Abkhazia: How Storytelling Keeps War Memories Alive
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Seventeen-year-old Rustam doesn’t rely on textbooks to learn about one of the most brutal clashes after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Instead, he has a more immediate source – his family’s 26-year-long struggle to find out what happened to his cousin in the 1992-1993 conflict with Tbilisi over Abkhazia.

Nodar was not much older than Rustam in August 1992, when Georgian Defense Minister Tengiz Kitovani and his National Guard entered Abkhazia to put down challenges to Tbilisi’s rule. Guerilla-style fighting was the result, and in Rustam’s native Sukhum, the picturesque Black Sea town that was the regional seat, it was warfare at its worst.

Nodar took part in the armed Abkhaz resistance to Kitovani’s forces, includingaMarch 1993 attempt to gain control of Sukhum. He died in the fighting at the age of 25.

“When [the Georgians] killed my brother, his friends wrapped him in a blanket and left him in an abandoned house,” recounts Rustam, who refers to the cousin he never knew as his brother. “The next day, the Georgians burned that house, but his remains were not noticed.”The International Committee for the Red Cross recently identified what remains there were, he adds.

Such losses are the most vivid sense of the 1992-1993 war that other young Abkhaz have as well. No family exists in Abkhazia that was not in some way affected by the roughly 13-month-long conflict, underlines Asida Lomiya, chairperson of the Children’s Foundation of Abkhazia, a humanitarian organization.

In mid-August 1992, Sukhum’s Red Bridge was the site of the opening salvos in the armed conflict over Tbilisi’s rule in Abkhazia.
Photo: Jake Borden
Sukhum's derelict, shelled Council of Ministers building, the former Georgian government headquarters, is a constant reminder of the 1992-1993 conflict with Tbilisi.
Sukhum’s Soviet-era Council of Ministers building was the site of some of the fiercest fighting in the battle for Abkhazia’s main town and can serve as a reviewing stand for official parades. For celebrations of the 25th anniversary of Abkhazia’s victory over Georgian forces, colors from the Abkhaz flag and the Abkhaz-language slogan “Victory” cover the ruins.
Photo: Jake Borden
A student rests on a bus headed to a ceremony celebrating the birthday of Abkhazia’s first president, the late Vladislav Ardzinba.

Called the Patriotic War, it is a conflict Abkhaz families present as fundamental to young people’s identity as citizens of Abkhazia. Its events are recounted from the perspective of a people trying to defend their right to exist and who prevailed, despite the odds.

Like a constant stream, the stories come “at memorial events, birthdays of the deceased [observed to honor the dead -- ed] and simply when people get together for a cup of coffee,” elaborates one Sukhum woman, who gave her name as Irina.

“We tell the children about all the terrors of war. How their relatives died and under what circumstances. For this reason, the stories of the war live on in our family independently from school and television.” 

Indeed, the comparatively drier language of a textbook cannot compete.

Fifteen-year-old Yana, a Sukhum high-schooler, says that she remembers from history textbooks “only a few paragraphs” about the day, on August 14, 1992, when troops from Tbilisi moved into Sukhum. Those few paragraphs come from a contemporaneous TV report about the event.

“Beyond that, I don't remember anything since scholars compiled the textbook and it's written in scientific language. For me, it’s very difficult to remember this information,” she explains

The Abkhaz education ministry could not be reached to explain its approach to teaching about the conflict. But Abkhaz schools devote considerable time to the topic, according to one public school history teacher in Sukhum.  

From the age of six, students start attending wreath-laying ceremonies, taking field trips and doing class reports about “famous heroes” or various events from the conflict, says the teacher, who, like nearly all sources for this story, asked not to be identified in full.

Throughout the year, students prepare hall exhibits about the fighting. Starting with the ninth grade, when they are 15, they delve more deeply into the period. 

In the run-up to September 27, the anniversary of the day Sukhum came under Abkhaz forces’ control, students perform military-themed theatrical sketches, “tell about their relatives who took part in the war, sing songs, read poetry, go to museums,” says the teacher.

