Glimpses of Abkhazia

Author: Marie Audinet


A few weeks before the coronavirus pandemic reached Georgia, I travelled to Abkhazia, a place that is hard to describe without offending anyone. I had never been to a territory where the official status is referred to as “de-facto” and I wanted to see it for myself. During my journey, I discovered that Abkhazia’s legendary beauty is real. The trip, however, left me with a bittersweet sense, one of stunning beauty mixed with a feeling of isolation and loneliness. It made me wonder how isolation affects a person’s life, and even now, as I write this essay, that remains an open question.
 
Before moving to Tbilisi at the end of 2019, the word “Abkhazia” did not mean much to me. It was my ignorance about the topic, combined with Georgians’ powerful memories of the place, that inspired me to take the train to Zugdidi, the last railway station in Georgian-controlled territory, in January.

When I arrived, after a night on the overheated train, the cold was bitter enough to wake me. Most taxi drivers tried to take me to Mestia, the famous Svan ski resort. But my destination was the last Georgian police post near the Enguri River.
 
A taxi dropped me off at 8am. Two hours later, after securing permission from Tbilisi, a Malaysian tourist and I were given the greenlight to cross the Enguri.
 
Crossing the bridge, I noticed the Georgian and European flags gradually being replaced by the green, red, and white flag of Abkhazia. Before I could enter Abkhazia, I had to pass through Russian and then Abkhaz border posts. Or perhaps it is the other way around. As a non-Russian speaker, it was hard to know who was who.
 
Not many questions were asked, I guess mostly because we didn’t have a common language. In a way, not speaking Russian helped me. 
 
After that, the real waiting began: waiting for a greenlight from each side, waiting for the first marshrutka to the town of Gali to fill with passengers at the border, waiting for the second marshrutka to leave once you reach Gali, and so on until we reached Sukhumi. The road leading to the city was breathtaking. Miles of plains, against a backdrop of high snowy Caucasus Mountains and a few wonderful (but mostly empty) houses on the roadside.
 
It was a relief to finally reach Sukhumi, nearly 24 hours after I left Tbilisi. The seaside city was stunning in the setting sun; it looked quiet and peaceful, and the breeze off the Black Sea was refreshing.
But over the days and nights I spent there, a sense of loneliness and isolation crept in from the edges, coloring what I saw, heard and experienced.
The feeling was partly due to the season: I was there in January, not an ideal time to visit a summer resort and, in fact, the guesthouse where I planned to stay was closed due to the season. Instead, I ended up staying at a rather fancy hotel in the center of Sukhumi.
 
One of the first things I noticed at reception were the clocks on the wall. Usually hotels display the time in major Western capitals (New York, Paris, London, Madrid, etc.), but these were set to the time in Moscow, Managua and Caracas—the capitals of governments that officially recognize Abkhazia as an independent country.
The next morning I started to explore Sukhumi properly, first taking a walk by the waterfront.


A well-maintained coastline, beautiful renovated buildings, new stylish restaurants, clean roads and the abundance of plants and trees creates what appears to be the perfect seaside resort.  While drinking an espresso alone on the terrace of a nice coffee place, I watched men gathering on a pier and fishing together. With the bright sunshine, the atmosphere felt joyful, almost like spring was already starting.
 
Stretched out beyond the fishermen was an empty marina, surrounded by proudly hung national flags. Later, a professor at the Abkhaz state university told me that the marina has never been used.


Built at the end of the Soviet era, the 1992-1993 war with Georgia put a halt to the project. The empty, unused buildings underscore the lack of maritime traffic, a constant reminder that Abkhazia is cut off from most of the world.
 
I was reminded of this feeling when I wondered about the city’s streets, where empty houses and abandoned villas stand among the beautiful buildings.  This romantic urban landscape was both fascinating and troubling, a view of nature quietly turning empty spaces into nascent forests.
In a way, it was a wonderful picture. But other impressions mixed with the sweet feelings, and the sense of emptiness almost made me dizzy at times. The echo of violent events in the not-so-distant past filled the ruins. My mind quickly filled with questions about what had happened to the city and the people who lived there.  


Later I met some other foreigners and locals who work at an NGO that looks for the people who disappeared during the 1992-1993 war and helps locals deal with psychological trauma.
 
The scars from the war were everywhere, and there was a feeling that the trauma was barely below the surface. The war seemed like a constant presence at times: women, dressed entirely in black, still mourning the sons they lost in the war. And people were constantly referring to the war.
 
The war also seems like a constant memory in Tbilisi, but the feelings are somehow less intense.  For example, Georgians usually look sad or nostalgic when talking about Abkhazia, remembering their old family home there or some other memory of the place, and there is a sense of regret over a lost paradise.  But for the Abkhaz, the memory of the war is very strong. It seems to be a source of both national pride and suffering, constantly reinforced, as their lives are affected every day by the reality the war created.
 
Today the Abkhaz make up roughly half the population of Abkhazia, and many other nationalities—including Russians, Armenians and Greeks—live there. The mix and diversity stand out at the central market in Sukhumi, the nerve center of the local economy, and one of my favorite places in the city.


