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ABKHAZIA

The last Soviet census of 1989 shows that ethnic Abkhaz are a minority in their own region inside Georgia. In the tumult of the Soviet collapse, the Abkhaz feared cultural extinction inside Georgia. In July 1992 the Abkhaz Supreme Soviet voted for independence. In August Georgian troops entered Abkhazia, and were defeated in September 1993.

Today, Abkhazia is a de facto state separated from Georgia by Russian forces. 250,000 ethnic Georgians have fled Abkhazia, and independent Georgian militia groups conduct frequent incursions to destabilize the breakaway republic.

Abkhazia Map  

ABKHAZIA JOURNAL - updated from July 18th to August 9th 2000
 

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 curse.
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 surroundings.

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 his shoulder.

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 splendid.
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 a break.

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 immediate survival.

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 again.

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 state.

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 argue.

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 in Sukhum.

"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?"

Leon laughed.

"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 possible.

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 collapsed bridge.

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