Photo: Elizabeth Owen
Parents often dress their children in traditional Abkhaz attire to mark September 27, 1993, the date Sukhum came under Abkhaz control and Georgian forces retreated.
At Sukhum’s Public School #6, youngsters, dressed up to commemorate the day, run through a hallway past artwork dedicated to the Abkhaz victory against Georgian forces in the September 27, 1993 battle over Sukhum.

One thing that does not always appear to occur, however, is critical analysis; a frequently cited fault of schools throughout the region. As one 2017 Central European University master’s thesis posited, to reinforce students’ sense of national identity, schools teach about the war as a story of victims becoming victors.

Textbooks do not appear to address any potential Abkhaz role in the "grave human rights violations" – ethnic cleansing, extrajudicial executions, torture, rape, destruction of property and more – that a 1993 United Nations fact-finding mission attributed to both Abkhaz and Georgians. Nor do they present a unified narrative that incorporates the experiences of minority populations, such as ethnic Georgians living in the southern region of Gal, researchers have found.

As in Gal, young people in Sukhum are surrounded by the visual history of this conflict. Despite many new constructions, half-ruined or abandoned buildings still dot the city. The government has used the largest such structure, the scorched, 13-floor former Council of Ministers building, as a grandstand for official parades to commemorate the 1993 defeat of Tbilisi’s troops.

Talking about the conflict with some students brings to mind other landmarks, such as Sukhum’s Red Bridge, where Georgian tanks trying to enter the city on August 14, 1992 met sustained, armed Abkhaz resistance.    

“My great-grandmother told about how the tanks went along the bridge and how she, with her granddaughter, got caught in an attack,” recollects 16-year-old Yana. “On the first day of the war, they were located in this region [of the Red Bridge] and Georgian helicopters opened fire on them. Then, the Georgians came to our house many times, looking for soldiers from the Abkhaz army.”  

Yana mentions the “awful” 413-day-long blockade of the industrial town of Tkuarchal, “when people had nothing to eat and they had to feed themselves with what they will find – pigeons, grass, dogs.” Like other youngsters, she also cites the December 14, 1992 Lata tragedy, when Georgian forces shot down a helicopter carrying 85 civilians out of Tkuarchal. Thirty-five of those killed were children.

What lasting effect these stories will have on Abkhaz youngsters, who have grown up in a post-war environment, is difficult to predict.

An Abkhaz school student’s drawing for Victory Day on September 30, when Tbilisi-loyal forces, in 1993, were pushed back across the Ingur River separating Abkhazia from the western Georgian region of Samegrelo.
A child’s poster for the 25th anniversary of the end of the 1992-1993 conflict against Tbilisi declares “No! to War.” The fighting, which killed thousands and displaced an estimated quarter million, ranked among the most horrific of the territorial conflicts that occurred with the breakup of the Soviet Union.
With toy guns stuck in the boys’ pants, students wearing camouflage t-shirts prepare to go on stage at Sukhum Public School #6 to sing about the 1993 military defeat of Georgian forces. They stand beneath a portrait of Bagrat Shinkuba, an Abkhaz poet and politician who called in Soviet times for Abkhazia’s separation from Georgia.

A 2018 report from Conciliation Resources, the British conflict-prevention organization, found that concerns about “safety and security in their own communities” seemed more relevant than the peace-process to many of the 97 young Abkhaz and Georgians it interviewed.   

One Abkhaz woman, however, remains hopeful. “The time probably came long ago to talk not only about the war, but also about peace,” says Lomiya of the Children’s Foundation of Abkhazia. “About how important peace is and how important not to lose it.”

Fifteen-year-old Naala, for one, says the family war stories firmly embedded in her memory have left her with one clear idea: “I don’t want this [conflict] to repeat itself with us and our future children.”