The first impression was one of a mass of women—selling, eating, buying and yelling at one another. In the sea of nationalities, the common language is Russian.
 
Most of the products were either local fresh production or Turkish goods. The market was full of life and felt familiar somehow, after the lonely echoes of the city streets.  During my time in Sukhumi, I spent every morning there, watching the crowd while enjoying a fresh pastry and hot coffee.  
 
My presence did not go unnoticed—it was the low season, after all, and a foreign face was a fairly uncommon sight in the city. The people were friendly and, using a bit of English, Russian and Google translate, I tried to answer a barrage of questions.
 
 “Where are you from?” “Oh! France? Wow, Paris? J’aime Paris. Chirac?” “How did you get here?” “Through Zugdidi?” “Are you Georgian? Or your husband is Georgian?” “Why Abkhazia?” “Did someone send you here or did you come on your own?”
 
They couldn’t understand why someone would want to come here. But, regardless, I felt welcome. Everybody seemed happy to meet foreigners--especially non-Russian speaking ones, which are rare I was told.
 
One day, when I wandered further away from the city center, I found a strange housing complex. A Lenin mosaic decorated the entrance, and was surprisingly well maintained—a symbol, perhaps, of Abkhazia’s nostalgia for the golden age of the Soviet Union. Russian billboards around the complex indicated it was an old Soviet military sanatorium. Later I learned it still belonged to the Russian military, but at the time, it was empty.


I walked passed the center, to the end of a beautiful alley that was surrounded on both sides by houses with wooden balconies. At the end of the alley, a large gate opened onto an empty beach and the deserted sea. Two children were playing the sand and the whole scene was calm and beautiful, blanketed by the sense of quiet that envelopes a beach in the winter when the tourists are gone.
 
That same deserted feeling followed me to Gagra, where I travelled by  marshrutka, the main form of transportation in Abkhazia.


Of course, in the winter season, Gagra was like a ghost city--quite different from what I was told. Not only were the beaches empty but also the amazing villas on the hillside and the old sanatoriums. Usually full of Russian tourists in the high season, coffees and restaurants were also closed. Surrounded by closed and empty places, I started to feel overwhelmed by that same weird feeling of dizziness so I left on the first marshrutka going to Novy Afon.



I am alone with the bus driver, who was very welcoming. The road was largely empty, and listened to Russian music on the radio and watched the sea as we travelled. The Black Sea looked beautiful, and I started to feel better—that became a recurring cycle of emotions during the trip: a feeling of wonder transformed to angst.



I spent my last day in Abkhazia in Ochamchire, where I discovered a completely different side of Abkhazia.  Mostly populated by Georgians before the 1992-93 war, Ochamchire is now one of the emptiest cities on the Abkhaz coast. I stayed with the family of a friend, Diana, whose mother is Georgian. She has an Abkhaz passport.



Diana is 26 and dreams of traveling the world so she can practice all the language she has been studying online. In addition to English, she speaks French, Turkish, and Italian, to name a few.  
 “My biggest dream is to get a passport allowing me to travel around and finally practice those languages I learned,” she tells me. But the dream seems like a distant prospect: Diana is one of the estimated 30 percent of Abkhaz who missed the chance to get a Russian passport. It is nearly impossible to travel on an Abkhaz passport, as so few countries recognize it as an independent country.
 
Stuck in Abkhazia, she still practices languages with foreigners she meets at her job in Sukhumi and while working as a tour guide. Despite the challenges, Diana believes Abkhazia will be strong one day and she will realize her dream of traveling.  “We are a small and beautiful country and we’re trying to keep our culture, our language, and our history alive. I want people to know about my country and to come to visit us.”
 
This powerful determination impressed me. Diana, and her powerful sense of pride in her Abkhazian heritage, was one of the most telling examples I found of how far forced isolation can affect a person’s life—and the determination they can have to fight against it.
 
The next day, when I started the long trip back to Tbilisi, I left Abkhazia with a lingering feeling of unfinished business.
 
Obviously, visiting Abkhazia in January strengthens the sense of isolation I had. The feeling was reflected in the photos I took. When I looked at them closely, I could see the images were more empty and distant than my usual photographs.  Mostly used to live in overpopulated places, this emptiness was very new to me.
 
The act of photographing it was a way to learn about Abkhazia, but there is so much more to explore. Full of mysteries, Abkhazia has a strong culture with its own rituals and traditions; it will take time to learn and understand.
 
Ironically, I think I feel closer to understanding the sense of isolation and loneliness I experienced there in January. Just a few weeks after I returned, most of the region went into lockdown in response to the coronavirus. For two months, Georgians and Abkhaz alike were in self-isolation, along with most of the rest of the world.
 
I don’t mind isolation and loneliness too much, mostly because I know it will end at some point and I will enjoy going back to a crowded and noisy life.
 
The feeling might be very different when you don’t know if it will ever end. In today’s situation, the anxiety we feel and the limited access we have to the rest of the world offers us new insights to better understand others' situations, especially those who face isolation as a part of everyday life.

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