could see the
exhaustion in her eyes.
A matriarchy then? All of the authorities that I had met were men. Their offices were empty, and they sat
behind desks far too large in offices that were far too bare. I cannot say. I am not sure that Assida
trusts what I will write about Abkhazia. As we parted she said, "Do not take our side. Do not take the
Georgian side. Try to write the truth." This glimpse of the women of Abkhazia is one fragment of that truth.
posted by Dov Lynch at 4:52 PM
The drive to Gagra, one hour away from Sukhum, follows the coastline. Westward, Abkhazia becomes thinner,
and the distance between the Caucasus Mountains and the Black Sea becomes shorter. By the time you reach
Pitsunda, the Caucasian foothills spill out onto the pebble beach and into the green sea. One hundred years
ago eucalyptus trees were planted to soak up some of the subtropical moisture. Today they stand sixty feet
tall on the sea front. Small white clouds cling to the steep slopes of the foothills on their way to the
sea. A storm brews on the horizon and tornadoes can be seen off the coast. Schools of dolphins chase the
fish towards the shore where old men bait fishing lines.
We have reached the midpoint of our journey. A month behind us and a month ahead. Dov and I have found a
good pace. We work well together and separately, and each day starts with the confidence that we will
listen to and observe interesting people and events. Yet today was tiring and difficult. The rain bogged
us down. My back has been bothering me again, hampering my movements.
Yesterday we drove around for eight hours in a UN armored vehicle patrolling the southern Gali region
where the roads are in a miserable state. We wore clunky helmets and flack jackets in the smothering heat.
The patrol leader was a Greek Captain. In our vehicle a French officer (Capitaine Musique!) gave us a
running commentary on the situation in the area. We stopped at Russian peace keeping checkpoints along
the cease-fire line to observe, assess and photograph. Each one is a well-kept island, lined with white
stones. Inside, a few armored vehicles and young conscripts or contract soldiers milling around with
shaved heads and bare chests. Occasionally they search passing vehicles. The UN observers inquire about
recent incidents - a shooting, some looting. The surrounding houses have all been torn down and ransacked.
Only the first floor remains, and the typically Georgian exterior staircase leads up to nothing save a
brick chimney that stands alone in the emptiness of what used to be a living room. It is impossible to
characterize the exodus from this region objectively, but the systematic devastation on the Abkhaz side
suggests a methodic ethnic cleansing of the area following the war. Georgian refugees regularly cross the
Inguri river, back to the land they left, to harvest mandarins and chestnuts in their old gardens.
On a makeshift pathway over a bombed out bridge, a procession crossed over from Georgia. The men and women
were wearing black, carrying flowers for a funeral in this mine infested, unreconstructed strip of land
that separates Georgia from de facto Abkhazia.
posted by Eric Baudelaire at 4:54 PM
Monday, August 7, 2000
We returned to Tbilisi three days ago, and spent the weekend resting after thirty days of work and
traveling. I think that neither of us realized how tired we had become. I felt like I was holding my
breath during our exit from Abkhazia. Eric and I rose early on Friday morning to go for a last swim in the
Black Sea. The night before we had held a party to celebrate our new friends in Abkhazia. We danced and
talked. After the party we went down to the beach. The sea was stormy and very rough. Should we go
swimming? We hesitated. The next morning as we had coffee with Max and Dima, Dima said that a friend
of his had drowned the night before: "He dove off the pier and never came up for air."
The UN helicopter took us out again over the Black Sea. I looked down on the Gali District. We had
driven through the volatile lower Gali villages two days earlier. UN patrols drive around the area
in MAMBO armored trucks. All wear flack jackets and helmets. Before we left for the patrol, I asked
a Turkish officer where these trucks came from. "We bought them off the South African government.
Second hand. They were used by the South African police forces in the townships." As we rode that day
I could not help thinking of the men who had sat on these seats before me. The armored vehicle had not
been painted in white then. We followed the UN officers around on a routine day of observation. I was
struck by their patience. The commanding officer asked the same question three or four times in different
ways, always smiling, sometimes looking directly at the person, sometimes looking around. To a Russian
officer, "So what would you do if the local Georgian population asked you for help?" "We will provide
help." "How will you provide help?" "What do you mean?" "Imagine twenty bandits have attacked a local
house, will you provide shelter for the victims?" "Maybe, maybe not." "What does it depend upon?" And
so forth. At the end of the day, I was soaked through to the skin and the helmet dug into my forehead.
posted by Dov Lynch at 4:50 PM
The weekend had been stormy over Tbilisi. The noise of the rain on the window woke me several
times in the night. I saw the flashes of lightening streak across the ceiling above the bed. Somewhere
near, I could hear an old woman coughing.
