For the Georgians living in Gali, that bridge represents a path to schools, hospitals and family. They cross for cheaper groceries and better quality services, for weddings and funerals. People cross the dividing line every day for different reasons.
And for three months, access to the crossing point was closed.
Families were divided. Students struggled to make it to university. Even a simple act like going to a concert became impossible.
While the crossing point is currently open, the three month restriction underscored the constant vulnerability of ethnic Georgians living in Abkhazia.
"It was a terrible experience to describe. In July when Gali pupils had national exams, parents paid [bribes of] 5,000 RUB ($77), some 10,000 ($155) to cross. I do not want to go back [to Gali] if such practice continuous. We are in prison. It is impossible to live in such conditions," Nika says.
There are the daily injustices, like not being able to study Georgian at schools in Gali. And then there are the fundamental security issues, like not being able to register property, vote or trust that the police will help when you need them.
"Unfortunately, you are not big enough." It was a joke to the border guard, but it meant that the middle aged Georgian man (18-65 years) trying to cross the Enguri would not be allowed to go. Or at least, would not be allowed to pass unless he paid a bribe.
Badri faced that choice regularly over the summer, after his children fell ill. Hospitals in Gali lack supplies and modern expertise, so his wife crossed the Enguri to take them to a better hospital in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. The Abkhaz authorities closed the Enguri crossing in July, in response to protests in Tbilisi, and Badri was stuck.
For more than three months male residents of Gali were prevented from crossing the separation line. Restrictions were lifted on October 2. However, the experience left Gali’s population afraid and frustrated.
Over the past year, the Abkhaz authorities have closed the crossing point twice. Ethnic Georgians living in Gali have little recourse when it happens: they can try to pay bribes or they can stay home.
“In order to visit my ill children and wife, who were in a hospital in Tbilisi I had to pay 5, 000 RUB ($ 77) in total. I was paying 1, 000 RUB ($15) every time I crossed.. .Is this a life? I nearly went crazy, my children were on artificial lungs and I couldn’t visit them,” Badri says.
Even the $15 bribe was uncertain. Sometimes border guards take them, sometimes they do not. The amount is subject to change: for Nika, it was $46 to cross so he could secure his place in a master's degree program.
“I paid 2, 000 RUB ($ 30) the second time. Later I had to write a statement to the [Georgian Education] Ministry to get financing to pay tuition and I had to cross Enguri Bridge a third time and paid 2, 000 RUB again," he says.
The decision to close the crossing point was not an anomaly: the Abkhaz authorities closed it in January, under the pretext that there was an influenza outbreak on Georgian-controlled territory.