Read How an Abkhaz History Textbook Describes the 1992-1993 War


 

Selected extracts from “The History of Abkhazia: From Ancient Times to Our Days. A textbook for 5th-9th grades” by I. K. Kuakuaskir.(Ministry of Education of the Republic of Abkhazia, Sukhum, Abkhazia: 2010) (Photos by Dmitry Stateynov)

§2 The Patriotic War of Abkhazia: 1992-1993

On August 14, 1992, Georgia committed an act of aggression against Abkhazia. On that day, the parliament of Abkhazia was considering a draft agreement for the peaceful resolution of the problems existing [at that time] in relations with Georgia. However, the leadership of 5-million-strong Georgia unleashed a war against the 100,000-strong Abkhaz people. The liberation of hostages taken by “Zviadists” served as the official reason for the transfer of Georgian troops into Abkhazia . . .[1]

Another reason for the invasion that Georgia named was the defense of the railway, on which trains were being robbed[2]. But almost all the robberies[text not visible] occurred on Georgian territory. . .

All of these reasons were invented in order to occupy Abkhazia. The decision about bringing troops into Abkhazia had been taken already on August 11 at a session of the State Council. . . Georgia’s leadership calculated on two to three days to take over Abkhazia, liquidate its statehood[3], legal organs of power and install [text not visible] a political regime of Georgia itself. . .

Toward September 20-21, the Abkhaz divisions closed a ring around Sukhum. The reserves made their way toward them; a reinforcement from the North Caucasus, South Russia approached. A battle was prepared for the removal of Georgian forces from the capital and all of Abkhazia’s territory.

After bitter fighting, around the evening of September 25 the flag of the Republic of Abkhazia was already flying above Sukhum’s railway station.

On September 27, Sukhum was completely liberated. . .

At 8pm on [September 30], building on a successful attack along the entire front, Abkhaz forces reached the border with Georgia on the Ingur River, where they raised the State flag of the Republic of Abkhazia.

The historical significance of the victory: Victory in the Georgian-Abkhaz war was not secured easily. Thousands of fighters and commanders of the Armed Forces of Abkhazia laid their lives on the altar of Abkhazia’s freedom. Thousands of people from the republics of the North Caucasus, the South of Russia, representatives of the Abkhaz diaspora from the Near and Far Abroad [4] entered into the military actions on the side of the Abkhaz. . .

The cruel war, unleashed by Georgia against Abkhazia, will be included as the most tragic page in the [text not visible] of relations between the two nations. . .

The people of Abkhazia will be in eternal gratitude to those who, at the urging of their heart, came to defend the republic from the Georgian aggressors and will preserve bright memories of those who gave their lives for its freedom.

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footnotes

[1] Chai Khana: In August 1992, Georgian Interior Minister Roman Gventsadze and 10 other senior Georgian government officials were taken hostage by supporters of ousted Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, known as “Zviadists.” The hostages was said to have been moved into southern Abkhazia.  

[2] Chai Khana: Zviadists reportedly had taken control of part of the Georgian-Abkhaz railway.

[3] Chai Khana: In late July 1992, the Abkhaz Supreme Soviet voted to restore a 1925 constitution that had defined Abkhazia as a separate republic within a Transcaucasian confederation. Approval was given for state symbols and to call the territory the Republic of Abkhazia.  

[4] Chai Khana: Meaning from elsewhere in the former Soviet Union and from countries abroad.

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QUESTIONS AND ASSIGNMENTS [Selected -- ed]

4. What were the political and economic difficulties that arose in Abkhazia during the war?

5. Talk about the role of the volunteer movement in Abkhazia’s Patriotic War.

6. Talk about the contribution of Abkhazia’s various peoples to the victory.

7. Name the reasons for Abkhazia’s victory in the Patriotic War. What significance does this victory have?

8. What were the results of the war? What was the price of victory? 

[Chai Khana: Assignments, not visible here, ask students to talk to their grandfathers, grandmothers and other “older-generation people” about their recollections of the early days of the war; to put together a report about the war based on press clippings of the time; and to prepare a report about the role of volunteer fighters.]



September, 2018

Read more from Georgia

--Editor Elizabeth Owen added reporting to this story.

Editor's Note: The reference to the UN fact-finding mission's findings was changed to the mission's own description of these alleged actions as "grave human rights violations".


This material may contain terms which are not favored by all parties of the dispute/conflict. Terms used in the story belong to the author and not Chai Khana.

 
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