On Monday, the heat returned to the city. I called the office of the Abkhaz Parliament in Exile and
arranged a meeting with its Chairman. At the height of the war, Georgian political forces in Abkhazia
had set up alternative structures to challenge those of the Abkhaz independence movement. This Parliament
has been based in Tbilisi since the end of the war. Its leaders play an active role in Georgian politics,
and stand at the extreme of the political spectrum. Only the use of force will solve the conflict, they
I arrived early for the meeting, and was asked to wait in the antechamber of the Chairman's office. The
antechamber itself was grander than anything that I had seen in Sukhum. Two young security men sat down
on the sofa next to me, one on each side. I looked at both of them. They looked at me with little that
spoke of interest.
As I entered his office, the Chairman quickly whisked away the newspaper that he had been
reading from the top of his desk and shoved some books and official papers across it. The television,
some distance from his desk and more difficult to turn off without his guest noticing, blared throughout
the entire interview. His eyes strayed to it constantly. It was tuned to MTV.
I had trouble focusing on this man's face during our talk. At the time, I thought that this was because
I was tired. Then later that day I remembered the man's look. It was this that had troubled me. There was
something blank to it. The interview occurred without any spirit at all. I waited for him to come alive.
It never happened. My questions were greeted with complete disinterest. The answers - he had rehearsed so
many times. The result was a sense of boredom. The air was filled with discordance. His face was
disinterested. His voice was soft and slow. His words were extreme.
"This was not an ethnic conflict. This was not a conflict between Georgians and the Abkhaz. This was a
conflict between Russia and Georgia. It has been a tragedy for both the Georgians and the Abkhaz. Only
Russia has profited from it. Who profits most from this? Russia. For who does time play? For Russia."
"Is there anything legitimate to the Abkhaz movement?"
"Absolutely nothing. Before the war, apartheid laws were created in their favor in the Abkhaz region."
"How do you imagine this conflict will be resolved?"
"Not by an agreement between the Abkhaz and the Georgians. It can only be resolved by an agreement between
Russia and the West. I look to the example of Kosovo. I look to a Chapter 7 Operation using force. Nothing
else will work."
"Do you see any differences between Putin and Yeltsin in Russian policy towards Georgia and Abkhazia?"
"Russia has eternal interests. These have been pursued since Peter, since Nikolai. Yeltsin pursued them,
and so does Putin. There can be no differences."
This morning Eric and I visited one of the main living centers for Georgian refugees from Abkhazia. A
young man, David, and a young woman, Maya, accompanied us. We took a bus to the train station (why
are train tracks always involved with poverty?). We got off and worked our way through a bazaar. "All
of these people are refugees," David explained. "Before the war, Tbilisi was not like this." We entered
a dark building and asked to meet with the local community leader. He was not there. Before the flight of
the Georgians from Abkhazia, this building had been the Hotel Kolkheti. Kolkheti was the ancient Georgian
tribe that lived in Western Georgia. This is where they lived now. We walked up two flights of stairs and
David knocked on a door. The door opened and a puppy flew out. A woman dressed in black, thin and severe,
called after the dog. "Cherna, Cherna, get over here." The dog raced down the dark corridor. We talked with
the women for a few minutes. She was grateful that we had come to witness their situation. She was so
embarrassed. It was impossible for us to come into her room. "My husband sleeps on the balcony because
there is no room. My son has just gotten married and he is sleeping now with my new daughter-in-law. No,
no, I cannot show you. Maybe if you come back."
She introduced us to her friend and we walked down the corridor towards her family's room. "Cherna,
Cherna," the woman called in the dark behind us. I felt something race against my leg, and I bent down.
Cherna gave my hand a soft nip and then shot off.
We were led into a single room. I had stayed in many similar Soviet hotel rooms. There was a bathroom to
your right upon entering a small area to hang your coat, a bedroom and then a small balcony. As we entered,
two young men, David and Spartak, rose and introduced themselves. They were sportsmen. David a Karate
expert. Spartak, of course, a football player. Soon a third young man came in. He was thick and large,
and constantly rubbed a handkerchief over his face because of the heat. He was Leon. Leon was a Russian
Champion of "Fighting without Rules." At first we talked about the war. They had fled Sukhum on
September 17, 1993. And then we talked about their lives as refugees. Leon did all the talking.
He spoke quickly and with some eloquence. He told me that all he wanted was to return to his house
"But I know that somebody has moved into it. Once I was able to call through to the house. Some guy
picked up the phone. Some Armenian I think. He said: 'Who is this?' I said: 'This is the master of the
house.' The Armenian said: 'What?! I thought that you had died. You are alive?"
"Yes I am alive, I told him. And I will come after you. You can count on it, I told him."
Then Leon put on a videotape of a 'fight without rules'. I looked at his hands and his face. After his
last fight, he had spent two months in the hospital. The fights occur in a metal cage. There are no
referees. The fight stops if a man slaps the ground three times or falls into a coma. If you win a fight
you get 600 dollars. If you lose, 500.
A little earlier, Leon had said, "Jungle rules are the life of the refugee. The strongest win. The
richest are right. Nothing else but jungle rules." I asked whether they counted on the Parliament in
Exile for help. "No way, they are puppets. We have to protect ourselves."
posted by Dov Lynch at 5:59 PM
Tuesday, August 8, 2000
We have been back in Tbilisi for several days now. Upon arrival, Dov said "It feels hard to
like both Georgia and Abkhazia at once. It feels like a betrayal." A few days later it is becoming
My last impressions of Abkhazia are very strong. On the eve of our departure, we planned a big dinner
for all our young friends from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. At six thirty, Max ran to our hotel
and from downstairs yelled "Come down, Chief is waiting!" 'Chief' is Sergei Shamba, the Minister. He
wasn't coming to dinner; he had just come by to give us a lift. In the parking lot, he sat at the wheel
of his government issue Volga (the Cadillac of Russian automobiles). There was a gas shortage, so he had
dismissed his driver to make room. Eight of us piled into the car, and he dropped us off near the UN
compound. As I shook his hand, thanked him and said goodbye it occurred to me that I may never again
ride in a car driven by a foreign minister with exactly half the staff of his ministry in the back seat.
The next day, Max and Dima stayed with us as we waited for the jeep to take us to the airport. Max is not
a friend you meet while traveling and forget a year later. He is a man with a wild imagination, the mind
of a poet, and a deep sense of friendship. We will meet again, in Sukhum, Moscow or New York.
When the Russian Mi-8 helicopter took off, I kept the window open and stuck my head out in the wind,
watching the land below. The destruction is greater the closer you get to the Georgian border. As we
flew over the Inguri River, I could see wild un-kept vegetation and bombed out houses on the western
bank, and on the Georgian side, clearly demarcated hazelnut plantations, rooftops on houses and children
playing in the yard. In between, a few cows and water buffalos wade in a strip of gray river next to a
Back in Tbilisi, things have been somewhat calm. Three Red Cross workers were kidnapped in a valley north
of here, and so I will not go up to visit the Chechen refugees with Medecins Sans Frontieres as planned.
Instead I have spent some time with Georgians from Abkhazia in the Hotel Iveria - the best hotel in
central Tbilisi, which, for the past eight years, has been turned into a refugee settlement. Balconies
have been turned into kitchens, and families pile in, five or six to each room. The stories I hear from
them are the mirror image of those I heard in Sukhum. Tales of death and horror, but also of hope and the
necessity for forgiveness. Their plight is equally moving, but the difficulty of imagining a resolution to
this conflict is as blatant as the boarded-up refugee tower that overlooks Tbilisi's main street.
The day we came back to Tbilisi I learned that my grandmother had passed away. Her funeral, in Paris,
will be held today, in half an hour. I will not be there, and that makes me sad. But in the past weeks,
I have heard many stories of loss. I have seen how the people of the Caucasus commemorate and speak of
those who have died. And so, as I go off to light a candle for her in a Georgian Orthodox church, I think
about my grandmother with a strong sense of the importance of recollection, family and heritage.
posted by Eric Baudelaire at 4:28 PM